Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.19

Patricia J. Osmond, Robert W. Ulery, Bolton, Edmund: Averrunci or the Skowrers: Ponderous and new considerations upon the first six books of the 'Annals' of Cornelius Tacitus concerning Tiberius Caesar (Genoa, Biblioteca Durazzo, MS. A IV 5). Medieval and Renaissance texts and studies, 508.   Tempe, AZ:  Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 265; 13 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780866985635.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by S. J. V. Malloch, The University of Nottingham

Writing in an age when Tacitus was prized for his insights into the political life of monarchies, the Catholic antiquarian and historian Edmund Bolton (b. 1575) adopted a contrarian position in Averrunci or ‘The Skowrers’: Ponderous and new considerations upon the first six books of the 'Annals' of Cornelius Tacitus concerning Tiberius Caesar (1634). In this work, which P. J. Osmond rediscovered and has now edited with R. W. Ulery, Bolton took aim at Tacitus’ methodology and politics. His primary goal was to expose and ‘scrape away’ the malicious falsehoods permeating Tacitus’ characterisation of Tiberius in order to reveal the true character and record of this capable Roman princeps. Intertwined with this historiographical concern was a political one: to shore up the contemporary institution of monarchy by attacking Tacitus’ opposition to one-man rule.

It was characteristic of Bolton to write about Roman historiography with a pro-monarchical flavor. He produced a translation of Florus (1619) and an appreciation, based in source analysis, of Nero (1624). Both works were dedicated to his sometime patron the Duke of Buckingham, the favourite of Charles I (p. 14). Buckingham’s support turned out to be temporary, and Bolton would be imprisoned for his Catholicism under Charles in 1628. It was in the following year that Bolton evidently started work on the The Skowrers, which was finished by 1634, when he was perhaps still in prison or had recently been released (pp. 11-13). As ever, Bolton supported his precarious livelihood with his pen. By choosing the imperial historian Tacitus as his subject he played to his historiographical strengths and his political interests.

Bolton held that Tacitus’ profession as an historian obliged him to ‘confess’ the ‘facts’ of Tiberius’ good government during the first ten years of his principate. But, ‘defective on beehalfe of truth’ (p. 151), he was driven by his ‘evil will’ towards Tiberius to sweep ‘away all the thancks, and glorie of them from his memorie with a breath, or a wipe like cobwebs’ and to pick a ‘quarel’ (p. 81) with his motivations, which he constantly undermined. ‘Is this to characterise a Prince, or to cauterize, or quarter him?... Is it to use the pencill, or the searing yron?’ (p. 81). Tacitus’ ‘innumerable derogations, and prejudices which hee hath every where scattered upon these very times’ (p. 81) constituted a contradictory narrative dangerous to the ‘unwary’ reader. In perhaps the most lurid image in the work, Bolton characterised Tacitus’ history as a garden: ‘should the weeding hook walk through all the allees of this ranck Cornelian garden-plot, the elenxings1 would amount to an heap; and the snakes, and adders coverd under their leaves might serve to wake a wach with noise, as once the geese of the Capitol did with theirs’ (p. 82).

The garden metaphor manifests both Bolton’s aims. It illustrates his attitude to the historian’s duty to tell the truth and Tacitus’ abrogation of that duty, which produced the dangerous refuse in his ‘garden-plot’. Bolton’s uncontroversial opinion was that the ‘proper limits of the historian were not to exceed the simple explication of the facts and their necessary circumstances without pernicious preoccupations’ (pp. 81-2). Tacitus’ ‘pernicious preoccupations’ were allegedly a response to the abuse of the lex maiestatis under Tiberius. For Bolton, Tiberius’ use of the law to establish ‘reverential obedience of Imperial Mejestie’ had the salutary effect of entrenching the monarchy of the principate (p. 160; cf. pp. 51-6). For Tacitus, however, the senate’s ‘execution’ of the law ‘for the mere satisfaction of Tiberius’ was too much. In response he poured all his ‘tartness and indignation’ (p. 160) into his portrait of the princeps. Over a bedrock of facts he spread a layer of rhetorically-crafted interpretation which Bolton sought to scrape away in the manner of the Averrunci, ‘the Skowrers’ of the title, who were tasked by the gods with ‘depulsion of evills, or the purgeing of the world’ (p. 151). Bolton challenged Tacitus’ bias, exposed his manipulations, and deflated his exaggerations. By ridding his narrative of ‘scandalous durt’, he attempted, in short, to ‘refine Tiberius from Tacitus’: ‘leave Tacitus, therefore out in reading the life of Tiberius in Tacitus…leave out all that which Tacitus, as in his own person, or as personating others, speaks, separate the censor in him from the historian…’ (p. 153).

Bolton’s political aim is also evoked by the garden metaphor. The ‘ranck Cornelian garden-plot’, Osmond and Ulery reasonably observe (p. 189), was perhaps a swipe at the ‘admiring’ garden metaphor employed by Justus Lipsius, the leading Tacitean scholar of the early modern period. Lipsius used Tacitus as a main foundation of his justification of monarchy in his Politica of 1589: a wealth of supporting exempla made Tacitus a ‘garden and nursery of praecepts’ (Politica 1.9 quoted at p.189). Bolton might be thought to share common ideological ground with Lipsius. But Bolton believed that Lipsius’ eager prescription of the dark, Machiavellian statecraft employed by Tiberius was a threat to monarchy (p. 61). Bolton was no ally of tacitismo nero (in Toffanin’s formulation); he assumed an anti-Tacitist position which was hostile to Tacitus’ perceived republicanism and to any anti-monarchical uses to which Tacitus was put (tacitismo rosso).

Tacitus nourished a skeptical and cynical view of politics among English readers living under the increasing absolutism of the Stuarts. He provided materials for unflattering comparisons between the Rome of Tiberius and contemporary monarchs. James I and Charles I were likened to Tiberius, the Duke of Buckingham to Sejanus (pp. 28, 50-1). While Bolton responded to these specific slurs, he concentrated on the source of the threat. Tacitus was providing ammunition for attacks on monarchy. In 1627, for example, Isaac Dorislaus delivered two provocative lectures on Tacitus in Cambridge. Royalists in the audience were alarmed at Dorislaus’ use of Tacitus to legitimize popular sovereignty and the right to resistance—and had the lectures stopped (p. 50). Tacitus, Bolton argued, looked back ‘upon the old popular state of Rome with extreme adoration, beewicht with the name of libertie’ (p. 85):

Cornelius Tacitus, his very genius, together with the whole reason, and scope of his Tiberian Annals… bend themselves in all places to advance, and preferr popularitie in derogation of single rule, of which hee either: never, or rarelie speaks, but with a kind of aversion, sometimes covert, sometimes overt, but after a manner alwayes avertedlie. Therefore hee useth that most plausible, and favourable word libertie, or Republick, nor useth any other, to expresse the democratical State of Rome, such as it was beetwen the last King, and first Emperour; never so admirable, as in adversitie. On the contrarie, where hee speakes of kings…[he] perpetuallie useth the words, King, or kinglie, in the sense…of tirants, or tirannical, his deadlie dislike, of one to bee over all, hindring him from the care of preventing scandal to the calling, by a distinction, by which slie devise hee gives a secret blowe to Emperours, Caesars, Princes, or Augusti of Rome, who…yet were they indeed none other then Kings; a sacred title beelonging to God himselfe, though by Tacitus of set purpose impiouslie prophaned, and abused. (pp. 129-30)

Bolton’s response to Tacitus’ determined impiety, in addition to celebrating monarchy passim, was to attack ‘the Republick’. The horrors of the Sullan proscriptions were worse than the crimes of the Tiberian principate (pp. 118, 140-1). The prospect of a return to the constitution of the republic was a ‘golden phansie’, a ‘lullaby’, of Tacitus (p. 138), not least because that form of government had given birth to the principate as a ‘remedie’ for its ills. In what could have been a fatal blow to Tacitus’ integrity, Bolton observed that he acknowledged the necessity of the principate at Annals 1.9 and 4.33, but little is made of the admission because, it seems, a begrudging Tacitus made so little of it himself: ‘nor can Tacitus, or his partie, expect the glorie due to gratitude, when they are so intemperatelie unthanckfull, or unmindefull of the onlie one remedie, without the final application, whereof the evil had absolutelie been incurable’ (pp. 136, 141). It suited Bolton’s agenda for Tacitus to be thoroughly hostile to the principate.

The Skowrers locates Bolton in a vocal group of Italian anti-Tacitists led by the Jesuit Famianus Strada, whose Prolusiones Academicae (1617) was a valuable source of ideas and examples (pp. 61-2). Bolton’s devotion of an entire work to demolishing Tacitus’ methodology was, however, more unusual in a scholarly landscape populated by commentaries on Tacitus, particularly political commentaries, which generally accepted the veracity of Tacitus’ portrait of Tiberius (p. 35). Bolton instead looks forward to a scepticism towards Tacitus’ pessimism which flourished in the nineteenth century, when the rehabilitation of Tiberius commenced in earnest (pp. 63-4). Bolton is notable as an early critic of the Tacitean Tiberius. But the vagaries of fortune customarily associated with the transmission of classical texts robbed him of the chance to influence the development of the Tacitean tradition in its literary as well as political dimensions.

When Bolton finished writing The Skowrers, he asked Sir John Coke, the Secretary of State, to recommend it to the Privy council (p. 11). Nothing else survives about the matter in Coke’s papers, and Bolton is thought to have died not long after (p. 12). The unique surviving manuscript of the work undoubtedly by Bolton (it does not identify him, but his authorship is certain), surfaced in 1801, when it was purchased for the library of the bibliophile Filippo Durazzo, Marchese de Gabiano. How and when it reached Italy is a mystery. The editors suggest that the manuscript was brought to Italy, perhaps through the network of royalists and bookmen around Sir Kenelm Digby in the 1640s (pp. 7-8), and disappeared into a local, perhaps monastic, collection until the turn of the nineteenth century (p. 6). The text was allegedly written out independently of Bolton by a professional scribe in a contemporary hand, ‘testeggiata Italic’, on paper bearing a watermark that is ‘characteristically Italian’ (pp. 2-4). Here the editors could have explored further the very attractive hypothesis, which they concede is possible (pp. 3, 8), that this ‘pristine’ (p. 3) manuscript was produced in Italy from a copy brought from England in a period when the anti-Tacitist craze set off by Strada was well under way.

It was only in the 1990s that the manuscript, still lacking any marks of authorship, re-emerged into the light when Osmond plucked it from the catalogue of the Biblioteca Durazzo in Genoa and identified the author of the work it preserved as Bolton. Osmond and Ulery have produced a fine edition to introduce Bolton’s essay to a wider audience. The text is clearly and professionally presented (complete with apparatus). The introduction describes the manuscript of the The Skowrers and its background, the historical and immediate biographical context in which Bolton wrote, the shape and arguments of the work, and its place in the history of political thought. Here lies the main interest of Osmond and Ulery and the strength of the edition. The editors can be forgiven for not delving into the tradition of interpretation on the Tiberian books of the Annals, whose details will be as familiar to interested students of Tacitus as they may be of less interest to historians of political thought. Readers unfamiliar with the afterlife of Tacitus would nonetheless have benefited from a more schematic presentation of this story. Before the editors mention the debut of Annals 1-6 in print, they discuss the reception of Tacitus in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. This section commences with a claim ripe for misunderstanding: p. 23 ‘Although Latin editions of Tacitus and commentaries on his work were still produced on the Continent in this period, they were widely available to English scholars thanks to the international book trade’: delete ‘still’, for the centre of Tacitean scholarship was not about to shift from the Continent.

Generous space is devoted to a commentary on Bolton’s text. Sometimes, and perhaps not often enough, the editors clarify Bolton’s English. Mainly the notes identify and quote in the original and in translation those passages from Tacitus and other ancient (and not a few modern) sources which Bolton himself quotes, paraphrases, and invokes. Care should be taken in handling these illustrative texts. The editors declare that Bolton ‘presumably’ or ‘apparently’ read his Tacitus in an edition published in Paris in 1608 (pp. 23 n. 87, 34, 189). They offer no evidence for that assumption. They illustrate Bolton’s use of Tacitus, however, from Jackson’s Loeb edition, which thereby attains an unjustified prominence (it is not a standard edition). Convenience probably dictated this choice, but it complicates the analysis of Bolton’s understanding of Tacitus: his reading of Tacitus should be evaluated on the basis of the Paris edition of 1608 (if it was the one he used).2 The utility of this presentation of source texts is otherwise obvious in opening up to further investigation the claims made in the text and the impressive range of Bolton’s ancient learning. Thanks are due to Osmond and Ulery for providing The Skowrers with a scholarly apparatus so rich and helpful. Edmund Bolton can now—finally—assume his modest place in the Tacitean tradition.3


1.   ‘i.e., the products of the weeding process’ (p. 82 app. crit.).
2.   Take, for example, Bolton’s paraphrase of the famous statement at Annals 4.33.2: ‘there hee acknowledgeth, that things turning counter, or from the way in which they had been, there was not otherwise any being, or substance for them, then as one did rule, or imperiallie govern all’. In their note, the editors quote Jackson’s text, sic converso statu neque alia re Romana quam si unus imperitet, having supplied his translation on the previous page, ‘so to-day, when the situation has been transformed and the Roman world is little else than a monarchy’ (pp. 221-2). The editors claim that Bolton ‘slightly misinterprets’ Tacitus. On which text do they base this view and to what in Bolton’s paraphrase are they referring? Jackson silently prints the emendation of Lipsius, alia re Romana, for the alia rerum of the Medicean manuscript. In the Paris edition of 1608, which here prints the text and commentary of Lipsius’ last and posthumous edition of 1607, the text reads alia rerum and Lipsius’ emendation is confined to the commentary (as in his edition of 1607). By quoting Jackson’s Latin text the editors give the appearance of judging Bolton by this later edition. Do the editors mean that Bolton has misinterpreted neque alia re Romana in writing ‘there was not otherwise any being, or substance for them’? Bolton’s paraphrase is merely loose, not impossible; but it is equally likely that he has attempted to make sense of the text of the Paris edition (neque alia rerum) and ignored the emendation of Lipsius, whom he disliked. Or do the editors mean that Bolton has misinterpreted the future ideal conditional construction? But Bolton’s paraphrase represents the force of the conditional, while Jackson’s translation, misleadingly, does not.
3.   I am grateful to M. D. Reeve and B. Worden for prompting revisions which improved this review.

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