So here’s a quick question just in case there’s anyone out there who has thought about this: in Horace’s Cleopatra Ode (1.37) he describes Cleopatra as traveling with her “contaminato grege” (the full phrase is “contaminato cum grege turpium/morbo virorum”, “along with her defiled-by-disease herd of foul men” or perhaps, as Bennett glosses it “along with her defiled herd of foul-with-disease men”).  Bennett says that this refers to eunuchs, and virorum, in the context, is sarcastic.  Did Cleopatra really travel with eunuchs?  Or, more to the point, would Horace have thought she did?

Tacitus, when describing some of the antics of Nero (Annals 15.37), says that he married himself to “one of that defiled herd” (uni ex illo contaminatorum grege).  Nero is clearly playing the wife in the coupling, and Tacitus implies that the “marriage” was consummated publicly (cuncta denique spectata quae etiam in femina nox operit).

So what does this mean, anyway?  Is the phrase in Tacitus a reference to the similar phrase in Horace?  If so, could it possibly really refer to eunuchs?  This seems to me really unlikely, and I don’t know why Bennett leapt to that conclusion in the context of Horace.  But if not, what herd is Tacitus talking about?  He throws the phrase in there just as if everyone knew what he was talking about.  Help me out with this!

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