03 - Legitimate Successor or Successful Imposter?: (False) Neros in Tacitus’s Histories and Annals

I argue that in Tacitus's historical works, the False Nero and the emperor Nero form an oppositional pair that destabilizes the distinction between a legitimate successor and a successful imposter. The order in which Tacitus wrote his historical works - Agricola, Histories, Annals - notably reverses the chronological priority of Nero to his imposters. A Nero-pretender (a preview of a figure we never meet in the narrative) makes an appearance in the first preface of the Histories (falsi Neronis ludibrio, Hist. 1.2.1), and an extended narration of Tacitus's primary False Nero appears in Histories 2 (velut Nero, Hist. 2.8-9). In contrast, the emperor Nero does not appear until Annals 11, and when he does, he is named "L. Domitius" (Ann. 11.11.2). Tacitus thus creates the impression that the emperor Nero is copying or derivative of the False Neros that precede him in the narrative.

Traditionally, scholars have analyzed narratives of the False Neros in order to determine historical details such as the dates of the appearances, the motivations of the individuals, and whether there were two False Neros or three (e.g. Gallivan; Tuplin). I am less concerned with attempting to determine a zero-grade historical record and focus instead on how Tacitus constructs the past in order to puncture the fantasy of imperial legitimacy. Building on the work of scholars who argue that acting (e.g. Wallace-Hadrill; Sumi; Gleason) and "make-believe" (Haynes) were implicit parts of the principate, I propose that by foregrounding the False Nero as a prototype for the emperor Nero (instead of the other way around) Tacitus suggests that the emperor Nero might be merely a successful version of the False Nero.

Tacitus sets up an opposition and equivalence between the False Nero and the emperor Nero as each pretends to embody the status of the other. Tacitus writes that the False Nero pretends to be sad (in maestitiam compositus, Hist. 2.9.2) in an approximation of the disappointment the emperor Nero would have felt if he saw his own troops taking orders from a governor appointed by Galba. Tacitus then repeats the phrase compositus + in (cf. Ash) to describe the emperor Nero when he dresses up as a slave in order to anonymously participate in nocturnal crime (veste servili in dissimulationem sui compositus, Ann. 13.25.1). The emperor Nero thus reverses the trajectory of his pretender: while the pretender is a slave or freedman (servus e Ponto sive, ut alii tradidere, libertinus ex Italia) of unknown identity (quisquis ille erat) who becomes like Nero (velut Nero), the emperor Nero escapes his public-facing role by becoming slave-like (servili) and anonymous (adversus ignaros). By inverting the chronological and mimetic relationship between the False Nero and the emperor Nero, Tacitus demonstrates that imposters are not circumscribed to the lower classes at the edges of empire. Rather, they also lurk at the very center of imperial power.


Jasmine Akiyama-Kim, University of California, Los Angeles