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Virgil and Tacitus, Ann. 1.10

  • Michael C. J. Putnam (a1)

Among the insinuations that Tacitus bequeaths to posterity in the negative segment of his post mortem of Augustus (Ann. 1.10) is the emperor's putative role as machinator doli in the death of the consul Hirtius during the fighting at Mutina in the spring of 43. The historian is thinking of a focal moment in the Aeneid when Sinon releases his fellow Greeks from within the wooden horse. I quote Aen. 2.264–7. Among the heroes who descend from the animal's belly are Ulixes, Neoptolemus

et Menelaus et ipse doli fabricator Epeos.

invadunt urbem somno vinoque sepultam;

caeduntur vigiles, portisque patentibus omnis

accipiunt socios atque agmina conscia iungunt.

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1 The parallel phraseology is noted by Schmaus H. (Tacitus: ein Nachahmer Vergils: diss. Erlangen [Bamberg, 1887], 16), in his enumeration of Tacitus' borrowings from Virgil, though no later commentator cites the connection. It does not appear in the lists of Tacitus' major Virgilian borrowings given byDraeger A. (Über Syntax und Stil des Tacitus [Leipzig, 1882], pp. 127–9) or Furneaux H. (The Annals of Tacitus)2 [Oxford, 1896], p. 74). Goodyear F. R. D. (ed., The Annals of Tacitus: I [Cambridge, 1972]) ad loc, referring to Sen.Tro. 750 (o machinator fraudis et scelerum artifex) observes: ‘So many prototypes of villainy are familiar in Latin literature that it is doubtful whether T. had any particular one in mind when he wrote this phrase’. My suggestion here is that literary allusion may help us find a candidate.

The two most recent essays dealing with Virgilian influence on Tacitus, by Baxter R. T. S. (‘Virgil's Influence on Tacitus in Books 1 and 2 of the Annals’, CP 67 [1972], 246–69) and Bews J. (‘Virgil, Tacitus, Tiberius and Germanicus’, PVS 12 [19721973], 3548) look particularly, in the case of Baxter, to the historian's treatment of Germanicus, and, in that of Bews, as her title implies, of Tiberius as well. Among the historian's critics only Norma Miller P. (‘Style and Content in Tacitus’, in Tacitus, ed. Dorey T. A. [London, 1969], p. 105) apprehends that Tacitus' allusion to Aeneid 2 through the phrase machinator doli ‘connects him [Augustus] with the inventor of that classic piece of deception, the Trojan Horse…’ This note confirms her contention.

2 It may not be accidental that the verb acceperit follows shortly in Tacitus' sentence.

3 There are other notable instances where the phraseology of Aeneid 2 stayed with Tacitus as he wrote. Elsewhere, for example, he draws from Virgil's description of the wooden horse, instar montis (Aen. 2.15; re. Ann. 2.61), and of the spectre of death that looms over Troy's final night (mortis imago: Aen. 2.369, Ann. 15.70).

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The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
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