Friday, May 30, 2014


Cynthia Damon (trans.), Tacitus: Annals. Penguin Classics. London; New York: Penguin Books, 2012. Pp. lv, 468. ISBN 9780140455649. $18.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Victoria E. Pagán, University of Florida (

Version at BMCR home site


Damon has produced an elegant and often arresting translation of the Annals that brings us closer to the thought of Tacitus than other English translations available today. The edition of Church and Brodribb produced in 1876 and published by Hadas in 1942 dominated the second half of the twentieth century; Woodman ushered the twenty first with his 2004 Hackett edition, followed by Yardley in 2008.1 Readers are always aware that they are reading Church and Brodribb or Woodman or Yardley; readers of Damon's Penguin edition, however, will sense not the hand of the modern translator but the presence of the original author. For instance, in the account of the death of Agrippa Postumus, Tacitus seems to speak directly to us, anticipating our incredulity with a truth that is only approximate: "Death inflicted on a grandson for a stepson's security? Not credible. Closer to truth: Tiberius and Livia—he from fear, she from stepmotherly hostility—hastened the killing of a man suspect and hated" (1.6.2). Damon breathes life into the simple indicative, credibile erat; we converse with the historian. So while Damon's theoretical objective is to do justice to Tacitus' style (p. xlvii), in practice she achieves far more. Any good translator will recreate the style of Tacitus; sententious, terse prose is infinitely imitable (dangerously so, except of course for Syme). Damon differs in her ability to capture Tacitus' style and simultaneously simplify a text that is notoriously difficult.

Two features of Damon's volume in particular contribute to the simplification of the Annals that renders it more accessible to today's reader. First, over a thousand individuals are named in the Annals; homonyms and variations can confound the reader. Damon's policy is to give the full name at the character's first appearance, "and then to use either that or one shorter form thereafter, regardless of what appears in Tacitus' text" (p. xlviii). She also uses the most familiar form of a name (for instance, Lucan, instead of Tacitus' Annaeus Lucanus). Furthermore, the Index of Names (p. 435-460) allows the reader easy recourse to a person's (or people's) complete profile in the Annals: for example, Lucius Asprenas (referred to as Asprenas) inhabits only the first three books (1.53 and 3.18); the Brigantes only Book 12 (12.32, 12.36, and 12.40, although Damon's note 47, p. 408, points to another possible mention in the lacuna and a relevant reference in the Histories). The Index aims to be comprehensive, including even those people mentioned only once and otherwise unknown (e.g., Furnius, 4.52; however, Annia Rufilla, 3.36.3, is "Rufilla" in the text but "Annia Rufilla" in the Index). The net effect of Damon's efforts is a translation that naturalizes an otherwise overwhelming cast of characters.

Second, while most translators provide notes to make the ancient text approachable, Damon does the reader the extra favor of specifying the criteria for supplying a note: (1) for named entities, "if mentioned elsewhere by Tacitus in a relevant context" with cross reference (p. liii); (2) for aspects of the Roman world necessary for comprehension; (3) for "matters relevant to the composition of the Annals (p. liv); and (4) for matters of textual criticism, where the Latin text is unsure or corrupt. Hence the reader can decide more easily if it is worth seeking the note in the back of the volume (pp. 363-433, with an average of 80 notes per book). Thus the notes represent a concerted effort to explain the Annals as a whole, by consolidating identities of characters across the text and by highlighting the compositional technique of the work. The result is a understanding of the Annals—a text that is marred by a gaping lacuna and a narrative that spans more than fifty years—as a unified work of literature and history, and such unification contributes to the overall aim of simplifying the Annals for the modern reader.

Given this goal, it is difficult to justify the decision to italicize all oratio obliqua in the translation. Unless one reads carefully the mere one-paragraph explanation (p. liii) for the use of italics for "printing reported speech and thought —in both short and much longer passages," the italics used on every single page of the book might at first glance seem to be for emphasis (the conventional reason for the font, according to the Chicago Manual of Style2), although one quickly sees that rather than the occasional adjunct for emphasis, foreign words, or key terms, the italics are in fact used for entire paragraphs. Confusion ensues. Even when advised of Damon's convention, it is difficult not to be distracted or to resist reading the italics as motivated by more than grammar. This is of course Damon's point: Tacitus makes masterful use not only of indirect discourse (the oratio obliqua characterized by the subject accusative, verb infinitive grammatical construction that is native to the Latin language) but also of what McHale calls "free indirect discourse," which delays (or in the case of Tacitus sometimes altogether suppresses) the reporting verb of saying or thinking. Consider McHale's example in English: "Oh no, she was fine, she was just going to stay in bed all day, Mary answered in a dead voice."3 Mary is of course the third-person "she," and the reporting verb "answered" delayed.

Compare 14.8.4, when Agrippina the Younger sees Nero's henchmen Anicetus, Herculeius, and Obaritus surround her couch with the intent to kill. In the Latin, although the accusative-infinitive construction is used, the verb of saying or thinking is suppressed, and Agrippina is represented by the third-person pronoun se: si ad uisendum uenisset, refotam nuntiaret, sin facinus patraturus, nihil se de filio credere; non imperatum parricidium. Damon renders eloquently (and I retain her italics): If you are paying a call, report me recovered. But if you intend to accomplish the deed—I don't believe it of my son. No order has been given for kin-murder! One might defend the use of italics on the grounds that the passage indicates what Agrippina is thinking and so warrants the italics that indicate the narrative distance. But when italics are used for both standard oratio obliqua and for the more nuanced free indirect discourse, the reader is led to believe that all indirect discourse is the same.

The idea is that the italicized English should represent the Latin syntax: "subjects appear in the object case and verbs are infinitive" (p. liii). What then are we to make of this—again, exquisitely elegant and vibrant translation of 2.24.4, tales told by survivors of a shipwreck (I retain Damon's fonts): "The further away their return started, the more marvels they told: violent whirlwinds, unheard-of birds, sea monsters, equivocal bodies—man? beast?—were seen, or believed, from fear." On principle, the entire sentence, and not just the genitive plurals hominum et beluarum, should be italicized, since the oratio obliqua is introduced with narrabant. Or is the interruption, "—man? beast?—" actually italicized to emphasize the outlandish nature of the creatures? We cannot know.

Front matter is judicious and expert. Two chronologies (pp. ix-xviii) document the principal events of the Annals and of Tacitus' lifetime and introduce the reader at the outset to the fundamental importance of the context of production. The Introduction (pp. xix-xlii) provides the requisite background with special attention to Tacitus' aims, sources, and themes. Three and a half pages of further reading include the traditional scholarship as well as recent bibliography. Whereas most translators devote only a page or so to their method, Damon delineates her rationale over eight pages ("Note on the Translation," pp. xlvii-lv). Nine maps (Woodman has only three) cover the Roman empire at the death of Augustus, Italy, Latium and Campania, Rome in the first century, Asia Minor, the Near East, Germany, Britain, and the Balkans; together with the Index of Places (pp. 461-468), the reader has at her fingertips the geographical scope of the Annals. Genealogies of the family of Augustus and the Julio-Claudians complement the endeavor to simplify names in the Annals; emperors appear in boldface.

This translation—bold, creative, commanding—will influence many readers of Tacitus to come, and it strikes the balance between the gnomic Church and Brodribb, fair enough for the lay person, and the faithful Woodman, better for the expert. I suspect it will be in high demand. I hope that upon reprinting Penguin will consider using roman type throughout.4


1.   A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb (trans.), The Complete Works of Tacitus, edited with an introduction by Moses Hadas. New York: The Modern Library, 1942; A. J. Woodman (trans.), Tacitus, The Annals. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004; 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: Oxford University Press, 2008.
2.   The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. 2010. Chicago: 7.4, "Italics for emphasis."
3.   McHale, B. 1978. "Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts." PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature 3: 249-287; quote at 252.
4.   I caught only one misspelling, "Angrivariio" (p. 461).

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