Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.14

Cynthia Damon (ed.), Tacitus. Histories, Book I. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 338.  ISBN 0-521-57822-1.  $24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rhiannon Ash, University College London (

D.'s new commentary on Histories I is the latest Tacitean addition to the Cambridge series, which already includes R.H. Martin and A.J. Woodman's Tacitus Annals IV (1999 revised edition) and R. Mayer's Tacitus Dialogus de Oratoribus (2001). D. divides her helpful introduction into nineteen small sections, concentrating on Tacitus' political and literary career and on different aspects of his style (e.g. appendix sentences, metaphor, uariatio) and historiographical techniques (exempla, chronology). The text adopts the paragraphing and sentence numbering of Heubner's 1978 Teubner edition but differs from it in spelling and punctuation and in some readings (31). The volume also has three maps (Rome, the Roman forum and the route of the Vitellian invasion), a set of four appendices (1 Parallel passages showing strong verbal similarities, 2 Epigrams and sententiae, 3 Notes pertaining to parallel incidents reported under two or more principes, 4 Notes illustrating differences between Histories I and the parallel tradition), a select bibliography and two indices of Latin words and general topics.

D. explains that the aim of her commentary is 'to reintegrate Histories I into the corpus of teachable Latin texts' (vii). There are inevitably multiple challenges to tackle in so doing. The first, the difficulty of making Tacitus' historiographically suggestive style accessible to students, is common to any Tacitean work, but, in addition, a commentator has to face special problems peculiar to the Histories. Even if a student comes to the Histories with prior knowledge of Tacitus, that will probably be from reading the Annals, where the dominant personalities are relatively easy to keep clear in one's mind. In the Histories , however, there is a kaleidoscopic and constantly evolving cast of protagonists, some of whom (e.g. Alienus Caecina) will inconveniently change sides. Even the central figures, the emperors themselves, are likely to be relatively unknown to students approaching the text for the first time. Another problem about the accessibility of Histories I is the fact that the last books of the Annals have not survived, so that the backdrop of the notorious bellum Neronis is itself difficult to penetrate. As Murison comments, this period has 'tended to become for the history of the early Principate what the peace of Callias has long been for Athenian history in the fifth century B.C.'.1 Consequently, the retrospective references in Histories I need to be underpinned carefully and clearly. In addition, one of the pleasures for scholars trying to make sense of the year of the four emperors, namely the parallel tradition in Plutarch, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, could easily overwhelm students reading Histories I for the first time: the sheer wealth of information and the minute comparisons within the tradition that can be drawn could easily clog up a commentary, making it difficult for a user to see the wood for the trees.

D. has clearly thought carefully about these particular challenges. In this review, I will discuss in order the issues raised above and then consider more general points. First, D. is sensitive towards the need to facilitate an understanding of how T.'s style works. So, for example, when Hordeonius Flaccus' legions in Upper Germany initially edge towards rebellion, Tacitus says: obstringuntur inter se tacito foedere legiones (1.54.3). D. comments on tacito foedere as follows: 'for tacitus 'secret' see OLD 8, but that translation enfeebles T.'s oxymoron, which exploits the tension between the utterance necessary for an agreement, and the silence necessary for conspiracy; cf. Prop. 4.7.21-2 foederis heu taciti, cuius fallacia uerba / non audituri diripuere noti'. The stylistic detail highlighted here nicely demonstrates how economically Tacitus gives expression to his historical imagination: even without the organisational control imposed by a particular leader, the Upper German armies still manage to form a meaningful bond, which is all the more powerful because they can keep it secret. Tacitus's oxymoron, which is not just a stylistic flourish, communicates the menace of these soldiers, who diverge from the stereotypically explosive conduct of mutineers. D.'s comment should prompt readers to consider the relationship between Tacitus' language and subject matter, between form and meaning.

Elsewhere, D. deftly pins a general point about Tacitus' historiographical interests to a particular stylistic observation. After Galba's murder, Tacitus says: alium crederes senatum, alium populum (1.45.1) and D. observes '. . . T.'s interest in the social chaos of the period (see below on ruere cuncti) is not shared by Plutarch, who uses the same anaphora with reference to the senate and gods: G. 28.1 'As if they were now other men or the gods were other gods, the senate met and swore loyalty to Otho.'. . .'. D. is alert not just to differences from the parallel tradition but to the meanings embedded in those differences.

In addition, D. nudges students to develop sensitivity towards the register of language appropriate to historiography, both in the introduction ('Elevation' 12-13) and in the commentary itself. So on the gout (debilitas pedum, 1.9.1) of the flaccid governor of Upper Germany, Hordeonius Flaccus, D. says: 'presumably T. felt 'gout' (podagra, cf. Plut. G. 18.3) unsuited to the dignity of history' (see also 28 and more generally references in the index to 'technical language: avoided' and 'used'). Conversely, she pinpoints moments where Tacitus' language provides more elevation than a situation calls for, as at 1.79.2, lubrico itinerum adempta equorum pernicitate, 'which describes an almost farcical scene of horses slipping on ice' (14; a cross-reference in the commentary on 258 would have been helpful). Or principale scortum (1.13.3) is 'a piquant combination of the elevated and base' (131). Such observations suggest that D. has taken account of Woodman's recent arguments that Tacitus' style can be more playful than critics are generally prepared to acknowledge: 'It seems to be the case that scholars are so used to the perception of Tacitus as 'austere' that they are preconditioned not to see what they regard as 'stylistic frivolities' or 'affectation'.'2

D.'s provision of biographical details for the protagonists in the text is well-judged. When a character first appears in the narrative, she supplies the relevant information and then meticulously offers 'backwards signposts' for subsequent occurrences (e.g. Verginius Rufus on 117, 209, 254). In these biographical sketches, I occasionally found myself wanting to find more marginal and eccentric details, which can bring a character to life, e.g. Licinius Mucianus' extraordinary dinner-party in a hollow plane tree in Lycia (Pliny the Elder HN 12.9) or Galba's loyal pet dog, who has to be killed before the assassins can decapitate the emperor (Aelian On the Characteristics of Animals 7.10), but D., like any commentator, is bound by considerations of space, and the volume as a whole is well-balanced.

Tacitus' strategy of beginning the Histories on January 1st 69 obliges him, where necessary, to address the events of the bellum Neronis retrospectively and in a relatively truncated way, thereby requiring the commentator to pay particular careful attention to providing support. D.'s notes within the commentary on the identities of Nymphidius Sabinus (104-5), Petronius Turpilianus (108), Vindex (110), Clodius Macer (110), Verginius Rufus (117) and Icelus (128) provide the right level of background information without getting too immersed in minutiae. Still, it could have been useful to include a separate section in the introduction on the bellum Neronis to offer a framework for the notes.

Throughout the commentary, D. draws attention to points where Tacitus diverges in language or fact from the parallel tradition, which she discusses separately in the introduction (24-30), naturally following on from a consideration of sources (22-4). The Vitellian general Fabius Valens (30, 111) is perhaps the best example where Tacitus provides crucial information about a major figure on whom the parallel tradition is almost completely silent. This emphasis reflects Tacitus' broad thematic interest in the Histories in the mechanism of the military hierarchy, a topic to which Plutarch, Suetonius and Dio devote less attention. Such points are (rightly) accentuated in the body of the commentary, but D. sensibly siphons off some material, which appears in a useful set of appendices (1, 3 and 4 on 291-302, 304-306). This is a sensible strategy. D.'s readers can make comparisons without having to chase through the commentary assembling references; and thereby the pace of the notes within the commentary is not slowed down (Appendix 1 is particularly useful in this respect). My only query here is whether it would have been useful in Appendix 1 on verbal similarities to include the Greek as well as the English translations. D.'s normal practice throughout is usually to provide only English translations of the Greek, but an exception could perhaps have been made for this appendix.

I move on now to raise some general points. D.'s concise discussions preceding individual sections within the commentary are helpful in keeping readers oriented, in exciting interest in the narrative, and in directing attention towards important modern scholarship. The strongest such sections are where she extends her focus to include broader analysis beyond Tacitus, especially in her introductions to (a) Histories 1.4-11 on the chronological retrospective and geographical survey (98-100), which is particularly constructive in comparing Sallust's techniques, and (b) Histories 1.86 on supernatural phenomena (273-5), which uses Livy well. The announcement of topics at Histories 1.2-3 (82-3) is set against Josephus BJ, Appian Roman History, and Pliny Natural History, clarifying how Tacitus is 'less informative but more colourful' in his approach (82). Although not framed within a separate introductory discussion, D.'s opening remarks (266-8) about Otho's speech to the praetorians (1.83-4) should prompt readers to appreciate the different stylistic flourishes deployed by the emperor.

Finally, D.'s style of presentation in the commentary is concise and elegant. So on opus ... opimum ... atrox ... discors ... saeuum (1.2.1), she says 'the adjectives increasingly suit the period better than they do the opus' (83). D. can also display touches of humour, as at prolocutum ... bouem (1.86.1): '... what the animal actually said is rarely recorded (in only one of twenty-three instances recorded by Hornstein) ... ' (277). In addition, D. regularly glosses difficult phrases and supplies in Latin what Tacitus has omitted from his most elliptical expressions. She is also clear when explaining technical points, such as the sanction of the curiate assembly for an adoption (137), dating formulae (143) and the reckoning of large sums of money (145).3

In conclusion, D. is consistently sensitive to the needs of her audience. I anticipate that students will appreciate using this commentary, which offers just the right mixture of historical, literary and grammatical support. D.'s valuable contribution to the Cambridge series should certainly do much to make Histories I enjoyable for Tacitus' latest generation of readers.


1.   C.L. Murison, Galba, Otho and Vitellius: Careers and Controversies (Zürich and New York 1993) 2.
2.   A.J. Woodman, Tacitus Reviewed (Oxford 1998) 225.
3.   I add here some selective comments and miscellaneous corrections. Comments: (a) On uenalia cuncta (1.7.3), refer readers to the Sallustian motif of Rome as an urbs uenalis (BJ 8.1, 20.1, 35.10). (b) On tarde a Nerone desciuerant (1.8.2), I am not sure how D.'s statement that 'the German armies abandoned Nero while he was still alive' (117) can be reconciled with Tacitus' later assertion that [sc. exercitus] nec nisi occiso Nerone translatus in Galbam (1.53.2). (c) On Nero ... uos destituit, non uos Neronem (1.30.2) during Piso's speech, it is worth comparing 2.46.2, where Plotius Firmus begs Otho ne fidissimum exercitum, ne optime meritos milites deserere. Piso's addressees will abandon Galba but will themselves be abandoned by Otho. (d) On 1.30.3 minus triginta D. has 'presumably a reference to the twenty-four absent speculatores'. This reference is a little opaque: D. presumably refers to the twenty-three speculatores (1.27.2) counting Julius Atticus as the 24th, but he does not appear in the narrative until 1.35.2. (e) On 33.1n. dum ianua ac limine tenus domum cludit, perhaps add that tenus takes the standard position here (i.e. this is not a Tacitean affectation). (f) D. says (183) that 'nobody avenged Otho', but there is evidence to suggest that Vespasian (however cynically) cast himself as Otho's avenger, probably in order to harness the anger of the ex-Othonian troops: Suetonius refers to the exemplar epistulae uerae siue falsae defuncti Othonis ad Vespasianum extrema obtestatione ultionem mandantis et ut rei publicae subueniret optantis (Vesp. 6.4). (g) The cross reference on 147 to 46.1n. on uigiles is not very helpful. (h) On auiditate imperandi (1.52.2), see now M. Gwyn Morgan, 'Greed for Power? Tacitus Histories 1.52.2', Philologus 146 (2002) 339-49 (i) Sometimes a note is too concise: e.g. 1.62.2n. 'sagina 'feed'; in T. only in connection with Vitellius: 2.71.1 ... 2.88.1' (227). What are the implications for Vitellius' characterisation? sagina is associated with fattening up animals and gladiators (i.e. Vitellius is either bestialised or associated with a declassé category, but this emperor, unlike a gladiator, cannot even fight). It is also applied pejoratively to human eating (Plaut. Mil. 845, Mos. 236, Cic. Flac. 17; cf. fressen / essen in German). The noun does not feature in Caesar, Livy or Sallust, suggesting that it detracted from the grand style of historiography but that Tacitus was prepared to include it to reflect Vitellius' debased nature. Some of this could be made explicit. Corrections: (a) uulgi has fallen out of D.'s citation from 1.90.3 on 165 (32.1n. neque illis iudicium aut ueritas). (b) In the index under Annius Gallus (321), Suedius Clemens (323) and Suetonius Paulinus (323), the reference should be to 87.2. (c) In the index there are separate entries for Tigellinus (323) and Ofonius Tigellinus (322); these entries should be amalgamated, and references to 106, 130 and 153 should be added.

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