Tuesday, February 10, 2009


J. C. Yardley (trans.), Tacitus. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford World's Classics. With introduction and notes by Anthony A. Barrett. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xxxv, 546. ISBN 9780192824219. $16.95 (pb).
Reviewed by John Aveline, latinforyou.com

In April 2008 Oxford University Press relaunched its Oxford World's Classics series, giving a "fresh and contemporary feel"1 to a wide range of world literature, including dozens of classical Greek and Roman works in new translations. The OUP website states that these works are aimed to have an appeal to readers and to be read for pleasure as well as study.2 So it is in this spirit that Yardley's translation of Tacitus' Annals and Barrett's introduction and notes will be reviewed.

The book itself is quite sensibly laid out. In addition to an English translation of the surviving portion of the Annals, there is a 20 page general introduction to Tacitus and the Annals as well as about 100 pages of explanatory notes, a glossary of Roman terms, a glossary of peoples and places and a general index. There are also a few very brief supplementary materials. Before the text of the Annals there is a note on the text and translation, a select bibliography, a chronology of major events and a map of the Roman Empire under the Julio-Claudians. There are also two appendices; a list of variations from the Teubner text (Heubner's 1994 edition) and a simplified Julio-Claudian family tree.

The introduction serves it purpose very well. B shows that he has a good affinity with those who have little knowledge of Roman history by providing the basic information about Roman history writing, Tacitus and the Annals. There is a section on Tacitus' use of sources, always a juicy topic for Tacitean scholars, but perhaps more of interest to the student than the casual reader. Regarding Tacitus' sources, however, I was surprised to read Barrett's ambivalence on the subject. I think it has been fairly well established that Tacitus did conduct research, if only on the strength of Pliny's letter to Tacitus, cited by Barrett (xiii), in which Pliny answers a request from Tacitus for a detailed account of the eruption of Vesuvius.

The translation of Tacitus into English is no easy task. One of Tacitus' greatest talents lies in his liberal use of irony as he casts doubt on a seemingly straightforward statement, as well as his ability to express his thoughts with an unexpected turn of phrase, highlighting a point by compelling the reader to reflect on the text. In this regard, Yardley is fairly successful. The narrative flows and the Tacitean comments and turns of phrase are nicely reflected in the translation. A good example is the final word on Plancina's demise ('she paid with her own hand a penalty that was late in coming rather than undeserved' -- p. 198).

There are occasions where the translation might have been better. Debauched (p. 33) for temeraverat and catamite (p. 45) for corpore infamem are fairly archaic terms that will leave most reaching for their dictionaries and wondering how such vocabulary contributes to a fresh and contemporary feel. On the other hand, there are instances where a very deft rendering is found as in 'block-headed pride (p. 4) for stolide ferocem.

Occasionally a too faithful reflection of Tacitus' style can create potential confusion. I appreciate Yardley's desire to reflect Tacitus' dislike of balance or repetition as when Yardley uses 'ex-consul' and 'former praetor' at one point (p. 65) and then 'ex-praetor' and 'consular' soon after (p. 75). The only problem is that this inconcinnity might create in the non-expert reader's mind a belief that these are three separate designations, when, in fact, they are three different ways of denoting the same thing.

One minor point which might have been a helpful addition to the text would have to be note the Common Era year in the margin when Tacitus introduces a year by the consuls. This is done in the Hackett edition and is quite useful to students and casual readers alike. Perhaps even a chart showing which years are covered by which books/chapters would have been useful to the non-expert.

Finally, there are a few lacunae in the surviving portion of the Annals. I counted nine places where angle brackets are used either around text or dots to show where there is a gap in the Latin text.3 However, no explanation is ever offered as to what these angle brackets mean and no reference is even made to missing text except for three of these lacunae on pages 207 and 333.

Unfortunately, the explanatory notes require more discussion. They are fulsome to the point of excess, especially given Oxford's stated goal of making the book appeal to readers for pleasure as much as for study. A certain amount of judicious pruning and re-organizing might have been beneficial. At least a quarter and, perhaps, as much as one half of the notes could have been removed without any material loss to the understanding of the narrative. Do we really need a note on Gaius Turranius (p. 399) that merely tells us that he won't re-appear in the narrative until 11.31? (the surviving narrative, that is). In other cases a note is created for little more purpose than to tell the reader when an individual was consul (inter alia Messala Valerius, p. 400, Gaius Cestius, p. 428, Quintilianus and Caninus Gallus, p. 452). Sometimes the only comment on an individual is "otherwise unknown". I say sometimes, because there are some senators who are passed by in complete silence, such as Servius Cornelius, a colleague in the consulship with Claudius in 51. This highlights a pervading inconsistency in the explanatory notes, which give the knowing reader the impression that notes were inserted at the whim and personal interest of the writer. Occasionally our ignorance is expanded to several lines. A good example of this is the note on Lentulus Gaetulicus for whom we are treated to seven lines. The sum total of additional information we are provided is that Gaetulicus was the consul in 26 and was executed in 39 by Caligula.4 It might have been simpler and ultimately more useful to have created a glossary of historical figures, rather than including them in the explanatory notes. This would have provided the reader with a quick and easy reference, avoided multiple cross-references (inter multa; Lucius Asprenas, p. 423, Vipsania and Lucius Apronius, p. 424, Sextus Pompeius, p. 427). Most importantly, would have limited the interruptions to Tacitus' narrative.

A result of the overabundance of explanatory notes is their tendency to disrupt the natural flow of the Tacitean narrative. This is merely unfortunate. Much more insidious is how the line becomes blurred between Tacitus' account and interpretation of events and the factual details supplied by Barrett. The effect is that Tacitus becomes more authoritative than he really should be and the reader, unfamiliar with this Roman historian, is led to believe that Tacitus is as factual as modern scholarship. The effect is increased by Barrett's tendency to include superfluous comments such 'As Tiberius' reign progressed, she (i.e. Livia) became increasingly aware of her elevated status' (p. 412) and 'A grandson, Hortenius Corbio, was a notorious pervert' (p. 412). The first is not a background fact, but an individual's interpretation. The second is totally random, unless we are keeping track of senators' grandchildren. Also, the term 'pervert' itself is vague and imparts no real information, just innuendo. The information provided is, in the main, quite accurate. Once in a while an inaccuracy crops as when Barrett states that emperors included the title of tribunician power on coins and inscriptions 'plus the year of the award' (p. 430). This suggests that the date of the original awarding of this title is noted. It is of course the number of years that the title has been held that are given in any titulatur. The standard translation is "with tribunician power for the nth year". Other glitches include writing in 100,000 HS where 100,000,000 HS is meant and the sporadic use of BC in the note on Sesosis (p. 455).

It is interesting to note that after half a century since Michael Grant's translation of Tacitus' Annals in 1956 there have now been two major English translations published in two years.5 A.J. Woodman's translation was published by Hackett Press in 2006 and now Oxford has produced Yardley's rendering.6 The work of Yardley and Woodman are bound to be compared and they are quite similar in their quality and style, which should not surprise since the stated goals of each are also quite similar. This collaborative effort by Yardley and Barrett is certainly useful and will become a staple alongside Woodman's. It is only unfortunate that the effort could not have been a better one.


1. http://www.oup.co.uk/worldsclassics/.

2. http://www.oup.co.uk/worldsclassics/; http://www.oup.co.uk/worldsclassics/newlook/.

3. p. 102 (3.14), p. 103 (3.16), p. 119 (3.47), p. 166 (4.53), p. 207 (6.40), p. 261 (12.54), p. 333 (14.59), p. 374 (14.71), p. 375 (15.72).

4. An added misfortune is the Yardley always uses the name Gaius, whereas Barrett always uses Caligula.

5. The Annals of Imperial Rome (translated by Michael Grant) Penguin (1956, latest revision 1989). I should add that there are two translations of the Annals readily available online; a nineteenth century translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (Perseus Digital Library) and an eighteenth century translation by Thomas Gordon (Project Gutenberg).

6. Tacitus: the Annals (translated, with introduction and notes, by A.J. Woodman) (Hackett 2006). This is a very similar book, the main differences being more appendices and explanatory notes being provided as footnotes rather than endnotes. The purpose is also similar; to be appropriate for both scholars and casual readers.

1 comment:

  1. It is true that one hears less about catamites nowadays, though the word occurs in the first sentence of an Antony Burgess novel, but people who need to look up 'debauched' are past praying for.


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