Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.43

Christopher S. van den Berg, The World of Tacitus' 'Dialogus de Oratoribus': Aesthetics and Empire in Ancient Rome.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xiii, 344.  ISBN 9781107020900.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria E. Pagán, University of Florida (


[Disclaimer: The author contributed to the Companion to Tacitus which I edited; other than this we have no connection.]

In this close analysis of Tacitus’ Dialogus, Christopher van den Berg foregrounds two problems and related ideas that lead toward a comprehensive understanding of the place of eloquentia in the literary history and literary criticism of the Roman empire. First, in challenging the assumption that the work is about the decline of oratory under the principate, van den Berg reevaluates the inconsistencies in the speeches that have detracted from its interpretive value and he shows instead that Tacitus is able “to employ meaningful inconsistencies in the service of a larger argument and to intervene obliquely in a work so as to inform our understanding of its statements” (p. 72; cf. p. 56). Second, beyond identifying the interconnections between the Dialogus and Cicero’s oratorical treatises, van den Berg demonstrates how “the Dialogus’ voracious allusions absorb the strategies of its predecessor, remodeling de Oratore’s procedures to suit its own designs” (p. 227). That is, the Dialogus is an account of the changes in rhetorical practice that constitute the modern incarnation of eloquentia. These two strategies for reading the Dialogus allow for a fresh hermeneutic: “Rather than thinking of the Dialogus in terms of decline or its opposite, we might better be served by attempting to understand what might be at stake for Tacitus in choosing to frame the problem in those terms” (p. 238). We are certainly served well by van den Berg’s thorough and sophisticated analysis.

In his quest, van den Berg successfully dismantles some of the major assumptions that have stalled full appreciation of the Dialogus: that the work moves in one direction toward one goal (the decline of oratory); that the speeches are discreet units that can be studied in isolation even as one assumes a unity of purpose; that speakers can be identified with distinct ideological positions or even with Tacitus himself (e.g., “We take one character to represent the entire mindset of an author,” p. 44). van den Berg identifies two strands of interpretation that have driven scholarship to date: the first he calls “character-oriented readings,” that judge the sincerity of the speakers and Tacitus’ sympathy with them; the second is the so-called “persuasion-oriented readings,” that account for inconsistencies within individual speeches and across the dialogue as a whole by attributing to “the rhetorically trained reader” (p. 67) the ability to discern the arguments for himself. In place of these traditional approaches, van den Berg proffers the concept of “argumentative dynamics” (p. 90), a theory of reading dialogue: Tacitus uses the form of the dialogue to reveal the techniques by which the work is to be interpreted. Put simply: the willful engagement in dialogue requires the acceptance that one’s point of view will be challenged and possibly even changed by the process (e.g., “Tacitus pushes the reader to adopt and then (possibly) to abandon a viewpoint in the face of new options,” p. 294).

The first chapter summarizes the Dialogus, the setting, the contents of the speeches, the context of production in Tacitus’ lifetime, and the role of declamation in the Roman empire, so as to direct inquiry toward the risks of composing a work on such sophisticated principles. Chapter two reviews the previous scholarship to clear the path for the proposition of argumentative dynamics. After these two introductory chapters, the next three engage the Dialogus in close readings. Chapter three takes as its starting point the “interstitial passages,” (p. 98), that is, all of the content that is not in the form of a speech, to reveal the mechanisms for evaluating eloquentia and the relationship between excellence in oratory and the ensuing fame, the patently social result of eloquentia. Van den Berg ably shows how Tacitus has freighted the framework of the dialogue—the preface, the setting, and the interludes—with metacritical gestures. Chapters four and five turn to the speeches proper, to examine how the Dialogus contributes to a discussion about the efficacy of eloquentia in the Roman world and how the speeches examine the cultural and historical development of eloquentia such that a general continuity in oratorical practice can be discerned from Republic to Empire. The last two chapters continue this investigation of literary history, chapter six by scrutiny of intertextuality with Cicero’s de Oratore, and chapter seven by examination of Tacitus’ engagement with other key texts in the history of literary criticism (Cicero’s Brutus, Horace’s Satires and Epistles, and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria). The Appendix provides a detailed outline of the Dialogus; in addition to anatomizing the dialogue into its fourteen constituent parts (e.g., Prologue, Setting and Interlocutors, Themes of the Debate, Aper Speech I, etc.), van den Berg summarizes sentence-by-sentence, so that it is easy for the reader to identify critical junctures within speeches. The book concludes with an ample and current bibliography, a serviceable general index, and an index locorum (a sine qua non for this type of study).

No doubt a book about forgiving inconsistencies runs the risk of reinscribing its subject. For a book that values Tacitus’ abandonment of viewpoints in the face of new options, it’s no stretch to ask the same of its readers, and it’s easy to be carried downstream. How do the claims that Tacitus uses Aper to dramatize the educational model of Cicero’s de Oratore (p. 216) square with the denial of the “synechdochic fallacy” (p. 44)? If we should not identify individual speakers in the Dialogus with characters or with the author, then why should we accept that Aper is modeled on the figures of Cicero’s Antonius and Crassus (p. 221)? An early hedge clause is found on page 97, where van den Berg obliquely describes his approach as “a malleable interpretive framework.” Such a parenthetical aside seems to leave the door open, so that by the end of chapter six van den Berg can observe that Tacitus’ allusions to Cicero “need not in every case be anchored to a single character, but rather oriented to the argumentative interplay that develops throughout a speech or even an entire text” (p. 240). The reader may resist the call to abandon viewpoints in the face of new options; it’s less important whether the argument is airtight. More valuable is the demonstration of a methodology for intertextual reading that puts the apparatus developed for Latin poetry to the service of prose. Van den Berg shows that structural organization and parallelism are indicators of literary interaction as meaningful as the conventional paradigms of intertextuality and as prevalent in prose writing as traditional correspondences are in poetry.

In sum, the success of the book lies in its pluralistic reading of the Dialogus that resists teleology so as to perceive in it the values and principles that guided the practice of oratory in Tacitus’ time. Along the way, van den Berg forces a reconsideration of previous scholarly approaches and advances a workable theory for reading dialogue. Any future scholarship on the Dialogus will have to account for van den Berg’s significant contributions.

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