The headless state: 
Tacitus and the burning of the Capitolium

Rebecca Edwards

University of Tennessee

Tacitus is arguably one of the least visual of the Roman historians.  His avoidance of place description has left many commentators and modern scholars at a loss to reconstruct the battles which led to the rise and fall of the various emperors.  His description of the battle in Rome between the loyalists defending the emperor Vitellius from the invading Flavian supporters in Book 3 of the Histories counts among the rare exceptions to this general rule.  Tacitus makes explicit reference to Republican monuments in relating the siege of the Capitolium by Vitellian supporters against its defenders led by Flavius Sabinus, the brother of the soon-to-be emperor Vespasian.

In his account of this key battle to determine the supreme ruler of the orbis terrarum, Tacitus refers to the Capitolium in terms which have a firm root in the pre-imperial history of Rome.   Indeed, Martialis, complaining that Vitellius has broken his agreement to step down as emperor, notes that Vitellium in Palatium, in ipsam imperii arcem regressum (Hist. III.70).  Tacitus describes the burning of the Capitolium, and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in particular, as the facinus post conditam urbem luctuosissimum foedissimumque rei publicae populi Romani accidit (Hist. II.72.1).  This particular event is singled out from the spectacle being enjoyed by the people as the various armies war throughout the other parts of the city like gladiators in the arena.  The specific use of the phrase post conditam urbem begs the reader to compare Tacitus' historical references to the Capitolium which follow with their more fully fleshed-out referents in Livy's Ab urbe condita.

I would like in this paper to examine the specific references to Republican history which are mentioned by Tacitus in his lament over the Capitolium, and to compare them with Livy's narrative of the events surrounding those references.  I would particularly like to apply some of the principles used by the innovative work of Mary Jaeger in Livy's Written Rome and Ann Vasaly in Representations:  Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory to show how Tacitus is using this particular instance of ecphrasis to express his opinions about the Republic, its mythology, and the attitude of the new emperor Vespasian towards this mythology.

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