Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.18

Roderich Kirchner, Sentenzen im Werk des Tacitus. Palingenesia LXXIV.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 206.  ISBN 3-515-07802-9.  EUR 44.00.  

Reviewed by Steven H. Rutledge, University of Maryland, College Park (
Word count: 1415 words

In the realm of Tacitean studies there is, as it now stands, a virtual subsection of research in Tacitean rhetoric, with sententiae as a focal point of particular current interest. K.'s study is one that now takes its place on this subject among works by scholars as widely divergent as B.-R. Voss (Der pointerte Stil des Tacitus 2. durchges. Aufl. [Münster 1980]) and P. Sinclair (Tacitus the Sententious Historian, A Sociology of Rhetoric in Annales 1-6 [University Park, PA, 1995]), whose studies range from the rather traditional to more current theoretical methodologies for understanding how this rhetorical device functions. The present study concludes what by now many have already recognized: that sententiae are more than simply an ornamental component of Tacitus' work; there is in fact a close nexus between sententiae, subject matter and the larger political and social milieu of the day. Nevertheless, K. pursues a number of paths that make this an important study of Tacitus' prose and of his methodology as a historian.

First, a summary. K. divides his work into eight major sections. The introduction lays out K.'s goal and methodology. He then gives a brief history of sententiae in ancient rhetorical theory. This is followed by a discussion of the criteria for understanding sententiae in Tacitus. The syntactical construction of Tacitus' sententiae and the connection to their context in Tacitus' writings are covered in the next section. In the following chapter K. gives them a classification. The next two sections look at the function of sententiae and their contribution to Tacitus' work; finally comes a short conclusion. K. includes three useful appendices at the end of his study.

The work is well laid out and executed. It starts with a rehearsal of scholarly contributions on this subject. He gives close scrutiny to the most recent word on this topic by Sinclair, with some critique in the process. His central objection to Sinclair is a methodological one: Sinclair does not make a more subtle distinction of the different types of sententiae that Tacitus deploys; he argues that this lack of distinction is problematic. Such criticism is a result of the approach K. takes, which is heavily philological. He offers a close and meticulous inquiry into the language of Tacitus' text and in its structuring (chapters four and five), then commences from within this close reading of the text to examine how sententiae are put to work. They serve to construct or emphasize certain aspects of his history -- they help in portraying various characters, give clues concerning Tacitus' own views on history and even tell us something about his methodology as a historian. As such, K. is interested in a very close reading of the text (e.g. his discussion on p. 73 of the conjunctions used to introduce sententiae in independent clauses, especially causal clauses, is typical of his approach). This is very different from Sinclair, who starts from outside the text (and who, to put it in simplest terms, looks at the political and social milieu out of which Tacitus' text emerged and how this influenced Tacitus' rhetoric). K. tends to work more from within the text, and rarely concerns himself (as Sinclair does) with implications for how the author established his own auctoritas or with the text's larger cultural or political environment.

Following the introduction K. discusses (chapter two) how Quintilian (inter alios) classified sententiae, then looks at their application and function according to Quintilian. Much of this discussion on the rhetorical background to Tacitus as based in Quintilian concerns how Quintilian understood nova genera sententiae and what he meant by these. K. concludes that there is no real definition in Quintilian (or in Seneca the Elder, who is also included in his discussion) of sententiae that would assist us with any certainty in understanding what Tacitus precisely understood this rhetorical device to be. Without formal or more exact criteria we are left, K. concludes, to recognize sententiae, in part, from their actual context in Tacitus. Hence his need to go into great detail concerning the grammatical and syntactical structures and their connection to sententiae in chapters four and five. The discussion is very systematic. K. distinguishes between sententiae that are found in hypo- or paratactical sentences, between sententiae in speeches versus those in straight narrative, and on pp. 50-2 we are treated to a catalogue of the various types of clauses (e.g. subordinate clauses, ablative absolutes, etc.) with sententiae. K. approaches his discussion with candor when necessary, noting in his discussion of sententiae that whether we actually recognize constructions as individual sententiae can depend on personal interpretation (p. 71).

It is only after much detailed discussion and classification that K. begins to look at how Tacitus' sententiae function both in his narrative and in the speeches within the narrative. K. argues (p. 111) that their function is in part dependent on the genre of a given work. Citing the Agricola he notes that numerous sententiae serve the encomiastic ends of the biography -- and also answer possible criticism of Agricola. Concerning their function in the Annales and Historiae (pp. 113-32), he distinguishes three major deployments of the rhetorical device: how sententiae give simple explanations; how they serve as a constituent part of an explanation; and how they raise "gnomic objections". K. concludes his discussion with a lengthy examination of the contexts of such sententiae and how they inform the deeper structure of Tacitus' work (such as what the deployment of Tacitean sententiae tells his readers about his own understanding of historical causality in relation to a particular event [p. 127]). What is particularly rewarding about this discussion is that K. never loses sight of the larger picture: hence in the conclusion to this chapter he considers the "conclusionary function" of sententiae, and demonstrates in the process how in the first hexad of the Annales Tacitus relates sententiae dealing with specific details to the larger themes of his work (citing, e.g., Ann. 5.2.2 and the accusation against C. Fufius Geminus, which he relates to Tacitus' general characterization of Tiberius' reign in Ann. 5.3.1).

The final chapter considers (in greater detail) sententiae in the speeches and sententiae as a means for historical explanation. Readers will find the discussion of how sententiae are used as a subtle way to characterize various individuals in his history one that is of particular interest -- e.g. how sententiae in the speeches of Galba and Otho serve to further delineate their characters (pp. 136-7), in addition to how the sententiae in Galba's oration relates to the larger thematic issues of Tacitus' narrative (a subject already visited in part by E. Keitel in her article "The Structure and Function of Speeches in Tacitus' Histories I-III", ANRW 2.33.4 [1991] pp. 2772-94). In the final section of this chapter K. divides Tacitean sententiae into six major thematic categories. Among the most interesting of these categories is that of sententiae relating to historical theory. Tacitean sententiae not infrequently touch on the reading of history and how it is understood and received. In so doing, they help not only the reader but the author himself to interpret and reflect on history (p. 152). The use of sententiae allows Tacitus, according to K., to unfold a further perspective on his subject -- sententiae explain in a deeper way the significance of the actions of an individual or group, and Tacitus uses them, in part, to elucidate his own formulation of historical theory.

This will be a useful work for specialists in Tacitus. K.'s close reading of the text and his painstaking parsing of its language has further elucidated the historical methodology of one of the greatest literary artists from antiquity. The book is in general well produced, except for a major infelicity in indentation on p. 48. The study does not however, address how Tacitus' rhetoric (and obviously here we specifically mean sententiae) and texts fit into the author's political, cultural and literary environment (though the author does locate the literary and [ancient] theoretical place of sententiae). This is not intended to criticize K. Rather it is a caveat, that his book is in the nature of an alternative (and very close) reading, which serves as something of a complement to Sinclair's more expansive study (in the political, cultural and [modern] theoretical sense) in this area. K.'s book constitutes a solid contribution to the field of Tacitean studies. Those who intend to undertake a reading of Tacitus or to guide students through his difficult texts will benefit from consulting this resource.

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