Gaius Fannius was a Roman lawyer and an aspiring historian who lived in the 1st century. Although his primary profession was in the Roman court system, Fannius did indeed eventually begin to seriously work on his latter-life ambition of publishing a history text. He was drawn to the idea of writing about the reign of Emperor Nero (r. 54-68), especially narrating about the lives of the victims of the emperor’s persecutions and tyranny. He slowly began producing volumes or books—the ancient equivalent of modern chapters—and these he planned to later publish together as a comprehensive text about the people who were persecuted by Nero. He did not wait for the whole text to be completed, however, before he began releasing copies of his volumes to the public. You could say it was a form of peer review while he continued writing further sections of the history.
Gaius Fannius appears to have been relatively slow in producing his volumes. A vague period of a ‘long time’ elapsed between when he released his first volume and when he began writing his fourth volume. As the years went on, Fannius must have also become more frantic in trying to finish the last volumes, for he was allegedly haunted by foreboding dreams and premonitions. As told by his friends and acquaintances, Fannius thought that he would not be able to complete the fourth volume of his history before he died. This fear, so the story goes, originated from a dream that he had in which a figure that looked like Nero perused his text, but only read the first three volumes. He interpreted this as an omen that the fourth volume would never be completed. Disturbed by this dream, Fannius allegedly spoke of the incident to his fellow lawyer and literary aspirant, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), and Pliny described the dream in a letter that was published and preserved. He stated:
“Fannius had in fact had a premonition long ago…He dreamed that he was lying on his couch at dead of night, dressed and ready for work, and with his desk in front of him, just as usual; then he fancied that Nero appeared, sat down on the couch, took up the first volume Fannius had published about his crimes, and read it through to the end; then he did the same to the second and third volumes, after which he departed. Fannius was horrified, and inferred that his writing would end at the point where Nero stopped reading” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.5).
Unfortunately for Gaius Fannius, this dream proved true and he did die before the fourth volume of his history was finished. No clear information was recorded about the manner of his death. He seemed to have died of natural causes, but the death may have happened suddenly and unexpectedly, as evidenced by Fannius having a sloppy, un-updated last will and testament (which Pliny the Younger, an inheritance law expert, bemoaned in his letter about the man’s death). Concern over the faulty will, however, was nothing compared to the lamentations that Gaius Fannius’ friends and acquaintances expressed over their friend not being able to complete his history about the victims of Nero’s reign.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Tibullus Lamenting Outside The Door Of His Beloved, Painted By Nicolai Abildgaard (c. 1743 – 1809), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.