DECUS POSTERITAS REPENDIT: Reevaluating Cremutius Cordus in Tacitus' Annals
Woo, Michael Tae
University of Kansas
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In one of the best known passages in the Annals, Tacitus gives an account of the trial and death of Aulus Cremutius Cordus (A. 4.34-35), a Roman historian documenting the transitional period from the Roman Republic to the Empire. In this account Cordus is given a speech with which he defends a historian’s right to praise the enemies of the emperor. The majority of modern scholars have interpreted Tacitus’ account as unqualified praise for Cordus, and many have suggested that readers are to understand Cordus as a surrogate for Tacitus’ own views on the rights and duties of historians. In this project I attempt to challenge that consensus. I argue that Cordus and Tacitus disagree in their historiographical, political, and even moral principles, and that Tacitus’ account of Cordus’ trial and death contains criticism of the historian, even while acknowledging his courage. This reading complicates Tacitus’ relationship to Cordus and to several other characters in the Annals who, though they die deaths of great renown, effect little change. To argue for ideological differences between Cordus and Tacitus I take a circuitous first step by examining mentions of Cordus and his historical works in other ancient writers. Modern praise for Cordus has conditioned readers of the Annals to expect that he was universally respected by the ancient authors, but this project shows that opinions about him were divided. This division is epitomized by the differences between the accounts of Suetonius and Seneca the Younger. I argue that Tacitus is closer to Suetonius than Seneca in his feelings towards Cordus; Tacitus and Suetonius both distrust historians with strong partisan (i.e., Republican) beliefs, and Cordus, I show, is yoked by both to such historians. Seneca praises Cordus mainly for his willingness to die for his beliefs, but this very willingness—eagerness even—to die for personal vindication and glory is a quality that Tacitus believes a flaw in several characters in his histories including, I argue, Seneca himself in the account of his suicide (A. 15.62-64). Tacitus’ criticism for this quality in Seneca, which Tacitus diagnoses as the readiness to die an “ostentatious death” (ambitiosa mors, Agr. 42.4-5), informs, in my final section, my examination of Tacitus’ account of the trial and death of Cordus. Importantly, Tacitus’ depiction of Cordus follows directly after a digression in which Tacitus discusses his own historiographical and political views, and I point out that elements of this digression and of the account of Cordus can be compared to show significant differences between the two historians.
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