Tacitus, Histories IV.54

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Druids interpreting the burning of the Capitoline Temple as a omen announcing Rome’s fall
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104 CE to 110 CE
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After composing the Agricola, the Germania, one oratorical treatise, the Dialogue on Oratory, and having fulfilled a governorship in a consular province, either in Upper or Lower Germania (approximatively between 101 and 104 CE), Tacitus went back to Rome and started to write the Histories. This work was most likely completed around 110 CE (Sage, “Tacitus’,” p. 863; for a presentation of Tacitus’s life see Tacitus, Agricola XXI). In the Histories, Tacitus deals with the most recent period, that is from 69 to 96 CE. Most of the work has been lost, as only books one to four and the first third of the fifth book have been preserved.
This text is an excerpt from the fourth book whose structure is characterised by the fact that Tacitus deals successively with events that occurred in different regions of the Empire. This fourth book opens with the atmosphere at Rome after the death of Vitellius on the 22nd December 69 CE when his former partisans were hunted by those of Domitian (IV.1-11). Then, going back to events that started during the middle of the year 69 CE in Germania, Tacitus narrates the revolt of the Batavi and the uprising of one German prince who had also been an auxiliary officer in the Roman army, Caius Julius Civilis (IV.12-37). Next, Tacitus turns back to Rome and deals with the political events that occurred before Vespasian’s return to the Urbs (IV.38-47), and then deals with some troubles that occurred in Africa (IV.48-50). Tacitus relates Vespasian’s last moments in Alexandria, when he decided to go back to Italy and to entrust an important part of his troops to Titus to put an end to the Jewish war (IV.51-52). Tacitus finally deals with the restoration of the Capitoline Temple and describes with much detail the ceremony during which the foundation stone of the temple was laid, on the 21st of June 70 CE (IV.53). The text presented here appears just after the description of the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the Capitoline Temple, but the events narrated, namely the evolution of the revolt of the Batavi who had succeeded to gain the support of other tribes in Germania and in Gallia Belgica, occurred before, probably in January 70 CE. At the beginning of this long passage narrating the evolution of the revolt of the Batavi (IV.54-79), Tacitus explains that the news of Vitellius’s assassination had incited Civilis to harden his attacks against Roman armies, especially as he benefitted from the support of the soldiers of the legions which stood by Vitellius but also from the fact that the Gauls also showed some desire to revolt. For our purposes, the most interesting part of the text is certainly when Tacitus says that the destruction of the Capitoline Temple was the event that, more than the political instability resulting from Vitellius’s assassination, incited the Germans and the Gauls to intensify their fight against Rome. To make his narrative more vivid, Tacitus gives voice to these dissenting provincials who thus argue that the burning of the Capitoline Temple represents an obvious omen of the imminent fall of Rome. It is this question of the interpretation of omens – this time put by Tacitus in the mouths of the mutinous provincials – that will fall under more precise study here. It will thus be interesting to compare this text with the way in which Tacitus deals with the reception by the Jews and by the Romans of the omens that announced the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, as stated in Tacitus, Histories V.13.1-2.

The text presented here corresponds to an indirect and invented speech that Tacitus attributes to Druids who were allies of Civilis and thus enemies of the Roman people. The fact that Pliny the Elder and Suetonius narrates that Tiberius and Claudius ordered the abolition of druidism (Pliny the Elder, Natural History XXX.13; Suetonius, Claudius XV.5), has led some scholars to suggest that Druids had mostly disappeared from Gaul around 69 CE. For them, Pliny the Elder was just using the Druids as some kind of rhetorical figures, just as Tacitus does here. However, it has been rightly suggested that the political instability during the year 69 CE may have provided a climate propitious to a renewed vitality of druidism (see the bibliography in Heubner and Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus, p. 129-130; in that sense see also Zecchini, “La profezia,” p. 121-122). One particularly interesting point is that Tacitus systematically associates the Druids with the idea of dangerous religious superstition. This is the case, for instance, when he deals with the attacks led by Suetonius Paulinus on the island of Mona in 61 CE and assimilates the Druids, who were making imprecations before one assault of the Romans, as “fanatics” (fanaticum, Tacitus, Annals XIV.30). This is also the case in the text presented here when Tacitus writes that the Druids were animated by “a vain superstition” (superstitione vana, 54.2). Tacitus alludes to another Gallic prophet – the term druidae is however not used – in Histories II.61 when he narrates the story of a man called Mariccus who was part of the Gallic tribes of the Boii and who, in 69 CE, wanted to free the Gauls from Roman domination as he presented himself as being inspired by the gods to do so. The text presented here corresponds thus to the second passage in Tacitus’s work dealing with Druids or prophets in Gaul rebelling against Rome. As rightly noted by Ronald Syme, by inserting in the last third of the fourth book of his Histories this passage dealing with the fanaticism of the Gallic Druids, Tacitus may have intended to create a parallel with another group characterised by his superstitious beliefs and his hostility towards Rome, a group that he mentioned at the beginning of the fifth book, namely the Jews. The fact that Tacitus may have wanted to create such an echo in the Histories by mentioning in two different places the fanaticism of the Gauls and of the Jews can be confirmed by the fact that he may have done the same in the Annals by creating a possible parallel between the case of the Druids of Britain and that of the Christians in Rome (see Tacitus, Annals XIV.30 and XV.44; Syme, Tacitus I, p. 458, n. 4).

Before analysing the interpretation made by the Druids that the destruction of the Capitoline Temple would have announced Rome’s fall, it is important to recall that, in the previous passage of the Histories in which Tacitus laments about the burning of the Capitoline Temple in December 69 CE, he himself stresses the exceptionally disastrous nature of this destruction: “It was the saddest and most shameful crime that the Republic of the Roman people had ever suffered since Rome’s foundation. She had no foreign foe; the gods were ready to be propitious as far as our mores allowed it; and yet the home of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, that our ancestors had founded, after due auspices, as a pledge of empire (pignus imperii), [this temple] that neither Porsenna, when the city gave itself up to him, nor the Gauls when they captured it, could profane, was destroyed by the mad fury of emperors (furore principum excindi)” (Tacitus, Histories III.72.1). In this passage, Tacitus associates two ideas that also appear in the indirect speech that he attributes to the Druids. The first one is that the Capitoline Temple symbolises the permanence of the Roman Empire. In Histories III.72.1 the Capitoline Temple is presented as “a pledge of empire” (pignus imperii), and in our text Tacitus narrates that the Druids associate the burning of the Capitoline Temple with the end of the Empire (ut finem imperio adesse). The link made between the conservation of the Capitoline Temple and the preservation of the Empire is by then a leitmotif which had been constantly reasserted during the Augustan period (see for instance Virgil, Aeneid IX, 448-449; Horace, Odes I.37.6-8 and Livy, Roman History I.55.4-6; references quoted in Le Bonniec and Hellegouarc’h, Tacite, p. 152, n. 5). The second idea in common between these two passages of the Histories is Tacitus’s insistence on the fact that the Gauls of Brennus in 390 BCE did not themselves cause real damages to the Capitoline Temple (on the fact that the temple was spared during the taking of the city, see Horace, Odes II.5.12; Livy, History of Rome V.51.9; references in Heubner and Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus, p. 129). By highlighting this point, Tacitus attempts to show that the destruction of December 69 CE was exceptional as it was not caused by external enemies, but by Roman inner strivings and by the folly of concurrent Roman emperors. Thus, it is interesting to see that in the indirect speech that Tacitus attributes to the Druids, he puts in their mouths arguments that he himself previously used when he lamented about the disastrous consequences of the political instability of the year 69 CE. However, this does not mean that Tacitus agreed with the interpretation made by the Druids of the burning of the Capitoline Temple. On the contrary, Tacitus organised his narrative to prove that these provincials made a mistake when they saw in this disastrous event the sign of the future end of the Roman Empire. In that perspective, the fact that Tacitus put the narrative of the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the Capitoline Temple — an event that occurred in June 70 CE — before his description of the continuation of the Batavian revolt — description that starts on January 70 CE — can be easily explained by his will to neutralise preventively the anti-Roman prediction that he later put in the mouths of the Germans and the Gauls.

The main interesting aspect of the text presented here is of course the nature of the arguments that Tacitus attributes to the Druids to convince their German and Gallic audience that the burning of the Capitoline Temple is a portent of the imminent fall of Rome. The first argument is based on the antiquity of the sanctuary: the fact that the Capitoline Temple has never been destroyed and that it embodied the permanence of the Empire is totally challenged by this burning which would reduce Rome’s Empire to a damaged and weak power. The second argument used by the Druids is that this burning was the consequence of divine wrath (signum caelestis irae). They thus imply that Roman gods had put an end to their protection over the Roman people, the city of Rome and the whole Empire; the end of their protection materialising itself by the burning of one of the most emblematic temples of the Roman Empire. The third argument is certainly the most interesting and is related to the second. The Druids connect the wrath of the Roman gods, and specifically the fact that the latter would have ceased protecting the Romans, with the fact that the gods would have, at the same time, granted universal domination to another people (an idea which thus implies that it would have been these same gods that would have granted to Rome its universal Empire; the idea of universal domination is implied in the expression possessionem rerum humanarum). The druids present thus the burning of the Capitoline Temple as the sign of a new step in the translatio imperii: the Roman Empire will not only fall due to the abandonment of the gods, but the latter will also grant Rome’s former universal Empire to some Transalpine peoples (Transalpini gentes). Giuseppe Zecchini connects the fact that Gallic Druids may have actually used the argument that Rome’s empire would end with the fact that Trogus Pompeius, a man from the region of the Vocontii, based the narrative of his major work precisely on the idea of the succession of empires (see Zecchini, “La profezia,” p. 123-126). However, as we have previously said, the fact that Tacitus took the trouble to introduce the narrative of the early stages of the restoration of the Capitoline Temple before giving voice to the Druids, implies that the interpretation made by the Druids was erroneous.

The last – and most important – point which must be highlighted is related to the multiple echoes that exist between this passage narrating how the Druids erroneously interpreted omens through a perspective hostile to Rome, and the passage in which Tacitus deals with the Jews’s misinterpretation of one oracle, meaning that they did not take for granted signs that the Romans obviously considered as gloomy omens announcing the future destruction of the Temple and fall of Jerusalem (about this text see Tacitus, Histories V.13.1-2). We can note three interesting parallels between the two texts. First, in both texts the Druids – as the Jews – are presented as superstitious peoples. Second, in both, it is the destruction of the major temple of Jewish/Roman religion which is at stake. In the case of the prophesy of the Druids, the enemies of Rome interpret the burning of the Capitoline Temple as the announcement of Rome’s fall whereas in the passage dealing with the Jews, the various omens listed by Tacitus are obviously presented as omens of the future destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and thus of the defeat of the Jews. It is interesting to note that Josephus himself argues that the God of Israel himself uses the Romans to punish the sinful Jews and to do so he made possible the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and to “exterminate a city so laden with pollutions” (Josephus, Jewish War VI.110). Thus, Josephus presents the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem as caused by the fact that the Jews were impious. Tacitus also states the argument of their impiety. For him, it was the fact that, on account of their superstition, the Jews refused to fulfil the usual propitiatory rites to ward off the omens that was the major cause of their defeat. In the prophecy of the Druids, we find this similar idea that the Capitoline Temple is destroyed because the Roman gods wanted to punish the Romans. Nevertheless, it is striking to see that Tacitus does not stress that point and, at the end, the burning of the Capitoline Temple is not followed by such dramatic events as the omens announcing the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple before the taking of the city. The different outcomes of the two passages related to omens concerning the major temples of the Jews and of the Romans and their fate thus show how the omens were ambivalent and how they were handled by Tacitus to discredit Rome’s enemies (see Vigourt, Les présages impériaux, p. 410). The third last interesting parallel between the two passages is that in both of them the question of the translatio imperii is at stake. In the prophecy of the Druids, they imagine that the destruction of the Capitoline Temple, caused by the wreath of the gods, announces Rome’s fall and thus the replacement of Rome’s empire by some kind of Transalpine empire. In the passage narrating the various omens that occurred before the siege of Jerusalem, Tacitus – as Josephus – justifies the fact that the Jews did not take them for granted by the fact that the latter believed false prophets who interpreted erroneously one oracle stating: “when the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judea should possess the world” (Tacitus, Histories V.13.2). The Jews mistakenly interpreted this oracle as the prophecy that they would defeat Rome and conquer the world whereas, according to Tacitus and Josephus, it prophesised Vespasian’s victory in Judea and his advent. With the prophecy of the Druids, the logic is the same: the passage just before this text, which narrates how the Capitoline Temple began to be reconstructed, and the rest of the narrative of the defeat of Civilis (probably found in the lost parts of book V of the Histories) prove that the prediction of the Druids was erroneous. As for the Jews, the superstitious beliefs of the Gauls meant that they were not able to interpret the will of the gods.

Bibliographical references: 

Tacite, Histoires, Livres IV et V

Le Bonniec, Henri , Hellegouarc’h, JosephbookTacite, Histoires, Livres IV et V edition and translation by Henri Le Bonniec; notes by Joseph Hellegouarc’hParisLes Belles Lettres1992

Tacitus, I-II

Syme, RonaldbookTacitus, I-IIOxfordClarendon Press1958
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Tacitus, Histories IV.54
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Wed, 09/05/2018 - 13:31
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