Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.30


Ronald Mellor, Tacitus. New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. xii + 211. $25.00. ISBN 0-415-90665-2.


Reviewed by Elizabeth Keitel, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Mellor notes that recent decades have seen a revival of scholarly interest in Tacitus, both because his themes are strikingly relevant and because scholars have become more sophisticated about "the bias inherent in all historians" (5). Yet this revival has largely been confined to the academic cloister. So M. has set out to write a book about Tacitus for the non-specialist reader "to convey why Tacitus's histories exercised a powerful fascination over centuries of dramatists, philosophers and even politicians" (ix). M. eschews elaborate footnotes, believing that the compelling moral vision of our author has been lost "amid the apparatus of scholarship" (ix). He has decided for the most part not to indicate disagreements with other scholars and usually cites only the most recent work on any given topic.

The book is divided into eight chapters. After an introduction, which repeats some points made in the preface, M. gives a very brief summary of Tacitus's life and works and then devotes chapters to the historian's method and his roles as moralist, political analyst and literary artist. The eighth chapter discusses Tacitus's Nachleben.

Unlike Tacitus, let me begin with the negative and end with the positive. Since M. makes no claims to originality, the first question one must ask is whether such a book is necessary. I am afraid that the answer must be a qualified "no". For matters even so basic as Latin texts and commentaries, M. refers the reader to Ronald Martin's Tacitus (Berkeley 1981). In which case, the non-specialist reader, whom I take to be a Latinless undergraduate or interested layman, might just as well proceed directly to Martin. For M.'s book cannot stand alone as a complete introduction to our author. There is nothing approaching a full summary of the action of the major works, and no adequate discussion of Tacitus's compositional techniques within the genre of ancient historiography. M. discusses Tacitus's style in three confusing pages, quoting just a few words of Latin. Clearly, M. believes Martin has already done these things well. So he concentrates on the topics mentioned above.

This arrangement by topic in chapters inevitably involves a considerable repetition; M. himself admits the categories of "moralizing" and "psychology" will overlap in places (69). A good deal of generalizing also appears in each chapter, with very few examples to back it up, e.g., "[d]espite his seeming traditionalism, his body of work shows Tacitus to be the most experimental and adventurous of all ancient historians" (10) or M.'s claim that Tacitus's psychological history has influenced "directly or indirectly, all subsequent historians" (86). Sometimes such assertions are bolstered not by references to Tacitus, but to some modern scholar (52,56,61), again without evidence from the ancient texts. A further source of irritation is the removal of all citations to the footnotes in the back. Only in the last chapter, for some reason, are the citations of Tacitean works included in the text.

The absence of any discussion of Tacitus's position within ancient historiography produces a number of inadequate, misleading or ambiguous statements. While M. repeatedly adverts to Tacitus's interest in the misuse and degradation of language in political life, he never mentions previous important discussions of this topic in Thucydides and Sallust. While he tells the reader that Sejanus is modelled on Sallust's Catiline, M. never identifies Catiline or explains what constitutes the reminiscence (71). M. also flies over Tacitus's sources for the major works. When comparing Tacitus's account of the praetorian attack on Senators at a dinner party at the Palace at Hist. 1.82, M. mentions only Suetonius's version and omits Plutarch's, which is fuller and much closer to the Histories here and throughout (120). When discussing the psychological effect on the reader of the battle scene at Mons Graupius (70), M. omits any discussion of the tradition of enargeia in such scenes, going back at least as far as Thucydides.

M.'s account of Tacitus's opinions is marred by unsupported generalities, for example about Tacitus's view of the Republic. Several times we are told that Tacitus "idealized" the Republic before moral decay set in under the Principate (56,81,91), though no proof is offered. M. states, again with no supporting evidence (89): "The Republic was for him less a political system than a moral golden age of individual courage and senatorial independence. His heroes are moral exemplars like Cato and Brutus, whose political ineptitude helped to bring down the Republic, while Cicero, who valiantly struggled to preserve it, is ignored". Appeal is made to Cato and Brutus as exempla by speakers in the Annales (Cremutius Cordus' defense of free speech at 4.34; Silanus' attack on Thrasea at 16.22), but never by Tacitus himself. The closest he comes is the account of the obsequies of Junia, Cassius' wife, whose funeral was distinguished by the absence of the imagines of Brutus and Cassius (3.76.2).

Nor does M. entirely give other scholars their due. Although he adverts repeatedly to the preface of the Histories, M. never mentions Fuhrmann's fundamental article. Tacitus's greater integration of maxims into the narrative in the Annales was noticed both by Goodyear and Martin, though M. acknowledges neither (134). The idea that Cerialis's speech at Hist. 4.73-74 answers Calgacus's in the Agricola (fn79, 182) was first suggested by Boissier in 1912. M. could at least have referred the reader to Aubrion's massive study of rhetoric in Tacitus.

While Tacitus abounds in contradictions, such as the question of when moral and political decline began at Rome, M. does not clarify these contradictions by forcing the evidence. Thus M. uses Hist. 2.38.1, a sentence clearly describing the growth of Rome's empire in the middle Republic, to illustrate that to Tacitus "the primary cause of moral decline was the concentration of power in the hands of the emperors and their court" (60). M. claims that Tacitus's obituary of Tiberius (Ann. 6.51) expresses the idea that autocratic power corrupts (25,73), a dubious reading to this reviewer.

Elsewhere M. appears more careless than tendentious, but the effect is still disquieting. He cites the laughter evoked at Claudius' funeral by Nero's praise at Ann. 13.3 as somehow showing the historian's disrespect for the imperial cult (49) when it is merely the final touch on Tacitus' portrait of the feckless and foolish Claudius. In the same vein, M. quotes Civilis' exhortation to the Gauls (Hist. 4.17.4-5) as an example the way Tacitus "highlights the decline of virtue by contrasting it with the natural morality of the Britons, Gauls and Germans" (61), but, in fact, the paragraph ends with Tacitus's frank assessment of Civilis' selfish ambition in inciting the revolt in the first place: he seeks rule for himself over the richest and strongest nations.

Less serious but still imprecise are remarks such as M.'s comment on Hist. 3.83.3: "The crowds who watched Roman armies fighting in the streets in 69 enjoyed the bloodshed as much as if they were celebrating a festival in the Colosseum" (57). This might suggest to the uninitiated that the historian actually mentioned the Colosseum, which was not completed until the reign of Titus. It is also inaccurate to state, when discussing the theme of misuse of language in Tacitus, that "Galba calls his stinginess 'economy', and his cruelty 'severity'" (94), when it is Otho, the prince of double-speak, who levels these half truths in his exhortation to the praetorians to desert their princeps. When summarizing the moral decline evident at Rome at the end of the Histories, M. asserts: "They [the senate] gave up their newly won freedom of speech as soon as it was challenged after the Flavian victory. Only Helvidius Priscus spoke with courage and frankness -- and he paid with his life" (22). This conveys the impression that it was Helvidius' frankness in 70 B.C. that did him in. We do not have Tacitus's account of Helvidius's death, and as Chilver notes, "we do not know how, when or why Helvidius finally came to grief". (The substitution of "Piso" for "Otho" in the second paragraph of p. 59 is presumably a slip of the pen.) None of these misstatements is grievous per se, but their accumulated weight makes this reviewer uneasy, especially as the intended reader is not well-acquainted with the texts.

On the positive side, M.'s presentation of the historian and his themes is excellent in several respects. While adopting a psychological approach to our author and his works, M. warns against overdoing it (85), and even admits uncertainty about understanding fully Tacitus's motives or personality (28). M.'s discussion of Tacitus's portrayal of women is also nuanced and fairminded, as are his general remarks on the historian's compelling portrait of Tiberius, the "most complex character in Tacitus, perhaps in all of Latin literature" (25).

M. is outstanding in showing the relevance of the historian's greatest themes to the experiences of 20th century readers, for "Tacitus above all others probes the individual personality transformed by political absolutism" (165) and the ways in which both rulers and ruled are complicit in the corruption of power (166). Writing with vigor and enthusiasm throughout, M. waxes eloquent on the relation between Tacitus's Weltanschauung and ours: "The atrocities of our century have swept away the smug liberalism of the Victorian era: rulers can be monsters and something close to pure evil must be credited.... Tacitus's obsession with evil is once more on the agenda of historians of the twentieth century" (161). Tacitus provides early and influential analyses of issues of particular relevance to us: political paranoia, freedom of speech, and the corruption of power (5). Finally, M. reminds us that just because Tacitus does not take the long view of a modern historian, he is no less relevant: "[h]e gives powerful expression to the 'short' view, the howl of the victim for recognition and for vengeance, the view that the freedom of individuals cannot be overlooked by their rulers. He saw the need to remember, the historian's duty to commemorate suffering" (165).

M. easily outstrips Martin in his chapter on Tacitus's Nachleben from antiquity to the twentieth century. M. observes that while Tacitus's political insights are illuminating, they do not necessarily form a coherent pattern. Hence Guicciardini's mot that Tacitus teaches men both how to live under tyranny and tyrants how to govern. M. traces in an interesting fashion both the "black" and the "red" Tacitus, the former emulated by autocrats and courtiers in the 16th and 17th centuries, the latter by revolutionaries and democrats in the 18th. While Tacitus's fortunes declined in the 19th century, M. notes that his spirit lived on in the great "realistic" novelists, Eliot, Tolstoy and Stendhal, "where the astute narrator also serves as a moral commentator" (135). This reviewer looks forward to M.'s book-length study of Tacitus's influence.

One can only hope that M.'s vigorous and engaging book will encourage more people to read Tacitus in the original, despite the Elizabethan Sir Henry Sevile's heartfelt complaint: "he is harde".