Sunday, May 15, 2016


Yasuko Taoka, Lectiones memorabiles. Volume II: Selections from Horace, Lucretius, Seneca, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc, 2015. Pp. xi, 157. ISBN 9780865168305. $29.00.

Reviewed by Sergio Yona, Baylor University (

Version at BMCR home site


Like its counterpart, this assortment of "memorable readings" offers more selections of Latin prose and poetry in preparation for exams on specific topics in the International Baccalaureate program. Although similarly designed for students at the intermediate and advanced levels, Taoka's presentation differs from the first volume in its focus on authors whose works are mainly concerned with history or moral philosophy. Overall, the passages and themes are highly interconnected and present the reader with logical transitions from one author to the next: the historical focus on political rivalry, strife and jealousy in Julio-Claudian Rome (Tacitus and Suetonius) is followed by philosophical considerations about freedom from anxiety, peaceful living and tranquility of mind (Lucretius, Horace and Seneca). The volume is organized into two sections on "History" and "Good Living," each of which features passages from authors in chronological order. Taoka's succinct introductions to each section and author provide suitable context for students, and the original Latin text, which is clear in terms of legibility, is accompanied by helpful notes on grammar, syntax and content. There is a map at the beginning and useful appendices on history, stylistic devices and various meters included in the collection.

The passages from Tacitus' Annales are preceded by short introductions to history as well as the author and his writing style. With the intended audience's limited experience in mind, Taoka offers simple yet thought-provoking considerations of ancient historiography as a genre (Herodotus and Thucydides are mentioned as models on p. 3) as well as observations regarding Tacitus' elliptical prose and his concern with psychology and character development. The selections, which deal with the famous contrast between an increasingly insecure, scheming Tiberius and an enormously popular but recently deceased Germanicus, successfully highlight the author's predilection for such portraits. Although space is limited, given the later emphasis on Seneca's works one wonders whether it would have been appropriate for Taoka to include Tacitus' famous account in Book 15 of the philosopher's forced suicide at the command of Nero, another controversial figure in the Annales (this is passage is actually mentioned on p. 115). Stylistic details typical of Tacitean prose, such as variatio and the frequent omission of verbs and subjects, are identified and duly noted in the commentary, which also includes connections to modern culture (Tiberius' discourse before the senate on behalf of Piso is compared to a modern day defense speech in a murder case on p. 31) and questions designed to motivate classroom discussion.

The next selection features another extended character portrait of Tiberius, this time from the point of view of Tacitus' contemporary Suetonius. The brief introduction offers information about the author and an explanation of the inferior status of biography as a subgenre of historiography. The trajectory of Suetonius' description nicely complements that of the previous reading: instead of approaching history from an annalistic point of view like Tacitus, this author considers the figure of Tiberius by analyzing the deterioration of his personality from a seemingly shy, responsible ruler (pp. 48-59) to a reclusive and shockingly malicious tyrant (pp. 60-69). Taoka's commentary illuminates the subjective nature of biography by identifying rhetorical devices and key words (e.g., metus on p. 52) that reflect Suentonius' personal opinion regarding the emperor. In the pages that follow the author's disapproval becomes quite evident and finds expression in the disturbing anecdotes regarding, in Taoka's own words, Tiberius' "dirty laundry" (p. 63), including his withdrawal from society and licentiousness. The final proof of his unbearable immorality involves the cruel treatment of his own family, specifically Agrippina (p. 68), whose arrest, torture and death by starvation effectively showcase Suetonius' anecdotal yet powerful writing style.

Happiness and "Good Living" are the main focus of the second half of this collection, which begins with readings from Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. After a consideration of the relevance of ancient philosophy and ethics for modern life, Taoka briefly discusses the author's genre and meter (explained in more detail in Appendix 2 on p. 153) as well as the basic tenets of Epicureanism. The selections proceed logically, from a description of the role of atoms in the creation, development and finally total dissolution of life (pp. 78-81) to the resulting impossibility of immortality and suffering in the afterlife. In addition to discussing smaller details such as the many archaic and syncopated forms common in Lucretius, Taoka also elucidates the author's concern for the harmful effects of religious superstition by including the famous Sacrifice of Iphigenia passage (pp. 82-85) and his highly rhetorical description of Underworld terrors (p. 86-88), all of which are errors resulting from "ignorance of physics" (ignoratur enim quae sit natura animai). The final passage continues to explore Epicurean ethics, this time with an emphasis on the "fear and anxiety" (metus hominum curaeque) associated with public life (pp. 90-95). One easily appreciates the interconnectivity between earlier depictions of Tiberius, who is both powerful and self-indulgent, and Lucretius' views here about the dangerous race for political power and the futility of excessive luxury in relation to the very modest requirements of nature.

Epicurean ethics continues to be a main theme in the following section, which incorporates various poems from Horace's Carmina, which Taoka identifies throughout as Odes (the apparent inconsistency is probably explained by the fact that few students will be immediately familiar with the original Latin title). The first poem, Carmina 1.9 (pp. 100-103), employs the preferred meter of Horace's Greek model Alcaeus and is well chosen because it illustrates many themes typical of the lyric genre such as symposia, nature, privacy and love. Aside from pointing out recurring stylistic devices like synchysis, metaphor and ellipsis, Taoka also emphasizes the poet's advice about enjoying the pleasures at hand without being overly anxious about the future. The presence of philosophical (specifically Epicurean) wisdom is more prominent in Carmina 2.16 (pp. 104-109), which has obvious connections to a previous passage from Lucretius. Similar to the opening of Book 2 of the De Rerum Natura and to later passages in the collection from Seneca (mentioned in the notes on p. 106), Horace's focus is chiefly on philosophical leisure or otium and its ability to remove the anxiety (curas), fear (timor) and desire (cupido) associated with riches and political power. The last two poems, Carmina 3.26 (pp. 110-111) and 4.7 (pp. 112-114), deal respectively with love and the inevitability of death. They display a number of noteworthy motifs: the frequent appearance of Greek forms ("Chloën" and "Aeneas" are examples), the metaphor of love as war and, in contrast to Lucretius, Horace's use of mythological exempla, in this case involving death and the Underworld, for the purpose of reinforcing philosophical convictions.

Selections from two of Seneca's works on moral philosophy, the Epistulae Morales and De Tranquillitate Animi, conclude the volume. Having called attention to this author's training in rhetoric and involvement in politics, Taoka introduces two pieces of correspondence between Seneca and Lucilius regarding the proper use of time (pp. 118- 123) and the importance of self-examination and philosophy with regard to living happily (pp. 124-130). The content of these readings undoubtedly harmonizes with that of the previous authors, but what is most prominent is Seneca's ubiquitous display of rhetorical flair: metaphors for philosophical living involving money, slavery, dregs and navigation, as well as numerous instances of anaphora and the rhetorical question embellish his stern advice to a less-advanced disciple. At the same time, his incorporation of Epicurean wisdom and concession to the possibility of progress (proficiens, profecisse), which reveals the influence of Panaetius' doctrine of προκοπή, attests to the changing and eclectic nature of philosophy in later centuries. The De Tranquillitate Animi (pp. 132-147) provides a good finale to the collection, which begins with the anxieties of public life and ends with observations on tranquillity from someone who, according to Tacitus, died as a consequence of his involvement in dangerous politics. It is worth noting, however, as Taoka does, that Seneca's observations concerning political involvement sometimes contradict those of Epicureans like Lucretius (p. 137) or appear to coincide with them (p. 145, as expressed by his surrogate Athenodorus).

As a whole this volume presents its targeted audience with intriguing passages about the perils of Roman politics while uncovering the deepest ethical concerns of ancient authors, which, as Taoka points out more than once, turn out to be very similar to our own. Both instructors and students will surely appreciate the philosophical nature of her commentary, which encourages readers to think about the authors' views and even "argue with them if you don't agree" (p. 73). The intentional omission of vocabulary is appropriate for advanced students and will likely promote, by doing away with easy access to an "answer key," closer engagement with the content and meaning of the text itself. This will surely prove to be a valuable and interesting text for Latin students at the intermediate and advanced levels.

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