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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 October 2017

Arthur J. Pomeroy
Victoria University of Wellington
E-mail address:


Roman conflict with Parthia in the mid first century for control of Armenia and Domitius Corbulo's exploits in the East, culminating in the Parthian candidate for the throne, Tiridates, receiving his diadem from the hands of the Emperor Nero in Rome, have frequently been studied for what they reveal about military and diplomatic manoeuvres under the later Julio-Claudians. The historiographical investigation of our main source, Tacitus, particularly through comparison with the fragments of Cassius Dio, is also important for the light this sheds on the Roman senator's methods. The intention of this paper is to draw attention to the complexity of Tacitus’ account by indicating his use of multiple and sometimes contradictory viewpoints in his narration of Caesennius Paetus’ unsuccessful Armenian campaign of a.d. 62–63 (Ann. 15.1–17) and to highlight an unrecognized echoing of his predecessor Livy by the historian. The examination of a text that is as elusive as it is allusive will require a careful study of what must have been a debated incident, but, as I hope to show, will give a broader insight into the historian's methods and, perhaps, wider intentions. I begin with an outline of historical events and the sources available to the historian. Next, I present a narratological examination of the text to show how differing viewpoints are highlighted within a contested storyline. I then show how this confusion may appear to be dispelled by a strong plot-line that borrows heavily from Livy, wherein the actions of an older, experienced general are contrasted with those of his subordinate. However, aspects of this account suggest that the tensions within the narrative are not resolved and that this has wider implications for our understanding of the historian and his work.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2017 

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1 For Corbulo's exploits, see most recently Vervaet, F.A., ‘CIL IX 3426: a new light on Corbulo's career, with special reference to his official mandate in the East from ad 55 to ad 63’, Latomus 58 (1999), 574–99Google Scholar; id., Domitius Corbulo and the senatorial opposition to the reign of Nero’, AncSoc 32 (2002), 135–93Google Scholar; id., Domitius Corbulo and the rise of the Flavian dynasty’, Historia 52 (2004), 436–64Google Scholar. A detailed bibliography is conveniently compiled in Cornell, T.J., The Fragments of the Roman Historians (Oxford, 2013)Google Scholar [hereafter FRH], 1.538. For Tacitus’ depiction of Corbulo, see Ash, R., ‘Following in the footsteps of Lucullus? Tacitus’ characterization of Corbulo’, Arethusa 39 (2006), 355–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Sources for events: Tac. Ann. 13.8–9 (a.d. 54), 34–41 (a.d. 58; cf. Cass. Dio 62.19); 14.23–6 (a.d. 60); 15.1–17 (a.d. 62; cf. Cass. Dio 62.19–22), 24–9 (a.d. 63; cf. Cass. Dio 62.23). Tiridates’ coronation in a.d. 66 is adumbrated in Ann. 16.23, but the text of the Annals breaks off before the actual event, leaving us to rely on the description in Cass. Dio 63.1–7 (= Xiphilinus 172–5).

3 Cass. Dio 62.21.1; Tacitus’ only specific geographical details are that Paetus placed his wife and son in the safety of the fortress of Arsamosata (Ann. 15.10.3) and that the river Arsanias flowed near the main Roman camp. It was close enough for the Romans to build a bridge across the river during negotiations with the Parthians, although they actually took another route in leaving the area (Ann. 15.15.1). All indications are that the scene of conflict should be on the borders of Cappadocia-Sophene and Armenia, perhaps on the road from Amida to Melitene where Paetus could have attempted to block access to the Arsanias river valley. The general area is indicated by Vologaeses’ ability both to besiege the Roman camp and threaten the castellum of Arsamosata (15.13.4). Dio specifies the site of the main Roman camp as the otherwise unknown Rhandeia, ‘near the river Arsanias’ (62.21.1).

4 Devillers, O., L'art de la persuasion dans les Annales de Tacite (Collection Latomus 223) (Brussels, 1994), 91 Google Scholar.

5 For instance, Martin, R., Tacitus (London, 1988), 180 Google Scholar: ‘In 15.16.1 Tacitus expressly names Corbulo as a source for one of his details. It is hard to resist the conclusion that for much of the eulogistic matter and tone the same source was responsible.’

6 So Power, T., ‘Suetonius’ Tacitus’, JRS 104 (2014), 205–25, at 218Google Scholar: ‘the twice removed version [of history] of Tacitus was superfluous, derivative and, given the rhetorical nature of Roman historiography, doubly tainted. It would have been deemed a poor source in contrast to the earlier, more direct evidence by any responsible biographer or historian, and rightly shunned.’

7 Cf. Plin. Ep. 9.27, where an unnamed historian allows himself to be persuaded not to expose the misdeeds of certain members of the audience by a public recitatio of the relevant part of his work. This is not regarded as bringing his reliability (fides) into question, since his published text, read in private, continued to provide a permanent record of these crimes. The historian is often identified with Pliny's friend, Tacitus (e.g. Birley, A.R., Onomasticon to the Younger Pliny [Munich, 2000], 53)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cf. Ann. 3.65.1 on the duty of the historian to keep alive the memory both of good qualities (uirtutes) and evil words and actions (praua facta et dicta).

8 This passage is listed as Corbulo, fr. 2 in FRH (n. 1), 2.1032 (commentary, 3.612), but there is no reason to consider this as more than a paraphrase of Corbulo's opinion of events. FRH prints Briscoe's suggestion prodidit (turning Corbulo's words into a direct quotation) instead of MS M's prodiderit (probably a potential subjunctive, suggesting a vivid depiction of events that allows for fulfilment i.e. ‘was able to claim/had the opportunity of claiming’—and clearly did claim, perhaps on more than one occasion; cf. Woodcock, E.C., A New Latin Syntax [London, 1959], 91)Google Scholar.

9 For Corbulo's writings, see the account of B. Levick in FRH (n. 1), 1.541–5. Questions of whether Corbulo wrote an autobiography (possibly a Res Gestae) or only commentarii and even the nature of the latter remain insoluble. See also Devillers, O., Tacite et les sources des Annales (Louvain, 2003), 37–9Google Scholar.

10 Vervaet (n. 1 [1999]), 596 n. 72.

11 Famously portrayed by Pliny the Younger in Ep. 7.24.

12 Vervaet (n. 1 [2002]).

13 On the quindecimuiri, see Syme, R., Tacitus (Oxford, 1958), 1.65–6 and Appendix 22Google Scholar.

14 Birley, A.R., ‘The life and death of Cornelius Tacitus’, Historia 49 (2000), 230–47, at 230–4Google Scholar.

15 For Hadrian's withdrawal from Armenia, see SHA Hadr. 23.10; on the Armenian revolts, Cass. Dio 74.9.6. In general on this topic: Chaumont, M.L., ‘Armenia and Iran ii. The pre-Islamic period’, Encyclopaedia Iranica 2 (1986), 418–38Google Scholar. For an overview of Tacitus’ handling of Eastern matters and events in Armenia prior to the reign of Nero, see Malloch, S.J.V., The Annals of Tacitus Book 11 (Cambridge, 2013), 116–26Google Scholar.

16 Birley (n. 14), 241–7.

17 Meulder, M., ‘L. Caesennius Paetus, un avatar du guerrier inpie chez Tacite (Ann. XV, 7–8)’, Latomus 52 (1993), 98104 Google Scholar.

18 So, for example, Wardle, D., Suetonius Life of Augustus (Oxford, 2014), 9, 174Google Scholar. However, the provisos necessary to detect contemporary references within the Augustus are so substantial that it is difficult to imagine Suetonius’ words conflicting with the aims of either Trajan or Hadrian.

19 In this section, I use a number of the themes that are important to narratologists not to indicate Tacitus’ vivid mimesis (that hardly needs proving) but to show the complex manner in which he constructs a dual narrative (for instance, Paetus’ and Corbulo's activities are synchronic but can only be recounted consecutively). For an introduction to narratology, see De Jong, I.J.F., Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide (Oxford, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, in particular ch. 7 (167–96), ‘Narratology and historiography’.

20 Grethlein, J., Experience and Teleology in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge, 2013), 1516 and 156–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar, on how the possibility of alternative actions increases the vividness of narration.

21 Cf. Shannon, K., ‘Livy's Cossus and Augustus and Tacitus’ Germanicus and Tiberius: a historiographic allusion’, Histos 5 (2011), 266–82Google Scholar, who uses the intertext between Inguiomerus in Ann. 2.21.1 and Tolumnius in Livy 4.19.2 to create a parallel between Germanicus and Cossus and to raise the question of Augustus and Crassus’ eligibility for the spolia opima. This is additionally seen as suggestive of Tiberius’ attitude to Germanicus’ desire for triumphal glory.

22 Livy then uses the Nicias–Alcibiades contrast to frame his account of the debate between Fabius and Scipio over the invasion of Africa (28.40–5), a depiction that has been analysed in detail by Rodgers, B.S., ‘Great expectations: Livy on Thucydides’, TAPhA 116 (1986), 335–52Google Scholar. It is worth noting that Livy's use of the theme in this case turns it on its head, since the ‘rash’ commander is later notably successful, despite the objections of the cautious Fabius.

23 See Gilmartin, K., ‘Corbulo's campaigns in the East: an analysis of Tacitus’ account’, Historia 22 (1973), 583626, at 608–19Google Scholar, concentrating on the psychological depiction of the two generals; and Ash (n. 1), 371–3, who also argues that Corbulo is regularly contrasted with Lucullus to the former's disadvantage.

24 One might easily find parallels for the actions of the rash commander throughout Livy, as, for instance, in Hannibal's deliberate choice to lure Flaminius who was spoiling for a battle into an ambush at Trasimene (22.4.1). In contrast with Paetus, Flaminius, however, shows courage and makes the most of his military training when surrounded by the enemy (22.5.1).

25 The supplement is Madvig's on the basis of Livy 9.5.3: non … foedere pax Caudina sed per sponsionem facta sit. <pacis; neque> will have been omitted in Tacitus by a haplography of neque after numantin(a)eque.

26 Oakley, S.P., Commentary on Livy, Books VI–X (Oxford, 1997–2005), 3.27–31Google Scholar and Appendix 2.

27 Meulder (n. 17), 100 n. 22.

28 Comparison with Sil. Pun. 5.59–76 shows the poet placing the omens directly before the battle, not at the inauguration of the consulship. Before Trasimene the sacred chickens refuse to eat (not paralleled in Tacitus but perhaps similar to omens reported in Livy 22.1.8–20), the sacrificial bull escapes, the standards cannot be lifted out of the ground and fiery lightning appears over the lake.

29 Minucius’ dispatches: in tam prope clade famam <uanam> egregiae uictoriae cum uanioribus litteris magistri equitum Romam perlatam, Livy 22.24.14; Paetus’ report: litteras quasi confecto bello, uerbis magnificis, rerum uacuas, Ann. 15.8.2.

30 qui solutis ordinibus uagi dissipati errant, Livy 22.29.5; cf. the stragglers who meet Corbulo in Ann. 15.12.2 and are sent back to the front.

31 As E. Koestermann observes (Cornelius Tacitus Annalen [Heidelberg, 1963–1968], ad loc.), the phrase is a direct quotation from Livy's famous obituary of Fabius Maximus (30.26.9). The description is almost a foreshadowing of Vologaeses’ way of dealing with Paetus, avoiding any real negotiation on the pretext that he was waiting for his brothers to arrive, thus dragging out the siege while indicating that the fate of the Roman legions was in the hands of the Parthian royalty (Ann. 15.14.1). For a generally different, less complimentary reading of the Livian allusion (but one which acknowledges that Vologaeses at times might be more Roman than the Romans), see Clark, A.J., ‘Vologaeses as mirror’, Histos 5 (2011), 208–31Google Scholar.

32 Cf. Fabius’ reminder to the Senate of clades per temeritatem atque inscientiam ducum acceptas, 22.25.12.

33 Oakley (n. 26), 1.580–2. For another version of the Minucius story, see Polyb. 3.103–5. Polybius’ deduction in 3.105.9 that the episode made clear to the Romans that there is a difference between a (real) general's planning, logical resolution and good sense and the indiscipline and foolishness of a (mere) soldier is typically practical, in contrast to Livy's emphasis on moral factors ( Walbank, F.W., Commentary on Polybius [Oxford, 1957–1979Google Scholar], ad loc.). App. Hann. 12–13, Val. Max. 5.2.4, Cass. Dio fr. 57.19 and Plut. Fab. 8–13 may preserve traces of an earlier tradition. Silius Italicus’ Punica had already recounted the same episode in 8.377–408, 8.494–750, raising Fabius to the semi-divine status of a Hercules (8.746–50; cf. Verg. Aen. 8.273–5; see Littlewood, R.J., A Commentary on Silius Italicus’ Punica 7 [Oxford, 2011]Google Scholar, on 7.732, 7.735–6, 7.746–7, 7.748, 7.750). Since Tacitus’ friend, Pliny, was well acquainted with Silius and his literary interests (Ep. 3.7.4–5), it is likely that the historian was fully aware of this most recent version of the story also.

34 Livian influences in Tacitus were detected by Syme (n. 13), 200–1, who noted the parallels between the Roman surrender in the Batavian revolt in Hist. 4.62, 4.72 and Livy's account of the Caudine Forks, and also traced stylistic parallels in Appendix 54 ([n. 13], 733–4, drawing partly on the work of G. Andresen and G.B.A. Fletcher). Kraus, C.S., ‘“No second Troy”: topoi and refoundation in Livy, Book V’, TAPhA 124 (1994), 267–89, at 287–8Google Scholar highlighted echoes of Livy, Book 5 in Ann. 15.43.1–5, while articles by R. Ash (‘Waving the white flag: surrender scenes in Livy 9.5–6 and Tacitus, Histories 3.31 and 4.62’, G&R 45 [1998], 2744 Google Scholar) and Woodman, A.J. (‘Mutiny and madness: Tacitus Annals 1.16–49’, Arethusa 39 [2006], 303–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar) have demonstrated further substantial allusions to Livy in the later historian. Ash's edition of Tacitus Histories Book II (Cambridge, 2007)Google Scholar is particularly good in listing Livian parallels. Further Livian parallels are discussed at length by Shannon (n. 21) and Clark (n. 31).

35 Shannon (n. 21), 277: ‘reference to a work written about, or under the Republic, has definite political implications when it appears in a work written about, and under, the Principate’. More circumspectly, Clark (n. 31), 212: ‘the reader is reminded of how times and circumstances have changed’.

36 Most obviously in Cassius Dio: Corbulo, although widely admired and with a large army under his command, never considered rebellion against the emperor, 62.23.5; Tiridates found one fault alone in Corbulo, namely that he put up with a master such as Nero, 63.6.4; Corbulo realized, when ordered to commit suicide, his mistake in sparing ‘the lyre-player’, 63.17.4.

37 Vervaet (n. 1 [2002]), 187–93; Ash (n. 1), especially 363–4, 373–4. For Tacitean awareness that all was not necessarily fine in ‘the good old days’, see Maternus’ closing remarks in the Dialogus (e.g. 41.1; Republican speeches by their very existence show the problems of their age) or the portrait of the aristocratic Piso the Elder in Annals 2 and 3.

38 The most obvious examples are the exploits of Caesar's centurions T. Pullo and L. Vorenus in BGall. 5.44 and the heroic exploits and deaths of L. Fabius and M. Petronius in the attack on Gergovia (BGall. 7.47, 7.50). Scaeva, in defending his outpost against all odds at Dyrrachium (BCiv. 3.53, notoriously expanded in Luc. 6.140–262), provides a notable precursor to Tarquitius Crescens in Tacitus.

39 Levene, D.S., Livy on the Hannibalic War (Oxford, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 171 n. 18 notes that in Livy there is redemption for Flaminius (by his heroic end), Varro (as not despairing for Rome after Cannae) and Minucius (by his admission of error). In Tacitus, there is no such outcome for Paetus.

40 The nature of intertexuality and allusion in history is highly topical: see Pelling, C., ‘Intertextuality, plausibility, and interpretation’, Histos 7 (2013), 120 Google Scholar and Elliott, J., ‘The epic vantage-point: Roman historical allusion’, Histos 9 (2015), 277311 Google Scholar for bibliography. The debate is centred on the level of recognition, not on whether intertexts and allusions exist.

41 A thousand altars raised and libations to Fabius before feasting, Sil. Pun. 7.746–50; cf. the glorification of Scipio at 17.645–54, esp. salue, inuicte parens, non concessure Quirino | laudibus ac meritis, non concessure Camillo, 17.651–2. If Fabius becomes the surrogate father for Minucius and his troops, Scipio becomes pater patriae.

42 See Marks, R., From Republic to Empire (Frankfurt am Main, 2005), 81, 219, 224–5Google Scholar.

43 By contrast, Silius appears to have been the first writer to combine elements of Livy's Caudine Forks narrative with the rescue of Minucius, portraying the unexpected salvation in terms of a mini-katabasis in Pun. 7.723–9 (Stygiae … fugere tenebrae … nox atra recessit, | coniuent solemque pauent agnoscere uisu). Cf. Livy's Roman soldiers leaving the defile after passing under the yoke who blink at the light: uelut ab inferis extractum tum primum lucem aspicere uisi sunt, 9.6.5. In Livy 22.29.3, the simile is not of Minucius’ troops rising from the dead but of Fabius’ forces descending as if from heaven (Fabiana se acies repente uelut caelo demissa ad auxilium ostendit).

44 See most recently Grethlein (n. 20), 178–9. Numerous studies of enargeia throughout Tacitus’ works illustrate this point (e.g. Morgan, M. Gwyn, ‘The smell of victory’, CPh 87 [1992], 1429 Google Scholar, on Vitellius’ visit to the battlefield at Bedriacum, or Levene, D.S., ‘Pity, fear, and the historical audience’, in Braund, S.M., Gill, C. [edd.], The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature [Cambridge, 1997], 128–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar, on his capture and death in the Histories; O'Gorman, E., Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus [Cambridge, 2006], 4953 Google Scholar, on Germanicus’ inspection of the remains of Varus’ army, or Quinn, K., Latin Explorations [London, 1963], 110–29Google Scholar, on the death of Agrippina).

45 Cf. Martin (n. 5), 181, who opines that Tacitus’ narrative includes criticisms of Corbulo, ‘without effectively trying to assess where the balance of truth lay’.

46 Sailor, D., Writing and Empire in Tacitus (Cambridge, 2008), 178–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Keitel, E., ‘The role of Parthia and Armenia in Tacitus’ Annals 11 and 12’, AJPh 99 (1978), 462–73, at 472–3Google Scholar argues that only in these books is there a close analogy between events on the periphery of the empire and its centre. Contra, Ash (n. 1) and Clark (n. 31).

48 See n. 7 above.

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