Ancient historians’ relationship with the truth is most directly tested when they report events that are difficult to believe because they are outlandish, supernatural, or miraculous. In this paper I analyze how one historian, Tacitus, responds to this tension by discussing two case studies: the appearance of the phoenix in AD 34 (Ann. 6.28), and the healing miracles performed by Vespasian at the shrine of Serapis (Hist. 4.81-2). Both events are described as miracula, and Tacitus explicitly affirms that each one is manifestly confirmed as true by reliable evidence.
The phoenix episode seems to be exactly the kind of embellished, literary ‘purple passage’ that a reader, ancient or modern, would seemingly be right not to believe. Tacitus’ motive for introducing the material is ostensibly for his audience’s pleasure (Ann. 6.28.1 promere libet), but it becomes a platform for discussing issues of truth. The more unbelievable reports attached to the phoenix are those of the juvenile’s painstaking cremation of its deceased parent (Ann. 6.28.5), which Tacitus is careful to point out are probably a falsified exaggeration (Ann. 6.28.6 haec incerta et fabulosis aucta). The conflicting reports about the timing of the phoenix’s appearance (Ann. 6.28.2-3) mean that many claimed the phoenix of AD 34 was a false one (Ann. 6.28.4 falsum). Recent work on the episode has taken this to indicate that Tacitus, too, believed the phoenix of AD 34 was a fake (E. Keitel, “The Non-Appearance of the Phoenix at Tacitus Annals 6.28,” American Journal of Philology 120 (1999): 429-442, at 430). Yet the historian closes the section by affirming in no uncertain terms that, regardless of disagreement about their habits, phoenixes do actually exist (Ann. 6.28.6 ceterum auspici aliquando in Aegypto eam volucrem non ambigitur). This digression shows Tacitus sifting and sorting the true from the false, and finding him able to glean a kernel of truth even from something very outlandish.
With Vespasian’s miraculous healings of a blind man and a lame man, however, Tacitus performs no such ‘sifting’, but wholeheartedly affirms that what seems impossible is actually true. This time, there is scepticism from a character within the text, as Vespasian himself, unlike most miracle workers, is very reluctant to perform the requested cures, and first quizzes doctors on whether there is any less miraculous method of healing the men. Yet as Tacitus has earlier told us, Vespasian is susceptible to methods of divination, like astrology, described as superstitious (Hist. 2.78.1), and Tacitus implies that on this occasion Vespasian the rationalist eventually loses out to Vespasian the susceptible. The historian here seems to follow the lead of the emperor: although he is more cautious than other authors who report the same events, Tacitus never denies the truth of the miracles, and even goes so far as to vouch for the veracity of eyewitness accounts of the healings (Hist. 4.81.3 utrumque qui interfuere nunc quoque memorant, postquam nullum mendacio pretium). Despite all the reasons for doubting, Tacitus wishes his readers to believe. This has important implications for how we are to think about the rise of the Flavian dynasty more broadly, since throughout the Histories Tacitus speaks of the role of fatum and the divine in ensuring that Vespasian and his sons would emerge victorious from the civil wars of AD 69 (e.g. Hist. 1.10, 2.82, 3.1, 5.13).
I wish to evaluate these truth claims against other places in the narrative where Tacitus refuses to affirm the truth of much more believable reports: why should a historian assert that Vespasian’s saliva really cured blindness when he is unwilling to give credence to other stories that seem more plausible, for example the assertion that Nero and Agrippina the Younger had an incestuous relationship (A. 14.2)? Can we establish any patterns or categories for the kinds of reports Tacitus considers ‘truthful’ and events he considers ‘true’, and what implications does this have for his work as a whole?