Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.05

Roland Mayer (ed.), Tacitus. Dialogus de Oratoribus.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. ix + 227.  ISBN 0 521 47040 4.  $59.95.  ISBN 0 521 46996 1.  $22.95.  

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, UCLA (
Word count: 1942 words

It was probably Gordon Williams more than anyone else who brought Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus into the limelight by paying it such serious attention in his Sather volume of 1978. Interest has been growing ever since, and for good reason, but the ongoing conversation can be difficult for students to join. Neither the extensive Italian commentary by Bo (1974) nor the inchoate German one by Güngerich (1980) is very welcoming, and no corresponding work has appeared in English since Germany had a Kaiser and Italy a King. Roland M(ayer's) new commentary in the Cambridge Green and Gold series thus fills a pressing need and should be welcomed by both students and their teachers, who will recognize its many virtues.

First, M. is sensible about textual matters. The Dialogus survived antiquity in a single, not very good manuscript that appeared and vanished again in the fifteenth century. The humanists' copies of it have left us a text that requires significant correction and emendation by conjecture and also contains lacunae, one of significance, if not length. (The situation is succinctly explained in the introduction, pp. 47-50). M. prints an eclectic text that smoothes as many of the inevitable rough spots as possible. There is no apparatus, but the commentary explains clearly and engagingly where the key problems lie, what solutions have been adopted, and why. The result is a readable text that does not hide its difficulties, thus giving students a good idea of what editors do and why their work is important. So, for example, at Dial. 5.4, where Winterbottom's OCT reads "quatenus arbitrum litis huius *inveniri*," M. prints "[non] invenimus" with a note (p. 100) not just defending his solution but explaining in some detail the interpretive issues at stake.

Great technical skill is brought to bear on matters of syntax and style. There are excellent notes, for example, on indicatives in indirect discourse (p. 143) and the choice between subjunctive and indicative with non quia (pp. 204-5). The difference between iudicium and gustus meaning 'taste' (p. 89) is explained, and the different connotations of vetus and antiquus (pp. 135-6). M. wisely directs readers to specific meanings in the OLD, thus facilitating use of that wonderful tool, though the corresponding nods to main entries in the OCD get a little tiresome. Only rarely may he misjudge his audience. I doubt that students with enough Latin to handle the Dialogus need to have the syntax of "cui bono est" explained to them (p. 113), but a cross-reference to the introductory comments on prose rhythm (pp. 30-31) would have been a good idea when noting Aper's double-trochees at 22.3. The more help on such matters the better. M. is excellent on Tacitus' Ciceronian echoes, especially the Dialogus' relation to Brutus and De oratore and--a special strength--on similarities of thought and expression. An occasional note may overreach. To call laudem inanem "a Ciceronian phrase" (p. 113), for example, as distinct from simply "a phrase also found in Cicero" (but then why note it?) implies more than the facts seem to warrant: there is no evidence that Cicero coined this sense of inanis, nor is some intertextual echo at stake.1 The fifty-page introduction contains sections on language (pp. 27-31) and structure (pp. 31-44) that complement the notes well, though M. might have considered broader issues of Tacitus' modeling, such as the structural affinities of the beginning and end of the Dialogus to, respectively De divinatione and De natura deorum. M. restricts himself too narrowly to the example of Cicero's rhetorica.2

The treatment of literary and cultural history is more uneven. Much is still excellent, including notes on the growing gap between oratorical models and oratorical practice in the first century (pp. 156-57), on the implications of Maternus' phrase "lucrosae huius et sanguinantis eloquentiae" at 12.2 (pp. 124-25), and on Messalla's Ciceronianism (pp. 183-84). A few points are too narrowly focussed. Tacitus may, as M. claims, have admired Lucan's self-possession in the face of death (p. 96, citing An. 15.70.1), but the craven betrayal of his mother mentioned just before, which put Lucan among those "promissa impunitate corrupti" (An. 15.56.4), suggests a noteworthy limit to Tacitus' admiration. The challenges to Seneca's reputation in the late first century may help explain Aper's failure to cite him as a stylistic model at 26.7 (p. 173; cf. Dominik 1997: 50-59). Sometimes the philologist's shorthand may create a wrong impression. The statement that Maternus' dramatic verse "will have conformed to the metrical practice of Seneca" (p. 131) is perhaps true in principle but implies a canonical status not actually attested for Senecan tragedy.3 The guidance offered on interpretive matters can be dated or idiosyncratic. Yes, Ewbank's edition of Cicero's poetry (1933) "offers still useful discussion" (159), but students should surely be referred first to Courtney 1992: 149-78, and the chapter on Cicero's poetry in Goldberg 1995: 135-57 is germane. Other omissions are less easily excused.

In chapter 35, for example, Messalla has harsh words for declamation and its role in Roman education, a passage that deserves serious consideration by anyone wishing to take declamation seriously as an intellectual exercise and educational tool. M. brushes aside one such attempt ("[it] would presumably have bewildered Messalla," p. 198), but that was not a particularly successful effort. Students would find a more compelling explanation of declamation's value in Bloomer 1997 or--probably too late for M. but worth mentioning in this context--Kaster 2001. So too in commenting on the death of Cicero as a declamatory theme (p. 213), M. passes by the opportunity to mention Roller 1997 and Kaster 1998. He seems reluctant to refer students to scholars who advance an interpretive line different from his own.

The most significant nudge of his cold shoulder comes at the end, where Maternus wonders what need there is for oratory of the fiery Republican kind, "cum de re publica non imperiti et multi deliberent, sed sapientissimus et unus?" (41.4). M. hears a "resigned, nostalgic note" in Maternus' conclusion but gives no hint in the commentary that Maternus' words could possibly be ironic, much less that many readers have taken them to be so. Indeed, he does not think Tacitus much capable of irony or ambiguity. On the phrase "certo imperio contenta" at 40.3, for example, where Güngerich and others take contenta to mean 'restrained', he glosses 'satisfied with' and comments, "If T. had wanted to indicate 'restraint', he had less ambiguous words to hand" (p. 212). It is true, however, that p. 43 of the introduction acknowledges "considerable debate" over the question, "Is he [Maternus] therefore now being ironical?" and provides a supporting footnote before M. advances his own (negative) conclusion. That note runs in its entirety: "See above all A. Köhnken, 'Das Problem der Ironie bei Tacitus', MH 30 (1973) 32-50; others who urge this view are conveniently listed by S. Döpp, 'Zeitverhältnisse und Kultur im Taciteischen Dialogus,' in B. Kühnert et al., eds., Prinzipat und Kultur im 1. und 2. Jahrhundert (Bonn 1995) 223 n. 29."

Track down that "convenient" list and you will find this: "Als ironisch verstehen Maternus' Äusserungen über den Principat hingegen Borzsák (1968) 440; Köhnken; Heubner 208; Heldmann (1982) 280; Duret 3211; Murphy 2288." Of these, only Murphy is in English--and mentions but does not support the ironic interpretation of Maternus' words. This is an odd way to do business. Why not refer readers "above all" to Bartsch 1994: 110-19, who is more readily found in college libraries and provides, in English, a clear, powerful argument for an ironic Maternus? Why play hide-and-seek in and out of German footnotes when M. has promised "the sort of introduction and notes an anglophone undergraduate might want" (vii)? I think he is right about Maternus' speech (cf. Goldberg 1999: 236-37), but he is not right to suppress--that is surely what he is doing-- so significant and accessible a contrary view. Commentaries should open doors, not pretend they aren't there.4 What M. does not know (or does not believe) may still be knowledge.

The philology that informs this work is a powerful tool. Without it we are nothing, but it cannot do everything. It cannot, for example, prevent the kind of methodological error that compromises M.'s otherwise compelling account of Tacitus' life and work (pp. 6-9). There he identifies the extortion trial of Marius Priscus in January 100 as a turning point in Tacitus' career: Priscus' escape from the most serious consequences of his conviction, says M., left Tacitus a disillusioned man.

Tacitus came thus to reflect upon the application of the skill that had made him the man he was, and he found it either morally compromised or a sham....Better to abandon it, and give fresh scope to talent in other forms of eloquentia. Rather than keep his disillusion to himself, however, he expressed it in literary productions... [viz. the Agricola and Dialogus] (p. 8).

We know what Tacitus did (he left his public career for a literary one), but we do not know what he reflected upon or what he found if and when reflecting. We do not even know that he was disillusioned by the Priscus affair.5 It is M. who came to reflect on the Dialogus and Agricola, read disillusionment in them, and then used that reading to fill the void that is the historical Tacitus. So circular a procedure may be harmless but might just tempt the unwary to accept M.'s particular reading of the Dialogus in the belief that the "facts" of Tacitus' life support it. They do not. Works of art, as Wellek and Warren pointed out half a century ago, are not biographical documents.6 Tacitus' intellectual biography cannot be culled from a reading of the Dialogus any more than Catullus' love-affairs can be reconstructed from his poems. Here, as throughout this work, readers will need to recognize where M.'s scholarly methods exceed their limit.

This is, in sum, a valuable edition. It should make the task of reading the Dialogus much easier, but students will need more than this edition to read it well.


Bartsch, S. 1994. Actors in the Audience. Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Bloomer, M. 1997. "Schooling in Persona: Imagination and Subordination in Roman Education." CA 16: 57-78.

Bo, D. 1974. Taciti Dialogus de oratoribus. Turin.

Courtney, E. 1993. The Fragmentary Latin Poets. Oxford: Clarendon.

Dominik, W. J. 1997. "The Style is the Man: Seneca, Tacitus and Quintilian's Canon." In W. J. Dominik, ed. Roman Eloquence. Rhetoric in Society and Literature. London and New York: Routledge. 50-68.

Epstein, W. H., ed. 1991. Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism. West Lafayette: Purdue.

Ewbank, W. W. 1933. The Poems of Cicero. London: U London Press.

Goldberg, S.M. 1995. Epic in Republican Rome. New York: Oxford.

----. 1998. "Appreciating Aper: The Defence of Modernity in Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus." CQ 49: 224-37.

Güngerich, R. 1980. Kommentar zum Dialogus des Tacitus, ed. H. Heubner. Göttingen.

Kaster, R. A. 1998. "Becoming 'Cicero'". In P. Knox and C. Foss, ed. Style and Tradition. Studies in Honor of Wendell Clausen. Stuttgart: Teubner. 248-63.

----. 2001. "Controlling Reason: Declamation in Rhetorical Education at Rome." In Y. L. Too, ed. Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Leiden: Brill. 317-37.

Pease, D. E. 1995. "Author." In F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, ed. Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2 ed. Chicago: U Chicago Press. 105-17.

Roller, M. B. 1997. "Color-Blindness: Cicero's Death, Declamation, and the Production of History." CP 92: 109-30.

Wellek, R. and A. Warren. 1956. Theory of Literature., 3 ed. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Williams, G. 1978. Change and Decline. Roman Literature in the Early Empire. Berkeley: California.


1.   The two Ciceronian examples cited are Fam. 6.4.4, 15.4.13. The OLD offers "inanis ostentatio" at B. Alex. 74.4, which suggests that 'hollow' is not a sense unique to Cicero in the Republic.
2.   I thank my colleague A.R. Dyck for confirming my suspicion about these echoes. M. provides valuable help for keeping Tacitus' interlocutors and their arguments straight, though one potentially confusing misprint occurs in this context: at p. 102 top line, read "by Maternus" for "by Messalla".
3.   The metrical practice of Octavia> and Hercules Oetaeus might justify M.'s implication, but a more neutral formulation seems advisable, e.g. "the metrical practice well attested in Seneca" vel sim.
4.   M. certainly knows Bartsch exists because it figures in other works he cites. The commentary is not otherwise under-annotated, although it shows a marked preference for the old, the British, or the German over the new, the American, and or Italian.
5.   Pliny, his co-prosecutor, called the trial 'severitate exempli salubre, rei magnitudine aeternum' (Ep. 2.11.1), hardly a disillusioned voice. Why M. assumes that Tacitus shared Juvenal's more cynical view of the result (Juv. 1.47-50) rather than his friend Pliny's is not stated.
6.   Wellek and Warren 1956: 75-80. M.'s parallel discussion of Pliny's literary aspirations (pp. 10-12) rests on a different kind of evidence, though even there M. may make insufficient allowance for the artificialities of Pliny's authorial voice. Today, as biographical criticism makes a comeback, practitioners carefully distinguish what they know of a life from what they read in a text. The essays in Epstein 1991 are instructive, as is Pease 1995 on the place of the author in literary criticism.

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