Sometimes the smallest matters can give you a perspective on much bigger issues; in this case, an investigation into the pirate Anicetus throws a light on Tacitus’s methods … and his lies.
The dilemma of Anicetus
Anicetus keeps turning up in Tacitus, primarily as Nero’s Mr ‘Can Do’. We are told that he was a freedman who became Nero’s tutor. He first appears in Annals 14.3 as Prefect of the Misenum fleet, discussing the problem of how to get rid of Nero’s mother … and, when that plan goes wrong (and Seneca and Burrus just look at each other) it is Anicetus who steps up to accomplish his promise and who, with two henchmen, assassinates Agrippina. Still later, having received no punishment (and little reward), he is called on again and told to admit to adultery with Octavia, so that she can be banished to Pandateria. This time he is rewarded, albeit with a comfortable ‘exile’ in Sardinia, where he dies in an accident (Annals 14.62).
The existence of a willing hit-man who is prepared to get rid of the emperor’s female irritants might not prove an insuperable barrier to credibility. Likewise the move from teacher to admiral to confidante to assassin to sleazy-courtier to country-landowner might, also, not be beyond belief – in the early empire many government and military commands were held by court-nominated ‘freedmen-amateurs’, and after all (at least in Tacitus’s account) Anicetus was only pretending to have had sex with Octavia.
The credibility-shock, however, as Professor David Woods has pointed out (2006), is that at the same time, on the other side of the empire, there was another freedman, also called Anicetus, who was also a naval Prefect (for the King of Pontus), and who in ad69 ransacked the Roman garrison in Trapezus, burned the imperial fleet and vagabuntur about the coastline as a pirate.
Prof. Woods is a lovely man, and he kindly supplied me with a copy of his article. In it, he suggests that there were two Roman Aniceti – one a tutor and courtier who admitted to adultery with Octavia and died in Sardinia, the other the naval Prefect, who killed Agrippina … and who, finding himself in Pontus when Nero fell from power, threw in his lot with Vitellius and turned to piracy.
I feel bad saying this, because Prof. Woods had been so kind to me, but I do not, however, agree with his analysis. I’m not going to go into the details of why in this blog. But I think that the truth lies not in an alternative interpretation of the text, but in taking an alternative approach to it altogether – an approach which involves appreciating Tacitus as a literary construct, and posits a literary solution.
The literary context: Tacitus’s matricide text
Even a novice cannot fail to notice that the text on the murder of Agrippina is significantly different from the surrounding passages. Bessie Walker considered it to be Tacitus’s attempt at Epic. It certainly seems to put style ahead of accuracy. As you study it you will see that it is riddled through with internal contradictions, invented scenes, and stereotyped characterisation. Tacitus uses various literary devices to lead the reader through a series of moods, from conspiratorial intrigue, to eery night, to exciting shipwreck, to heroic defiance, to a grizzly murder. At the end, his postscript to the matricide betrays how he has manipulated the story to conclude with his recurring themes: the temerity of the Principate and the timidity of the Senate.
Analysis at ‘word level’ further reveals Tacitus’s intention to influence the reader. He changes word order, invents new words (or uses unusual ones), employs allusions, metaphor and dramatic irony, and coins powerful, memorable phrases; the text was clearly intended to be read out loud to an audience, to hold them on the edge of their seat … and to appeal to them at a subconscious level in order to draw them into the author’s way of thinking.
Above all, apart from the attempt to manipulate, what is most obvious to the reader of Annals 14.1-12 is the large amount of the content which seems to have been made up. The reader is treated to detailed accounts of things one can hardly believe that Tacitus had any way of knowing about – Nero and Poppaea’s bedroom talk, the secret meeting to plot the murder, the details of a chaotic shipwreck, Agrippina’s inner thoughts on her plight, the crisis meeting between Nero and his advisers etc. These scenes have all the appearance of literary constructs to drive the epic, not researched factual content for an objective history.
If we are, indeed, therefore, to regard Annals 14.1-12 primarily as a literary text, an English teacher is reminded very strongly of Dickens. And the reference to Dickens is especially apposite in this context, for – as part of his appeal to the listener’s subconscious – Dickens paid particular attention to his names. He spent considerable time browsing parish registers seeking evocative examples, and names such as Estella, Dolge Orlick and Mr Wopsle were not assigned randomly. The names had a literary purpose.
What if Tacitus was the same? AJ Woodman (1998) and Patrick Sinclair (1995) have both shown how Tacitus – who demonstrably enjoyed word-play – made plays on names also, and intentionally matched actions to names. What if that sense of word-play stretched also to inventing suitably appropriate names in certain circumstances?
The key difference between Dickens and Tacitus, of course, is that Dickens was writing fiction whilst Tacitus was writing factual history. For most of the time, therefore, Tacitus was constrained by the real names of the characters he was writing about. So where he knew the name, he had to use it. Leading characters – people like Nero, Otho, Seneca, Agrippina etc. – were so famous and so central that he could, and does, refer to them simply by a single name. Second-rank characters tend to be given a double-barreled name – Caius Vipstanus, Caius Fonteius, Crepereius Gallus, Thrasea Paetus etc. – to identify them securely.
But what about the third-rank characters – particularly those who were involved as accomplices to evil deeds? We are given a name – but only a single familiar name, so they are therefore obscurely only half-identified. Is it possible that for such people, if he did not know their name, Tacitus – rather than write ‘an unknown accomplice’ – was tempted instead to make up a name? And further that, like Dickens, wishing to affect his listeners subliminally, he gave them a meaningful name?
An obvious example from the reign of Nero would be ‘Atimetus’ (from the Greek word ἀτιμία, meaning 'dishonour') who does a dastardly deed in the conspiracy of Junia Silana (Annals 13.19); it is hard to imagine either parent or master purposely giving a person such a name. ‘Evodus’ (from Εὔοδος, ‘good intent’) who dispatches Messalina in 11.37 and ‘Eucaerus’ (‘opportune’) in who betrays Octavia in 14.60 also have Greek names with an arguably appropriate or ironic meaning.
The name ‘Anicetus’
‘Anicetus’ was not an uncommon name. Its origin is Greek (Ἀνικητός), and the word means ‘Invincible’ (so: Mr ‘Can Do’) – a suitably appropriate name for someone who pops up as required in the narrative to solve Nero’s women-problems!
Especially, it is quite possible that the name Anicetus was known to Tacitus’s listeners as the name of a famous pirate – he was certainly so known to Tacitus (who writes about him as such in History 3.47) so why not his listeners? What more wicked and exciting a name could one give to an otherwise anonymous marine who helped Nero murder his mother?
Neither is it surprising that Anicetus is portrayed as a Greek freedman. Greeks in Rome met all the prejudice faced by any numerous immigrant group. Freedmen, too, were despised as social pariahs, and (since most of them had arrived as slaves and made their own fortune by hard work and ability) were easily stigmatised as ruthless and ‘puffed up with conceit’. Such a person would be just the kind of person we would expect to participate in a matricide if he thought he could benefit.
Moreover, in Greek mythology, Anicetus was a twin son of Hercules – a connection which would be particularly appropriate for the location of Agrippina’s demise. Not merely close to Herculaneum, Bauli was explicitly linked with the myth of Hercules, who was supposed to have penned the cattle of Geryon there whilst he built the Via Herculeana – popularly identified as the bank between the Lucrine Lake and the sea. Even if such an allusion would have been beyond the learning of the majority of his listeners, it would not have been beyond Tacitus … and those educated Romans whose applause he would have valued.
At this point, also, it is worth noting that the name of Anicetus’s warship captain accomplice was Herculeius – also a name of Greek derivation, and also (in case we missed it with Anicetus) an explicit allusion to the Hercules myth. There is no immediately obvious Greek derivation for the name of the third accomplice, the fleet centurion Obaritus, but the Latin word 'obitus' means 'death' or 'downfall', so 'Obaritus' would be an appropriate homophone for an assassin.
All this, of course, does not prove that – because he did not know the Misenum assassin’s name – Tacitus invented the name ‘Anicetus’ . What it does prove, however, is that – if he so did – ‘Anicetus’ would have been a very appropriate and clever name to give him. And the inference is that the name is just too perfect for coincidence.
The suggestion, therefore, is that Tacitus did not, as Prof. Woods suggests, make a mistake. The suggestion is rather that Tacitus purposely chose to give his chief assassin the name ‘Anicetus’.
If that is true, then the association with Anicetus the pirate, but also with Hercules, would be an intentional allusion, and the name (Mr ‘Can Do’) would be appropriate within the narrative context (and, indeed, also later, when Nero wanted to get rid of Octavia).
This suggestion would fit in with an interpretation which sees Tacitus’s matricide text, not as an attempt to write an objective, factual account, but as a text designed to demonstrate his writing skills, and to advance his personal didactic agenda, which portrayed the Principate as a pervasive evil, and those pesky, ambitious Greek freedmen as part of the problem.