Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Victoria Emma Pagán, Tacitus. Understanding classics. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017. Pp. xiv, 192. ISBN 9781780763187. $20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Katie Low, Brussels (

Version at BMCR home site


Recent political developments have generated renewed interest in the lessons that it may be possible to draw from ancient history and historians.1 Given the fast-changing nature of current events, though, it is a relief that Victoria Emma Pagán eschews specifically contemporary points in this survey of Tacitus and his reception—especially as he 'can be pressed into the service of radically divergent ideologies' (31). Part of I.B. Tauris' Understanding Classics series, of which the aim is to 'introduce the outstanding authors and thinkers of antiquity to a wide audience of appreciative modern readers', this book combines close readings of selected passages,2 discussion of the links between Tacitus' works and the time in which he wrote, and examinations of how he has subsequently been viewed. Pagán's approach, which swiftly moves between texts and their contexts and highlights the minor works and less well known examples of reception, contributes to an overall picture of Tacitus that goes beyond the familiar.

The first chapter, 'Prefacing a Life', uses the opposing opinions of two minor eighteenth-century readers to introduce what is known of Tacitus himself, before opening discussion of his works via their prefaces. A very clear concluding section previews the rest of the book, and indeed Pagán incorporates into each chapter a useful outline of its scope and structure. The second, 'Nobles and Nobodies', focuses on the cast of characters who feature in the Histories and Annals. While a Julio-Claudian family tree is provided, there is a refreshing emphasis on individuals peripheral to the dynasty, including Tiberius' former wife Vipsania and her new husband Asinius Gallus (it is rarely acknowledged that the tradition's emphasis on the emperor's continuing love means that very personal animosity must surely be read into the scenes in the Annals where the two men clash politically). Pagán also draws on Ellen O'Gorman's intriguing hypothesis that a counterfactual 'virtual Pisonian dynasty' can be discerned in the Annals and the Histories. 3 Like this theme, as Pagán shows, 'stock' Tacitean characters can also appear in more than one text or genre. A connection can be drawn from the anonymous Ligurian woman who does not reveal her son's hiding place to Otho's soldiers even under torture (Hist. 2.13.2), to the freedwoman Epicharis refusing to betray the Pisonian conspiracy (Ann. 15.57.2) and the mother of Agricola, who was murdered by, again, Othonians (Agr. 7.1).

In 'Words and Deeds', the third chapter, an explanation of the key differences between ancient and modern historiography precedes a discussion of how Tacitus engages in inventio, the 'imaginative reconstruction' (53) of events common in the former and generally anathema to the latter. The section on speeches includes persuasive and interesting vignettes on, for example, why and how the historian uses indirect speech (with the announcement to Galba of the Upper German legions' revolt in January at Hist. 1.12.1-3 a rich test case), the contrasting treatments of the Boudiccan revolt in the Agricola and the Annals, and the Lyons Tablet. The chapter's final pages look at the more colourful, earthy details in Tacitus' narratives that summary characterisations tend to overlook. Conversely, his famous sententiae privilege the general over the particular and necessarily 'have the potential to bury under self-evident and unquestionable truths any contest over the questionable distribution of power and unjust social practices that guaranteed inequality' (75).

The fourth chapter, 'Romans and Others', argues that the Germania's readers 'are bound to learn far more about the Romans and about Tacitus' philosophy of writing history than [they] will ever learn about the Germani' (83). Pagán sketches out the text's place in Roman ethnographical writing and shows how ideas within it reflect preoccupations in Tacitus' other works; she also explores the thoughts expressed at Ger. 37.2-3 on Rome's history of German wars. She is right to assert that 'far from being an anomaly, the Germania contains themes and concerns that are central to Tacitus' way of thinking' (101) as manifest in his other works in, e.g., portrayals of non-Romans such as Calgacus, Caractacus, Arminius and the Batavian tribe. This conclusion reflects the increased scholarly interest during the last couple of decades in depictions of foreign individuals in the Germania and Agricola in particular, and what these may say about Rome.4 Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there is a further angle from which the Germania is representative, namely, the significant presence of non-Romans in the narrative of Roman history. This can be seen in the blurred boundaries between Romans and auxiliaries in what survives of the Histories and in the frequent depictions of foreigners interacting with Romans in the Annals, among them freedom-fighters such as the North African Tacfarinas and the Gauls Florus and Sacrovir, as well as the Parthians and other Easterners. Even recent commentators have often treated these passages as res externae that merely break up the more serious res internae, but a case can be made for reading them as integral to the Roman historiographical narrative.5

The fifth chapter, 'Then and Now', focuses on the Dialogus de Oratoribus. Pagán has a fine command of its complex structure and the individuals who speak or are mentioned in it. She also raises broader questions, juxtaposing Tacitus' ambivalent remarks elsewhere about the relationship between past and present with the way in which the Dialogus seems to pit 'a degenerate present against an honourable past' (108). She credibly proposes that Ann. 13.3, where Julio-Claudian eloquence reaches its nadir when Nero gives a eulogy (ghost)written by Seneca at Claudius' funeral, can be read as a parody of the Dialogus, a work that already claims to reimagine a real-life conversation (in which the historian himself is fleetingly present). It might be added that this intertext is further complicated by historiographical chronology: the Dialogus, written before the Annals, covers events that happened after the death of Nero, from the perspective of a contemporary era that is not the subject of direct coverage in Tacitus' extant writings.

The focus of the book's final chapter, 'Yesterday and Today', is Tacitus' reception.6 Having considered the impact of his representations of Jews and Christians, Pagán moves on to the rediscovery of his manuscripts and the strong interest shown by Germans in particular (there are 82 German plays on the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and 75 operas about Arminius were performed between 1676 and 1910). On the subject of Tacitus in the twentieth century—and beyond—it is good to see the pervasive influence of Syme acknowledged. Outside academia, in recent years novelists and dramatists, painters, and poets have been inspired by Tacitus to produce work in which ethical and environmental issues loom just as large as politics and history.

Overall, this book offers much to ponder for specialists and general readers and is impressively full of detail about Tacitus' works and the characters who feature in them, in addition to providing many interesting nuggets about his reception. Indeed, details are a key strength: the overall structure of the Histories and Annals and the historiographical tradition in which they can be seen feature less heavily than the minor works and individual points about content and style. However, it is no bad thing to be reminded that Tacitus is not, or not only, the austere political historian he is often taken to be.


1.   Examples, presented without comment or endorsement, can be found at NewStatesman, Huffington Post,— and the Spectator.
2.   Unfortunately, the publisher's decision to relegate the chapter references of quotations in the text (all of which are—ably—translated by the author) to the endnotes does not help readers engage further with Tacitus.
3.   E. O'Gorman, 'Alternate empires: Tacitus's virtual history of the Pisonian principate', Arethusa 39.2 (2006), 281-301.
4.   See, for example, K. Clarke, 'An island nation: Re-reading Tacitus' Agricola', JRS 91 (2001), 94-112; E. O'Gorman, 'No place like Rome: Identity and difference in the Germania of Tacitus', Ramus 22 (1993), 135-54; and M. Lavan, 'Slavishness in Britain and Rome in Tacitus' Agricola', CQ 61 (2011), 294-305.
5.   Work that makes this case includes A.M. Gowing, 'Tacitus and the client kings', TAPA 120 (1990), 315-31; R. Ash, 'An exemplary conflict: Tacitus' Parthian battle narrative (Annals 6.34-5)', Phoenix 53 (1999), 114-35; and E. Tylawsky, 'What's in a name, a face, and a place? Significant juxtaposition in Tacitus' Annales', Historia 51 (2002), 254-8.
6.   For Pagán, there is potential for an analogy between Tacitus' polyvalent reception and the contrasting views of Augustus reported at Ann.1.9-10.

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