Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.39
Melanie Geiser, Personendarstellung bei Tacitus: am Beispiel von Cn. Domitius Corbulo und Ser. Sulpicius Galba. Die Antike und ihr Weiterleben, Bd. 6. Remscheid: Gardez! Verlag, 2007. Pp. 311. ISBN 978-3-89796-183-8. €39.90 (pb).
Reviewed by members of the Fall 2007 Tacitus seminar at the University of Pennsylvania (C. Damon, S. Bernard, R. Carli, M. Farmer, D. Galante, J. Gerrish, C. Gillespie, C. Ham, A. Jones, J. Nethercut, K. Sagstetter, E. Smith, D. Turner; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1229 words
The raison d'être of this book is laid out clearly in ch. 1: given that characterization is an important form of analysis in Tacitus' history, it is puzzling that his two characters Corbulo and Galba, prominent figures both and linked by significant characteristics such as severitas, attachment to republican standards, and dissimilarity to Nero, receive discrepant and even inconsistent evaluations in the considerable body of scholarly literature on the subject. Geiser proposes to investigate this puzzle by expanding the framework of techniques of characterization used heretofore (direct and indirect, with subcategories of each) to include characterization by contrast and by giving close readings of the passages on Corbulo and Galba from the perspective of two different types of reader: the objective/analytical reader and the emotional/superficial reader. Close reading elicits some welcome illustrations of the power and complexity of Tacitean characterization, but the book's organization engenders repetitious and blinkered analysis.
The book offers a close reading of every passage in which Corbulo (ch. 2) and Galba (ch. 3) are present or (sometimes marginally) relevant, followed by a discussion of the techniques of characterization therein deployed. Since the portraits of Corbulo and Galba, though richly detailed, are in Geiser's view static (47), and since the number of characterization techniques is limited, many a paragraph begins "wiederum." On the other hand, scrupulous attention to detail eventually yields pictures of the two men more nuanced than any on offer in the prior scholarship surveyed in ch. 1; her Corbulo is no paragon, her Galba no villain.
G's discussion of the opening panel of Annals 15, where Corbulo, with whom the reader has been getting acquainted since Annals 11, is sparring with the Parthian king Vologaeses for control of Armenia, illustrates the gains. One of Tacitus' most powerful characterization techniques is the excursus into a character's mind, wherein the reader sees the plans and desires and calculations that underlie action. Much of the favorable characterization of Corbulo is, as Geiser shows, due to such interior scenes: Corbulo's plans, generally honorable, correspond to his actions, and his actions succeed. But at Annals 15.3.1 he sends troops ostensibly to support the Nero-backed Armenian king Tigranes against the Parthian-backed Tiridates while giving their commanding officers a secret order (occulto praecepto) to temporize. The reason for this complicated arrangement is given not "from within" but in a somewhat murky authorial comment (quippe bellum habere quam gerere malebat), and the peaceful resolution of this phase of the campaign stirs gossip about Corbulo's motives: people suspect a secret agreement (15.6.1 occulte pepigisse) engineered by Corbulo to preserve his record of success and leave the risk to someone else. As Geiser shows, the sudden exclusion of the reader from "inside" Corbulo's head forces a change of perspective and gives rise to readerly doubts about the meritoriousness of his moves here. Corbulo's focus on his own interests is well worth showing, and assumes its proper surprise effect against the background of interiorized justification that Geiser has shown us.
The characterization of Galba, by contrast, involves little interiority and is correspondingly more negative: an invalidus senex, clueless in his own "Weltfremdheit." Yet the existence of a rich parallel tradition for this part of Tacitus' work allows Geiser to show convincingly that Tacitus incorporates more praiseworthy qualities in his Galba than does any other source. In this chapter, too, the role of contrast in characterization is well illustrated: Geiser teases out the complex contrast between Galba and Nero, from whom he is outwardly very different but whose corrupt court he recreates, as well as the implications of his textual juxtapositions with Otho, his rival, and Piso, his heir. Chapter 4, the Synkrisis, brings out nicely the fact that Tacitus' various techniques of characterization are differently salient in his treatments of Corbulo and Galba.
The drawbacks to Geiser's approach stem from the organization of her discussion. Even the order of her chapters gives pause: does it make sense, in a study of literary technique, to privilege the order of events (Corbulo then Galba) over the order of composition (Histories then Annals)? Within each chapter the tight focus on the text at hand discourages relevant comparisons with other Tacitean characters, as well as consideration of Tacitus' larger historical aims. Furthermore, the close and continuous reading approach as here deployed yields frequent detailed paraphrases of Tacitus' narrative that raise the question of what audience Geiser is aiming to reach: readers sufficiently familiar with Tacitus to appreciate Geiser's tightly focused investigation will not profit from summary of the text. The approach also yields too many discussions of passages with minimal relevance for the characterization of Corbulo and Galba.
Even when she steps back from the text to summarize her findings on Corbulo (section 2.3) and Galba (section 3.3), Geiser's conclusions seems disappointingly limited. On Corbulo, she observes that Tacitus' portrait shows "dass Corbulos Qualitäten als Mensch seinen Qualitäten als Feldherr nicht entsprächen" (151). Apropos of Galba, she wants his severitas and old-fashioned moresto be real virtues (271, 280) and argues, tentatively, that they are absent from Galba's obituary because they had received their due in the narrative (282). In both sections her emphasis on Tacitus' moral evaluation of these two men forestalls consideration of his historical analysis. It would have been interesting, for instance, to develop the question--broached briefly in connection with Corbulo's record under Claudius (144)--of whether the flaws so visible in Tacitus' chapters on Corbulo under Nero (flaws that Geiser argues persuasively to be original to Tacitus' characterization of Corbulo, not part of the parallel tradition) are generalizable to problems in the management of the army under the empire. On the characterization of Galba, one might ask whether the distribution of qualities between narrative and obituary conveys Tacitus' analysis of events in 68-69 CE: perhaps he included Galba's "virtues" in the narrative because the man's reputation explained why contemporaries judged him a plausible imperial contender in 68 both before and after Nero's death and omitted them from the obituary because Galba's performance had belied this view. Other worthwhile questions will occur to other readers.
A word needs to be said about Geiser's attempt to distinguish two different types of reader for these character portraits. The analytical reader, it seems, is much like Geiser herself, keeping track of positive and negative traits and the variously authoritative supports for each: some traits are affirmed by the author, others are shown in action, other are asserted by rivals or the crowd, still others manifest themselves in the mind of the character himself. For the superficial reader, however, she asserts as a principle "semper aliquid haeret" (286). The problem is in identifying the aliquid. For Geiser, the superficial reader ends up with an overwhelmingly positive view of Corbulo (whose flaws don't seem to stick) and an overwhelmingly negative view of Galba (whose virtues, be they real or reputed, are similarly slippery). From time to time she sketches the "picture" that this reader has of Corbulo or Galba, without ever articulating how she decided what to include and what to omit. One's misgivings come to a head when it turns out that the superficial reader's view of Galba is essentially the same as Syme's (quoted 275: "clear and condemnatory").
Characterization in Tacitus is a subject of perennial interest, and the scholar in pursuit of examples of his art will find them in Geiser's book. But it might be faster to read Tacitus.