Saturday, May 31, 2014


Steven H. Rutledge, A Tacitus Reader: Selections from Annales, Historiae, Germania, Agricola, and Dialogus. BC Latin readers. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2013. Pp. xlvii, 198. ISBN 9780865166974. $19.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Bram ten Berge, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


In this new addition to the Bolchazy-Carducci Latin Reader series, Steven Rutledge offers intermediate and advanced Latin students an admirably self-contained and wide-ranging introduction to Tacitus. Unlike volumes that offer commentaries on a single work or book (e.g. the excellent commentaries on Historiae 1 and 2 by Damon and Ash, and on Annales14 and 15 by Woodcock and Miller), or on a sub-set of a work, Rutledge's volume is aimed at allowing an instructor to offer a comprehensive overview of Tacitus' oeuvre.2 The notes are also specifically geared to the needs of undergraduates without prior exposure to Tacitus' Latin. Nothing of its kind is currently available for the teacher and student of Tacitus.

A comprehensive introduction greets students coming to Tacitus for the first time (xiii-xli). It covers the historian's Nachleben (xiii), and his life and political and literary career (xiii-xvi). It introduces students to the content, style, and principal themes of the opera minora and the socio-political context in which they were written (xvi-xix). It sets out the structure and content of the extant books of the Historiae, including the main events of the year 69, the protagonists and their principal character traits, as well as Tacitus' sources and the work's outstanding stylistic features (xix-xxii). It offers a thorough introduction to the extant books of the Annales, covering the establishment of the Augustan principate, the chief events of the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors, their complex characterization, the major themes of the work, and the events Tacitus likely covered in the missing books (xxii-xxviii).3 Then follow lucid sections on Tacitus' place in Roman historiography (xxviii-xxxi), and on his sources (both literary and non-literary) and the post-Augustan historians (xxxi-xxxiii). Next follow useful remarks on Tacitus' techniques of characterization and other ways he directs his reader's mind, including the use of rumors, powerful turns of phrases, typologies, and speeches (xxxiii-xxxvi). The final sections are on style and language, covering the outstanding features of Tacitus' prose (brevitas, variatio, inconcinnitas, sententiae, etc.), the narrative purposes to which he employs these, and the authors that were his principal influence in each case (xxxvi-xli). This final section ends with a useful glossary of the historian's common rhetorical devices. The above points are reinforced in the notes, which frequently refer the student back to the introduction. In sum, students get an excellent introduction to Tacitus that is comprehensive without being too long, and, with a single exception, free of error.4

A rich bibliography of suggested reading (xlii-xlvii)5 and notes on Tacitus' manuscript tradition (p.1) precede 24 passages of selected Latin. As noted above, the greatest virtue of this volume is that it offers a selection of readings from all five works (pp. 2-27), followed by a line-by-line grammatical commentary (pp. 29-148). The passages are carefully chosen to exemplify important Tacitean themes and stylistic features, as well as important aspects of ancient historiography and literature more generally. So, the two selections from the Agricola (2.1-3.2; 30.1-5; pp. 2-4) introduce students to the function and tone of an authorial preface, to Tacitus' views of the principate and the reign of Domitian, to the form and function of speeches, and to the nature of Rome's empire and its impact on native populations. The two selections from the Germania (1.1, 2.1-2; 37.2-5; pp. 4-6) familiarize the student with the genre of ethnography, with the people and geography of ancient Germany, and with the history of Rome's wars with the Germans. The two selections from the Dialogus (1.1-3; 2.1-2; pp. 6-7) introduce the dialogue format and its origins in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, raise questions about the nature of the principate and life under an absolute regime, and contain some vivid examples of Tacitus' characteristic sententious style. The three selections from the Historiae (1.15, 1.16; 1.41, 1.49; 3.82-83; pp. 8-11) concern the problematic concept of imperial succession by adoption, Tacitus' techniques of characterization, historiographical obituaries, and issues of identity in civil war contexts. The commentary draws out language typical of the work and of the violence and chaos of the events described. The fifteen passages from the Annales include the preface (1.1; p. 11), where Tacitus establishes his credentials as a historian; the set of passages on Augustus' funeral and popular opinion on his reign, which are revealing of Tacitus' method and his outlook on the Augustan principate (1.9-10; pp. 12-13); a prosecution case that reflects the rise of the delatores (1.74; p. 14; a topic Rutledge treats elsewhere at length)6; the account of the alleged poisoning of Germanicus by Piso (2.69; pp. 14-15), which showcases the devastating effect of reported rumor; the rise of Sejanus (4.1-2, 4.3; pp. 15-17), which introduces the use of typologies and Tacitus' debt to Sallust; Tiberius' debauchery on Capri (6.1; p. 17), which bears on the relationship between the emperor and the senatorial class; Tiberius' death and obituary (6.50-51; pp. 18-19), which deals, among other things, with ancient notions of character(-development); Claudius' speech on allowing Gauls into the senate (11.24; pp. 19-20), which, when read against the epigraphic evidence, "offers a rare opportunity for us to assess how ancient historians reworked and manipulated their source material" (p. 109); Messalina's affair with Gaius Silius and her eventual destruction (11.29-30; 11.31-32; 11.37-38; pp. 20-23), which showcases the power and influence of women and freedmen in the imperial court; Nero's murder of his mother Agrippina the Younger, including the theatrical episode of the collapsible boat and the lurid description of her murder by the freedman Anicetus (14.4-6; 14.8; pp. 23-25); and the Great Fire of 54 and Nero's vicious punishment of the Christians as the alleged culprits (15.38; 15.44; pp. 25-27). As Rutledge acknowledges in the preface, "some might find that the selections... are excessively slanted at times towards episodes that linger on violence, promiscuity, and death." The final seven selections, on Messalina's affair, Agrippina's death, and the Fire, indeed seem to fit this mark, and there are other passages, particularly on major military affairs and men like Suetonius Paulinus and Domitius Corbulo (who are noticeably absent from the volume) that would have deserved inclusion and might have helped balance the whole.7 But ultimately one has to make decisions, and, on the whole, Rutledge's selections offer the student a very complete introduction to Tacitus' works and prose style, and provide a wealth of material for further discussion in the classroom.

The commentary consists in each case of short introductory remarks, which set the selected passage within its narrative and historical context, indicate its thematic and stylistic significance, and offer bibliographic references for further study. This is followed by a line-by-line grammatical commentary that helps navigate the student through Tacitus' prose. The notes are without exception concise and succinct. Challenging sentences and constructions are unpacked, omitted words are supplied, and translations are suggested for particularly difficult or dense phrases. Rutledge achieves a wonderful balance between supplying too little help, on the one hand, and supplying too much, on the other, allowing students to come to their own translation and understanding of the Latin. So, he will often give the use or case of a particular form, or indicate the structure of a particular clause, but without offering a translation and thus leaving this to the student. This approach continuously reinforces grammar, forms, and constructions, and will benefit both the intermediate and advanced Latin student. While the commentary is predominantly grammatical in nature, Rutledge offers useful background information as well. He consistently elucidates names (personal and topographical), concepts, and historical events, notes intertextual connections with the works of Tacitus' predecessors, and points to the parallel tradition in Suetonius, Plutarch, and Cassius Dio. He offers plentiful references to modern scholarship and kindly refers the student back to the relevant pages of the introduction. Students also benefit from two maps of the Mediterranean and the city of Rome (pp. 150-51), genealogical charts of the Julio-Claudian families (pp. 153-55), photos of busts of Tiberius (p. 101), Claudius (p. 126), Nero (p. 137), and Domitian (p. 31), a photo of the Lyons Tablet (p. 110), and a vocabulary containing every word in the Latin text (pp. 157-98). The result is a very complete treatment, and, with few exceptions, Rutledge's comments everywhere hit the mark.8

The book, in sum, offers an excellent introduction to the Tacitean corpus. Students will see their Latin improve and will come away with a solid impression of Tacitus' different works and his language. The book makes the historian's formidable prose accessible to students of different levels, and offers a wealth of material for further study and discussion. So, the teacher might supplement the selections in this Reader with passages from the parallel tradition to compare Tacitus' treatment with that of other authors. Or one might have students compare Tacitus' speech of Claudius on admitting Gauls to the Senate with the extant text of the Lyons Tablet. The book would also be excellent in combination with others in this series for a comprehensive reading course in Latin prose.

The volume is very well produced. The maps, photos, and charts are of good quality. Typos are few and in most cases negligible.9 The complete vocabulary ensures that students can use the volume without having a dictionary at hand. Finally, the book is affordable, which is important given its intended audience. I look forward to using this book to bring Tacitus to a wide audience of undergraduate students.


1.   Since the Google preview is not available outside the United States, I have tried to give as best an overview of the book's contents in the body of the review.
2.   The title of the book is surprising, since it neither reflects the chronological order of Tacitus' works nor the order in which Rutledge treats them.
3.   One important episode from the missing books that Rutledge leaves unmentioned is Corbulo's enforced suicide under Nero, related by Cassius Dio (62(63).17.5-6).
4.   Civilis is not a Treviran, but a Batavian (p. xxi). On p. 49 Rutledge correctly identifies Civilis as "a Batavian noble."
5.   One important omission, which seems to have appeared too late to be taken into account, is Pag├ín's Blackwell Companion to Tacitus (Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA, 2012).
6.   Rutledge produced an excellent monograph on the subject: Imperial Inquisitions. Prosecutors and Informants from Tiberius to Domitian (London, 2001).
7.   After all, the alternation of domestic affairs and military affairs abroad is one of the guiding structural principles of the Annales.
8.   P. 59, l. 10: Tiberius' father is not M. Claudius Marcellus, but Tiberius Claudius Drusus. P. 65, l. 24 (H. 1.49): incidisset is not subjunctive in an indirect question. P. 80, ll. 20-24 (A. 1.10): in the clause seu Pansam venenum vulneri adfusum, the subject is venenum, with the verb abstulerat omitted. Rutledge's suggestion that [Caesar abstulerat] be supplied after seu is incorrect since it leaves us with two accusative objects, Pansam and venenum, of a simple transitive verb. On the next page, however, commenting on abstulerat, Rutledge does note that venenum... adfusum is the subject, leaving an inconsistency in the commentary. P. 83, l. 35 (A. 1.10): Rutledge's suggestion that memorabatur be understood after abducta may confuse students, since the structure of this sentence is different from the last, where memorabatur can reasonably be understood.
9.   I only note a few important cases: on p. xxv Xenephon should be Xenophon; on p. xlii Bernario should be Benario; on p. 33 Hayne's should be Haynes'; on p. 139 Agrippa should be Agrippina.

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