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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

ABOVE: Oc­tavius Sag­gita mur­ders Pon­tia. OP­PO­SITE: Pop­pæa Sabina.


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