04 - Destabilizing Communication in Tacitus: "Loaded" Alternatives in Historiae 1

Innuendo in Tacitus (Ryberg 1942) is often conveyed in pairs of alternative interpretations or explanations offered by the author about the events in the narrative. Previous studies have argued that Tacitus creates "weighted" (Sullivan 1976) or "loaded" alternatives (Whitehead 1979), in which Tacitus tends either to remain neutral between two options or, when indicating preference, leans towards the second. These analyses, however, do not consider the interplay of "weighted"/"loaded" alternatives with Tacitus' engagement with complexities of communication in politically unstable times (Ash 1999, O'Gorman 2000, Haynes 2003, Master 2016). My analysis of the narrative of the Othonian coup in Historiae 1 demonstrates how the complicated reception that alternatives create for readers complements the narrative's theme of destabilization of communication in civil war.

I first examine four passages (Historiae 1.34.1, 1.39.2, 1.42, 1.44.1) containing five alternatives that focus on the figure of Galba's consular colleague, Titus Vinius. Tacitus uses each successive alternative to build up hints at the hatred between Vinius and prominent Galbians - Galba's heir Piso and the Praetorian prefect Laco - and Vinius' friendship with Otho. Notably, two sets of alternatives are paired at Vinius' death (1.42), first expressing uncertainty about whether or not Vinius shouted that Otho wanted him spared, and then whether this was true or fabricated. Though Tacitus is inclined to believe Vinius is guilty, the issue is left uncertain, and readers must judge the credibility of Vinius' complicity alongside Tacitus.

Next, I demonstrate how alternatives in Historiae 1 highlight problems of uncertain reception of speech or action by internal audiences. In the above passages, Piso is misread by his detractors, Laco fears the reception of the mob, and Vinius fails to convince his audience he is an Othonian. At 1.44.1, Otho's reception of the deaths of Galba, Piso, and Vinius is subject to scrutiny by Tacitus, and by extension, his readers. Additionally, in later alternatives, Tacitus draws attention to speakers' preoccupation with their reception: Otho cannot decide whether to accept or deny his acclamation as Nero (1.78.2), while Otho's speechwriter fears to attack Vitellius too strongly (1.90.2). Tacitus' characters in these passages must concern themselves with their potential audiences, or ignore them to their peril.

Finally, I argue that the use of the alternative in the Vinius passages prepares readers of Tacitus to be a critical audience. Readers are presented with multiplicity of interpretation in the figure of the alternative while simultaneously encountering episodes in which, amidst the political instability of civil war, characters' ability to anticipate their audience becomes increasingly important. Tacitus thus represents in form as well as content the growing instability of both transmission and reception in civil war.


Theodore Boivin, University of Cincinnati