06 - What a Tangled Web: Tacitus’ Use of Praetexo in the Histories

A close analysis of Tacitus' use of the word praetexo reveals that he often uses this term metaphorically to indicate lying ("pretext"), unlike other previous and contemporary authors, all of whom primarily, although not exclusively, use praetexo in its non-metaphorical definition to describe decorated cloth. Tacitus mostly employs this metaphorical meaning in the Histories, and this usage influences the interpretation of all its occurrences, including those which seem to mainly refer to the decorated toga of the senators, thus creating an image in the reader's mind of the senate as primarily a false excuse for imperial power.

By constructing this association, Tacitus can subtly indicate to the reader various opinions about the senate as a whole and its legitimacy without overtly stating perspectives that could be dangerous in the surrounding political environment. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that Tacitus reserves praetexo for instances of lying which are either blatantly obvious to the reader due to the context, or examples where Tacitus as the narrator immediately exposes the deception by explaining what the liar was really planning. This creates a strong association between praetexo and obvious falsehood for the reader, which seems to be intentional and therefore to serve some purpose within the writing. While significant work has previously been done on Tacitus' use of innuendo in his writing to convey ideas to his audience without stating them outright and to persuade the audience of his viewpoint (Ryberg, Sullivan, Devillers), this scholarship has usually focused on Tacitus' writing more generally, not necessarily the use of specific words, and has not addressed a setup such as this, where Tacitus has both an established metaphor and a well-known metonymy at his disposal between which he can draw connections. Additionally, while many people have discussed Tacitus' ideas surrounding politics and political failure (Strunk, Szűcs), a detailed analysis of one example which Tacitus employs to discuss failure and deception can expand the conversation and contribute to a clearer picture of Tacitus' views on the Roman Empire and the senate's place within it.

The most important usages of praetexo for lying are at Hist. 1.77, 2.100, 3.8, and 4.73. All four of these episodes describe instances of lying that Tacitus considers obvious to the reader and all or most of the people involved, and which he immediately follows with the real reason for the action which the praetexo explains. Additionally, 2.89 and 3.31 involve scenarios where people dress in senatorial garb either as a result of deception or for deceptive reasons, further strengthening Tacitus' implicit connections. All of this culminates in 3.80, where the senate presents a praetexo as an attempt to turn aside invasion, which Tacitus implies to be false but for which he fails to provide a corrected reason, completing the association and leaving the reader to consider the powerlessness of the senate and its reduction to empty statements for the sake of its own preservation.


Emma Reyman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign