07 - incertae causae, difficiliora remedia: Images of "Madness" in Tacitus' Histories.

Madness and its depiction are ubiquitous subjects in Ancient Greek and Roman literature. Madness as a metaphor for the chaos of civil war is well documented as a trope of Latin poetry (Hershkowitz, Fratantuono). Metaphorical "madness" and its relation to military discipline in Tacitus' Annales has also been treated and a distinct pattern has been revealed (Woodman). However, the motif of madness has not been extensively studied in Tacitus' Histories. Therefore, I have conducted a study on the multiple terms for madness used in the Histories and examined the characters and situations described with madness.

Tacitus uses six different terms for "madness" in twenty instances in nineteen distinct situations. Firstly, this "madness" is a mass affliction in the majority of cases; the most common group afflicted are soldiers. When we examine the language of the episodes further, we find that he utilizes accompanying medical terminology like tabes and contactus (Langslow). By examining the episodes with the body politic in mind, we find that Tacitus conceives of madness specifically as a metaphor for mutiny, insurrection, and rebellion, in a framework similar to, but less refined than, the narrative found by Woodman in his analysis of the Annales. Not only do we find that Tacitus uses "madness" to characterize mutiny and rebellion, but he also explicitly contrasts it with terms like regimen (Hist. 1.9) and obsequium (1.82, 83; 4.27).

Only two individuals are ever described with "madness." Both of them are Germans who led revolts against the Roman Empire: Valentinus (4.68, 70) in the rebellion of the Treviri, and Julius Civilis (5.25) in the Batavian Revolt. In particular, the Batavians claim they misperceived Civilis and disavow him as leading them astray with his "madness." But even in these cases of individuals, Tacitus does not use "madness" to describe an actual psychological disorder or mental deficiency. Madness instead describes both characters' ability to foment civil war and rebellion against the empire.

By using madness as his major metaphor for the body politic - as opposed to (for example) the Caesarean gangrenous limb for which Cicero advocates amputation (Walters) - Tacitus describes the state of Rome as imperiled but with no single, well-defined cause and no sure treatment. Instances of madness are caused by multiple disparate elements (sometimes no reason at all is given), and in one passage the author even equates madness with the inability to diagnose, which means it is difficult to cure: furore et rabie et causis incertis eoque difficilioribus remediis (1.63). Historically, Vespasian wanted to present himself as a unifying force, stressing his relationship to Pax and concordia. Yet, despite his miraculous healing powers (4.81), Tacitus does not portray the emperor as ushering in a metaphorical "sanity," as Flavian troops suffer "madness" relatively equally with those commanded by Otho and Vitellius, and "mad" insurrections still occur after Vespian assumes the throne.


Joseph Baronovic, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign