02 - Revisiting Otho: Otho as an Anti-Nero in Tacitus’ Histories

Otho has been linked closely with Nero, primarily since the two were close friends during the latter's reign. In the Histories, Tacitus presents Otho as dissolute, wanton, otiose, a revival of Nero's emperorship. Yet Tacitus' description of Otho's actions as emperor is incongruent with the oft-repeated disparagements of his character. In this paper, I argue that Tacitus is constantly setting readers' expectations of Otho's character against their actual perceptions. He thus fashions Otho as an anti-Nero, from the initial trepidation of being another Nero to his eventual redemption with an anti-Neronian suicide.

I begin by examining how Otho consciously struggles with his relationship to Nero from the beginning. Having deposed Galba, Otho initially takes a number of steps to align himself with Neronian policies and fashions his initial iconography after him (Roche, Gowing, Wolsfeld), leading to a pivotal moment when Otho must decide whether to adopt the title of Nero Otho (Hist. 1.78). Tacitus portrays his rejection of the epithet as not entirely selfless, and yet this refusal begins the eventual redemption of Otho through distancing from Nero.

I next discuss Tacitus' portrayal of Otho's character in the Histories and Annales. Tacitus constantly declares that Otho is a dissolute character while showing that he is not engaging in any such behavior; a number of scholars have thus viewed Tacitus' portrayal of Otho as not just unfair but also deceptive (Shochat, Stolte, Perkins). I submit that this apparent contradiction is an intentional ploy on Tacitus' part: he is laying out the beliefs of others and allowing the erudite reader to notice the contradictions (cf. Ash). Tacitus follows the Flavian propagandistic image of Otho as a second Nero (Charles & Anagnostou-Laoutides, Ash, Stolte, Moorman), but does not fully ascribe to this propaganda, as shown by his refusal to attack Otho's masculinity and sexuality like other Flavian writers (Charles & Anagnostou-Laoutides). Tacitus, rather, seeks to recuperate Otho's character.

Otho's emergence as an anti-Nero is finalized by his suicide (Hist. 2.48-9). This moving scene, while not explicitly contrasting Otho's death with Nero's, is filled with Suetonian intertexts linking the two episodes. Otho and Nero's marches towards their final battle, their reaction to defeat, the loyalty of their men, and their own courage facing death are all diametrically opposed. Their methods of death are similar but performed in complete opposites of resolve. With this death, Otho cements his identity as an anti-Nero, and Tacitus' praise for Otho following his death confirms the transformation.

Tacitus' treatment of Otho illuminates the complex nature of perception and reputation in the author's historiography. Tacitus is certainly aware of the Flavian depiction of Otho, yet consciously undermines it throughout the Histories. When Otho is marching north towards civil war, dressed in common clothes rather than luxurious garments, he is dissimilis famae (Hist. 2.11) - it is precisely this fama of Otho, and its perception both in 69 CE and around the time of the composition of the Histories, which Tacitus challenges the reader to consider.


Guy Rahat, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign