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65.5.Poochigian

Tactius’ famous lament for the loss of the ancient liberties and unbridled virtue that the res publica permitted and men of the past exhibited is demonstrated by his focus on two anachronisms of recent memory—Gnaeus Julius Agricola and Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. Tacitus leaves his reader with no doubt that both of these men represented the very virtues that the new principate could not reconcile. Indeed, both men served as high ranking generals in far flung provinces of the empire under emperors whom Tacitus considers despotic by any stretch of the imagination. And despite their virtues, loyalties, and tireless labors, which were seemingly on behalf of the empire’s well-being, both were viewed with some degree of suspicion by their respective emperors. While Agricola escapes Domitian’s paranoia by his own natural death, Corbulo suffers the ultimate fate of being ordered to commit suicide.

In this paper, I seek to explain why Corbulo was ordered to take his own life and why Agricola managed to survive to his own natural death. The topic itself is not a new one—scholars have been discussing the rationale of Corbulo’s actions for centuries. While most scholars believe that Corbulo’s arrogance, his extended stay in Armenia, and his extraordinary powers he held to accomplish his mission made him a threat to Nero, Syme believes that his extensive connections to conspiracies against the throne ensured his demise. Hammond argues that Nero perceived Corbulo as a threat because of Corbulo’s contrary actions towards his agenda for the orient. Still other scholars seek to detach Tacitus’ Annales from interpretation as an exemplum of Nero stifling virtue: Kristine Gilmartin asserts that Tacitus’ account of the Parthian-Roman War of 57 serves more as a ground for Tacitus’ own musings about contemporary eastern politics. Finally, Schoonover believes that Tacitus’ source for Corbulo’s campaign was a laudatory biography and not Corbulo’s own commentarii and therefore, when it is considered with Tacitus’ Agricola, the disparity of the two sources make the two men not comparable.

Whereas Corbulo has a body of reasons for why he was ordered to be killed, Agricola has his own list for how he managed to escape Domitian’s reckoning. While Tacitus himself notes that Agricola’s later life was filled with grave dangers coming from the throne and its many hangers-on, modern scholarship still seeks to find an explanation, with T.A. Dorey going so far as to argue that Agricola and Domitian were on perfectly amicable terms.

Yet the differences between the two generals’ charges deserve to be recalled. While Agricola was governor of Britain, Corbulo had the responsibility of ensuring Roman dominion over Armenia. Indeed, sheer geography seems to have made an impact, as, following Corbulo, no Roman emperor allowed a subordinate to launch campaigns into the East. It appears that Corbulo was a victim of not only his own successes and his character, but also the very nature of his mission—he wielded too much power too far away from Rome and therefore served as a reminder for all future emperors to go on campaign in the East personally.

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