Fortitude, Honor, and Wisdom in Roman Emperors (Abby Holland, 2018)

Abstract: This paper seeks to explore the quality traits that Tacitus deemed important in an emperor in the emerging Roman Empire through analysis of Books 11-16 of his Annals. Throughout Books 11-16, Tacitus recounts the reigns of both Claudius and Nero, elucidating their flaws and often pointing to their shortcomings as rulers. The influence of both his freedmen and wives proves Claudius’ ineffectiveness in maintaining control. In an equally negative fashion, Tacitus describes Nero’s inability to keep order during his reign. These men lacked fortitude, honor, and wisdom, which in Tacitus’ eyes ultimately led to their ruin.


In Books 11-16 of his Annals, Tacitus recounts the reigns of Claudius and Nero with particular detail and precision, carefully crafting a narrative of individual scenes which depict the character of these men. Throughout his writing, Tacitus displays his own opinions about morality within the sphere of Roman rule. His generally negative opinions about Claudius and Nero serve to form a basis of what not to do as emperor. From these, Tacitus informs the reader of what he believes a good emperor would say and do, superimposing his moral leanings and expectations on his writing. In the context of Books 11-16, Tacitus provides numerous examples of Claudius and Nero, which elucidate a lack of fortitude, honor, and wisdom, three defining character traits for a successful emperor in his estimation.

In Books 11-12, Tacitus describes the turbulent reign of Claudius. Perhaps the single greatest character trait that Claudius lacks is fortitude. Tacitus frames Claudius in this way: “But there seemed no difficulty in manipulating the mind of an emperor whose favour and animosity were always implanted and programmed by others” (12.3). Here, Tacitus is referencing the emperor’s lack of backbone in his relationships with his wives and his freedmen. Claudius is first married to Messalina, who even dares to hold a marriage ceremony with Silius while Claudius is in Ostia holding a sacrifice (11.26-27). Tacitus explains that Claudius is subservient to her, having commissioned many killings on her behalf (11.28). It is his freedmen who inform him of the ridiculous scandal of his wife’s most recent marriage. Again, they are the driving force of his decisions.  After this revelation by his freedmen, he responds in the following manner according to Tacitus: “It is well established that Claudius was so overwhelmed with panic that, time after time, he asked if he was master of the empire, and if Silius was still a private citizen” (11.31). In the end, it is Narcissus, a trusted freedmen, who commissions Messalina’s killing when Claudius is inclined to show mercy (11.37). Such is the freedmen’s power.

After Messalina is put to death for her crimes, Claudius is faced with the difficult task of choosing a new bride. Here, Claudius’ subservience both to his freedmen and to his new wife are equally evident. The two proposed brides are Lollia Paulina and Julia Agrippina. On this subject, Tacitus says, “As for Claudius, he at one moment inclined towards one, at the next towards another (depending on which of the advocates he had been listening to)” (12.1). These advocates are Claudius’ freedmen. “Conflict had arisen amongst the freedmen over which of them would choose a wife for Claudius” (12.1). Because of the argumentation of Pallas, one of Claudius’ freedmen, Claudius chooses Agrippina to be his wife (12.3).

This is particularly degrading to the office of emperor because Agrippina is Claudius’ niece, and his marriage to her would have been illegal had not another freedman, Vitellius, helped pass a law which allowed such incestuous relationships. After this law is passed, Tacitus explains that “everything passed under a woman’s control, one who, unlike Messalina, did not capriciously tamper with the Roman government. It was a strict despotism with a masculine character” (12.7). Tacitus’ description of these events highlights both the freedmen’s power over Claudius’ decisions and Agrippina’s power over the way he rules. Claudius commits terrible crimes, specifically those of wrongful conviction, on her behalf (12.22,59). In Tacitus’ mind, if Claudius could not keep control of his home, how could he effectively command an empire with fortitude?

With this depiction of chaos and weakness in the reign of Claudius in Books 11-12, Tacitus proceeds to elucidate the reign and character of Nero in Books 13-16. One of Nero’s greatest character flaws, according to Tacitus, is his lack of honor. This is evident through his numerous examples of Nero’s often idiosyncratic behavior. Two of Nero’s greatest desires are to race horses and sing. Regarding horse-racing, Tacitus claims that Nero’s behavior is “humiliating” and that his inclusion of other noble families in the sport is disgraceful and degrading (14.14). Tacitus then addresses Nero’s establishment of the Juvenalian Games, in which he goes on stage and performs (14.15). Tacitus claims that the result of Nero’s behavior “was an increase in degenerate and scandalous behaviour” (14.15). Tacitus later gives great detail on Nero’s exploits and choice of recreation, repeating that his behavior causes a degeneration of morality in the upper class (15.32,34). His willingness to participate in the vulgar and common world is indicative of a deeper issue, namely, that he does not truly understand what it means to be an honorable emperor in the eyes of Tacitus.

This character flaw is later highlighted in Tacitus’ strategic retelling of Nero’s dealings with Tigellinus. Tigellinus constructs a raft that contains male prostitutes and exotic animals while on the banks of the Agrippa’s lake stand female prostitutes. Tacitus describes the lewd behavior that occurs there, coming to a climax with Nero’s involvement: “Nero himself, defiled by lawful and unlawful acts, had left untried no enormity that could deepen his depravity-except one” (15.37). This “depravity” that Tacitus references is Nero formally marrying one of the males on the boat whose name is Pythagoras, with Nero acting as the female in the wedding. This passivity and effeminacy is repulsive to Tacitus because it demonstrates an outrageous disdain for the position of honor as emperor and delves into what Tacitus considers to be utter perversion.

In his dealings with Otho and Poppaea, Nero displays more of the dishonorable behavior that Tacitus calls “shameful” and “criminal” (13.46). His desire to eliminate Otho in order to be joined with Poppaea prompts him to send Otho to Lusitania so that he no longer presents a rivalry to Nero (13.47). Along a similar vein, Nero kills his mother because she proves to be a threat and bars the way for him to marry Poppaea (14.1-3, 8). All of these vivid descriptions provide a lens through which Tacitus views his subject. Nero’s lack of honor is highlighted in each incident, and his negative effects on the upper class only serve to further illustrate the fact that his dishonorable behavior precludes him from being a good emperor in Tacitus’ estimation.

In addition to fortitude and honor, perhaps the third most important characteristic of an emperor in the eyes of Tacitus is wisdom. Nero shows a characteristic lack of wisdom in the manner in which he commands the empire and military. Regarding the finances of the empire after the great fire, Tacitus explains that Nero drains the people to raise his own funds: “The provinces and been ruined, and so had the allied peoples and the so-called free communities” (15.45). However, according to Tacitus, this lack of foresight extends beyond mere greed: “Even the gods became a part of these spoils, with temples gutted in the city and their gold removed…” (15.45) These deeds disregard the foremost place of Roman religion in society, an obvious lack of wisdom in a society which so reveres the religious.

Nero commissions two immoral henchmen to conduct these sacrilegious affairs. Tacitus describes these men as “ready for any kind of villainy” (15.45). Meanwhile, the more upstanding Seneca, Nero’s boyhood tutor, absents himself from such affairs (15.45). At the beginning of Nero’s reign, Burrus and Seneca are some of Caesar’s more decent advisors. However, after the death of Burrus, allegedly by poison, Seneca loses much of his influence. Tacitus says, “The death of Burrus broke the power of Seneca. Good qualities carried less weight with one of their champions removed, and in addition Nero was turning towards worse characters” (14.52). As a result, Nero, along with all his wrongful convictions and death sentences, eventually sentences Seneca to death for an assassination plot without any clear evidence (15.60). Seneca commits suicide to pursue an honorable death (15.63). Here, Nero again shows a lack of wisdom as he removes one of the last moral influences in his life.

Describing one of Nero’s retinue, Petronius, after the death of Seneca, Tacitus says, “Then, sliding back into his vices, or through imitating vices, he was taken into Nero’s small band of cronies as his ‘arbiter of good taste’” (16.18). One of Nero’s greatest flaws in the mind of Tacitus is his failure to surround himself with people who encourage him to rule with honor and fortitude. Nero’s brutality extends well beyond Seneca and Burrus. When a plague hits Rome, Tacitus says the following: “The deaths of knights and senators, just as common though they were, drew fewer tears- they were apparently forestalling the emperor’s brutality by sharing the common lot of humanity” (16.13). That it was preferable to succumb to a plague rather than live under Nero’s rule as a senator is quite telling in the mind of Tacitus. His destruction of the upper class signals to Tacitus a destruction of order and social balance, which displays a fundamental lack of wisdom.

Perhaps, Nero’s want of wisdom is most easily depicted in the beginning of Book 16 when Nero believes a Punic man, who says that he has a wealth of gold on his land. “Nero paid insufficient attention to the reliability of the informant or the plausibility of the business itself, and he did not send men through whom he could verify the truth of the report, either” (16.2). Instead of checking on this claim, Nero exaggerates the information he receives and uses up much of the wealth he has in anticipation of greater wealth to come (16.2). While the text of Book 16, which probably contains the end of this story, is lost to the modern world, the outcome of this anecdote can be inferred from the fact that Tacitus says that fortune “then made a fool of Nero” (16.1). Without such precautions that accompany a man of wisdom, Nero is easily swayed by the promises of a man whom he does not know who promises great wealth.

From Tacitus’ Annals, Books 11-16, it is evident that Tacitus does not approve of the emperors Claudius and Nero. Their inability to maintain control and order in their respective rules points to deeper character flaws in the mind of Tacitus. While Claudius is less brutal than Nero, they both prove equally incapable of the position they hold, ultimately lacking the character traits of fortitude, honor, and wisdom. The anecdotes which form the crux of Tacitus’ history, although usually negative, serve to point to what Tacitus expects out of a successful emperor. The sway of Claudius’ wives and freedom preclude him from maintaining a sense of fortitude. Nero’s openness to frivolity and his inability to retain wise advisors point to his lack of honor and wisdom. According to Tacitus’ depiction, Claudius and Nero do not rule well and only serve as warnings to future generations.