Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.14

Lee Fratantuono, Tacitus. Annals XVI. Bloomsbury Latin texts.   London; Oxford; New York:  Bloomsbury Academy, 2017.  Pp. xii, 184.  ISBN 9781350023512.  $20.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Megan M. Daly, University of Florida (


In his preface, Lee Fratantuono describes this book as “very much an example of that genre known as the ‘school commentary’” (ix) with its primary audience being undergraduate students reading Tacitus for the first time. He aims to provide content that is also beneficial to more advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and even scholars, and in this Fratantuono succeeds. This handy guide to book XVI of the Annals offers easier access to a difficult but important author of the Silver Age and of Roman historiography through copious lexical, textual, and grammatical notes, and by providing a rich bibliography that encourages further curiosity about Tacitean studies.

The book is divided into seven parts: a short preface, an introduction of fourteen pages, the text itself (book XVI consists of thirty-five chapters; Fratantuono uses Fisher’s Oxford text here while providing references to other editions), a commentary, a vocabulary, a bibliography with suggestions for further reading, and an index. In the preface, Fratantuono explains his purpose in choosing book XVI: in his aim to make a challenging but significant piece of literature “more easily accessible” (ix), he has selected book XVI not only for the practical reason that it is short enough that it can realistically fit the schedule of one semester, but also because it is a “mysterious” (x) little book, with the end either lost or unfinished, filled with interesting content, style, and problems. It is the end (of what we have left, at least) of Tacitus’ work, and it also marks the beginning of the end for Nero and the Julio-Claudians. Fratantuono calls book XVI “a priceless window into a period in which Roman history was experiencing a process of transformation” (x), and he later suggests that Tacitus’ life, too, was perhaps undergoing a process of transformation when he was writing the Annals (xii). These observations and others shared in the preface show the reader the value of Tacitus and his work and excite the reader for the task ahead.

The introduction opens with a description of the structure of the Annals, its basic contents, and its missing parts. The reader will immediately notice thorough and interesting footnotes with bibliography complementary to the list provided at the back of the book. It is here in the footnotes that graduate students and scholars will find the most value, while undergraduates will profit from the main text of the introduction. As a scholar of epic poetry and Virgil in particular, Fratantuono then gives us his insight into the epic quality of the Annals and its complex style. A brief outline of Tacitus’ life follows, including an interesting mention of the anecdote from Historia Augusta, Vita Taciti 10.3 concerning the emperor Tacitus’ role in preserving the text of his supposed ancestor during the third century. It is made clear that there are plenty of uncertainties about both Tacitus’ life and his last work, including the work’s title, date of composition, and even length. His sources of inspiration, particularly Livy, Sallust, and Thucydides, are easier to identify. Fratantuono then briefly covers the contents of the Histories as well as the opera minora, before turning to focus on the Neronian books of the Annals, and book XVI specifically.

Fratantuono gives the basics of Nero’s life and reign and then examines some main points of book XVI. He includes a discussion of how scholars have tended to use major occurrences such as Agrippina’s death and the Pisonian conspiracy to divide Nero’s reign into periods, then describes Nero as a “literary” emperor, interested in art himself, and under whom writers like Lucan and Seneca lived. Concerning book XVI, he explains the episode of Queen Dido’s gold and how important its discovery would have been to Nero; he follows this explanation with a reflection on the long series of deaths and suicides that culminates in the end of Thrasea Paetus. He makes the interesting statement that “Rome is mired in something of a civil war” (10) as one Roman comes to deliver a death order to another. Fratantuono reminds us that this book also has much to do with drama (11), especially as Nero takes the stage himself, and epic, as Tacitus fashions his text to preserve memory and provide moral exempla (12). He observes that Tacitus seems to hold even himself up to scrutiny when he writes at 16.16 about “those who quietly went to their deaths as if slaves to imperial will and wrath” (13). Thus what survives of the Annals culminates in a powerful examination of how certain Romans, including Tacitus, reacted to tyranny.

With Fisher’s Oxford text Fratantuono provides 123 pages of commentary. He ties chapter one of book XVI nicely back to the final chapter of book XV by comparing Tacitus’ portrayals of Nero’s level of rationality in the two passages. He continues to provide important bibliography for the reader, as well as relevant passages from other ancient authors. He also includes important details throughout about the second Medicean manuscript, the source for Annals 11-16 and Histories 1-5, and information from key commentaries like Furneaux. Fratantuono certainly has undergraduate readers in mind as he explains, for example, what angle brackets mean within the text of Heubner’s Teubner edition (35) or reminds what litotes (107) and asyndeton (131) are. Points of grammar are explained very clearly, with special attention given to issues that tend to trouble inexperienced students, such as uses of the ablative, gerundives, or subordinate subjunctive constructions. Fratantuono also does a good job acquainting the reader with distinctive mannerisms of Tacitus’ style and forms that might stump a young reader, like the use of the -ere ending instead of the -erunt ending in the third plural perfect, or leaving out the form of sum from the perfect passive (46, 47). The OLD is cited regularly to attune the reader to the finer meanings behind Tacitus’ word choice. Characters in the text and themes like shame are discussed as they come up. Overall, the commentary succeeds in providing guidance to undergraduate Latin students for a text that traditionally has been difficult for them, while still being helpful and pleasant for readers at higher levels.

The vocabulary section is ample, about twenty-one pages long. Again, Fratantuono encourages the use of the OLD throughout, so this section at the back is only meant for student convenience (xi). The Bibliography and Further Reading section, a little less than three pages, is a good place for students new to Tacitus to find essential materials, while a wealth of valuable bibliography is also scattered throughout the introduction and commentary.

One valuable perspective Fratantuono provides in this work comes from his experience as an epic scholar. Although others have noticed Tacitus’ epic qualities in the past (and Fratantuono includes these names, like Baxter, in his work), Fratantuono’s reminders in his introduction and throughout the commentary of how Tacitus’ text incorporates epic flavor or relates to the works of Virgil or Lucan, for example, make this a particularly interesting and fun commentary to read.

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