Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Sergio Audano, Tacito. Agricola. Testo latino a fronte. Classici greci e latini. Santarcangelo di Romagna: Rusconi Libri, 2017. Pp. cxvi, 151. ISBN 9788818031980. €11,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Bram L. H. ten Berge, Hope College (tenberge@hope.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

The purpose of this appealing new Italian translation of the Agricola, according to the series editor (v), is to reach lay readers, especially younger ones, in order to give them access to ancient literature and connect it with their own world. To facilitate this access, the volume, like the Loeb series, offers the Latin text with facing translation. The production of a new translation is justified on the ground that each generation reads literary texts from its unique perspective, and indeed Sergio Audano succeeds, in intriguing ways, in connecting Tacitean themes to important concerns in both the early modern and modern periods.

Audano offers an extraordinarily rich introduction (vii-xciv) that, aside from covering the usual material in introductions to the Agricola, engages with enduring questions raised by the text (e.g. about the nature of imperialism/colonialism) and with its reception in Renaissance Italy and beyond. Given the length of the introduction, several parts of which could function as stand-alone essays, I review its different sections in turn.

Audano starts with Tacitus' impact on early modern and modern political thought (vii-ix). Comments on the historian's influence on Macchiavelli and Guicciardini and on 17th-18th century political thought (due in part to his extraordinary style) are followed by remarks on his use after World War II and during the political movements in Italy in the late 1960s as a means of analyzing the political system "from the inside." My one reservation about this section is that readers may get the impression that Tacitus was a popular author ever since antiquity. This was not so. Unlike Livy, Vergil, and others, he was a relative latecomer.

Next follows an overview of Tacitus' vita (x-xvi), which lays out the evidence for his life and career, his relationship with his friend Pliny the Younger and the new government of Nerva and Trajan, as well as the tense atmosphere in post- Domitianic Rome that forms the immediate backdrop to the Agricola.

In the following section (L'Agricola tra letteratura e ideologia: xvi-xxx), Audano turns to the text, laying out its generic complexity and flexibility, its structure, and the authors with whom Tacitus engages most conspicuously (Cato the Elder, Sallust, Cicero, Caesar). One example of the text's generic richness is the ethnographic section (uncommon in biographies) of Britain, which enunciates Tacitus' interest in ethnography, forms the background to Agricola's career on the island, and justifies its occupation. Audano shows how Tacitus, while endorsing the Roman imperial mission, ruthlessly exposes its ugly realities (especially in the famous 21st chapter and the pre-battle speech of the Caledonian chief Calgacus), revealing that what was hailed as enlightenment and progress in reality amounts to a loss of identity and, ultimately, to enslavement. Audano is particularly good at describing the psychological impact of imperialism/colonialism on the conquered. He continues by noting that the dialectic between slavery and freedom – both in the provinces (Calgacus/non-Roman tribes vs. Agricola/Roman Empire) and in Rome (Agricola/Senate vs. Domitian/Emperor) – unifies the text and recurs in the Histories and Annals, which take up various themes and concerns set out in the Agricola. Finally, Audano elaborates on the broader purpose of the text, which is not merely to commemorate Agricola's life and career but to offer a moral and ethical exemplum for contemporary Romans, one of a type of conduct, rooted in virtus and modus, that stands in close connection to the values advertised by the new government. The publication of the Agricola, after the supposed silence enforced by Domitian, also represents a renewal of memoria.

In the next section (Lo smascheramento dell'imperialismo: il discorso di Calgaco: xxx-xl), Audano zooms in on Calgacus' denunciation of Roman imperialism, which, he notes, transcends its immediate context and is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to other areas and time-periods. Audano rightly characterizes Tacitus' attitude towards imperialism as complex: Tacitus is a clear proponent of expansionism as it is carried out by his father-in-law but simultaneously exposes its questionable methods and ethical underpinnings. Hence, to call him a "mouthpiece" ("portavoce", xxxii) of the Roman ideology of moral and ethical superiority vis-à-vis non-Roman peoples (also in light of what we learn in the contemporary Germania) might be to oversimplify his vision. Nonetheless, the basic distinction between the stronger and civilized Romans and the weaker and uncivilized 'barbarians' is a firm one in Tacitus, and Audano nicely connects the broad imperial vision expressed in the Agricola with that of Thucydides in the Melian Debate and with Vergil's famous maxim at Aen. 6.851-853. He duly notes that the figure of Calgacus (and his arguments) recalls Cicero's Carneades, Caesar's Critognatus, and Sallust's Jugurtha and Mithridates. Yet, as Audano points out, Calgacus is different, too, being depicted as a capable and eloquent chief who possesses quintessentially 'Roman' characteristics and whose cause inspires sympathy. This achieves two things: defeating a noble enemy elevates Agricola's gloria, and Calgacus can function as a striking mouthpiece for Tacitus, not to denounce imperialism per se but to draw attention to its realities and underlying motivations. Calgacus' speech is paired with Agricola's, which offers further clues about expansionism and the vision of Roman vs. non-Roman identity driving it.

In the following part (Agricola da uomo a exemplum, xl-lxviii), Audano expands on the way Tacitus transforms Agricola into an exemplum. Here he is particularly excellent, showing how Tacitus (in the epilogue) transforms the more religious and Stoic visions of the afterlife in Cicero and Seneca the Younger, respectively, into a distinctly 'secular' vision, in which Agricola 'survives' as an exemplum through people's contemplatio virtutum, i.e. their constant reflection on his virtus, facta, and mores. Tacitus advocates this as a more efficient means than literature alone or the use of imagines in preserving a person's memoria. Audano highlights intriguing intertextual links with Cicero's Brutus, De oratore, and the fragmentary consolatio for Tullia, as well as with Seneca's Consolatio ad Marciam, particularly regarding the topos of premature death (mors immatura), which, in Agricola's case, is transformed into a mors opportuna. Just as the death of Cicero's Crassus kept him from witnessing the Social and civil wars, so Agricola was spared Domitian's 'reign of terror'. In addition to the way that people should grieve for Agricola, Audano offers interesting observations on how Agricola himself deals with grief, i.e. by relying on his family and his characteristic modus to remain level-headed at all times (in contrast with Tiberius after his son Drusus's death, one of several connections to which Audano draws our attention). The final portions (Momenti della fortuna dell' Agricola: dal Rinascimento a Napoleone, lxviii-xciv) cover the text's reception in the Renaissance and early modern period. These, for me, were the most captivating sections, describing the use of the text by Napoleonic generals as a source of encouragement at the Battle of Trafalgar (Nelson, as we know, was more successful than Calgacus); by Francesco Guicciardini, the pioneer of "Tacitism" in Italy, both to reflect on how to live under autocratic governments and in his autobiography, where he models his father-in-law Alamanno Salviati on Agricola; and by Traiano Boccalini, who, among other things, used the Agricola in his Ragguagli di Parnaso to expose the oppressions of Habsburg Spain, staging the fictional re-emergence, in his own time, of Calgacus, whose speech against the Romans is overheard by some Spanish soldiers and interpreted as being directed against Spain instead.

Audano's introduction, then, does much more than merely set the stage for the translation. The footnotes include annotated bibliographical references, which is helpful for the intended audience. One unfortunate aspect of the introduction is that any Latin text quoted (with one exception on pages liv-lv) is left untranslated, which is puzzling given the volume's stated purpose.

The remainder of the volume contains the Latin text with facing translation followed by endnotes. I have no comments on the Latin text, except that in a few cases Audano does not justify his emendations (viz. in preferring iterati over tanti at Agr. 13.3 and in not retaining ingeniis at Agr. 16.1). The translation is appealing and accessible, remaining faithful to the Latin but not rendering it so literally as to make it incomprehensible for a lay reader. 1 I only found a few issues of concern.2 The notes accompanying the translation are extensive and, despite some omissions, excellent throughout.3 As this is a translation and not a textbook, grammar and syntax (with the exception of rhetorical features) are omitted in favor of historical observations, essential background information, intertextual links, and relevant modern comparisons.4 At times, the notes replicate what we were told in the introduction (but without referring back to the relevant pages), and in some places the omission of well-known Anglophone scholarship is noticeable. While this may be explained by the envisioned audience (over half of the bibliography is Italian, only a quarter Anglophone), enough Anglophone scholarship is cited in the introduction that omissions in the commentary caught at least this reader's attention.5 These minor points aside, the notes are superb, and in every case the reader is rewarded for flipping back to consult them.

There are several typos that are quite serious.6 Otherwise, the volume is well produced and its large font makes for a comfortable read. The book is affordable, which is important given its targeted audience. Audano succeeds wonderfully in making the Agricola and its broader historical significance accessible to a wide Italian audience, and I expect it will be enjoyed by many. Given the many insightful observations it offers, it also will be useful for non-Italian graduate students and scholars with Italian at their command, to be used alongside the new standard commentary of Woodman-Kraus.


1.   A good example (among many): "talora anche tra gli sconfitti c'erano episodi di coraggio disperato" for et aliquando etiam victis ira virtusque (Agr. 37.3).
2.   At Agr. 2.1, Audano does not translate capitale fuisse. At 15.4, sibi patriam coniuges parentes, illis avaritiam et luxuriam causas belli esse is translated as "per loro il motive della guerra erano la patria, le compagne, i genitori, per noi romani l'avidit√† e i nostri capricci." The sentence is part of an indirect discourse representing the thoughts of Boudicca and her fellow rebels ("they said that for themselves…, for the Romans…"), which is disturbed by translating "noi" and "nostri." At 30.1, translating magnus mihi animus as "desidero" is misleading: the point is not that Calgacus, upon reviewing all aspects of the upcoming battle, "desires" or "hopes" that it will bring freedom to all of Britain but that he "is very confident" this will be the case. At 41.4, Audano takes amore et fide as denoting the affection and loyalty of Domitian's freedmen towards Agricola. However, the contrast here is between two groups of Domitian's freedmen, the first egging on the emperor out of affection for him, the second (the worse group) out of malice towards Agricola (as Woodman-Kraus show).
3.   At Agr. 6, Audano notes that Agricola's fellow tribune in 66 was the defiant Arulenus Rusticus (n. 35) but he does not add (n. 36) that his fellow praetor in 67 was the future emperor Nerva, who, unlike Agricola, helped eliminate fellow Romans after the Pisonian Conspiracy (crucial in explaining Agricola's tenor et silentium). In n. 70, Audano suggests that Suetonius Paulinus completed the conquest of Mona, but this (as he notes elsewhere) was accomplished by Agricola in 78 (Agr. 18.3).
4.   E.g. when using Bush-era slogans during the American invasion of Iraq to comment on Rome's imperialistic practices (pp. 118-119) or when likening Tacitus' critical tone in Agr. 45 to that of Hannah Arendt (p. 149).
5.   A few examples (among others): D. Sailor. 2004. "Becoming Tacitus: Significance and Inconsequentiality in the Prologue of Agricola," ClAnt 23.1: 139-177. H. Haynes. 2006. "Survival and Memory in the Agricola," Arethusa 39.2: 149-170. T. Whitmarsh. 2006. "This In Between Book: Language, Politics and Genre in the Agricola," in B. McGing and J. Mossman (eds.), The Limits of Ancient Biography (Swansea), 305-333.
6.   In the notes to Agr. 3.1, Audano writes that he follows Woodman-Kraus in printing et, quamquam but in the Latin text the comma has been omitted. At 3.2, after venimus there is no punctuation (regrettable since the correct punctuation here is debated). At 4.3, incensum has been omitted after matris. At 22.1, for formdine read formidine. In the translation, footnotes 70 and 92 have been omitted, while at 13.2 the English word "leaders" is printed.

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