Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.16

A.J. Woodman, The Annals of Tacitus, Books 5 and 6. Edited with a Commentary. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, 55.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxi, 325.  ISBN 9781107152700.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Rebecca Edwards, Wright State University (

In 1972, F.R.D. Goodyear began a series of commentaries on the Tiberian books of the Annals under the Cambridge imprint. He had only completed the first two books before his death in 1987. The mantle was taken up by A.J. Woodman and R.H. Martin, who produced commentaries for Books 3 and 4.1 In 2001, Martin published a commentary (with translation) on Books 5 and 6 of the Annals, but with Aris and Phillips.2 Woodman has now published his own commentary on those same books, completing the Cambridge series begun by Goodyear four decades ago.

This book thus represents the culmination, not only of Goodyear’s conceived project, but also of Woodman’s collaboration with Ronald Martin. Although Martin died in 2008, both he and Woodman acknowledge the influence the other had on their separate commentaries.3 Woodman also recognizes the inspiration of Goodyear, who served as his dissertation director. Moreover, the shadow of Syme looms large (x). This commentary stands at the end of a long line of works by great Tacitean scholars.

The book itself, complementing previous volumes in the “Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries” series, contains a preface, selective bibliography (although many works not included in the bibliography are cited in the commentary), introduction, critical edition of the text, commentary, and three indexes labeled “General”, “Latin Words”, and “Names”. There is also an appendix entitled “The Tacitean Tiberius”.

In lieu of background information, for which he refers the reader to previous volumes of the commentary, Woodman focuses in his introduction on the problematic division between Books 5 and 6, as well as the numerous challenges facing textual editors forced to rely upon a single (and flawed) manuscript. After laying out the arguments for the various book divisions, Woodman, countering the arguments by Haase in 1848 that Book 5 should actually end at 5.5 with impediri testarentur, comes down in favor of the book division originally proposed by Justus Lipsius in 1574 that Book 6 should begin with the names of the consuls for the year 32.4

Woodman shows similar expertise in navigating manuscript difficulties throughout his critical edition of the text. While some of his suggested emendations may not convince everyone, most of the changes he makes are relatively small and well-defended in the commentary. For example, at 6.6.2, he suggests male as an alternative to the malis found in the manuscript. Thus, Tacitus philosophizes about the wounds inflicted on the souls of tyrants – ut corpora uerberibus, ita saeuitia, libidine, male consultis animus dilaceretur. Woodman reasons, “mala consulta is an otherwise unexampled phrase; the usual modifier is male (as 1.78.2, Vell. 88.3, Plin. Pan. 70.7), and it seems likely that the word was wrongly attracted into the case of consultis” (114). Woodman is similarly convincing in his argument in favor of cetera at 6.30.3 over ceterarum. He cites other adverbial uses of cetera at 4.16.3 and 6.15.1 (219). Less convincing, however, is his insertion of femina at 5.1.1, Tacitus’ obituary of Livia. While Woodman argues that the juxtaposition of the ablative aetate extrema and the genitive nobilitatis...clarissimae “reads very oddly” (52), Furneaux provides examples of ablatives and genitives of quality removed from a noun.5 As Woodman himself concedes in disputing Nipperdey’s emendation of plebis to plebi at 6.16.2, “rarity is not always a good line of argument in the case of T.” (156).

This brings us to the commentary itself. Ash pointed out in her review of Martin, “If one had to characterise the commentary as a whole, it would be fair to say that Martin devotes a greater proportion of space to historical questions than to literary matters, particularly in comparison with the earlier commentary on Annals 4” (BMCR 2001.10.29). She specifies 12 literary terms (including alliteration, assonance, and asyndeton) found in the index to Martin and Woodman’s commentary on Book 4 which are lacking from Martin’s index (not to say that Martin does not sometimes discuss literary devices, as Ash observes). Of those 12, the only two missing from Woodman’s index are “battle narrative” and “tricolon.” In contrast to Martin’s, Woodman’s commentary on Books 5 and 6 skews more towards the historiographic than the historical. Of course, he deals with historical matters, especially those involving prosopography (for example, a detailed discussion on the identity of the father and brother of Pompeia Macrina at 161-2) or chronology (the date of Caligula’s wedding to Claudia at 167-8), but his focus, as in his prior scholarship, is primarily literary.

Consequently, Woodman frequently points out alliteration and assonance without further elaboration using italics and underlining (although he had already used italics to point out such devices on page 69, Woodman does not explain these signals until page 101 n. 40). Occasionally, he does elaborate on possible reasons for such literary devices. Within Tiberius’ letter to the Senate rebuking Togonius Gallus’ suggestion that he be granted a bodyguard to enter the curia and Junius Gallio’s proposal to grant seats in the coveted “fourteen rows” to veterans of the Praetorian Guard (Ann. 6.2-3), Woodman notes several cases of assonance and alliteration, including neque sibi uitam tanti, si armis tegenda foret and repperisse prorsus quod diuus Augustus non prouiderit. He attributes these devices to Tiberius, or at least Tacitus’ version of Tiberius, stating, “The imperial assonance continues...the alliteration is again ‘Tiberian’” (102; cf. 111, 213).

In addition to examining literary devices, Woodman returns in the commentary to themes from some of his earlier work. For example, when describing the overarching motif of gluttony and starvation that runs through Tacitus’ account of the last years of Tiberius’ reign, most notably through the narrative of the deaths of Agrippina and her son Drusus, Woodman brings to the forefront some of the arguments advanced in his article, “Tiberius and the Taste of Power,” CQ n.s. 56 (2006) 175-189 [repr. in A. J. Woodman, From Poetry to History. Selected Papers. Oxford 2012]. He repeats the assertion which concluded his earlier discussion of the irony surrounding the death of Tiberius: “The princeps’ calls for food mirror those of his grandson Drusus four years earlier, and, like his, they will go unanswered” (286; cf. “Tiberius and the Taste of Power” 189).

Woodman also frequently calls attention to the traditions upon which Tacitus drew in depicting Tiberius as an archetypal tyrant. Throughout the commentary, Woodman especially points back to Plato’s Republic as a possible influence (83, 96, 100, 111, 113-4, 127, 133-134, 148, 152, 199), claiming, “there seems little doubt that T. intends his readers to see Tiberius in terms of the Socratic tyrant in Plato” (83).

But in the most prominent thread running through the book, beginning, in fact, with his preface to Book 5 on the first page of the actual commentary (49), Woodman continues the debate with Goodyear and Martin regarding the interpretation of Tacitus’ obituary of Tiberius. In the introduction to Volume I of the commentary, Goodyear concluded, “T. believes that Tiberius’ personality is innately bad and, however effective its camouflage, essentially unchanged from the beginning of his life to the end” (39). In his edition of Books 5 and 6, Martin translated the phrase suo tantum ingenio utebatur as “he followed his own inclination” (95), reinforcing the notion that Tiberius’ nature did not change, but that restraints were removed and he finally acted according to his true self.

Woodman’s counter argument, first presented in 1985 in a paper dedicated to Goodyear (“Tacitus’ Obituary of Tiberius,” CQ 39 (1985) 197-205 [repr. in A.J. Woodman, Tacitus Reviewed. Oxford 1998]), contended that Tacitus’ comments on Vespasian at Histories 1.50.4 and shortly before the obituary of Tiberius in Book 6 of the Annals (6.48, although problematically put in the mouth of Arruntius) prove that Tacitus believed character could change. Woodman argues that ingenium should be understood as “talent or expertise”; so up until that point, Tiberius had been relying on other people’s “expertise”. Thus, as he translates it in his Hackett edition, “he had only himself to rely on.”6

In the commentary under review here, Woodman reiterates his belief that the comments of Arruntius at 6.48.2 foreshadowing the reign of terror under Caligula, an, cum Tiberius post tantam rerum experientiam ui dominationis conuulsus et mutatus sit..., reflect the views of Tacitus himself – “In other words, and contrary to what is normally believed (e.g. by Syme, Tac. 422), Arruntius is summarising the very view of Tib. to which T. himself subscribed” (280). Woodman goes even further in rejecting Martin’s arguments in the analysis of Tacitus’ obituary of Tiberius at 6.51.3, maintaining, “there is in fact no evidence for ‘unmasking’ in T.’s Latin: it is purely a readerly construct” (291).7

Woodman completes this work with an appendix, titled “The Tacitean Tiberius.” It begins with a quote from Syme, who asked “Is the Tacitean Tiberius largely and mainly the creation of the author?”8 While Woodman endeavors to answer that question, despite his best efforts to exclude extraneous material, he finds himself drawing upon Suetonius, Dio, and Seneca the Younger to flesh out his version of the Tacitean Tiberius. In Woodman’s view, Tacitus’ obituary of Tiberius is entirely consistent with the rest of the narrative. This returns again to his interpretation of the phrase suo tantum ingenio utebatur. He concludes, “The obituary periodises the deterioration of Tiberius and his principate according to a loss of successive helpers, until, in the final period, he experiences the isolation of power which he so dreaded in AD 14” (310).

In short, this commentary is a reflection of the authoritative work of Woodman as well as his predecessors. Even though he and Martin published their commentaries separately, this book still feels somewhat collaborative. Indeed, several times Woodman quotes directly from Martin without any further comment (e.g. 179, 199); other times, as mentioned above, he openly disputes Martin’s assessment. Some will be convinced by Woodman’s arguments, others will not. But in the end, no one who works on either Tacitus or Tiberius can ignore them. In this commentary, Woodman has brought Goodyear’s (and Martin’s) work to an admirable conclusion.


1.   F.R.D. Goodyear, The Annals of Tacitus. Books 1-6. Volume I: Annals 1.1-54. Cambridge 1972; F.R.D. Goodyear, The Annals of Tacitus. Books 1-6. Volume II: Annals 1.55-81 and Annals 2. Cambridge 1981; R.H. Martin and A.J. Woodman, Tacitus Annals Book IV. Cambridge 1989, revised and reprinted 1999; and A.J. Woodman and R.H. Martin, The Annals of Tacitus Book 3. Cambridge 1996.
2.   Ronald Martin, Tacitus Annals V & VI. Warminster 2001.
3.   Martin 2001, vi. Woodman 2017, ix.
4.   Woodman cites supporting arguments from C. Ando, “Tacitus, Annales VI: beginning and end,” AJP 118 (1997) 285-303.
5.   H. Furneaux, The Annals of Tacitus. Vol. I: Books I-VI. 2nd ed. Oxford 1896, 48-52.
6.   A.J. Woodman, Tacitus. The Annals. Indianapolis 2004, 194.
7.   Of course, other scholars have also weighed in on Tacitus’ obituary of Tiberius, see especially A.R. Hands, “Postremo suo tantum ingenio utebatur,” CQ 24 (1974) 312-317; C. Gill, “The Question of Character-Development: Plutarch and Tacitus,” CQ 33 (1983) 469-487; and T.J. Luce, “Tacitus’ Conception of Historical Change: The Problem of Discovering the Historian’s Opinions,” in I.S. Moxon et al., eds. Past Perspectives: Studies in Greek and Roman Historical Writing. Cambridge 1986, 143-157.
8.   R. Syme, Tacitus. 2 vols. Oxford 1958, I.420.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010