Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.15

Ellen O'Gorman, Irony and Misreading in the "Annals" of Tacitus.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. vii + 200.  ISBN 0-521-66056-4.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Ronald Mellor, University of California, Los Angeles (
Word count: 2097 words

This book is the latest in the recent series of scholarly explorations of the literary and rhetorical aspects of Latin historiography. The prehistory of this movement might be traced to Bessie Walker's remarkable M.A. thesis first published at Manchester in 1952, The Annals of Tacitus. A Study in the Writing of History. But Sir Ronald Syme's monumental Tacitus (1958) refocused the questions around the personality of the historian, his style, and the actual history that lay behind the narrative. It was two decades later that Peter Wiseman (Clio's Cosmetics, 1979) and Tony Woodman (Rhetoric in Classical Historiography, 1988; essays 1979-1998 collected in Tacitus Reviewed, 1998) became pathbreakers of the radically rhetorical historiography which has become the received wisdom on the Roman historians. Books by Andrew Feldherr, Judith Ginsburg, Christina Kraus, T. J. Luce, Paul Plass, and Patrick Sinclair have also made major contributions, as have important papers by scholars such as John Henderson, Elizabeth Keitel, Christopher Pelling and many others.

While all these scholars subject the Roman historians to close literary readings in an attempt to expose and clarify what is really being said in the texts, they certainly have different agendas. Some like Wiseman are using close rhetorical readings (together with archaeological and other evidence) to attempt to reconstruct Roman history, religion, and myth. Woodman's approach is more radically literary; he says he is not interested in "what really happened", but in what the ancient historian actually said. Still, his work enables modern historians to understand ancient historians better, to read them more accurately and hence to use the ancient texts more precisely. Most radical is the work of John Henderson who seems, to me at least, to read historical texts as purely literary artifacts, of interest for their own sake and nothing more. There is little interest in what the author means (which cannot be ascertained) but what the author does. Henderson has drawn much from developments in literary theory -- especially in the 70s and 80s -- and often strikes the pose of an impish deconstructionist (in the style of Hayden White) so popular in many French and English departments during those years. (It is interesting that literary movements -- New Criticism, Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism -- reach classical studies as they are passing from interest in English departments.) O'Gorman's handsome new book seems to be a more restrained, but no less committed, contribution in the Henderson tradition.

The first (of eight) chapters focuses on the problems and opportunities inherent in the dense style of Tacitus. The author's very first words echo the traditional view that his stylistic complexity is a necessary element in his writing. One of the earliest English Taciteans, the Earl of Essex writing as A.B. in a note "To the Reader" in Saville's first English translation (1591) of the Histories, said: "For Tacitus I may say without partiality that he has written the most matter with the best conceit in fewest words of an Historiographer ancient or modern. But he is hard. Difficilia quae pulchra." That illustrious critic Napoleon I was reported to have said to Goethe at Weimar in 1808: "Et quel style! Quelle nuit toujours obscure! ... J'en conclus qu'elle (l'obscurité) lui est propre, qu'elle naît de ce qu'on appelle son génie, autant que son style; qu'elle n'est si inséparable de sa manière de s'exprimer que parce qu'elle n'est dans la manière de concevoir" (Talleyrand, Mémoires I 443). O'Gorman likewise recognizes that difficulty is an essential element, but she proposes in her opening sentence to look at and even use it: "Tacitus is a notoriously difficult writer; the central theme of this study is what the difficulty of Tacitus means and what are the possible ways a reader can respond to this difficulty" (1). The difficulty of the historian, not his meaning or intention, is the primary focus of this book.

O'Gorman is interested in the reader's response to Tacitus, and her first chapter sets out the major themes in the book that this reviewer found, in turn, familiar, illuminating, provocative, or simply incomprehensible. To set out some of those reactions may, of course, do little more than expose my own bias, ignorance and theoretical limitations, but that in itself is a useful preamble to criticism. When she says that style embodies a judgment (for which she cites Syme) or that false appearance is as important as hidden truth (for which she should cite Walker), she plays a familiar tune. Likewise her appeal for close reading is in line with Tony Woodman's long-standing program. When she follows Martin's emphasis on the particular importance of subordinate clauses in Tacitus' narrative (4-5), she adds her own observation that several subordinate clauses in the same sentence may permit an interplay of true and false possibilities. More originally, I found illuminating her focus on the importance of falsehood, and on the role of the historical actors as themselves readers and interpreters. Her reports of their misreadings (given in detail later in the book) are particularly rich contributions to the understanding of the text. O'Gorman believes the skeptical writer requires a skeptical reader; the formulation seems reasonable until she uses this truism to reach some provocative conclusions. She believes that the choice of meaning is left to the reader who then must "take her own political stance in relation to the past" (12). So is the reader to make her own judgment about, for example, Augustus? O'Gorman makes it seem reasonable enough, but for most of us it goes against long experience as readers and even as writers of history that, while an historian might lead a reader into the complexities and encourage skepticism, he really expects to have the reader follow a certain path. That is, after all, why many historians bother to write. And much of the recent work on Tacitus' literary skill is based on the assumption that he uses that skill to an end, namely, to sell his version of Roman history as a rhetorician "sold" his argument in a forensic oration or a controversia. Yet there is much in O'Gorman's picture of the empowered reader that is attractive; after all, most of us as teachers seek to train precisely that sort of skeptical reader. What is the difference in purpose between an historian and a teacher? Her interpretation certainly is stimulating and requires, from me at least, further thought.

I am less sympathetic to the impish irony of the deconstructionist, whose delight in misreading and complexity seems more an aesthetic delectation of a text than an attempt at illuminating the meaning, style, or personality of Tacitus. Does it really help to see imperium sine fine redefined in Tacitus as an "empire without definition"? Does the playing on excessus do any more than amuse the cognoscenti when the author links its meaning ("death") in the title of the Annals (de excessu Divi Augusti) with its other meaning of "excess?" The emphasis on "language under strain" leads O'Gorman to extol creative misreading: "Misreading and meaninglessness are mobilised as political interpretation in the Annals ..." That may force "the reader to try harder, and to fight for the legitimization of her reading," but it may be of limited utility to the less ironic reader.

The following chapters amplify and elucidate the themes sketched in the first chapter. In the second chapter O'Gorman addresses the issue of limits: limits of the empire, limits of the text, and limits to the reader's interpretation. She prefers regarding the mutinies of Annals I as a metaphor for reading, though she admits that another reader might say "that the mutiny episodes are 'really' about the mutinies" (27). She suggests that the commanders are "stronger readers" than the mutineers, and even leads her own reader further into ironic interpretation: "does Tacitus' newly-trained reader go along with this, reading ironically side by side with Tacitus, or does she turn the application of that ironic exposure onto the maneuvers of Tacitus' own text?"

The third chapter approaches Germanicus as a reader of texts: the remains in the Teutobergerwald; the Egyptian antiquities; imagines in German and at Actium; and the magic tablets in Antioch. There is much of interest, especially on the reading of funerals such as those of Junia and Drusus. But here, as elsewhere, insufficient use is made of earlier scholars (e.g., Ross' classic article "The Tacitean Germanicus" in YCS 1973). There are both wheat and chaff: an evocative treatment of the "iconic narrative" of the elder Agrippina with intertwined references to the past and future is almost ruined for me by the comment that "the scene at Brundisium threatens to empty the significance of Agrippina's womb" (77). Really! The fourth chapter deals with the reading and misreading of, and by, Tiberius and those at his court. An interesting formulation is that Agrippina cannot read Tiberius, while the emperor (mis)reads her due to his manipulation by Sejanus. The astrologer Thrasyllus emerges as the most discerning reader in this chapter.

The loss and suppression of history are the themes of the fifth chapter, while Claudius' inability to read Messalina leads to the struggle between empress and courtiers for the control of imperial memory. The sixth chapter puts the focus directly on women of the imperial court -- empresses and senatorial wives -- and their struggles to create their historical narrative. The inherent struggle between the imperial mother, especially Livia and the younger Agrippina, seeking to claim credit for her son's accession, and the conflict with her son's own need for another narrative of his accession.

The seventh chapter, "Ghostwriting the emperor Nero", explores the silence of Nero who borrows his eloquence and, it seems, even his erudite poetic style, from his tutor Seneca. He quotes and adapts rather than speaks. The silence of Nero is contrasted with the three writers whom he doomed in the course of the Annals: Lucan, Petronius, and Seneca himself. There is much here, not least on the weighty allusions in the "game of Troy", which is illuminating. I doubt I will be the only reader distressed by such a flip sentence as the following: "But the historian himself, as I have already remarked, prefers allusion to quotation in his own text (in order to avoid being another Nero)" (162). It certainly sounds as though the author means Tacitus intentionally tried to avoid being another Nero -- a really silly notion. Perhaps it means something else and the ironic or metaphorical reader will make better (or at least more sympathetic) sense of it. But to me it only reads like some cute provocation. The brief conclusion addresses "the end of history". Those who expect, or fear, the appearance of the post-Marxian interpretation of Francis Fukayama can relax; he does not appear, though Jane Gallop, Bruno Latour, Michael Roth, and Hayden White are all quoted in the last four pages! O'Gorman also argues that an "ironic history" of the reigns of Nerva and Trajan is impossible, so Tacitus' "disordered and rough voice, therefore should fall silent". Sir Ronald Syme was a passably ironic historian, and he certainly has shown us that there may be much about the brief reign of Nerva that would have been well served by the irony of Tacitus. Tacitus' anodyne comments on the temporum felicitas surely disguise the clandestine dispatch of Domitian, the selection of Nerva, and the rapid adoption of Trajan. It is hardly that an ironic history of Nerva was impossible; it was rather that too many of the shadowy protagonists survived as Tacitus' friends and senatorial colleagues.

The literary study of Latin historians has perhaps never been so rich and productive. Since historians of every era have turned from historical positivism, they have generally been open to literary interpretations to help understand the world view of the ancient writers and what they said or were trying to say. Livy and Tacitus were not only purveyors of facts but considerable thinkers with views of the past, political opinions, and philosophical positions. All that said, O'Gorman's book comes out of the literary tradition which has had little real effect on historians of any era. (The ideas of Hayden White, long ago a professor in my own history department, have always been more welcomed by literary critics than by historians.) It will be unfortunate if readers, put off by jargon, cuteness, and trendy quotations, neglect some very real contributions in this book: characters as readers and misreaders; the importance of falsehood in the text; the writing of women's history; the silence of Nero. But the author has not made it easy. Perhaps she, like her Tacitus, has made difficulty the point of her book.

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