Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.12.27

Francesca Santoro L'Hoir, Tragedy, Rhetoric, and the Historiography of Tacitus' Annales.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2006.  Pp. viii, 401.  ISBN 13: 978-0-472-11519-8.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Timothy Joseph, Harvard University (
Word count: 2631 words

"Tacitus is a poet and a dramatist," declared Ronald Syme nearly fifty years ago, and in recent years several readers of Tacitus have set out to establish in what ways exactly the historian is poetic and dramatic.1 Francesca Santoro L'Hoir (hereafter S.) joins this company with her sizeable new book, the first attempt to treat comprehensively the influence of tragedy on the Annals. Although she argues for allusions to specific tragedies in several passages, S. approaches her task chiefly through the study of Tacitus' lexical technique. She maintains that he employs vocabulary much as tragedians do, clustering thematic words and bringing out their "polyvalent connotations" (p. 9); in so doing he "conveys a subliminal tragic message" (p. 10) to the readers of the Annals.

The book is aptly titled, as throughout the work S. appeals to the prominence in the Roman rhetorical tradition of Greek literature, and specifically Greek tragedy. Adducing testimonia from Cicero, Quintilian, Pliny the Younger, and Aulus Gellius, she demonstrates in the introduction (pp. 1-11) that Tacitus and his elite Roman readers alike were steeped in Greek tragedy. His audience, therefore, would be receptive of the tragic imagery, as well as the "subtle lexical substructure" (p. 10) that he had figured into the Annals. With tragedy's place in Roman rhetoric established, S.'s thesis about Tacitus' tragic use of diction is promising, especially in light of the historian's uncommonly exacting and nuanced engagement with language. But, as I will discuss below, in her specific arguments S. often does not consider what precisely is extraordinary about Tacitus' word choices, and this oversight cripples the execution of her thesis.

S. divides the book into three parts, "Connotations" (Chapters 1 and 2), "Transgressions" (Chapters 3 and 4), and "Boundaries" (Chapter 5). As the first subtitle indicates, the first two chapters aim to present the network of flexible vocabulary by which Tacitus connects the characters and events of the Annals. His thematically related words, S. maintains, are commonly grouped together, often act on multiple semantic levels, and recur in "asymmetrical" repetition, i.e., they are "connected to one another by verbal similarity rather than verbal duplication".2 She compares this use of words to the lexical strategies of tragedians such as Aeschylus, while contrasting it with the practices of Sallust and Livy, both of whom, it is argued, typically use verbal repetition in a more "horizontal" and "linear" way (p. 28).

In Chapter 1, "Tacitus and the 'Theatrical Paradigm,'" (pp. 15-70), S.'s focus falls on Ann. 1.3-11, where the historian "introduces his major lexical themes" (p. 16). What is established in Tacitus' opening chapters, she argues, is that the domus Caesarum follows a destructive path similar to that of the Atreid dynasty, and specifically the Atreid dynasty of Aeschylus' Oresteia. For instance, Livia's binding of Augustus (senem Augustum deuinxerat, 1.3.4) and subsequent fencing off of the palace (acribus. . . custodiis domum et uias saepserat, 1.5.4) are read at pp. 47-56 as modeled on Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon and securing of the house (phraxeien, Ag. 1376); at the same time Livia's acts, as often in tragedy, proleptically look ahead to the younger Agrippina's poisoning of Claudius (12.67) and similar act of enclosure of the palace (cunctos aditus custodiis clauserat, 12.68.3). The three passages, then, are linked not just by similarity of content, but also by the thematic language of binding and control. In this fashion S. uses Chapter 1 to mine what she calls the "Atreid chapters" (Ann. 1.3-11) for lexical and thematic links to the Oresteia, while also arguing here for specific references to that trilogy in a few other passages in the Annals (especially thought-provoking is the suggestion at pp. 61-70 that the mourning Agrippina the Elder of 3.1 draws much from Aeschylus' Electra).

In Chapter 2, "Tacitus and Aristotle's Poetics of Tragedy" (pp. 71-108), S. broadens significantly her discussion of the Annals' thematic vocabulary. Here she states that Tacitus has taken the themes that hold together his clusters of words from five main categories, each derived from a key term in Aristotle's Poetics: desis ("binding"), lusis ("loosing"), peripeteia ("reversal"), anagnorisis ("recognition"), and opsis ("vision, appearance"). S. uses these categories as the foundation for much of her subsequent analysis. While the use of these categories as a methodological tool may be helpful, it is surely problematic to maintain that, when Tacitus groups the common words relating to binding and loosing (examples at pp. 72-79), reversal and change (pp. 79-83), knowledge and ignorance (pp. 83-97), and vision and appearance (pp. 97-101), he is being "evocative of Aristotle's poetics of tragedy" (p. 108). Without a sustained discussion of how extraordinary the frequency and the grouping of the specific words are -- as compared to their occurrence in Tacitus' other works and in the works of other authors -- it is difficult to assess whether Tacitus' clustering of these words in the Annals is deliberate and in any way thematically meaningful.

A distinction that S. wisely makes in Chapters 1 and 2, and that may help in identifying thematically meaningful word clusters, is that between literal and metaphorical uses of thematic words. So, for example, at pp. 98-99 (and also at pp. 42 and 234) she discusses how in the Tiberian books the language of appearance and spectacle (e.g., imago, species, and spectaculum) is used more often as a metaphor for deception, while in the Claudian and Neronian books such words are regularly applied to the patently spectacular events of those years. Another example comes at p. 75, where she notes that at 1.43.4, when Germanicus is scolding his mutinous troops, he invokes the fidei uinculum, to be contrasted with the literal chains applied to the mutineers soon thereafter (uinctos trahunt, 1.44.2). But when Tacitus employs S.'s chosen thematic words in strictly literal ways, the argument for deliberate clustering falters. So at pp. 187-188 she suggests that the words from the thematic fields of binding and recognition that Tacitus uses in 2.68, of the escape and subsequent arrest of the Cilician Vonones (custodibus, uincitur, custodiae; conscientia sceleris), are intended to prepare the reader for the notice of Germanicus' failed health and "inevitable fatality" (p. 188) in 2.69. While Tacitus does place these incidents in adjacent chapters, they are entirely unrelated; and one wonders what other words the historian could have used to describe the imprisonment and binding of Vonones.

Chapter 3, "Muliebris Impotentia: The Paths to Power" (pp. 111-157) examines the theme of the transgressive, power-driven woman, introduced in Ann. 1.3-11 in the character of Livia, and appearing often in the Annals, in the characters of the elder Agrippina, Plancina (the wife of Piso, Germanicus' alleged poisoner), the British queen Boudicca, and "the consummate female usurper" (p. 124), the younger Agrippina. S. argues that, in order to bring out his theme that "if women are given free rein, muliebris impotentia will grind libertas under foot" (p. 124), Tacitus depicts these characters with "elements of gender reversal reminiscent of the masculinized women of tragedy" (p. 112). Her comparison of specific passages here is often revealing, as at pp. 126-7, where she suggests that the younger Agrippina's impotentiam muliebrem nimiasque spes (12.57.2, literally, her "womanly lack of control and excessive hopes") are intended to recall not just Livia's muliebri impotentia of 1.4.5, but also Clytemnestra's famous "man-planning, hopeful heart" (androboulon elpizon kear, Ag. 10). However, when observing the general theme of the over-reaching and thus dangerous woman in power (which most certainly does run through the Annals), one again questions the extent to which Tacitus' use of this topos is "tragic," or even unusual at all. At pp. 124-139 S. discusses examples of the stereotype of the masculinized woman in Aeschylus' as well as Seneca's Agamemnon, but also looks at examples from Cicero, Sallust, Horace, Virgil, Livy, Velleius and Plutarch. The list of course does not end there. While indeed many of the appearances of this stereotype seem to draw from the rhetorical tradition and often from each other, do all of them necessarily go back to a tragic source?

The concluding section (pp. 144-157) of Chapter 3 segues easily, though somewhat redundantly,3 into Chapter 4, "The Adulterer-Poisoner: A Presumption of Guilt" (pp. 158-195). In these pages S. draws from passages in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero's Pro Caelio and Pro Cluentio, the Controversiae of the elder Seneca, and Quintilian's Institutio, as well as the Minor Declamationsascribed to him, to demonstrate convincingly that in the rhetorical tradition "[t]he concepts of poisoning, magic, and evil female persuasion overlap" (p. 149). She goes on to argue that the "adulterer-poisoner" women in the Annals are extensions of this tradition. For instance, at 1.5.1 Tacitus writes of Augustus' failing health: quidam scelus uxoris suspectabant. Familiarity with the tradition in which poisoning was considered a woman's crime (cf. ut latrocinium facilius in uiro, ueneficium in femina credas, Quint., Inst. 5.10.25), coupled with the clustering of traditional rhetorical markers of the "adulterer-poisoner" (e.g., nouerca, senem deuinxerat, and muliebri impotentia in 1.3-4), would lead the readers of 1.5.1 to conclude that Livia poisoned Augustus. At pp. 175-182 S. observes how other female characters such as Claudia Pulchra and Aemilia Lepida suffer similar insinuations of guilt, and also extends the application of the stereotype to the "feminized" men of the Annals. Because, she contends, "Tacitus' portrayals of [Sejanus and Nero] depend on...gender reversal" (p. 175), in their cases the insinuations of poisoning are more credible. Most of this is sensible, and well argued, but the role of tragedy in the development of this female stereotype (which may go back to Homer's Helen and Circe, whom S. mentions at p. 313, nn. 55 and 56) does not appear to be fundamental.

In demonstrating the strength of the "adulterer-poisoner" topos in the rhetorical tradition, S. on a few occasions adduces passages from Dio's Roman History. On p. 149 she observes the portrayal of the younger Agrippina as a spellbinding seductress at 61.11.3 (preserved in epitome). Then at pp. 173-4 she recalls the rumor, reported by Dio at 56.30.1-2, that Livia's poisonous figs had killed Augustus. These passages, which share some details with the Tacitean passages but also differ from them in significant ways, raise several questions -- important questions if one is arguing, as I believe S. to be doing, for the uniqueness of Tacitus' characters: how precisely do the accounts of Tacitus and Dio differ? Which of the two authors seems to draw more heavily from the rhetorical tradition? How do the frequency and placement of rhetorically charged diction differ in the two treatments? And, perhaps most tellingly, what in the two treatments can we attribute to their shared source? At pp. 173-4 S. writes of Dio's account of Augustus' death: "Dio...seems to take a page from Tacitus by juxtaposing suspicions of Livia with her husband's supposed reconciliation with his grandson." It is more likely, however, that Dio -- like Tacitus before him -- is taking a page from their shared source. Indeed, Ronald Martin, in his discussion of the "unknown annalist" whose presence must account for similarities in these two historians, concludes after comparing a few sample passages: "What we can deduce from the common elements in Tacitus and Dio suggests that their common source was fond of the dramatic and the rhetorical."4

Martin's judgment is of course not absolute. And in no way does such a judgment preclude us from looking for variances in the influence of "the rhetorical" or even "the dramatic" in the different accounts. So, in one of the more convincing treatments in the book (pp. 235-237), S. looks at Tacitus' account of the disruption of palace order under Claudius (at 11.28-32). The disorder climaxes when Messalina and her paramour Silius, dressed as a maenad and a satyr, lead a revel through the palace (11.31-32). The two revelers transfer the wilds into the domus, so rocking it just as Dionysus in the Bacchae rocks the oikos of Pentheus. S. supports her suggestion that "Tacitus has deliberately portrayed the episode according to Euripides' well-known scenario" (p. 236) by noting that the Bacchic elements that characterize Tacitus' account are missing from the accounts of Silius' and Messalina's affair in Dio and Suetonius. Such "cross-referencing" with the other works in the parallel tradition sets in relief Tacitus' strategies. In the absence of this cross-referencing elsewhere in the book (and S. does not discuss the parallel tradition at all), it is often difficult to see what differentiates Tacitus' treatment of a given event or topos from the treatments by other authors.5

S. addresses the Messalina-Silius episode in Chapter 5, "The Stagecraft of Tacitus" (pp. 199-250), in which she returns to a more recognizably "tragic" theme, that of theatrical presentation, after committing much of Chapters 3 and 4 to the (to my mind) more general rhetorical topos of the adultera-uenefica. Chapter 5 is the sole installment in Part III, "Boundaries," and indeed here S. discusses how those who cross boundaries in the Annals often suffer dire consequences. The ever-wandering Germanicus is her first example (pp. 200-204); S. reads Germanicus' frequent changes of dress, as well as the penchant for theatricality that comes out in his emotional harangues and suicide attempts, as fateful for him, and as harbingers of the more conspicuous "theatrical transvestism" (p. 202) of his grandson Nero. The violation of the boundaries of house, garden, and theater by Tiberius and Nero, among others (see Messalina and Silius above), are read as similarly ominous. Nero's transgression of these boundaries is most striking: as S. sees it, the "distortion of the tragic dialectic between oikos and polis" (p. 247), which is most apparent when Nero holds his lurid private conuiuia in public places (15.37.1), leads to the subsequent destruction of Rome by fire. Tacitus' placement of the great fire in 15.38, immediately after his account of Nero's lakeside brothel in 15.37, indicates the thematic link between the two transgressions: "[a]s Nero nullifies the boundaries of morality, so the fire obliterates the boundaries of the domus of men and the temples of the gods themselves" (p. 248).

To support her contention that, in Tacitus' conception, the Julio-Claudians' gradual transformation of the world into their own theater had ruinous consequences, S. appeals to the "metatheatrical Stoicism" of Seneca at several points in Chapter 5 (especially at pp. 204-220). She argues that Seneca's consideration of humans as actors (be they heroes or villains) in the universe's spectaculum, as well as his anticipation of nature's periodic, all-consuming conflagrations, informs Tacitus' presentation of his Julio-Claudian antagonists, whose transgressions result in the consummate conflagration, the great fire.

This book (which is for the most part free of typos6) will be helpful to those interested in studying the rhetorical topoi that surface and resurface in Tacitus' presentation of the Julio-Claudians. Those interested in Tacitean diction and verbal repetition will surely want to consult it as well. The three rich indexes (an Index Locorum, Index of Latin Words, and General Index, totaling 45 pages) are useful in this regard.

But the persistent neglect of other authors as a control is conspicuous. In her conclusion (pp. 251-264), S. notes that "[i]n the Julio-Claudians, Tacitus had the perfect material for a tragic scenario" (p. 259) and that "[t]heatricality was omnipresent in Augustus' reconstructed Rome" (p. 260). Her assertion, in the conclusion, that the lives of the Julio-Claudians were innately tragic and spectacular seems to complicate much of what precedes. S. commits the book to arguing that Tacitus brought a tragic lexical strategy to his description of the manifestly tragic Julio-Claudians. Some of her arguments are persuasive; but, without regular direction to differences in the accounts and in the words of other authors, very often it remains unclear to the reader of this book what in the Annals is owed to Tacitus' predecessors, what may reflect a "tragic" reality, and what may be, in the literary sense, tragic.


1.   See e.g. Mario Lauletta, L'intreccio degli stili in Tacito: intertestualità prosa-poesia nella letteratura storiografica (Napoli, 1998); and Antoine Foucher, Historia proxima poetis: L'influence de la poésie épique sur le style des historiens latins de Salluste à Ammien Marcellin (Bruxelles, 2000). On Tacitus' theatrical presentation of the events under Nero, see A. J. Woodman, "Amateur Dramatics at the Court of Nero: Annals 15.48-74," in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman, edd., Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton, 1993), 104-28; and Shadi Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, MA, 1994), Chapters 1 and 2. The Syme quote is taken from Tacitus (Oxford, 1958), 545.
2.   At p. 39 S. takes this definition from Anne Lebeck, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure (Cambridge, MA, 1971), 1.
3.   This may stem from the fact that each of these chapters was published in a different form at an earlier date, as S. indicates in the endnotes at p. 294 and p. 308. Chapter 3 appeared as "Tacitus and Women's Usurpation of Power," CW 88 (1994): 5-25; and Chapter 4 appeared in Rome and Her Monuments: Essays on the City and Literature of Rome in Honor of Katherine A. Geffcken (Wauconda, IL, 2000), 465-507.
4.   Ronald Martin, Tacitus (Berkeley, 1981), 206. On the parallel tradition, see also Bartsch (reference in n. 1), 212, n. 27.
5.   S.'s only substantial comparison of presentations of the same material in Tacitus and Suetonius comes at pp. 226-7, when arguing that "Tacitus is able to utilize gardens rhetorically as virtual settings for a series of 'satyr plays' within his history" (p. 226). There she maintains that the historian (at Ann. 6.1.1), as well as the biographer (at Tib. 43-44), presents Tiberius at Capri as a Silenus figure. But she grants that it is Suetonius', not Tacitus', development of the satyric element that is more elaborate.
6.   'oxymoric' at p. 41 and p. 340, n. 46; at p. 63 read 'muliebre' for 'mulebre'; 'luxeriates' at p. 75; 'sine dubium' at p. 84; at p. 105 read '1.61-1.65' for '1.61-1.64'; at p. 155 it is suggested that 'deuinctus amore' at Virg. Aen. 8.394 modifies Aeneas, though it modifies Vulcan; at p. 184 read 'ius consulare' for 'ius consularis'; p. 190 '13.15.5' for '3.15.5'; p. 192 'opinantur' for 'opinatur'; and p. 192 'omina' for 'omnia'.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:30, Friday, 03 April 2009