Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Ronald Mellor, Tacitus' Annals. Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 255. ISBN 9780195151930. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Salvador Bartera, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (

Version at BMCR home site


R. Mellor's Tacitus' Annals1 appears in the Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature series, which is aimed at general readers with little or no knowledge of Latin and Greek. Authors, therefore, are asked to avoid scholarly debate and instead contribute their own "personal assessment." Mellor had already written a similar book.2 The one under review, which focuses on the Annals alone, will find its place alongside that of R. Ash.3

The book consists of ten chapters: the first five set the scene for Tacitus as a historian; the others are devoted to the Tiberian books, imperial women, the familia of the Caesars, the Claudian and Neronian books, and the influence of the Annals in the western tradition. The book is preceded by a short introduction and ends with the family tree of the Julio-Claudians, a map of the Roman Empire, a guide to Prominent Persons,4 a section on Further Reading, a list of Works Cited, and a general Index (of names, key-terms and cited passages).

In the first chapter, Mellor briefly provides Tacitus' background, and introduces the works that Tacitus published before the Annals. Mellor's analysis is clear, but the complete lack of reference to scholarly debate makes one wonder at times whether this approach will in fact benefit novices, who will be left completely unaware that some elements of Tacitus' biography are uncertain, that Histories and Annals probably consisted of twelve and eighteen books respectively, or that the Agricola is not just Tacitus' laudatio for his father-in-law.

The second chapter analyzes Tacitus' sources. It is well structured, and Mellor's reading of the senate decree on Piso's trial and Tacitus' treatment in Annals 3 is helpful and easy to follow. Mellor does a good job of explaining Tacitus' engagement with and use of the historical sources at his disposal. Once again, however, readers will have no idea of the enormous debate behind this topic, nor will they be directed to any further reading.

The third chapter is one of the most useful for the intended audience of the book, especially since there is no comparable treatment for non-specialists in other books on Tacitus. Mellor explains Tacitus' (and, more broadly, Roman) attitudes towards different ethnic groups, barbarians of the west (Germans, Gauls, and Britons) and Easterners (mostly Greeks and Jews), supporting his account with appropriate passages from Tacitus' output. Tacitus' xenophobia, Mellor argues, was not driven by hatred for any special group (certainly he was not anti-Semitic): his prejudices are in line with widespread ancient feelings for the other. Tacitus had understood the dangerous influences from the outside, and his extreme hostility towards the Greeks, Mellor suggests, was a result of the perverse hellenization of the Roman court and the philhellenism of emperors like Caligula and Nero.

The best chapter of the book is surely the fourth.5 Mellor challenges the traditional view of Tacitus as "the greatest painter of antiquity." Tacitus, Mellor suggests, certainly displays vividness in his descriptions, but this vividness is rarely, if ever, achieved through pictorial descriptions. Tacitus offers dramatic representations not through the description of physical reality, but rather through character development and psychological analysis. His language is rarely purely ornamental, and even if, at times he seems to offer a dark picture of an event, such darkness is achieved not with visual, but with narrative devices. The mutinies of the legions in Annals 1-2 are the focus of Mellor's reading. It is a pity, however, that no passage from the Nero books has been considered.

The fifth chapter is devoted to a major theme of the Annals: the loss of freedom. Mellor provides an interesting analysis, drawing examples from the Agricola and Histories as well, but of course emphasizing the Tiberian narrative, with the episode of Cremutius Cordus at center stage. There is very little about Nero apart from a cursory mention of the illustrious men who fell towards the end of his reign. Mellor's good comments on Tacitus are also fittingly introduced by a brief survey on the concept of freedom in Rome before the empire, and glossed with several references to modern interpretations of Tacitus, which students, in particular, will find useful.

Chapter six covers the Tiberian narrative. Mellor focuses on the opening chapters of Book 1, on Tacitus' judgment of the Augustan age, on the conflict between Tiberius and his adopted son Germanicus, and on the rise and fall of Sejanus. Mellor does justice to Tacitus' psychological characterization of the emperor, pointing out that the modern picture of Tiberius, and of the Julio-Claudians in general, owes much to Tacitus' narrative, through whose lens we must judge the early empire. I found particularly useful Mellor's emphasis on Tiberius' family relationships with his mother, stepfather, charming brother and despised wife. These characters contribute to a better understanding of the deceitful nature of the Tacitean Tiberius, who, as Mellor justly recognizes, is the greatest victim of the tragic narrative of Annals 1-6.

The seventh chapter is a survey of Julio-Claudian women: Livia, Messalina, the two Agrippinas, but also Julia (Augustus' daughter), the two Octavias (both Augustus' sister and Nero's first wife), and Poppaea. The individual analyses are framed by remarks on the attitude of Tacitus (and Romans) towards women in general. The most interesting treatment is of the younger Agrippina, whose character portrayal, as Mellor justly points out, owes much to rhetorical characterization of evil women in antiquity. This chapter is, however, overall a little disappointing: the individual sections feel disconnected, and there is substantial repetition and overlap. Also in the section on the younger Agrippina, which is enjoyable, Mellor emphasizes only the negative qualities, without mentioning, for example, her decision to choose Seneca and Burrus to guide her young son (this is mentioned, in a different context, in the following chapter), or the fact that her overbearing presence, at least in the beginning, must have been a consequence of Nero's inexperience and young age.

Chapter eight is broad in its scope, but it also drags a little. After a brief introduction on the concepts of slave, freedman and patron, and useful remarks on the intellectual abilities that many freedmen, who were often prisoners of war, displayed, Mellor analyzes in detail the role of freedmen at the court of the Caesars, focusing on Claudius and Nero, and surveying the two most influential of these courtiers, Narcissus and Pallas. After a very short and unhelpful section on eunuchs, there is a nice section on the central role of poison and poisoners at the imperial court. The last part of the chapter is devoted to "intellectuals" (broadly conceived), of whom, Mellor suggests, Tacitus was often suspicious. If this can be true of people like Thrasyllus, the same surely does not apply to Seneca or Petronius. It is a pity that the Stoics, who are mentioned in other chapters, are neglected here. My main objection to chapter eight is not so much to its content (each section, individually taken, can be useful) as to its coherence. A courtier like Narcissus and a pseudo-intellectual like Thrasyllus cannot be put in the same category as Seneca and Petronius.

In the next chapter, Mellor takes into consideration the later books of the Annals, emphasizing the theatricality of Roman politics, which culminated in the reign of Nero, whose love for shows is interestingly linked to his ancestors Germanicus and the elder Agrippina, the most theatrical characters of the Tiberian narrative. Of the reign of Claudius, Mellor comments on the emperor's famous speech concerning the Gauls, comparing Tacitus' composition with the inscription that has fortunately preserved the actual speech.6 Mellor surveys the excesses of Nero detailed by Tacitus, from the murder of Agrippina to that of Seneca, from his stage performances to the conspiracy of Piso.7

The last chapter is on Tacitus' Nachleben. In this tour de force, Mellor traces the influence of the Annals since their rediscovery in the Renaissance. Tacitus and Machiavelli, who were often associated in the political debate, had an enormous importance in the cultural environment of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries especially. Mellor provides a broad analysis, which covers all the historical periods up to the twentieth century, from the Reformation to the Ancient Régime, from Tudor-Stuart England to the Age of Revolutions.8

Books written for a general reader, especially when they deal with a big topic like Tacitus' Annals, are difficult to write and to assess. This book mainly achieves its purpose, but with some limitations. Although it is not intended for specialists, some features left me a little perplexed.9 The bibliography is rather selective. Conspicuous by their absence are e.g. F.R.D. Goodyear, Tacitus. G&R New Surveys in the Classics No. 4: Oxford, 1970; J. Ginsburg, Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus. New York, 1981; and Herbert Benario's bibliographical surveys in CW 1964-2005. Even non-specialists, I believe, should at least be informed that there are scholarly commentaries on the Annals. On the other hand, one finds, among "accessible books" on the Annals, E. O'Gorman, Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, which is in fact anything but accessible. Woodman's Cambridge Companion to Tacitus (2009) should have been referred to.

With these minor reservations, which can also be imputed to personal taste, Mellor's book is satisfying overall for the type of readership it is conceived for. It does tend to oversimplify, but in the end the general reader, especially if Latinless, does not want to be bothered by scholarly subtleties or excessive footnotes.10


1.   This book was first published in 2010, at least according to the OUP-USA web-site. The copy I first received from BMCR (January 2011), however, shows 2011. In March 2011, OUP informed the editor of BMCR that, owing to some misquotations and typos, a corrected edition would be printed. I received this reprint in June 2011. I must note, however, that the reprint shows both the 2011 and 2010 dates (on different pages), and nowhere does it acknowledge that this is a corrected reprint. I based my review on this reprint.
2.   Tacitus. New York and London, 1993. See BMCR 04.03.30.
3.   Tacitus. London, 2006. See BMCR 2007.02.13. Ash's book, however, is not mentioned in Mellor's.
4.   It is unclear why the author, in this section, decided to include e.g. Plutarch and Livy, but not e.g. Suetonius and Cassius Dio.
5.   At p. 63, B. Alamos de Barrientos is indicated as the first translator of the Annals into Spanish (1614). The translation of E. Sueyro, however, seems to have appeared the year before: see Saúl Martínez Bermejo, Translating Tacitus. Diss.: Pisa, 2010. Mellor could not have seen this.
6.   At p. 179, Mellor implies a link between Claudius' clemency in pardoning Caractacus (50 C.E.) and Seneca's famous dialogue. In fact, Seneca's De clementia, addressed to Nero, appeared a few years later: see S. Braund, Seneca De Clementia. Oxford, 2009, 16-17.
7.   Since Mellor points out the theatricality of the conspiracy, and that Tacitus' treatment is in line with traditional conspiracy narratives, a reference to Pagán would have been useful: V. E. Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. Austin, 2004.
8.   This topic has generated a large bibliography. Mellor cites the major contributions here, but of course he has written an entire book on this topic (cited on p. 238), to which readers can refer for an exhaustive bibliography.
9.   Corbulo, for example, is never mentioned.
10.   The corrected reprint is virtually typo-free, save for the following: p. 49 (14, 37, 1-2), line 5, "Thereare"; p. 116 "nNo"; at p. 142, Poppaea's death should be 65 C.E.; at p. 149, for "Silanus" read "Silius"; at p. 189 n. 10, for Edwards (2002) read (1993); at p. 238, read Tacitus: the Classical Heritage.

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