04 - Burdensome Brothers: Fraternal Liability in Tacitus’ Histories

This paper will examine Tacitus' depiction of imperial brothers, such as Crassus Scribonianus, Otho Titianus, Lucius Vitellius, and Flavius Sabinus, within the Histories, demonstrating that not only does each brother's character decline as the narrative unfolds, but that their actions precipitate some of the largest and most significant events throughout the work(cf. Wallace). The importance of these brothers has often been overlooked either because of the relative brevity of their appearances in the narrative or the allusiveness of their characterizations by Tacitus (O'Gorman and Bannon), leaving room for further study.

Tacitus presents the first degradation of fraternal relationships in Crassus Scribonianus' burial of his recently murdered brother Piso (Hist. 1. 47-8). This trauma later causes Scribonianus to refuse Antonius Primus' bid to seize imperial power (Hist. 4.39), a refusal which has been shown to reflect a worsening relationship with power (Ash, 1999). Scribonianus' actions are largely determined by the failing situation around him, but this atmosphere, nevertheless, foreshadows the more willful and detestable acts of future fraternal failure in the Histories.

Otho's older brother, L. Salvius Otho Titianus, is a more active participant in his brother's downfall. Titianus ultimately fails Otho when he gives the emperor bad adivce about how to proceed at Cremona, with Tacitus claiming directly that he was imperitia properantes (Hist. 2.33). While at first Titianus can come across as a flat or unimportant figure in the Histories (Ash 2007), his relative proximity to negative descriptions of events marks him as a fraternal liability to Otho. Lucius Vitellius, in turn, is not sympathetic or inept, but rather appears actively manipulative and cruel towards Aulus Vitellius and others around him. Tacitus, then, clearly displays an intensifying pattern of fraternal betrayal by including an account of Lucius' savage and cunning attack on Iunius Blaesus (Hist. 3.38), which ultimately harms the emperor.

Vespasian's brother Flavius Sabinus, although far more passive in his actions concerning his brother, proves just as burdensome. While some have seen Sabinus as representing the sympathetic character of an aging urban prefect (Wellesley), others contend that he, too, is a liability to his brother, insofar as his inaction helps precipitate the catastrophes at the end of Vitellius' reign (Wallace). My reading supports this latter argument that Sabinus is more heavily criticized in Tacitus' narrative than many have noted, but I add that his passivity also constitutes the pinnacle of the theme of fraternal moral deterioration which Tacitus deliberately constructs within the Histories, beginning with the death of Piso and Galba through the burning of the Capitol and Vespasian's ascension.


Casey Barnett, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign