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Otho's Exhortations in Tacitus' Histories*

  • Elizabeth Keitel


A striking feature of the speeches in Tacitus' Histories is their responsion to one another. Previous discussions have centred round responsions of theme and argument between speeches given by different speakers. So Galba's advocacy of adoptive versus hereditary monarchy (1.15–16) is balanced by Mucianus' speech urging Vespasian to seek the throne for himself and his son (2.76–77), while Piso's attack on Otho's vicious character (1.30.1) is matched by Otho's criticisms of Piso as a deutero-Galba, harsh and avaricious (1.38.1). In this paper, I shall explore a different kind of responsion, hitherto unnoticed, between four speeches delivered by the same speaker. Tacitus binds Otho's first four speeches (1.21; 37–38; 83–84; 2.47) together through the consistent application of traditional motifs from the general's harangue before battle, although none of them is in fact a cohortatio. The topoi of the battle harangue form a remarkably stable repertoire through ancient historiography and epic and they would have been very familiar to the ancient reader. He would, therefore, have been sensitive to any changes rung on these tropes by the author. An examination of Plutarch's versions of the speeches suggests that Tacitus may well have added these exhortation motifs to express his distinctive point of view. In closing, I shall suggest a possible antecedent for this particular technique.



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1. Fabia, pp. 285–6 discusses thematic parallels between 1.37–38 and 1.83–84; 1.15–16 and 2.47; 1.29–30 and 1.37–38. Ullmann, p. 204, sees 1.29–30 as a pendant to 1.15–16. Chilver, p. 235, describes 2.76–77 as an antistrophe to 1.15–16.

2. I follow Miller, N. P., AJP 85 (1964), 285, who classifies 1.21 as a dramatic speech.

3. Albertus, J., Die Φαρακλητιο in der griechischen und römischen Literatur (Diss. Strassburg, 1908), pp. 3793 surveys the topoiand structure of the battle speech.

4. Mommsen, Th., Hermes 4 (1870), 295325, established that Tacitus and Plutarch followed a common source for their accounts of Otho and suggested Cluvius Rufus as the source. Fabia touted Pliny. For a summary of the arguments, see Syme, R., Tacitus I (Oxford, 1958), pp. 674–6.

5. Tacitus has apparently developed this monologue from indications of Otho's feelings given in the common source. Cf. Plut, . Galba. 23.4 and Suet, . Otho 5.1.

6. Burck, E., Gymnasium 23 (1966), 102 cites the phrase in Livian battle harangues: 22.14.14; 25.16.19; 35.35.16.

7. Tacitus has constructed 1.21–23 to build up Otho's resolution in contrast to the common source as seen in Plutarch, (Galba 23.4). Cf. Fabia, p. 23 and Klingner, F., ‘Die Geschichte Kaiser Othos bei Tacitus’ in Pöschl, V. (ed.), Tacitus, Wege der Forschung 97 (Darmstadt, 1969), p. 412.

8. On the foreshadowing of Otho's death here, see Chilver, p. 84.

9. For Tacitus’ persistently negative treatment of Otho, cf. Fabia, pp. 297–8, Heubner, H., Studien zur Darstellungskunst des Tacitus Hist. 1.12–11.51 (Diss. Leipzig, 1933), p. 14, and Stolte, B. H., Anc. Soc. 5 (1973), 183ff.

10. Tacitus' version at 1.37–38 is very different from the brief notice in Suet., Otho 6 where Otho promises to keep only what the troops give him, while Plutarch mentions no speech at all (Galba 25.3). Accordingly, Ullmann, p. 204, argues that 1.37–38 is a free composition by Tacitus.

11. Ullmann, p. 206 adduces the Livian parallel without comment.

12. Cf. Albertus, , op. cit., pp. 69ff., for examples of this topos.

13. Cf. Livy 21.40.11; Dio 50.24.1; 27.7; 62.11.3; Appian, , B.C. 4.96; 99, and Albertus, , op. cit., pp. 58ff.

14. Borzsak, I., Association G. Budé, Actes du lXe Congrés, Rome 13–18 avril 1973 (Paris, 1975), p. 232, calls 1.37.4 the overture to this Thucydidean theme in the Histories. For this theme elsewhere in Roman civil war literature, cf. Jal, P., La Guerre civile a Rome, Étude litteraire et morale (Paris, 1963), pp. 460–73.

15. For Othonian mutinies, cf. 1.80–85; 2.18–19; 2.23.5; 2.36.2; 2.44.1; 2.49.1; 51. A chief cause of this disorder is the troops' unwillingness to trust anyone other than Otho and vice versa (2.33.3).

16. For the latter point, cf. Ullmann, p. 207.

17. Cf. Robbert, L., De Tacito Lucani Imitatore (Diss. Göttingen, 1917), p. 60.

18. Chilver, p. 151.

19. Cf. also Thuc. 7.64.2 and Polyb. 3.109.9–11.

20. Tacitus’ version is much fuller than the brief summary of the men's pleas in Plutarch, (Otho 15.2). Mommsen, , loc. cit., p. 311, and Klingner, , loc. cit., pp. 407ff., point out how Tacitus has built-up Otho's self-sacrifice after Bedriacum, most notably by playing down the peace efforts of his senior commanders.

21. Chilver, p. 212, catches an echo here of Romana vere iuventus (1.84.4). Fabia, p. 76 n.1, points out that the idea of sparing the lives of the soliders for the state occurs in Celsus' speech in Plutarch, (Otho 13.2), omitted by Tacitus.

22. Hope is commonly couched in extreme terms: your only hope lies in your virtus(Livy 34.14.3; 4; , Caes.B.C. 2.41.3; , Tac.Ann. 2.20.3) or audacia (, Sail.Cat. 58.16). Closer to Otho's words is Cat. 58.18: ‘Quom vos considero, milites, et quom facta vostra aestumo, magna me spes victoriae tenet.’

23. Cf. Thuc. 4.29; 95; 7.61–62; 66–68; , Xen.Anab. 3.1.15–25; Dio 50.16–22; 24–30.

24. Tacitus and Plutarch's versions agree on two basic points: that his suicide was a genuinely patriotic act; and that he was genuinely concerned for his men. So Fabia, p. 81. As Fabia notes (p. 66), because the two speeches are otherwise so different, it is impossible to reconstruct the content of the speech in the common source.

25. Cf. Otho's obituary (2.50.1): ‘duobus facinoribus, altero flagitiosissimo, altero egregio, tantundem apud posteros meruit bonae famae quantum malae.’ It is not my purpose here to assess the merit of Tacitus’ judgement, which modern scholars have challenged, but rather to show one technique by which the historian makes it plausible.

26. Klingner, , loc. cit., p. 412 points to the parallel characterizations of Catiline and Otho. Like Catiline, Otho is a great sinner, especially in 1.21–23. Both suffer from want and indulge in luxus. Otho is generally a product of the morals of Nero's, court just as Catiline epitomized the ‘corrupti civitatis mores’ of his day (Cat. 5.8).

27. The mutiny of Caesar's troops at Placentia shows none of the parainetic features under discussion here: Lucan 5.261–95; 319–64; Dio; Appian, , B.C. 2.47.

28. Cf. Burck, , loc. cit., p. 89. For verbal reminiscences of Sallust's Catiline in Livy's Manlius, cf. Alfonsi, L., Aevum 4 (1967), 509.

29. For the first three as parainetic motifs, cf. Skard, E., ‘Sallust und seine Vorgänger’, SO Suppl. 15 (1961), p. 31; for the last one, cf. Paladini, M. L., Lat. 20 (1961), 78.

30. Vretska, p. 324.

31. Paladini, , loc. cit., 10 and n. 21, observes the following responsions: Cat. 20.14 and 58.8 (divitiae, decus, and gloria held out as prizes in both); 20.2 and 58.18 (the commander's declaration of faith in his men); and 20.10 and 58.19 (references to the age of the men as a positive factor). Vretska, pp. 306; 315 and 323 notes the following parallels: 20.1 and 58.1 (invocation of virtus); 20.9 and 58.8; 13; 17; 21 (death before dishonour); and 20.15 and 58.1; 19 (word/deed antithesis).

32. Vretska, p. 671.

33. For Catiline as a corruption of traditional Roman values, cf. Büchner, K., Sallust (Heidelberg, 1961), pp. 166ff. Vretska, pp. 685–6, thinks Catiline dies a worthy death, but one which in no way redeems his earlier misdeeds. Schunk, P., SO 39 (1964), 77, reads Otho in his dying as a paradigm of old Roman virtue which can no longer nourish in a corrupt world. Scott, R. T., Religion and Philosophy in the Histories of Tacitus (Rome, 1968), pp. 9092, goes to the other extreme, describing Otho as a degenerate product of degenerate age, boastful and selfdeluded even in assessing the merit of his own suicide.

* Tacitus is quoted from Heubner's Teubner Text (Stuttgart, 1978), and Sallust from Kurfess's Teubner Text (Leipzig, 1957). The following works will be cited by the author's last name only: G. E. F. Chilver, A Historical Commentary on Tacitus' Histories I and II (Oxford, 1979); Ph. Fabia, Les Sources de Tacite dans Us Histoires et les Annales (Paris, 1893); R. Ullmann, La Technique des discours dans Salluste, Tite-Live et Tacite (Oslo, 1927); K. Vretska, C. Sallustius Crispus, de Catilinae Conjuratione (Heidelberg, 1976). Research for this paper, part of a larger study of cohortationes in the ancient historians, has been generously underwritten by a Grantin-Aid from the American Council of Learned Societies.

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