The Spur of Fame: Annals 4.37–8
This chapter gives a close reading of a famous speech in Tacitus, where the emperor Tiberius rejects a request to allow a temple to be built to him in Spain. The reasons he gives seem exemplary, in particular the priority he gives to genuine respect in the eyes of posterity rather than empty divine honours; and yet, Tacitus goes on to say, he was viciously criticized by contemporary observers. This episode is suggestively juxtaposed with others, with subtle verbal echoing. Just before, the accusation of Cremutius Cordus has highlighted the importance of memory, and the role of the historian in ensuring the permanence of one's fame, whether good or bad. Just after, an exchange between Tiberius and Sejanus emphasizes the difficulty of reading Tiberius's words and intentions. Taken together, the sequence helps the reader both to see the unfairness of the criticisms of Tiberius, and to understand the atmosphere of unease and mistrust in which they were not unnatural. It is too simple to ask whether Tacitus is for or against Tiberius in this passage, but such good-and-bad judgements nevertheless play a part in the reconstruction of contemporary responses, and therefore contribute substantially to the work's historical interpretation.
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