Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.48

Fabrice Galtier, L'image tragique de l'Histoire chez Tacite: étude des schèmes tragiques dans les Histoires et les Annales. Collection Latomus, 333.   Bruxelles:  Éditions Latomus, 2011.  Pp. 344.  ISBN 9782870312742.  €53.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Philip T. Waddell, University of Missouri (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The notion of Tacitus as dramatic literary artist has gained ever greater acceptance during the last several decades, with authors such as Woodman, Bartsch, and Santoro L’Hoir making important contributions to the study of Tacitean historiography.1 Fabrice Galtier’s recent work, L’image tragique de l’Histoire chez Tacite, is a welcome addition to the examination of the tragic in Tacitean historiography. Galtier investigates the “tragic image” in both Tacitus’ Annales and Historiae through the use of Structuralist schemas. The characters, situations, and events of Tacitus’ opera maiora are thus discussed as narrative actants in order to elucidate the complex interconnections of characters and goals.

Galtier divides his work into four parts, “Remarques préliminaires sur Tacite, l’histoire et la tragédie” (2 chapters), “L'histoire mise en scène” (3 chapters), “Le masque exposé” (3 chapters), and “L'écriture conjuratrice” (3 chapters).

In the first part, Galtier discusses questions of Roman historiography and its links to tragedy in terms of pathos in history, noting the effect of the fabula praetexta on historical writing. In Chapter 1, “La conception romaine de l’histoire,” Galtier discusses Roman historiography as a fundamentally literary genre, as seen through the historian’s deployment of enargeia, pathos, and memorialization in a manner similar to the laudatio funebris. Chapter 2, “L'écriture tacitéenne, tradition et influence,” deals not only with Tacitus’ predecessors Livy, Cicero and Sallust, but also with Roman tragedy as inspiration and background for historiography, especially the fabula praetexta and other lost Roman tragedies. Galtier’s discussion of the tragic in historiography furthers many of the arguments of Wiseman.2

Galtier’s second part contains one of his most important contributions in the monograph: a discussion of the conflicting desires and actors in Tacitean historiography using Structuralist schemas as a method for understanding Tacitus’ dramatization of history along Aristotelian rhetorical principles. In the third chapter (2.1), “L'unité narrative,” the author examines the overall narrative structure of Tacitus’ opera maiora, breaking each work into books and larger multi-book units in order to highlight Tacitus’ dramatic plan, even at the level of narrative division. Galtier, in his fourth chapter (2.2), “L'empreinte du genre tragique,” deploys the Structuralist methodology of the Actant Model in order to elucidate the many and complex characters, desires, and conflicts present in Tacitean historiography. The conflicts are understood as occurring between a character (“subject”) and an opposing character (“opposant”) over a desired “object.” The conflict can be either between the subject and opposant, or one in which both subject and opposant vie for the object. Galtier’s successful use of the Actant Model in this chapter, and later in the work, shows this to be a fruitful method for mapping out character interaction. This is especially welcome in the study of Tacitean historiography, as the connections and conflicts between characters are numerous and complex. This chapter also details Tacitus’ dramatization of action in terms of Aristotelian rhetorical concepts working as episodes within the framework of each book. In the fifth chapter (2.3), “Le spectacle de l’histoire,” Galtier highlights the dramatization present in Tacitus’ historical works using the concept of evidentia and such components of drama as framing and scenery, costuming and setting, and the often inherently dramatic action and dialogue. Galtier’s discussion of staging and audience expands many of Bartsch’s ideas on dramatics in history.3

In part three, Galtier explores the dramatic concepts of persona and the wearing of “masks” as a necessary evil of life under the Principate. This discussion begins with the sixth chapter (3.1), “Persona demenda est,” in which Galtier describes the masks which the Principate required of those in power, creating a “socio-political theater” of emperors and subjects cloaking their true intentions from each other. According to Galtier, one of Tacitus’ most important duties as a historian is to unmask not only the characters in the opera maiora but also the actual events, which often were at odds with the official state version. In his seventh chapter (3.2), “Le rôle des protagonistes,” Galtier explores the different roles that the characters play in Tacitean historiography: the Tyrant, the Satellite, the Victim, and the Sage. The Tyrant, as main character, both creates and defines the others through cruelty and violence. Galtier’s major contribution in this chapter is the discussion of how a single character can play many of these roles depending on the circumstances. The drama of the work is heightened especially when the Tyrant becomes Victim or is amalgamated with the Satellite. Galtier’s eighth chapter (3.3), “Les monstres de l’histoire,” further characterizes the Tyrant-figure as a monster of unbounded inhumanity within the historical account.

The fourth part of Galtier’s work examines the inherently tragic in Tacitus’ subject matter which the historian highlights through violence and the repeated building of tension through foreshadowing. In the first of these discussions, Galtier’s ninth chapter (4.1) – “Le cercle de la violence,” Galtier shows that Tacitus utilizes violence to great narrative and dramatic effect throughout his historical works. In particular, violence in Tacitean historiography serves to destroy distinctions between its user and its victim to the point where the two are interchangeable and inseparable in a circle of reprisal and fear of reprisal that engenders preemptive violence. This dangerous lack of difference is particularly evident within the imperial family, itself an imago of Roman society, as family members kill and are killed in turn. According to Galtier, this self-propagating violence destroys distinctions not only between individuals, but also between social hierarchies, and even the living and the dead. Galtier, in his tenth chapter (4.2), entitled “Le tyran, Rome et les dieux,” explains the necessary tension and conflict in tragic history between humans, especially tyrants, and the gods. During this chapter, Galtier discusses in depth many of the supernatural events that take place in the opera maiora as indications of divine wrath, and the human inability to reconcile the Principate to the natural order because of repeated and ever more grievously impious transgressions. Each of these omens and transgressions serves to heighten dramatic tension for inevitable crisis- points such as the burning of the Capitol or the death of an emperor. The last chapter (4.3), “Ordre et désordre,” deals with Tacitus’ own opinions toward the Antonine Principate under the early Antonines, as well as his moral duties as historian. Galtier shows Tacitus not only as a supporter of the Antonine Principate, but as a moral magister vitae whose duty it is to instruct his readers in proper Roman mores in order to avert the possibly unavoidable fall of the empire.

Galtier’s work has much to recommend it to the scholar not only of Tacitus but of ancient historiography. Within the body of each chapter, numerous well-chosen examples are presented from both the Historiae and the Annales, that demonstrate the presence of tragic historiography throughout Tacitus’ opera maiora. In fact, Galtier’s book may be too ambitious in its scope, as it seeks to treat so many aspects of tragic historiography in a limited space, which sometimes necessitates cursory treatment. One occasionally wishes for a more thorough explanation of how Tacitus’ use of tragedy impacts his writing (e.g., as opposed to other writers and historians). Nevertheless, the volume covers a large range of topics and examples, spanning the two works and provides an excellent broad overview of Tacitus’ use of the conventions of tragedy in his historical works.

Table of Contents

Introduction - p. 7
Première partie : Remarques préliminaires sur Tacite, l’histoire et la tragédie - p. 11
Chapitre I - La conception romaine de l’histoire - p. 13
I. L'écriture de l'Histoire - p. 13
II. Une Histoire centrée sur l'individu et la morale - p. 19
Chapitre II - L'écriture tacitéenne, tradition et influence - p. 30
I. Tacite et ses prédécesseurs - p. 31
II. L'empreinte du genre tragique - p. 40
Deuxième partie : L'histoire mise en scène - p. 47
Chapitre I - L'unité narrative - p. 50
I. L'organisation du récit - p. 50
II. L'unité narrative dans les opera maiora - p. 58
Chapitre II - La place des conflits et des intrigues - p. 70
I. Le triangle conflictuel - p. 70
II. Étude de trois types de conflits - p. 75
III. Dramatisation de l'action : une lecture aristotélicienne - p. 83
IV. Une structure épisodique - p. 104
Chapitre III - Le spectacle de l’histoire - p. 110
I. Le rôle du prologue - p. 110
II. Une mise en scène narrative - p. 113
III. Une figuration imaginairement tragique - p. 128
Troisième partie : Le masque exposé - p. 143
Chapitre I - Persona demenda est - p. 145
I. Le principat ou le règne des masques - p. 146
II. Le parti pris du dévoilement - p. 159
III. La révélation d'une persona caractérisante - p. 173
Chapitre II - Le rôle des protagonistes - p. 183
I. Le tyran, ou la figure centrale - p. 183
II. Le tyran et les satellites, ou la confusion des rôles - p. 192
III. Le tyran et la victime, ou l'apparente inversion des rôles 200
IV. Le tyran et le sage, ou comment restaurer les rôles - p. 205
Chapitre III - Les monstres de l’histoire - p. 210
I. La condition ambiguë du tyran - p. 210
II. Le tyran comme figure monstrueuse - p. 216
Quatrième partie : L'écriture conjuratrice - p. 226
Chapitre I – Le cercle de la violence - p. 227
I. Mythe et violence - p. 228
II. Un cycle de violence sans fin - p. 231
III. La crise des différences - p. 242
IV. Le feu et l'incendiaire - p. 247
Chapitre II - Le tyran, Rome et les dieux - p. 251
I. Tragique et transcendance - p. 251
II. L'impiété sous-jacente - p. 263
III. L'angoisse et l'effroi - p. 271
Chapitre III - Ordre et désordre - p. 284
I. La disparition de l'ordre ancien - p. 284
II. Inquiétude et engagement - p. 294
Conclusion - p. 306
Index - p. 312
Bibliographie - p. 325


1.   See, for example, Francesca Santoro L’Hoir, Tragedy, Rhetoric, and the Historiography of Tactius’ Annales (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006); Nancy Schumate, “Compulsory Pretense and the ‘Theatricalization of Experience’ in Tacitus,” Studies in Latin Literature and History 8 (1997): 364-403; Arthur Pomeroy, “Theatricality in Tacitus’ Histories,” Arethusa 39 (2006): 171-91; Shadi Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); A.J. Woodman, “Amateur Dramatics at the Court of Nero (Annals 15.48-74,” in T.J. Luce and A.J. Woodman (eds.), Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) 104-28; and Ronald Mellor, “Tacitus as Literary Artist” in his Tacitus (New York: Routledge, 1993) 113-36.
2.   T.P. Wiseman, Clio's Cosmetics : Three Studies in Greco-Roman Literature (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1979) and Roman Drama and Roman History (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998).
3.   Shadi Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

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