Monday, August 8, 2011


John F. Miller, A. J. Woodman (ed.), Latin Historiography and Poetry in the Early Empire: Generic Interactions. Mnemosyne Supplements 321. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. xii, 248. ISBN 9789004177550. $146.00.

Reviewed by Jakub Pigoń, University of Wrocław (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a happy time for those interested in Roman, especially imperial, historiography and its contextual frames. Within no more than twenty months we have got two Cambridge companions (A. Feldherr's on Roman historiography and A.J. Woodman's on Tacitus); an "Oxford Readings" volume (J. Marincola's on Greek and Roman historians); an introduction to Tacitus' Annals (by R. Mellor); an English translation of an important German book on Roman historiography (by A. Mehl); and some collective volumes, including a Festschrift for Professor Woodman1 (without whose work on Roman historiography over the last four decades such an abundant crop of publications would hardly have been possible). And by the end of 2011 we will receive two more Tacitus books, a Blackwell companion (by V. Pagán), and an "Oxford Readings" collection (by R. Ash). The volume under review is yet another representative of la belle époque.

Latin Historiography and Poetry in the Early Empire brings together conference papers delivered at the University of Virginia in April 2008. Nine years earlier, the same topic was discussed during a conference in Durham; the volume Clio and the Poets: Augustan Poetry and the Traditions of Ancient Historiography, edited by D. S. Levene and D. P. Nelis, was published in 2002, also by Brill (see BMCR 2003.09.01). The present collection moves from the Augustan to the early imperial period, with Tacitus and Juvenal as the two latest authors. And whereas Clio and the Poets focussed on poetry referring to historiography rather than vice versa, here equal emphasis is placed on both kinds of writing. There is only a limited overlap of contributors between the two volumes; no more than three out of sixteen authors of the previous collection reappear in the present one (Ash, Damon, and Hardie).

Almost all the chapters in the book are devoted to a particular author (or two authors); the exceptions are Philip Hardie's piece on 'Crowds and Leaders in Imperial Historiography and Poetry' and Bruce Gibson's on 'Causation in Post-Augustan Epic.' Hardie begins and ends with Tacitus (Annals 1.16–52 and Histories 1.12–49, respectively), but he discusses also Vergil's, Homer's ,and Lucan's introductory narratives of a crowd's unrest being checked by an unus homo (a character of particular relevance to imperial literature). He shows Iliad 2 to be (almost) "a template for all subsequent scenes of seditio" (18) and uses Homer to elucidate the Ariminum episode in Lucan BC 1. In the Tacitean sections of the chapter, there is a fine treatment of Germanicus as a Scipionic figure (15f.) and a discussion of Hist. 1.40.1f. (the Romans who rushed into the Forum to witness the end of Galba being like spectators in the Circus), a passage which Hardie links (26) with Enn. Ann. 77–83 Skutsch (Romans anxiously awaiting the result of Romulus and Remus taking the auspices, and the "audience in the Circus" simile). But, it should be noted, the two crowds are, of course, very different. Ennius is explicit that omnibus cura viris uter esset induperator, whereas the crowd in Tacitus is emphatically indifferent to what is in store for the Roman state.

There are some links between Hardie's and Gibson's chapters, notably in their treatment of rumours as causes of events. Only in these two chapters (and in Joseph's) have we any detailed discussion of Lucan―which, in a volume devoted to "generic interactions" between early imperial poetry and historiography, is rather surprising. Apart from Lucan, Gibson deals with Silius, but also with two authors of mythological epic, Statius and Valerius. He shows for instance to what extent epic poets' emphasis on the causes of wars reflects historiography's concern with causation (even if a poet puts forward a mythological aition, as Silius does). Silius' treatment of the origins of Carthage may be linked to Livy Per. 16, but also to Enn. Ann. 7 (one may add also Naevius' Bellum Punicum). Gibson rightly comments that "the interactions between epic and historiography are highly complex and require a long view of Latin literature" (37).

In what is perhaps the most sophisticated paper in this volume, 'Too Close? Historian and Poet in the Apocolocyntosis,' Cynthia Damon splendidly analyzes two rival voices within Seneca's work and concludes that "[t]he point, perhaps, is that there is no single genre, no single voice appropriate for the subject matter at hand" (64). Of course, historical writing is relevant to Claudius, a self-appointed historian. Damon establishes a link between references to historiography in the satire and Seneca's low opinion of this kind of writing in his other works. But I suspect that she takes the Pumpkinification too seriously.

There follow three chapters devoted to Statius, but only one of them, Helen Lovatt's 'Cannibalising History: Livian Moments in Statius' Thebaid,' deals with his epic. She discusses the strange ways of Statius' use of Livy: "This is a text that eats itself; comparison with the comforting orderliness of Livy brings out how unsettling Statius' historical vision is" (86; perhaps not all Livian scholars would agree). The title's metaphor comes from the first section where Lovatt tackles Tydeus gnawing at the head of Melanippus and juxtaposes him with a Roman soldier biting his Numidian enemy at Livy 22.51.9 (with Silius 6.41–54 as the third parallel text). Is it possible that Statius had in mind also a recent (quasi-) historical episode, Regulus' alleged gnawing at the head of Piso, Galba's adopted heir (see Tac. Hist. 4.42.2)? Discussing interactions between epic, historiography, and tragedy, Lovatt compares the devotio of P. Decius Mus at Livy 8.9.9–12 with the sacrifice of Menoeceus; strangely, there is no reference to Accius' Roman tragedy, Aeneadae sive Decius (admittedly, its subject was Decius the son).

Jean-Michel Hulls ('Replacing History: Inaugurating the New Year in Statius' Silvae 4.1') gives a subtle reading of Statius' poem celebrating Domitian's seventeenth consulship, pointing out its relationship to a narrative year's opening in annalistic historiography (no reference to J. Ginsburg, Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus, however) and especially to its most important intertext, Ovid's Fasti 1. Domitian's reign is, in Fukuyama's terms, the end of (annalistic) history, but Hulls also shows how Statius establishes his own authority as a writer, even over that of the princeps.

The volume's third piece on Statius, by Carole Newlands ('The Eruption of Vesuvius in the Epistles of Statius and Pliny'), is interesting as a reading of Silvae 3.5 and 4.4, but it fails to convince that there is really "a special affinity" (119) between the two authors' treatments of Vesuvius. I can agree that "[f]or Statius and Pliny, Vesuvius is key to their self-definition as writers experimenting with so-called minor literary genres" (116) but I doubt whether we can go any further. Newlands speaks about Pliny's disinclination for historical writing and notes that when listing his uncle's works in Epist. 3.5 he mentions his history "discreetly without comment" (117)―but obviously the reason is this was the very work his addressee was just then reading.

In the only chapter devoted entirely to Silius, 'From Sallust to Silius Italicus: Metus Hostilis and the Fall of Rome in the Punica,' John Jacobs argues that the poet adapts the Sallustian theme of decline following the removal of fear of an external enemy to the second Punic war and, more specifically, to the battle of Cannae, which "marks Rome's shift both from defeat to victory and from victory to defeat" (136). However, his reading of one of the passages on which his argument is hinged, Jupiter's prophecy in 3.557–629, is seriously flawed in what refers both to the first part of the prophecy (584f. iamque tibi veniet tempus… is not about the civil wars!) and to its second part (609 nec te terruerint is not about "Domitian inflict[ing] great terror"!). And it is difficult to understand how one can even consider the possibility that Silius wrote these lines after Domitian's death (130). At 138 Jacobs compares Silius' closure of his poem with Sallust's last chapter of Jugurtha; yet Sallust's ending is by no means as straightforward as he assumes (see D.S. Levene, JRS 82, 1992, 54f.).

There follow five papers on Tacitus. Rhiannon Ash deals with a rather neglected episode of the Histories, the Romans' effortless victory over the Rhoxolani early in 69 ('Rhoxolani Blues (Tacitus, Histories 1.79): Virgil's Scythian Ethnography Revisited'), finely pointing out the narrative's links to both Livy (velut vincti, cf. Livy 28.2.9) and Vergil (Georg. 3.367–375, an account of the Scythians' hunting methods). She shows also how this passage works within the wider context of Tacitus' military narrative in the Histories. Discussing the Vergilian intertext, Ash notes that magno laeti clamore reportant of Georg. 3.375 corresponds to laeto Othone et gloriam in se trahente of Hist. 1.79.5; perhaps it is possible to connect Tacitus' use of this adjective with Vergil's "disaster-prone happiness" observed for the Aeneid by Oliver Lyne (Words and the Poet, Oxford 1989, 181ff.): soon there will be no reason at all for Otho to be happy.

Another piece on the Histories, Timothy A. Joseph's 'Ac Rursus Nova Laborum Facies: Tacitus' Repetitions of Virgil's Wars at Histories 3.26–34,' discusses the historian's references, in his account of the siege and capture of Cremona, to Vergilian military narratives of Aeneid 2 and 9. The parallels have been noticed before, but Joseph's treatment of them deserves attention, particularly his final observation on the repetitiveness of military events and hardships, which a reference to Aen. 6.103–105 helps to evoke.

In two chapters Tacitus shares a place with Juvenal: Kathryn Williams deals with the two writers' assessment of the Flavians' (in)famous advisor Vibius Crispus ('Amicus Caesaris: Vibius Crispus in the Works of Juvenal and Tacitus'); and Christopher Nappa compares their treatments of Messalina and Silius ('The Unfortunate Marriage of Gaius Silius: Tacitus and Juvenal on the Fall of Messalina'). Williams begins with some good observations on the interrelationship between historiography and satire in imperial Rome, which manifests itself, for example, in the narrator's emphasis on his auctoritas and freedom of expression. Tacitus presents Vibius as an informer, whereas Juvenal underscores rather the sad consequences of his friendship with Domitian. Importantly, for both writers Vibius is a paradigmatic figure, relevant also to the present; at the same time, both writers pretend that they are not speaking about anything but the past.

Also different are the historian's and the satirist's portrayals of Silius. Juvenal's Silius "is more victim than villain" (198); in Tacitus, on the other hand, he is a man of political ambitions, more traditionally Roman than the other characters in Annals 11 (but Nappa goes too far when he says that "Claudius may be under the sway of Messalina, but Silius is not," 203). Nappa draws attention to the imagery of fluidity and mutability in Tacitus' account of Messalina and Silius; the historian's point is to show that "the central problem with the Claudian principate is its unstable nature" (196f.). Perhaps. But I think equating Claudius' and Messalina's facilitas is wrong; in the case of Messalina, this is simply facilitas adulteriorum, not Claudian-like irresolution.

The final chapter, by Matthew Taylor, deals with possible "generic interactions" between historiography and tragedy: 'The Figure of Seneca in Tacitus and the Octavia.' Taylor begins by discussing Agrippina's last words and the possibility (which he allows) of Tacitus' referring here to Seneca's tragedies and even the Octavia. Coming to his main topic, he stresses similarities between the historian's and the playwright's accounts of Seneca; in particular, Tacitus may have been influenced by the scene of Nero's confrontation with his teacher in Oct. 440ff. But I remain sceptical: there is a huge difference between the exchange in the play (where both Seneca and Nero present frankly their opinions) and in the Annals (where we have a tour de force of hypocrisy, by both parties). Yes, the exemplum of Augustus is used by both Tacitus and the playwright (218); but its function in the two texts is by no means similar.

Although not all the chapters in this volume are equally convincing, the reader is shown, time and again, that Quintilian's proxima poetis is in fact an apposite characterization of Roman historiography. The editors and the publisher are to be congratulated for this important and thought-provoking collection.


1.   C.S. Kraus, J. Marincola, C. Pelling (eds.), Ancient Historiography and Its Contexts: Studies in Honour of A.J. Woodman, Oxford 2010. See also B. Breed, C. Damon, A. Rossi (eds.), Citizens of Discord: Rome and Its Civil Wars, Oxford 2010; D. Pausch (ed.), Stimmen der Geschichte: Funktionen von Reden in der antiken Historiographie, Berlin/New York 2010.

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