Julius Vindex and the Histories of Tacitus: Memory, history, and imperial ideology

Discussions of the figure of Julius Vindex, the leader of the rebellion in Gaul, which led to the death of the emperor Nero and the rise of Lucius Sulpicius Galba to the principate, have been almost completely absent from Tacitean historiography. The primary reason for this is Vindex’s physical absence from the Tacitean corpus — he never appears as a character in Tacitus’s Histories or Annals, he is mentioned by other figures and the narrator only once in the Annals[1] and only 12 times in the extant books of the Histories.[2] Tacitus’s seeming lack of interest in Vindex is explained partly by the vagaries of time: the very portions of the Annals, which would have narrated the events of Vindex’s rebellion, have not survived to the present day. The surviving portions were scoured for insights into Tacitus’s position regarding Vindex’s intentions but have, never been comprehensively studied through a historiographical lens, at least to my knowledge. While these few mentions cannot give us a full perspective about Tacitus’s opinion and evaluation of Vindex by themselves, we can use the mentions of Vindex to gain insight into Tacitus’s general approach towards memory, history, and imperial ideology. Tacitus deliberately chooses to refrain from giving Vindex a physical presence in the Histories to demonstrate mechanisms by which different groups and, most importantly, the institution of the principate can instrumentalize, reimagine, and transform liminal figures in a bid to manipulate discourses of “Self” and “Other”, Roman and Barbarian to achieve their respective ideological goals. The struggle between these different interpretations of belonging and exclusion ultimately forms a debate around what constitutes the Empire, where power in the Roman Empire actually resides, and who gets to be a part of the narrative of imperial history. This paper was completed under the supervision of Professor Andrew Feldherr as a junior paper for the Classics department of Princeton University during the Spring of 2021.

[1] Tacitus, Annals, XV.74

[2] Tacitus, Histories, I.6, I.8, I.16, I.51, I.53, I.65, I.70, I.89, II.94, IV.17, IV.57, and IV.69.