Sunday, October 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
A. J. Woodman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 366. ISBN 9780521697484. $32.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Arthur J. Pomeroy, Victoria University of Wellington

Table of Contents

This survey of the writings of the greatest of Roman historians, aimed not only at undergraduates and graduates but also their teachers, very much reflects the services of its editor to classical studies. In line with Tony Woodman's own career path, there are a roughly equal number of contributions from England and the United States, almost all by distinguished figures in their fields (including one or two perhaps better known for Greek interests). The emphasis is firmly on the literary and textual, rather than historical or theoretical treatments. So consideration of the S. C. de Pisone is restricted to a couple of pages in Miriam Griffin's chapter on Tacitus as historian and nothing indicates that not all historians agree with Woodman's view that ancient historical writing was radically different from modern ideas of the subject.1 No postmodern approaches that might scare the horses either: the linguistic trickster of Ellen O'Gorman, the world of make-believe of Holly Haynes, and Dylan Sailor's senator whose greatest historical creation is himself are very much in the background.2 As Woodman indicates in his introduction, the collection is especially aimed at lovers of literature, those who may be encouraged by their interest in Tacitus to learn Latin and appreciate his genius in the original.

Tacitus is first set in context by Alain Gowing's survey of prior Roman historiography, the authors classified according to those the historian merely consulted and those he read for pleasure, while next Woodman himself notes Tacitean vocabulary and evidence that may have been derived from contemporaries and autopsy. Particularly interesting is the suggestion that Tacitus obtained information for charges of maiestas associated with imperial statues in Annals I from Pliny the Younger who appears to have inherited statues from the estate of the family of one of the accused and may have researched their history when seeking permission to transfer ownership to the local council.

There follows a series of brief surveys of the surviving texts, with three chapters devoted to the Tiberian, Claudian, and Neronian sections of the Annals, reflecting the editor's view that this is Tacitus' 'greatest and most influential work' (p. xv). Here the research interests of the contributors come to the fore: Anthony Birley is particularly interested in the archaeological and geographical evidence for the dating and siting of Agricola's campaigns in Britain, while Richard Thomas analyses the generic forms of the Greco-Roman ethnographic tradition, such as catalogues, thaumata, and the interplay of geography and cultural development that can also be seen in Roman poetry. He rightly stresses the role of Albinovanus Pedo, who not only took part in Germanicus' campaigns but also wrote a poetic account of them. Sander Goldberg is appropriately cautious in handling the Dialogus and its arguments over whether oratory at Rome had actually declined since Cicero or only appeared so in the eyes of nostalgic dreamers for a thankfully lost Republic. All three studies of the 'minor works' of the historian agree on one point: Tacitus likes to mix his genres (poetry, philosophy, geography, biography, and rhetoric), which makes any monochromatic reading of these pieces implausible.

The Histories, as Rhiannon Ash stresses, offer a remarkably 'top-heavy' account of the period between the overthrow of Galba and the death of Domitian, since the extant text is mainly devoted to civil war narrative, be it the struggle for imperial power or the confusion of Civilis' Batavian revolt. The contrast with the Annals, where civil conflict is internalized and generally at a low level, may, however, be a perception that the full text of Tacitus' work would have corrected.

As Christina Kraus immediately points out, one of the most important questions for the understanding of the Annals is why the historian began, not from any point in the life of Octavian/Augustus, but with the succession of Tiberius. Kraus underlines the importance of comparatio in the first hexad, whether it be Tacitus himself with Livy and Sallust or Tiberius with his predecessor and adopted son, Germanicus. By contrast, Simon Mallochstresses the absence of Claudius as the most dominant feature of what is left of the second hexad. With the emperor off-stage, more time may be spent on more typical annalistic fare such as warfare in Britain. Still Claudius figures prominently and persuasively in the debate on extending entrance to office to Gallic candidates. Comparing Malloch's reading of this passage (pp. 124-6) with that offered by Miriam Griffin (pp. 180-1) might be a worthwhile exercise for students who have grappled with Tacitus' and Claudius' speeches. Elizabeth Keitel concludes with the Neronian books, with particular emphasis on the imperially approved murders and suicides that dominate the narrative almost to the point of tedium.

Only six chapters take a synoptic view of Tacitus' style and methods, although it might be argued that many of the studies of particular works take approaches that open up wider discussion. That two contributors each provide two articles in this section may also suggest that they had to step in for tardier comrades, an event that seems almost unavoidable in such volumes. Perhaps the most interesting of these pieces is Christopher Pelling's attempt to spot Tacitus' 'personal voice', a voiceprint that is unique to the historian that in turn involves the reader as confidant. Here much might be disputed (for instance, are the generic second person verbs such as averseris to be understood as applying to the reader or does it create a complicity between reader and narrator in rejecting the actions of the generic types who, while turning their noses up at toadyism, fall for the lure of cynicism?), but the search for Tacitean 'voices' and the creation of historical authority is a worthy activity. Miriam Griffin in turn tackles Tacitus' conception of history. She begins by examining Tacitus' 'philosophy' as shown when he represents causation through divine intervention and fate/fortune/destiny. Not surprisingly, Tacitus' use of these themes is inconsistent and contradictory. Perhaps indeed 'brilliance of style triumphs over poverty of intellect', but, as Paul Veyne pointed out two decades ago,3 it is difficult to see how any coherent system could be derived from the determinism of Hellenistic philosophy and applied to the writing of history, which in its Greco-Roman form believed that historical education could lead to change. Griffin instead stresses Tacitus' interest in human motivation and in correcting the official accounts that mislead on this score, which she illustrates by examination of the trial of Piso, Claudius' speech on admission of Gauls to the senate, and the general architecture of the Annals.

By contrast, Stephen Oakley in his treatment of Tacitus' depiction of the relationship between emperors and senators is unconvinced that true libertas could ever exist in such a constitution. The problem is real, but Oakley's suggestion that the historian's 'usual perceptiveness did desert him when he devoted so much space to an institution in terminal decline' flies in the face of the Roman practice of governing through the ruling classes within the empire and suggests a blind spot when considering Tacitus' themes (that, I would suggest, was not a history of emperors as much as the story of how support from the ruling classes often made their rulers the tyrants they became). Oakley's second piece, on Tacitus' style and language, is more successful in underlining typical features such as 'poetic' colour, use of metaphor and other figures of rhetoric in the service of the pointed style, and varied sentence construction. The chapter may be difficult for readers with limited Latin, but a comparison of Tacitus' and Suetonius' accounts of the death of Vitellius assists by highlighting Tacitean style in choice of material, vocabulary, and syntax.

Less strictly philological are David Levene's contributions on speeches in the Histories and warfare in the Annals, both of which operate synecdochally to illustrate Tacitus' general methods. In both analyses, the Histories appear to be much more traditional in use of speeches and battle narratives than the Annals, but this is perhaps a sign of seeking to impose order in a time of chaos. Galba's speech on the adoption of Piso is actually delivered in private, while publicly his power is slips away. The failure of rhetoric is thus underlined. For military narrative in the Annals, however, Levene suggests that Roman power is so overwhelming that most battles are given only the barest of descriptions. A major exception is made for the campaigns of Germanicus, but perhaps the point is that he is the last of traditional heroes, made all the more prominent by the lack of tactical generalship in the rest of the work. In each case, the reader may find points to dispute, but consideration of what is absent is a fruitful way of analyzing these texts.

A sign of the times is that a quarter of the essays are grouped under the rubric 'Transmission', ranging from the last publication of Woodman's long-time collaborator, Ronald Martin, on the manuscript tradition and first print editions to Martha Malamud's survey of inter-war novels based on Tacitus' account of imperial Rome, and Mark Toher's biographical sketch of the greatest of modern Tacitean scholars, the New Zealander Sir Ronald Syme. Syme, of course, was an outsider who had, by dint of talent, managed to break into the academic elite of Oxford. Whether his literary and intellectual model faced similar hostility from the established aristocracy at Rome is a question worthy of speculation. Yet given the decline in knowledge of the cultural history of modern Europe, the most interesting of the chapters for many readers may be those by Gajda, Cartledge, and Krebs on the reception of Tacitus in European political thought. Here the figure of the Netherlands scholar Joost Lips (Justus Lipsius) looms particularly large. Martin underlines the value of Lipsius' contributions to Tacitus' text, but how many readers of the historian are aware of the latter's contribution to the political thought of his age? If Tacitus himself was most concerned with the role of the Senate in the Roman imperial system, Lipsius' Tacitism, as Gajda demonstrates, turned the historian on his head to derive rules for autocratic monarchs to assist in repressing the rash desires for liberty of the masses. Cartledge argues, paradoxically, that it was Gibbon's close reading of Tacitus that in turn saved him from his own Tacitism. Of course, the most harmful misreadings of Tacitus came in the context of his Germania, and here Krebs shies away neither from using the term 'reception', with its implications for 'original' readings of any text, nor from detailed accounts of the often bizarre misuses of Tacitus' text by the National Socialist regime. Amusingly, the rediscovered text was first seized upon by Italian scholars by way of slandering their contemporary German counterparts. The use of selected passages to underpin modern nationalism developed more slowly, but with more pernicious effect as is underscored by Krebs' account of the development of racism in the v├Âlkisch movement of the nineteenth century, which was to culminate in Heinrich Himmler's use of the Germania in the service of racial purity.

As befits the subject, the chapters in this Companion range widely and may be regarded from differing vantage points. While some pieces recall earlier styles of scholarship, others suggest paths for the future. In brief, the volume is both one among Tony Woodman's great services to Tacitean studies and a tribute to them.


1.   Cf. J. E. Lendon's treatment of the work of Woodman and T. P. Wiseman as historical anathema ('Historians without history' in Andrew Feldherr (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians [Cambridge, 2009]).
2.   E. O'Gorman, Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus (Cambridge, 2000); H. Haynes, The History of Make-Believe (Berkeley, 2003); D. Sailor, Writing and Empire in Tacitus (Cambridge, 2008).
3.   'La providence sto├»cienne intervient-elle dans l'histoire?', Latomus 49 (1990) 553-574.

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