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“A plebeian tribune, Octavius Sagitta, was besotted with Pontia, a married woman, bribing her into an adulterous affair, then into leaving her husband. He promised to marry her, to which she said Yes. But, after divorcing, she started to prevaricate, alleging her father’s opposition to the match, before snaring a richer suitor and reneging on her promise.
“Octavius raged between recriminations and threats: his money was gone, his reputation ruined, his life – all he had left, he said – was in her hands. Despite continual rejections, he begged for one last night with her, which he swore would be a permanent memory and consolation.
“Pontia gave way, set a date, and arranged for a trusted maid to keep watch. Octavius arrived, accompanied just by one freedman, with a concealed dagger. As usual when love and anger combine, there were outbursts and tears, reproaches and affection, then love-making. After which, when Pontia was relaxed, Octavius, like a madman, stabbed her to death. When the maid tried to intervene, he slashed her face and fled the bedroom.
“The murder was discovered the next day. There was no doubt about Octavius having spent the night with her. However, the freedman maintained he was the guilty one, avenging the wrong done to his patron. A number of people were convinced by this loyal gesture, until the maid, her wound now healed, with her evidence revealed the truth.
Octavius was arraigned by Pontia’s father before the consuls and, after resigning his tribunate, was condemned by a senatorial hearing under the prescribed laws governing murder.”
So Tacitus ( Annals, bk13 ch44), apropos the year AD 58. Elsewhere ( Histories, bk4 ch 44), apart from seeing the lady’s full name – Pontia Postuma – we learn that Octavius, having escaped from the island to which he had been exiled, tried and failed to profit from a general amnesty proposed in AD 70 by Domitian, thanks to the eloquent opposition of his father Vespasian’s right-hand man, Mucianus (see FT222:15 for his book of forteana).
In neither account does Tacitus add to our knowledge of Octavius Sagitta – rather pointedly, his cognomen means ‘arrow’ – who remains an unknown quantity to us and, unless he did not care or thought his readers would not, perhaps to Tacitus also. ‘Perhaps’, because an Octavius Sagitta is commemorated in an inscription (CIL 9. 3311) from the Pælignian district of Italy. Not our man, but one tribe in this area was the Marsi, amongst whom was a branch of the Octavius family related to Nerva, the first of Gibbon’s ‘Five Good Emperors’, one eulogised by Tacitus.
Maybe, then Tacitus was trying to airbrush Octavius Sagitta out of history. Why mention him at all, then? Because the episode was headline news at the time. The poet Lucan was inspired to compose a pair of rhetorical exercises setting our prosecution and defence speeches. When Tacitus was writing, these were available to the Roman reading public.
Lucan, incidentally, after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Nero, having tried to save himself by denouncing his innocent mother, did the ‘Roman thing’ of opening his veins in a hot bath, his twist being to expire reciting his own verses – The Song Never Dies, Just The Singer.
An even more exotic suicide was that of – wait for it – the (black) widow Pontia who (Scholiast on Juvenal 6. 638), condemned for multiple filicide, after a hearty last supper danced herself to death, saltation being her favourite hobby – would that John Travolta had followed this example of Pontia’s pilates.
For a literary analysis of Tacitus’s crime reporting, cf. my article in Acta Classica 42, 1999, 15-22; also Rebecca Langlands,
Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome, 2006, pp336-8, who sees it as a construct based on ancient accounts of what we – thanks to Shakespeare – call ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. In similar vein, Ronald Syme, greatest of modern Taciteans, opining ( Tacitus, 1958, p543) that “sex was not among the historian’s main preoccupations,” declared the OctaviusPontia affair was stuck in as a curtain-
When Pontia was relaxed, Octavius, like a madman, stabbed her to death
raiser to his introduction of a more potent
femme fatale, Poppæa Sabina, who glided via her beauty and seductive charms from wife of future emperor Otho to wife of present one Nero.
Most people are drawn to sex and violence, even if guiltily, and those who deem Roman men too dour and stiff upper-lip might even rejoice at this evidence. This was a story worth telling for its own sake, not just as exordium to Poppæa, and that is why Tacitus tells it.
Most telling against Syme and Langlands, it is not a ‘one-off’. Exotic and passionate men and women stalk the Annals and Histories (full catalogue in my ‘Women in Tacitus,’ Prudentia 4, 1972, 83-101. A prætor, Plautius Silvanus, “for unknown reasons”, flung his wife out of their bedroom window, claiming he’d done it while sleep-walking, hence had no memory of it – sounds very
Midsomer Murders. Emperor Tiberius inspected the room, found signs of resistance and pushing, ordered Silvanus to trial – he anticipated the verdict by a veins-in-bath departure. An attempt to save his reputation by claiming exwife Numantina had driven him mad by sorcery was foiled by her acquittal.
The wife of a general, Calvisius Sabinus, unnamed by Tacitus (it was Cornelia) “had an unfortunate passion for inspecting the camp-site. One night she broke in, disguised as a soldier, brazenly forced herself upon the sentries and others, finally having the nerve to commit adultery in – of all places – the officers’ mess.”
Sounds like something from a Simon Raven novel, also recalling wartime tales of teenage girls hanging around American army camps. Cornelia sounds like a squaddie-groupie (Juvenal’s Sixth Satire lambastes aristocratic ladies with a weakness for gladiators). But her target was a big fish, TitusVinius, destined for greatness under Galba, death under Otho. Cornelia herself, along with hubby, was forced to suicide on treason charges.
During skirmishes with some German tribes (AD 70), a Roman flagship was captured, its crew in both senses all at sea because their commander had nipped on-shore for a night of rumpy-pumpy with a willing local lass called Claudia Sacrata. He sounds like the captain of an Italian cruise ship, but was in fact Petilius Cerealis, one ofVespasian’s crack-officers, appointed a year later to govern Britain where he’d previously been smashed in battle by Boudicca (aka Boadicea – allegedly buried between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross station, putting her under the wheels of the Hogwarts Express).
Tacitus’s Histories aggravatingly break off at this point, hence also this tale of military dereliction. The description by
his modern biographer Philip Matyszak ( Imperial General: The Remarkable Career
of Petilius Cerealis, 2012) as a cross between Blackadder and Flashman is attractive but (alas) overblown.
We’d like to know more about the lady Vistilia who (AD 19) officially registered herself as a prostitute – short of cash? Short of sex? This led to her swift exiling to Seriphos, a dull place, famous only for the failure of its frogs to croak (Aelian,
On Animals, bk3 ch37), and a raft of emergency laws designed to curb female lust.
HowVistilia would have fared in the Rome of AD 69, when prostitutes plied their trade amid the carnage of civil war street fighting while crowds cheered as though at the arena is a matter for conjecture, more so than would be an eyewitness report from ‘Lord Porn’ Longford.
Back to Octavius Sagitta – time to return to the straight and arrow. Tacitus, writing a generation later, leaves some loose ends. How many maids of Pontia were there? In Michael Grant’s Penguin translation, we first have one privy to the assignation, then “a maid” rushes in after the stabbing, thus implying a second one. As often, such ambiguity is the result of Latin lacking definite and indefinite articles.
What about the ex-slave? Surely not present in the boudoir as a voyeur? So, when might he have accomplished the deed? Did Octavius storm out after a post-coetal quarrel, thus provoking his companion to rush in and stab the lady? But then he would presumably have to be the one who wounded the maid. Perhaps it all happened in the dark and she only assumed Octavius to be her attacker?
At all events, some Romans believed his story, and the judges must have had the seeds of doubt planted in their minds – here is where a Falco might come in...
“This woman had been killed inexplicably, in commonplace terms, and that later, means were taken, but awkwardly, or almost blindly, and only by way of increasing the mystery, to make the murder seem understandable in terms of common human experience” – Fort, Books, p696
216: MURDER MOST FOUL