Cornelius Tacitus, Annales XV.51, 57: Epicharis

female statue
Woman wrapped in Greek himation
Roman copy, 1-2 century CE

Epicharis was a participant in the Pisonian conspiracy to assasinate the emperor Nero in 65 CE. Unlike Sempronia, an aristocrat of the distinguished gens Sempronia whom the historian Sallust described as one of the dissolute women surrounding Catiline (Catiline 25; WRW 122-3), she was a freedwoman and by virtue of her class vulnerable to torture for her involvement in the plot. Even if Tacitus had not identified her as a libertina (see below, XV.57.2), her Greek cognomen would have marked her as a former slave. As is the case with those not freeborn (ingenui), there is little that can be learned about her biological family, as slave families were often separated, or her country of origin, as it became fashionable for Romans to give their slaves Greek names. And since only her cognomen has been preserved, there is no way of connecting her to a citizen family. The two sources that record her existence testify to her as an exemplum -- of loyalty, integrity, and heroism unexpected from one of her gender and class. The Greek historian Dio Cassius attests that Epicharis had full knowledge of the conspiracy, which made her resistance to the torture conducted by the notorious Tigellinus, Nero's prefect of the Praetorian Guard, critical (Roman History 62.27.3). Roman law permitted the torture of slaves and freedpersons, especially in cases of treason or when the emperor’s life was considered under threat, though later jurists note that evidence extracted in this way was unreliable (see Digesta 48.18.1). Tigellinus was often charged with obtaining false confessions, as when he unsuccessfully tortured the maids of Nero's first wife Claudia Octavia to say that she had committed adultery (Annales 14.60.1-4). Tacitus's introduction of Epicharis is not promising, as he seems to imply that she was a prostitute or at least a woman of low character, a stereotype of freedwomen that reflected the reality of slavewomen unaided by their former owners after manumission (see Hispala Faecenia, scortum nobile libertina). Further, she either knows the seaman Proculus or is comfortable with approaching officers of the fleet in private, for this initiative appears to be entirely her own, born of her frustration with the inability of the conspirators to take action. On the other hand, Tacitus, who rarely gives details of physical torture, records Epicharis's ordeal and choice to die rather than incriminate anyone, a behavior more noble than that of her aristocratic co-conspiritors who without torture gave up the names of family and friends to save themselves (Annales 15.52-56). For further reading on Epicharis, see: H. Benario, "Three Tacitean Women" in Dickison and Hallett in Bibliography; V.E. Pagán (2000) “Distant voices of Freedom in the Annales of Tacitus,” Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History 10. Collection Latomus 254: 358-369; W. Turpin (2008) “Tacitus, Stoic exempla, and the praecipuum munus annalium,” CA 27.2: 359-404.

Reading Questions:


1. How do gender and class play into Tacitus’ narrative of the Pisonian conspiracy (consider Milichus and his wife at Annales 15.54)? Why are these factors important in Tacitus’s representation of Epicharis?
2. Consider Epicharis in light of Tacitus's other narratives of violence against women under Nero (e.g., the torture of Octavia’s maids Annales 14.60.3; the murder of Agrippina Annales 14.3-9; the execution of Octavia Annales 14.64.2; the death of Sabina Poppaea Annales 16.6). How does the evidence of gendered violence influence your understanding of Rome during this emperor’s reign?
3. Consider Epicharis in comparison to other evidence for violence against women (see inscriptions revealing abuse of wives in the World of Marriage). How is violence through torture similar to or different from violence towards a spouse or other family member?

Tacitus begins his account of 65 CE in Book XV with the Pisonian conspiracy (Annales 15.48 ff). After identifying Piso and his co-conspirators, as well as the motivations driving their desire to replace Nero with Piso, Tacitus introduces Epicharis, to whom he attributes the beginning of the action.

XV.51 (1)Interim cunctantibus prolatantibusque spem ac metum Epicharis quaedam, incertum quonam modo sciscitata (neque illi ante ulla rerum honestarum cura fuerat), accendere et arguere coniuratos; ac postremum lentitudinis eorum pertaesa link et in Campania agens primores classiariorum Misenensium labefacere et conscientia inligare conisa est tali initio.

Acquainted somehow with Volusius Proculus, a naval commander at Misenum disgruntled at not having been sufficiently rewarded for his part in the killing of Nero's mother, Agrippina minor, Epicharis undertakes to persuade him to enlist the fleet in the conspiracy, since it is well known that Nero is fond of sailing the waters around Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) and Misenum (Annales 15.51.2-3).

XV.51 (3)ergo Epicharis plura; et omnia scelera principis orditur, neque sancti quid[quam] manere.
sed provisum, quonam modo poenas eversae rei publicae daret: accingeretur modo navare operam et militum acerrimos ducere in partes, ac digna pretia exspectaret. nomina tamen coniuratorum reticuit.

XV.51 (4)linkunde Proculi indicium inritum fuit, quamvis ea, quae audierat, ad Neronem detulisset.
accita quippe Epicharis et cum indice composita nullis testibus innisum facile confutavit.
sed ipsa in custodia retenta est, suspectante Nerone haud falsa esse etiam quae vera non probabantur.

In the intervening chapters (15.52-56) Tacitus describes the arrangements finally set by the conspirators for Nero's assassination, at the games honoring the goddess Ceres in the Circus, and the speedy unravelling of the plot on the intended day, its betrayal initiated by a freedman of one of the conspirators, Milichus, with the names of the conspirators given up by each of those interrogated, eventually including the poet Lucan, who named his mother Acilia. Tacitus turns the narrative back to Epicharis.

XV.57 (1)Atque interim Nero recordatus Volusii Proculi indicio Epicharin attineri ratusque muliebre corpus impar dolori tormentis dilacerari iubet.
at illam non verbera, non ignes, non ira eo acrius torquentium ne a femina spernerentur, pervicere, quin obiecta denegaret. sic primus quaestionis dies contemptus.

XV.57 (2)postero cum ad eosdem cruciatus retraheretur gestamine sellae (nam linkdissolutis membris insistere nequibat), vinclo fasciae, quam pectori detraxerat, in modum laquei ad arcum sellae restricto indidit cervicem et corporis pondere conisa tenuem iam spiritum expressit, clariore exemplo libertina mulier in tanta necessitate alienos ac prope ignotos protegendo, cum ingenui et viri et equites Romani senatoresque intacti tormentis carissima suorum quisque pignorum proderent.

Click on the underlined words for translation aids and commentary, which will appear in a small window. Click on the icon linkto the right of the line for related images and information.