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  • The Non-Appearance of the Phoenix at Tacitus Annals 6.28
  • Elizabeth Keitel

Book 6 is the stepchild of the first hexad of the Annals, little studied and even less appreciated, perhaps because of the large lacuna which breaks the continuity of the narrative after book 4, perhaps because of its allegedly static and monotonous content summarized thus by Syme: “The concluding book of the hexad carries a dreary epilogue down to the extinction of the old emperor, with many prosecutions and deaths, with little extraneous or antiquarian matter for variegation.” 1 But let us consider here the placement and function of one minor episode in book 6, the alleged appearance of the Phoenix in Egypt.

Paulo Fabio L. Vitellio consulibus post longum saeculorum ambitum avis phoenix in Aegyptum venit praebuitque materiem doctissimis indigenarum et Graecorum multa super eo miraculo disserendi. de quibus congruunt et plura ambigua, sed cognitu non absurda promere libet. sacrum Soli id animal, et ore ac distinctu pinnarum a ceteris avibus diversum consentiunt qui formam eius effin{x}ere; de numero annorum varia traduntur. maxime vulgatum quingentorum spatium; sunt qui adseverent mille quadringentos sexaginta unum interici, prioresque alites Sesoside primum, post Amaside dominantibus, dein Ptolemaeo, qui ex Macedonibus tertius regnavit, in civitatem, cui Heliopolis nomen, advolavisse, multo ceterarum volucrum comitatu novam faciem mirantium. sed antiquitas quidem obscura: inter Ptolemaeum ac Tiberium minus ducenti quinquaginta anni fuerunt. unde nonnulli falsum hunc phoenicem neque Arabum e terris credidere, nihilque usurpavisse ex his, quae vetus memoria firmavit. confecto quippe annorum numero, ubi mors propinquet, suis in terris struere nidum eique vim genitalem adfundere, ex qua fetum oriri: et primam adulto curam sepeliendi patris, neque id temere, sed sublato murrae pondere temptatoque per longum iter, ubi par oneri, par meatui sit, subire patrium corpus inque Solis aram perferre atque adolere. haec incerta et [End Page 429] fabulosis aucta: ceterum aspici aliquando in Aegypto eam volucrem non ambigitur. 2

(Ann. 6.28)

Previous scholarly discussion of this episode has not answered two basic questions: why the historian has placed it in 34 C.E., when Pliny the Elder (NH 10.2) and Dio (58.27.1) date it to 36, and why Tacitus devotes a whole chapter to what may have been a non-event, since he suggests that there was no genuine appearance of the bird in Tiberius’ time. These questions lead inevitably to a discussion of the role of this episode in the structure of book 6 and its relationship to the book’s predominant themes. I propose that Tacitus has placed the Phoenix in the year 34 to highlight two important concerns in book 6: the destruction of the nobility, and the unnatural cruelty of Tiberius and his heir, Gaius.

Let us first address the question of Tacitus’ source or sources. Hahn may well be right that the source was an antiquarian work like that of Pliny the Elder, though not Pliny himself (praebuitque materiem doctissimis indigenarum et Graecorum multa super eo miraculo disserendi, Ann. 6.28.1). However, because Dio also reports the Phoenix, Hahn believed that it was already noted by the annalistic tradition when it reached Tacitus. Townend believed that Tacitus would not deliberately shift the Phoenix if he had found it clearly dated in his main annalistic source. Rather, the historian discovered this information, without any precise indication of the year, in a semihistorical work by Tiberius Balbillus, a former prefect of Egypt and probably the son of Thrasyllus, Tiberius’ astrologer. Then Tacitus simply inserted it at the first convenient place. We know from Pliny that Claudius displayed a Phoenix at Rome as part of his Secular Games, though no one believed it genuine (NH 10.2.5). So it is also possible that Tacitus, a member of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis in 88 C.E., when they were in charge of Domitian’s Secular Games (Ann. 11.11.1), might have had access, in the records of his priestly college, to a discussion of the possible link between the Egyptian Great Year and the Roman saeculum. This would have led him to conclude that the report of the Phoenix of the last years of Tiberius’ reign could not have been genuine, and it...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3168
Print ISSN
0002-9475
Pages
pp. 429-442
Launched on MUSE
1999-09-01
Open Access
No
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