Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.53

Maria Antonietta Giua (ed.), Ripensando Tacito (e Ronald Syme): Storia e storiografia: Atti del Convegno Internazionale (Firenze, 30 novembre - 1 dicembre 2006). Memorie e atti di convegni, 41.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2007.  Pp. 231.  ISBN 9788846720238.  €18.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Whitton, Emmanuel College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1957 words

The long shadow of Ronald Syme continues to hang over Tacitean studies half a century after his monumental Tacitus first appeared in 1958. This collection of articles stemming from a conference in 2006 has a trio of honorands: Tacitus himself, Syme, and the distinguished Italian scholar Emilio Gabba on his eightieth birthday. The twelve contributions (nine Italian, three French) are varied in style, subject and quality, though the general approach is conservative. For one thing, true to Syme's own weighting, three quarters of the volume are dedicated to the Annals, leaving two articles for the Histories and one for the Agricola; the Germania and Dialogus must settle for the occasional passing reference. For another, major recent English-language work is largely ignored: the monographs of Ash, O'Gorman and Haynes (to name just three) go uncited,1 and even Woodman's numerous contributions are scarcely referenced. This has a certain irony in a volume which exudes hagiography of a scholar who, New Zealander by birth, installed himself in British academe with all the alacrity of the provincial Tacitus in Rome. Yet it also seems symptomatic of a broader and regrettable lack of international dialogue in which the Anglophone world is no less at fault: the reader of this collection will discover entire monographs on Tacitus which have not found their way into the footnotes of recent English-language publications.2

Given the remarkably modest price of EUR 1.50 per paper (why can't northern European presses manage it?), it might be churlish to complain that there is no conversation between the contributors. All the same, a more collaborative "rethinking" would have had its benefits. There is, however, an elegant preface from Giua which neatly interweaves the disparate contributions, adding some insights of her own; and the index locorum makes for easier raiding than, for instance, the recent Arethusa collection on Tacitus.3 The papers are arranged, with a degree of artifice, as four trios: "Tacito e Ronald Syme", "Questioni di metodo", "Fra storia e storiografia" and "Conquista e gestione dell'impero".

Honorand Emilio Gabba eases us into the volume with "Syme e Tacito: qualche ricordo". Despite his title, Gabba offers not so much personal recollection as some reflections on Tacitus' place at a crossroads in Roman history and historiography. The decline of Italy and its nobility in the first century A.D. might have been a cause for gloom for Tacitus (and Syme), but from the provincial point of view it was good news, as evidenced in the literary sphere by the efflorescence of Greek historiography.

Another modest (or non-committal) title, "Osservazioni sul Tacitus di Ronald Syme", heads the volume's most explicit engagement with Syme, in which Giua plots a scholarly cursus culminating in the 1958 monograph. For the rest, Giua focuses more on that book's reception than on Syme's later work; although she largely defends him against contemporary criticisms (in particular those of Momigliano),4 she pricks any encomiastic bubble which was forming with some balanced critique of her own. A particular gripe is Syme's failure to acknowledge the prosopographical precedent of L. B. Namier's 1929 study of Georgian Britain (here Giua follows Momigliano);5 the more pressing objection, perhaps, that Velleius Paterculus and indeed Livy get short shrift is tacked on almost as an afterthought. Syme's English has not crossed the Alps unscathed: "tipical", "dinasties", "Nord and West" all appear within a few lines.

In "Capax imperii, un fil rouge de Tacite à Syme", Jérémy Direz muses on Syme's appropriation of this Tacitean buzzword for potential principes. Astonishingly, no one who heard or read the paper before publication corrected Direz' belief that the Annals precedes the Histories. On this basis, his study takes An. 1.13.2 as the key passage. Syme's provocative chapter heading "Capax imperii" (referring to Trajan) in Tacitus has gone unnoticed, as has Borzsák's (unpersuasive) attempt to retranslate the phrase as "keen for power".6

Mario Pani, "L'innovazione tacitiana: una rivoluzione a metà", is concerned with the much-discussed digression at An. 4.32-33. In a crucial paradigm shift, says Pani, Tacitus rejects the empirical quest for the "facts" which hitherto governed ancient historiography, since "it is no longer adequate to describe reality as it appears and happens or happened, because that is not the truth" (pp. 75f.). Anglophone scholars will think of O'Gorman and Haynes,7 who receive no mention here. Curiously enough, Pani reaches almost the same conclusion as O'Gorman: whatever his promises, Tacitus could never write the history of Trajan's principate, because his methodology would implode in the post-Domitianic regime. Yet whereas O'Gorman's ironic historian is always one step ahead of the reader -- Haynes' too, in a different way -- Pani's Tacitus fails to realise that his own subjective truth is no more than a(nother) construction.

In "Portée et signification des questions juridiques dans les Annales de Tacite", Michèle Ducos argues for the importance of jurisprudence within Tacitus' analysis of Julio-Claudian Rome. After the now traditional defence of Tacitus against those modern historians who are exasperated by his failure to explain various legal niceties to their satisfaction, she surveys Tacitus' reportage, principally in the Tiberian Annals. With the help of Gellius and the Digest inter alia (Pliny is strangely omitted), Ducos shows how Tacitus' language reflects contemporary debates in legal philosophy.

Carlo Franco's "Dal documento al racconto: i libri claudiani" tours the remnants of the Claudian Annals to revisit the long-running debate over Tacitus' use of senatorial acta, public speeches and Claudius' own scholarly writings. Postmodern deconstruction is all very well, he says (naming no names), but there is a historical reality to be considered, and Syme's nuanced improvement on Quellenforschung is the best way to proceed. The conclusion, that identifying Tacitus' sources remains a perilous and inconclusive game, comes as no surprise, though there are some nice readings along the way.

Giulio Firpo proves much the same point in "Antioco IV di Siria e l'onolatria nell''Archeologia giudaica' di Tacito (hist. V 2-13)", which opens up a corner of the Histories left largely undisturbed by mainstream Tacitean scholarship -- not least by Syme, who briefly dismisses the Jewish excursus as no more than "proper emulation" of Sallust (Tacitus 310f.). The article is a pair of detailed and learned notes on the "tradition" behind Tacitus' comments on Antiochus IV's philhellenism (H. 5.8.2) and the donkey-worship of the Jews (H. 5.3-4), which take Firpo into the Greek historians from Polybius to Apion. How, though, did these theories pass to Tacitus? Firpo offers no suggestions. Of course Tacitus' mishellenic persona rarely flags up his debts to Greek literature, much as he was imbued with it, but the topic remains scandalously understudied all the same;8 in particular, the tantalizing question of his engagement with his near-contemporaries Josephus and Apion remains all but untouched.9

In a co-written article ("La portée des impostures dans les Annales de Tacite: la légitimité impériale à l'épreuve") Olivier Devillers and Frédéric Hurlet offer readings of the impostor narratives at An. 2.39f. and 5.10; the volume's bias in favour of the Annals is upheld with their omission of the false Scribonianus in H. 2.72, and indeed the false Nero at H. 2.8. Tacitus uses these two affairs, they argue, to comment on legitimacy in the imperial succession. Once again, some dialogue with the English-speaking world might have saved time: Haynes has already considered how "[t]hese impostors...expose the fiction of legitimacy that the title of Caesar bestows".10 What Devillers and Hurlet offer, though, is a particular emphasis on consanguinity, reminding us of the importance of blood-descent in Tacitus' analysis of the (adoptive) Julio-Claudian dynasty. One specific suggestion which emerges from, and reinforces, this argument concerns the Silanus mentioned at An. 5.10.3. When the impostor claims to be M. Silano genitum, he refers not, as commentators have it, to the consul of A.D. 15, but to the homonymous consul of A.D. 19. Since the latter married Aemilia Lepida, any son of his (three appear in the Annals) was a great-great-grandson of Augustus -- a potential threat which Agrippina for one does not fail to notice (An. 13.1.1).

Barbara Scardigli offers more Quellenforschung in her brief "Corbulone e dintorni (Tac., Ann. XV 15)". She suggests that this paragraph, describing Paetus' bridge over the River Arsanias, is a poor fit in its narrative context and suffers from "a certain lack of order" (p. 159). Where many modern readers would seek reason in Tacitus' methods, Scardigli ascribes this apparent flaw to his (incompetent) handling of a source, which she imagines may be an eyewitness account, perhaps transmitted in Corbulo's memoirs.

Chantal Gabrielli gives the opera minora their only outing with "Insularità e Impero nell'Agricola". The article shows that Tacitus plays out a "modello centro-civiltà/periferia-barbarie" (p.179), that he may have been denigrating Domitian, and that the ocean is figured as a place of mystery and paradox: little news here, perhaps.11 There is a nice observation on Mona (pp. 175f.), where Gabrielli gestures towards (if not explicitly presenting) a reading of its capture at Ag. 18.3 as a representation in miniature of Britannia's conquest to come; one might compare the "synecdochal" relationship of the Mona narrative in An. 14.29f. to that of the Boudicca revolt which follows, as read by Roberts.12

Ida Mastrorosa, "Politica suntuaria ed economia imperiale in un intervento di Tiberio (Tac., Ann. III, 52-55)", convincingly reads Tiberius' letter of (non-)intervention in the sumptuary legislation of A.D. 22 as largely a statement of Tacitus' own pragmatism. (So did Syme, Tacitus 444: "Tiberius Caesar had strong doubts [about the need for legislation], and so had the historian...".) Following Tacitus' lead (An. 3.55.3-5), Mastrorosa ranges beyond the Annals' time-frame, to assess the importance of the "new man" frugality which Vespasian brought to the throne, and in which Tacitus feels a personal investment (cf. Woodman and Martin: "T. as a provincial himself is no doubt speaking with some point and pride").13 It is not clear that modern jargon such as "the internationalizing of the market", or the empire as "a supernational organism", is helpful.

Dieter Timpe, veteran scholar of Romano-Germanica, closes the volume with "L'insurrezione dei Batavi nell'interpretazione di Tacito", recycled from a German original.14 Deftly unpicking the threads of this complex account, Timpe searches for a reason why Tacitus, alone among ancient writers, gives the Batavian revolt such exposure in H. 4-5. He sees its function as primarily paradigmatic, a warning of what dangers the empire faces when Romanized provincials (specifically auxiliaries) join forces with the barbarians without. The Roman-German war was a constant (tam diu Germania uincitur, G. 37.2), and Tacitus' Batavian narrative, whatever the input of his source on the ground, reflects "axiomatic and virtually atemporal prejudice" (p. 214). Timpe denies any dramatic connection between these events on the Rhine and the civil war; on the contrary, the interweaving of domi and militiae in H. 4 surely demands further consideration.15 In this connection, it is worth contrasting the relatively brief account of the sack of Jerusalem, as Timpe does (albeit without the important caveat that the Jewish campaign is clearly incomplete in the text as we have it). For him Tacitus' differing treatment of the two campaigns reflects a fundamental difference between wars with and without auxiliaries in the opposition. But given the political appropriation of Titus' conquest as a foundational moment in the Flavian dynasty, Tacitus' insistence on the less glamorous events up north must be a part of his rewriting of 69/70 as a counter-exemplary failure in dynastic foundation, in which even the promise of a Vespasian lies under the long (fore)shadow of the Domitianic tyranny to come.

Syme might well have been sceptical about some of the more recent trends in Tacitean scholarship in the Anglophone world. He may, or may not, have taken comfort in the knowledge that, in some corner of a foreign land, his methodology and indeed interpretations have survived into the new millennium largely unscathed.


1.   R. Ash, Ordering Anarchy. Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories (1999); E. O'Gorman, Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus (2000); H. Haynes, The History of Make-Believe. Tacitus on Imperial Rome (2003).
2.   Among them M. A. Giua, Contesti ambientali e azione umana nella storiografia di Tacito (1988); R. Strocchio, Simulatio e dissimulatio nelle opere di Tacito (2001); O. Devillers, Tacite et les sources des Annales. Enquëtes sur la méthode historique (2003).
3.   Arethusa 39.2 = R. Ash and M. Malamud (eds.) Ingens Eloquentiae Materia: Rhetoric and Empire in Tacitus (2006).
4.   A. D. Momigliano, review of Syme, Tacitus, Gnomon 33 (1961) 55-58.
5.   L. B. Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929). See A. D. Momigliano, "Introduzione" in R. Syme, La rivoluzione romana (Italian edition, 1962) ix-xv, translated in A. D. Momigliano (ed. G. W. Bowersock and T. J. Cornell), Studies on Modern Scholarship (1994) 72-79.
6.   S. Borzsák, "Capax imperii mit einem Ausblick auf Petron" in J. Herman and H. Rosén (eds.) Petroniana: Gedenkschrift für Herbert Petersmann (2003) 59-66.
7.   O'Gorman (cit.), esp. ch. 4; Haynes (cit.), esp. ch. 1-2.
8.   The first extended enquiry into one aspect of this is F. Santoro-L'Hoir, Tragedy, Rhetoric, and the Historiography of Tacitus' Annales (2006), who feels obliged to start from first principles with an argument that Tacitus was well read in Greek (pp. 1-8). See also S. Borzsák, "De Thucydide à Tacite" in Ass. G. Budé. Actes du IXè Congrès, Tome I (1975) 230-238, and a tentative suggestion in A. J. Woodman, "Mutiny and Madness: Tacitus Annals 1.16-49" Arethusa 39.2 (2006) 303-329 at pp. 328f.; for possible Platonizing, see Haynes (cit.) 19-28, 181f. (about An. 6.6.2 and the Gorgias, at least, there can be no doubt). It was evidently a question of no interest for Syme.
9.   Brief hints in R. H. Martin, Tacitus (1981) 195, on H. 2.101.1, and J. Marincola, Authority and tradition in ancient historiography (1997) 38, on H. 1.2.1.
10.   Haynes (cit.) 9; cf. ibid. 89-103 on the false Scribonianus.
11.   See especially K. Clarke, "An Island Nation: Re-reading Tacitus' Agricola" JRS 91 (2001) 94-112, which is eventually cited in n.39 of the article.
12.   M. Roberts, "The Revolt of Boudicca (Tacitus, Annals 14.29-39) and the Assertion of Libertas in Neronian Rome" AJP 109 (1988) 118-132, p.122.
13.   A.J. Woodman and R.H. Martin, The Annals of Tacitus. Book III (1996) 405.
14.   D. Timpe, "Tacitus und der Bataveraufstand" in T. Schmitt et al. (eds.) Gegenwärtige Antike -- antike Gegenwarten. Kolloquium zum 60. Geburtstag von Rolf Rilinger, Oldenbourg (2005) 151-187; also in D. Timpe, Römisch-germanisch Begegnungen in der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit. Voraussetzungen -- Konfrontationen -- Wirkungen. Gesammelte Studien (2006) 318-357.
15.   Some first moves in E. Keitel, "Speech and Narrative in Histories 4" in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman (eds.) Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (1993) 39-58. The meaningful interplay between domestic and foreign narratives in the Annals, at least, is widely acknowledged: see e.g. K. Gilmartin, "Corbulo's Campaigns in the East: An Analysis of Tacitus' Account" Historia 22 (1973) 583-626; E. Keitel, "The Role of Parthia and Armenia in Tacitus Annals Books 11 and 12" AJP 99 (1978) 462-473; Roberts (cit.).

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:33:13, Friday, 03 April 2009