Thursday, October 9, 2014


Mathew Owen, Ingo Gildenhard, Tacitus, Annals, 15.20-­23, 33-­45. Latin Text, Study Aids with Vocabulary, and Commentary​. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2013. Pp. xi, 268. ISBN 9781783740000. £15.95 (pb)​.

Reviewed by Virginia Closs, University of Massachusetts-Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site

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Created to serve as a component of the British A-level curriculum in Latin, this textbook is designed for newcomers to Tacitus, offering background and support aimed at the novice reader of Latin historiography. I assess it here for a rather different remit than its designated purpose, concentrating on the possibilities of using it "off-label" for teaching college courses in the U.S. and elsewhere.1 Owen and Gildenhard offer an enticing window onto the range of modern scholarship on a small and manageable sliver of Tacitus' capacious literary output, while highlighting the text's intrinsic value and relevance. The central episode of the selected Latin text is Tacitus' narrative of the Great Fire of 64 (with substantial amounts of build-up and aftermath), while the introduction and commentary offer thought-provoking explorations of Tacitean style, as well as of Neronian politics.

A number of established scholars are currently producing commentaries on the later books of the Annals, so instructors looking to introduce their students to the Tacitean Nero will soon be spoiled for choice.2 At the moment, however, apart from the item under review, commentary coverage of these books remains somewhat sparse, and decidedly dated.3 Virtues commending Owen and Gildenhard to advanced undergraduate students (or indeed, to early graduate students looking to familiarize themselves with the major interpretive issues of this section of the Annals) include a witty and engaging writing style, a wide-ranging and informative set of introductory essays, and a fluent command of past and current scholarship on Nero, Tacitus, and the Annals.

Overall, this book's exuberant and playful approach to Tacitus' grimly ironic narrative is one I find highly appealing, although admittedly, some cringe-worthy puns and (already rather dated) references to pop culture and current events may invite eye-rolling on the part of students and teachers alike. A Preface and Acknowledgements section briefly sets out the editors' goals and strategies,4 followed by an extended Introduction consisting mainly of six informative mini-essays. The first three focus on Tacitus' life, times, and literary legacy, and are admirably straightforward and balanced in their presentation of matters on which scholarly debate remains open. The fourth essay, "Tacitus' Style (as an instrument of thought)," makes a strong case for embracing Tacitus' asymmetrical syntax and generic ambiguity as both "a means and a medium of political commentary (p. 28)."5 The final two essays, "Tacitus' Nero-narrative: Rocky-Horror-Picture Show and Broadway on the Tiber" and "Thrasea Paetus and the so-called 'Stoic opposition,'" together paint a vivid portrait of the cultural and political setting into which readers are about to parachute. In particular, the opening section of this book's Latin text (15.20-22) focuses on the prosecution of the provincial influence-peddler Claudius Timarchus and Thrasea Paetus' provocative speech at his trial. This episode, with its legal complexities and unspoken agendas, is an odd bedfellow for the more sensational material to follow in 15.33-45, and is bound to baffle students without much grounding in imperial history.6 The final introductory essay goes a long way in making this moment seem relevant and interesting, presenting a lengthy (translated) passage illustrating a prior conflict between Thrasea and the Senate (Annals 14.48-49).

The book's main section prints about a chapter of Tacitus' Latin text per page, with a running vocabulary on the facing page.7 Questions below each chunk of Latin text engage students at several different levels of inquiry. Bullet-pointed queries focus on individual sentences: these include grammatical identifications; analysis of sentence structure; historical questions pushing students to look into legal and political matters referenced in the text; and some more interpretive questions (e.g. at 15.21.2: "Why does Thrasea regard dishonest praise (laus falsa) as worse than malice (malitia) and cruelty (crudelitas)? Do you agree?"). Each page also includes two broader questions, which could work as essay topics or conversation starters. The "Stylistic Appreciations" promote deeper engagement with the language of a given passage, training students to look for deeper resonances and intricacies to support their interpretations. The "Discussion Questions" address larger structural issues, relating the passage to the narrative as a whole or situating it in some broader social or historical debate, and often asking readers to relate the question to their own wider knowledge or personal experience.

The commentary that follows the main text is rewarding, if demanding: students without an already-strong grasp of Latin grammar will long for the more straightforward assistance of (say) a Bryn Mawr commentary. Complex sentence structures and variegated forms of indirect speech do receive considerable attention, but this information tends to hide within copious stylistic and historical analysis.8 The editors frequently cite the commentaries of Miller, Koestermann, and Furneaux, adding their own original observations, which are especially good on sound effects, word order, and word choice.9

Occasional multi-page detours within the commentary plumb interpretive issues raised by a particular episode or phrase.10 The last and most extensive of these digressions is an insightful essay on the Great Fire of 64 (pp.187-193), subdivided into four sections: (a) "Emperors and fires in the Annals," (b) "Other accounts of the Neronian fire," (c) "Tacitus' creative engagement with the urbs-capta motif," and (d) "Nero's assimilation of the fire of Rome to the fall of Troy." This material brilliantly highlights the richness of the cultural, historical, and literary cues activated in Tacitus' fire narrative.11

Perhaps inevitably, the (generally very successful) attempt to cover so many angles results in the occasional miscue. A Domitianic inscription (CIL VI.1, 826 = 30837 (b) = ILS 4914) is described simply as "commemorating" the 64 fire (p. 206). The glancing inclusion of this difficult epigraphic evidence obscures its actual association with a set of altars dedicated to Vulcan, and seems to assume the existence of a category of Roman commemoration for which we lack evidence: civic disaster monuments.12 Clearer explanation of what exactly constitutes Roman Stoicism and the "Stoic opposition" would be preferable to glib one-liners like "[t]he Stoics were all about logic, not rhetoric" (p. 90). The oddity of ending Annals 13 with the portent of the dead/revived arbor Ruminalis deserves either more, or less, than this riddling riff: "A portent such as the withering of a sacred tree may well have been entered in the annalistic record – but also if it then consumes itself? Is Tacitus pulling our leg here, with an unexpected, yet deconstructive, gesture to a formal device of annalistic writing?" (p. 25, n. 4).13 I emphasize, however, that these are trivial distractions amid the bounty of fruitful invitations to further thought. The general excellence of the copy-editing is also impressive.14

Several strategies could make this brief selection of Latin text an exciting component of an advanced college-level class. When I taught Tacitus at Reed College earlier this year, I began with Owen and Gildenhard and then switched to Miller for 15.46 onwards, allowing for a close focus on Nero in the years 62-65 CE. After reading Owen and Gildenhard, students were sufficiently attuned to certain key themes and stylistic features to spot them on their own for the rest of the text, eventually creating "Owen and Gildenhard"-style commentaries on the later chapters of 15 as a final project. Another possibility: begin with the Tacitus reader from Bolchazy-Carducci, which offers a sampling designed to demonstrate how Tacitus' style varies according to subject and genre.15 This reader also includes more assistance with basic grammar, which could be helpful for students still finding their footing in Latin prose.

To sum up, Owen and Gildenhard have produced an informative and entertaining textbook, challenging in the right ways for students beginning to grapple with the deeper complexities of Latin literature and Roman history. It is available, as are all Open Book publications, in a wide range of formats, either free or at very low cost.16 Even when other choices covering more material from the Neronian Annals become available, we would do well not to overlook the insights of this offering, or the merits of its approach.


1.   A favorable review by Paul J. Cowie (Classics Head of Department, The John Lyon School, Harrow on the Hill) offers a helpful assessment of this text's utility for its (intended) A-level audience: The Classics Library review. See also Gildenhard's other A-level texts with the same publishers: Gildenhard, I. (2012), Virgil, Aeneid 4.1–299 , Cambridge; and (2011), Cicero, Against Verres, 2.1.53–86, Cambridge.
2.   A prospective Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics edition of Annals14 is in progress - a joint effort between Christopher Whitton and Myles Lavan. Rhiannon Ash is rather further on with her Green and Yellow of 15, expected out in 2015. Salvador Bartera's commentary on 16, originally a dissertation under Tony Woodman's supervision, is also in preparation. Finally, Simon Malloch is producing a Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries edition of 12 (which, like 11, includes some choice Neronian moments).
3.   For a dedicated text and commentary on Annals 15, at present Norma Miller's text, originally produced for mid-twentieth-century British secondary school students already extensively drilled in Latin prose composition, is really the only choice. Terse and pithy, it offers minimal help even with Tacitus' more challenging grammatical features, and is equally sparing in the analysis of structure and theme. Miller, N. P. (1973), Cornelii Taciti Annalium Liber XV, London.
4.   The project's tutelary deity appears to be the inimitable John Henderson, thanked in the preface for his "continuing patronage of, and input into, [the Open Book Classical] series," and frequently cited/quoted throughout the introduction and commentary.
5.   The syntactic analysis, here and elsewhere, is reliant on a strong familiarity with Ciceronian prose style.
6.   As Cowie's review notes, the text's selectivity, a typical feature of the A-level syllabus structure, in some ways suits Tacitus' own designedly fitful presentation of Nero's reign.
7.   Running vocabularies are always frustrating for readers trying to recall where a word has been glossed before (an issue mitigated when using a digital copy: the word search function works well, provided the proper form is plugged in).
8.   N.B.: Most of the Latin text's grammar questions are addressed in the commentary that follows, although students will have to do some hunting. To avoid this shortcut, Cowie suggests restricting student access to the commentary, but online availability makes this unenforcable.
9.   Miller, op. cit. Koestermann, E. (1968), Cornelius Tacitus, Annalen Band IV, Buch 14–16, Heidelberg. Furneaux, H. (1907), Cornelii Taciti Annalium Ab Excessu Divi Augusti Libri, vol. II. Books XI–XVI, 2nd edn, revised by H. F. Pelham and C. D. Fisher, Oxford.
10.   Digressions include: a highly Hendersonian exploration of the possible wordplay involved in inverting "Thrasea Paetus" to "Paetus Thrasea" (pp. 86-87); a demonstration of how a single sentence (15.20.3) stands in allusive dialogue with both Sallust and Livy (pp. 93-96); "Tacitus and Religion" (pp. 111-115); and a character sketch of Poppaea, from risqué past to brutal end (pp. 123-124).
11.   Although the editors elsewhere cite other material from Woodman's 2012 collection of essays, they do not mention his Epilogue discussing the pervasive citation of Aeneid Book 2 in Tacitus' account of the Great Fire. See Woodman, A. (2012), From Poetry to History: Selected Papers, Oxford, 387-94.
12.   This inscription does invoke the memory of the 64 fire, claiming fulfilment of a vow made when "the city burned for nine days in Neronian times"(NERONIANIS TEMPORIBVS), but focuses primarily on the rites to be celebrated annually on the Volcanalia (August 23).
13.   Charles Segal's influential article on end of Annals 13 would be helpful in clarifying this issue for students: Segal, C. (1973), "Tacitus and Poetic History: The End of Annals XIII." Ramus 2:107-26.
14.   Only a few minor issues: most cited scholars are introduced with first name and last, while (e.g.) Ellen O'Gorman, James Boykin Rives, Vasily Rudich, and Carlos Noreña are mentioned by last name only. On p. 97 "Atilius" is printed where "Antistius" is surely meant. "Rossi (2004)" is cited in the commentary (p. 191 n. 157) but missing from the bibliography.
15.   Edited with commentary by S.H. Rutledge: BMCR 2014.05.61. Overlap with Owen and Gildenhard would be minimal: only Annals15.38 (covering the outbreak of the Great Fire) and 15.44 (on the Golden House) are in both textbooks.
16.   More information at: Open Book Publishers. ​

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