Academic journal article Antichthon

Matricide Revisited: Dramatic and Rhetorical Allusion in Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio

Academic journal article Antichthon

Matricide Revisited: Dramatic and Rhetorical Allusion in Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio

Article excerpt


A murder is always a dramatic event, and, since the dramatic nature of it depends to a large extent on it being witnessed and reported, one would hope that a good author would ensure his or her report of a murder reflected that. Agrippina's death, a matricide, has often been labelled as 'dramatic' by modern commentators, yet a comprehensive and satisfactory analysis of the reports as described in three ancient sources is still outstanding. 1 A number of papers have given partial attempts at offering proof of the dramatic nature of the reports. My aim in this paper is to bring in two further significant connections between the historians' accounts and other domains (Greek drama, rhetoric) which have to my knowledge been overlooked. These new factors force us to re-evaluate earlier attempts of finding the sources of inspiration for Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio. 1 will do this by spelling out certain allusions implicit in all three authors, but with special emphasis on Tacitus, showing that, despite its understated nature, his succinct account could be highly evocative to his audience, alluding to the pathos appropriate to both tragedy and rhetoric. These two strands of influence on the reports not only enhance the effect of the passage at issue, but also make a full and proper reponse of the audience to it more plausible.


The dramatic nature of a historian's account is nowadays looked upon with suspicion. It is well-known that Tacitus will not present his accounts sine ira et studio, but rather with considerable dramatic impact and shrewd psychologizing. 'In the evocaton of pity, fear, horror, sympathy, indignation, Tacitus follows all the orators of Greek and Roman tradition'.2 Book 14 of the Annals seems to be particularly rich in instances. One example is the pathos with which he recounts the situation Seneca finds himself in after the death of Burrus when he has to beg for his life: here the allusions e.g. to Maecenas have been shown to be of a particularly poignant nature, 'adding irony and pathos to the report'.3 Another good example is the plea by Octavia in Annals 14.64 in which 'Tacitus wishes the reader to feel how few resources Octavia actually had on which to fall back' .4

Is it significant that both examples are found in the 14th book of the Annals'? Maybe. The general crescendo noticeable in the book, brought out well in a fine article by R.D. Scott, seems to indicate that Tacitus' suppressed anger and dismay have reached a climax, the main reason being that Nero's matricide marks the watershed of the 'fall' of the Julio-Claudian house, taking Rome, the senate and its population with it in its fall.5 What we have here, Tacitus seems to tell us, is the crucial 'point of no return': the deceitfulness of the murder and its denial as well as the compliance and obsequiousness of the Senate and the people signal the ultimate downfall of good Roman values. And as if this were not enough, Nero sees himself as getting hold of power only now, as Tacitus' wry comment emphasizes ilio sibi die dari Imperium (14.7); at last he has been freed from the shackles of parental supervision to do whatever he likes (14.13.3: seque in omnes libídines effudit quas male coercitas qualiscumque matris reverentia tardaverat).6

The descriptions in ancient historians seem to lack explicit stylistic signs for an easy characterisation of the episode as dramatic. Koestermann merely comments that Tacitus gives a 'seemingly detached account' of the event.7 The common view, present in most analyses and also in Scott's perceptive account of the death of Agrippina (Ann. 14.1-13), seems to be that 'the reader is not being invited to contemplate the tragedy of matricide' (Scott [n.5] 105). While introducing it, Scott also reads the whole episode as a rather understated account in that 'such a crime is, by its nature, so gruesome that it defies emphasis. . . . Hence the attempt to take attention away from the idea of matricide and stress rather the fiendish minds of the perpetrators' (105-6). …

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