05 - Tacitus’ Gruesome Spectacle: Vitellius’ Perversion as Vespasian’s Eminence

The uncanny nature of civil war fills the Roman historical corpus, where many authors emphasize the perverse nature of friends and family turning against each other. Ancient historiography is not only used to document events, but also to provide a fuller narrative tale to these events. Edward Bispham notes that Tacitus' narrative style does not permit us to separate fact from fiction. In other words, we cannot discern historical truth from narrative details, as authors manipulate those details to create framework for historical events and characters. In Tacitus' Histories, the narrative focuses on the emperors' behavior and their morals in extreme detail, and Tacitus foreshadows upcoming shifts in power via imperial perversion. In particular, Vitellius' reign provides even greater evidence of the unnatural nature of civil war. I argue that Tacitus uses the power of "spectacle" (Keitel, Manolaraki) and morbid imagery to cast Vitellius' reign in a darker light, thus causing Vespasian's properly omened, upcoming rule to seem like the better choice and outcome. Tacitus cleverly sandwiches the omens of Vespasian's youth between the two accounts of Vitellius at Cremona, visually cementing a pedestal for Vespasian through Vitellius' unsettling actions.

Tacitus' diction and narrative structure compose a nest for Vespasian's prosperity (Damon) and simultaneously heap morbid imagery onto Vitellius' doomed reign. The first battle of Cremona establishes Vitellius' character as an unsuitable emperor. His vampiristic gaze is underscored as his eyes feed upon the horrible carnage around him. The verb that Tacitus supplies for Vitellius is concupivit (Hist. 2.70). Vitellius wants to look upon the carnage, creating a disturbing image of an emperor feeling a grim desire and taking joy in seeing the bodies of Roman citizens. With this horrifying characterization of Vitellius, readers cannot ignore that Tacitus next turns to Vespasian's vetera omina and fama only eight chapters later (2.78). Tacitus makes it impossible for Vitellius' reign to be viewed positively, since Vespasian's omens are like a shining light among Vitellius' actions as emperor. From the first battle at Cremona and unseemly altars in 2.70 to his actions as pontifex maximus on an infausto die in 2.91, Vitellius becomes a completely unnatural character, especially when compared to his upcoming successor. Tacitus shapes his historiographical narrative so that the fates of Vitellius and Vespasian are fully intertwined. The historical events become less of a clear cause-and-effect narrative and more of an unraveling thread of fate.

The theme of spectacle remains prevalent throughout Vitellius' reign at both battles of Cremona and up to his own death. All the while, Tacitus is introducing Vespasian's character. Herbert Benario observes that "Tacitus outlines his judgment of an individual either when the person is first introduced or at his death." Vitellius' and Vespasian's characterizations expand from this usual element of Tacitean style. Tacitus creates a parallel between Vitellius and Vespasian by ascribing Vitellius with an unnatural sense of foreboding. These characters are no longer narratively disjointed, rather Tacitus tells their narrative via interwoven characterizations. Pitted against Vespasian's vetera omina (2.78), Vitellius' reign could never flourish.


Amy Vandervelde, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign