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This paper explores a previously unrecognized narratological parallel between Tacitus and Livy, considering both direct verbal and structural reminiscences, and postulates both literary and historical reasons for this treatment.

The first seventeen chapters of Annals 15 describe the military conflict between Rome and Parthia in AD 62 after the Romans had imposed their choice of ruler in Armenia. After the arrival of Caesennius Paetus, Corbulo secured the Syrian borders and the Romans achieved some initial successes in Armenia. However Paetus and his forces were soon blockaded in camp by the Parthian king with a large invasion force. Although Corbulo made a forced march to come to the rescue, Paetus evacuated Armenia and after a panicked retreat, he and his troops were safely reunited with the main Syrian army.

The Livian flavour of this episode has been noted in Tacitus’ use of phrases borrowed from his predecessor in this section and by direct references to the Roman defeat at the Caudine Forks (Livy IX) and Mancinus’ disaster at Numantia(from the now lost Livy LV), two events with strong intertextual connections in Livy (Oakley 3. 27-31 and Appendix 2). Apparently unobserved is the likelihood that Tacitus is also drawing on Livy for his narrative of a senior, competent general (Corbulo) having to rescue an improvident inferior (Paetus). In 217 BC, the dictator Fabius and his magister equitum, Minucius, divided up their forces to combat Hannibal’s invasion. After some minor victories, Minucius unwisely engaged Hannibal’s army near Geronium but was on the verge of defeat when the sudden intervention of Fabius saved the day. Recovering the actual events is now impossible (Minucius was sufficiently esteemed to be later one of the Roman commanders at Cannae), but a version in which Minucius showed insufficient respect to his superior in asking for equal authority and had to learn his lesson the hard way is the basis of the account in Livy 22.23-30. The exemplary nature of this story was sufficiently well established (cf. Polybius 3.103-5: P’s deduction in 105.9 is typically practical in contrast to Livy; Appian, Hann. 12-13, Val. Max. 5.2.4, Dio fr. 57.19, and Plut. Fab. 8-13 may preserve traces of an earlier tradition) that Livy had already adapted it to his description of the relations between the dictator Camillus and L. Furius in the war against the Volsci of 381 BC (6.22-25: Oakley 1. 580-2).

In Tacitus, Paetus is seen as a second-rank commander who demeans Corbulo’s achievements (15.6.4), ignores the omens (8.1) and exaggerates his achievements in his dispatches to Rome (8.2). Corbulo acts like a providential commander in reinforcing the defences of Syria, while his counterpart is quite unprepared for the Parthian counterattack (9.2). Paetus’ rash attack on the enemy (non fossam neque vallum sibi, sed corpora et arma in hostem data: 10.2) is an immediate failure and he is obliged to ask Corbulo for help. However, before relief forces arrive, Paetus agrees to withdraw on humiliating terms. When the two armies reunite, Corbulo’s troops, sharing a common sense of humanity, take pity on their defeated counterparts, a scene which recalls the tearful uniting of the Roman forces under Fabius in Livy.

Increasingly, Tacitean reimaginings of Livy are coming to be identified (e.g. Ash 1998; Woodman 2006). In this case, it is notable, however, that Corbulo is no model of patientia (neque …aemuli patiens: 6.4), and delays the rescue in order to gain greater credit (10.4). Rather than a reconciliation of the commanders, at the end each continues to defend their actions and blame the other (17.1). If there are traces of a Flavian version of events that saw Corbulo as a Republican hero (cf. Vervaet 2003, Ash 2006), it is also clear that Tacitus here comes close to parodying such nostalgic treatments of Neronian history.


  • R. Ash (1998) ‘Waving the white flag: surrender scenes in Livy 9.5-6 and Tacitus, Histories 3.31 and 4.62’. Greece and Rome 45: 27-44.
  • R. Ash (2006) ‘Following in the Footsteps of Lucullus? Tacitus’ Characterisation of Corbulo’. Arethusa 39: 355-375.
  • E. Koestermann, (1968) Tacitus, Annalen. Vol. 4 (Heidelberg: C. Winter).
  • S. P. Oakley (1997) Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X. Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • F. J. Vervaet (2003) ‘Domitius Corbulo and the Rise of the Flavian Dynasty’. Historia 52: 436-464.
  • F. W. Walbank (1957) Commentary on Polybius. Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • A. J. Woodman (2006) ‘Mutiny and madness: Tacitus Annals 1.16-49’. Arethusa 39: 303-329.

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