Seeing 69CE through different eyes

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.30 (17/3/15)

‘Seeing 69CE through different eyes: Plutarch and Tacitus on Galba and Otho’                                                                                         Timothy Joseph

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

It is clear that the contemporaries Plutarch and Tacitus worked from some of the same source material when narrating the tempestuous events of January–April 69 ce, the former in his Lives of Galba and Otho and the latter in Books 1–2 of the Histories. The authors’ accounts of that period have much in common, both in their general progression and in specific details. And throughout, both make continued and conspicuous use of the language of vision. While some of this may have existed in their shared source(s), Plutarch and Tacitus both employ this language in order to establish themselves as authors capable of revealing, or laying before their readers’ eyes, what can be hard to see during the time of the principate. But the two have different areas of focus, which may speak to their different places in elite imperial society.

In the opening chapter of the Galba, Plutarch writes that in 69 the soldiers ushered in and led out the year’s four emperors “as though on and off of a stage” (G. 1.5). He goes on in the Galba and Otho to zero in on the moments when emperors are first revealed to given groups (e.g., Galba at G. 5.1 and 15.4; cf. Otho in the critical moment at G. 24.3), and to put great value on how emperors appear to others (e.g., Galba at G. 13.4; Otho at O. 3.5). This interest in the sight and the seeing of the emperor himself may speak to Plutarch’s status as a Greek provincial, writing for a Greek-reading audience that had little access to the individuals at the height of power in Rome.

Tacitus, on the other hand, is writing for an audience of fellow Roman political actors and, perhaps, future principes. His concern is to lead these readers into the back chambers of power, to “look closely into” events (introspicere, the verb he later uses of his craft at Ann. 4.32.2), and to share his insider’s perspective. His accounts of the imperial comitia at Hist. 1.14–17, to be contrasted with Plutarch’s much shorter telling at G. 23, and of the considerations of a truce at Hist. 2.37–38, at odds with what Plutarch writes at O. 9, stand as examples of Tacitus’ very different employment of his historical eyesight.