BMCR 1999.07.22

Tacitus Reviewed

, Tacitus reviewed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xii, 255 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198152583 $72.00.

It is difficult to know which is more unfair: to say that W[oodman] has singlehandedly overhauled the study of Tacitus neglects several other prominent reviewers; but not to say so does W. a disservice. Tacitus Reviewed is also Woodman Reviewed since this collection includes material spanning twenty-seven years, including one new (and typically both convincing and radical) chapter on the accession of Tiberius as well as a revised version of the relevant chapter from Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (hereafter RICH). A detailed listing of the chapters and their sources is given at the end of this review; all references are to the collected versions unless stated otherwise.

A few cautionary notes to begin with: W. is never for the uninitiated, excepting perhaps his (first) inaugural address at Leeds (ch.1); those without reasonable Latin and close familiarity with the Annals and Histories are hereby warned to proceed with care, patience and a good dictionary. But the complexity is not W.’s doing; considering the sophistication of his source and the confusions of his predecessors, W. is as clear as a bell and systematic to a fault. Since this book will interest specialists in particular, most of whom will be familiar with the details of the arguments and texts collected here, the comments following tend more towards the general: it would require more than a review to enter the various discussions. As W. himself admits elsewhere1 his arguments have met with ‘something of a mixed reception’. The following discussion centres rather on the more general implications of W.’s work, which have arguably had as much impact as his detailed arguments.

W.’s focus throughout the essays here is that of ‘historiography as literature’, a stall he set out some years ago (but perhaps most emphatically) in RICH and it is not unfair to say that he has dedicated his career to espousing this line of argument. His most recent publication (not included here) in collaboration with C. S. Kraus (note 1) offers no apologies, though it does acknowledge a rift between the ‘traditionalists’ and the newer literary readings. Ironically this rift depends rather heavily on W.’s conclusion in RICH (70-116) that we should understand uerus to mean ‘unbiased’ rather than ‘factually accurate’, which is omitted here. From the outset, therefore, it is difficult to say that this collection is fully representative of W.’s work since one of the few explicit general conclusions associated with the author is conspicuous by its absence: ‘bias’, ‘uerus’ and ‘truth’ are absent from the index and almost entirely so from the text.

What is left is still impressive: W., like some latter-day literary Columbo, frequently outlines what is apparently an unproblematic scenario, notes the general consensus along a particular line, then cautiously raises a small question. Usually this is simply the exact meaning of a particular word, or an unusual item of syntax (never an easy thing to spot in Tacitus). Analysis of this point typically unravels the whole consensus and requires W. to rebuild a drastically new picture with detailed discussion of a variety of relevant but apparently minor textual difficulties elsewhere which all demand reinterpretation, either in the light of the preceding argument or on their own terms. The witness to his fierce tenacity and grasp of linguistic and logical themes in these set-pieces is the coherence of the result, quite apart from the impeccable arguments that incorporated the various details. Thus Livia emerges as responsible for the murder of Agrippa Postumus in a narrative that hitherto always left the reader feeling a little puzzled by its apparently inscrutable inconsistencies (ch. 3: ‘Despite having just become the most powerful man in the world, [Tiberius] is shown to be pitifully ignorant’ (32)); similarly, Tiberius’ accession speech is transformed from showing the princeps as deviously manipulating a ‘free’ handover of power from a fawning senate to being truly representative of the man who wanted nothing but retirement (ch.4: ‘at the beginning Tiberius was intending complete withdrawal’ (52)).

One of W.’s most attractive habits is his refusal to allow his subject to be ‘inconsistent’ or ‘confused’ as so many commentators have done in the past: the irony being that a scholar who praises Tacitus’ ‘sophistication’ in one chapter only to decry his ‘inconsistency’ in another is open to the very charge being levelled. With this faith in his subject, W. characteristically, and rightly in this reviewer’s view, focuses on the context of a particular statement by the historian and argues that it is relevant to the specific context rather than being a general application. This is most notable in ch. 6, where Tacitus’ supposed statement of policy on seeking exempla in historiography becomes a comment on historiographical technique in researching individual statements made by senators, a reading arrived at by characteristic rigour and logic.

Taken as a whole W.’s essays bring even greater nuance to a writer already admitted to being magnificently talented. For the most part, W. restores the complexity of a text whose subtleties have sometimes been missed. But it is the overall impression that is arguably more important than the individual details: and this is something that W., like the Tacitus he reveals, generally avoids engaging with. W., again in common with his subject, generally leaves it to the reader to fit the broader implications into place. So, for instance, he does not tackle head on the elusive ancient assumption that characters were fixed, but confines himself to the exact sense of Tiberius’ obituary, and particularly the clause suo tantum ingenio utebatur (Annals 6.51). More significantly, he does not aim to explore the further implications of the general recasting of historiography as literature: he contents himself with demonstrating that his case is at least plausible, and usually it is stronger than that. Nor is this policy necessarily to be criticised: W. concerns himself with the particulars and lets the bigger questions emerge of their own, somewhat inevitable, accord. Nonetheless his work creates all kinds of problems for historians: whereas scholars were once content to weigh Tacitus’ historical accuracy against Suetonius’ (sometimes, but not always, taking note of the more distant Greek sources) now far more troubling questions arise. If the account of Piso’s plot in Annals 15 is so susceptible to literary analysis (ch. 11), where is our history of Nero’s reign? W. never addresses the question of how far inuentio went: he merely demonstrates its existence where he can. Similarly, W. exploits intertextual allusions to colour his arguments, pointing out incidentally that even if an author was unaware of his reference to other writers, the links are telling. It is difficult to argue with his references and comparisons but there is a sense at the same time that the potential for allusion is vast, as W. admits. It reaches the point where one wonders just how many references any one reader could integrate into their understanding of the text: the likelihood of selective association is not just logical, but also necessary if one is to manage the sheer volume of information conveyed by the ‘simple’ matter of the choice of words. These problems explain to some extent the rift that has emerged: more traditional historians feel that the historicity, or even the manageability, of the accounts must be defended, or at least selectively salvaged.

Unfortunately this situation has made the reception of W. more problematic than it should have done. Firstly, W. clarifies as many awkwardnesses as he creates problems (for instance, on the accession of Tiberius, ch. 4, which consolidates the general image of Tiberius found elsewhere in the text). Secondly, many of the supposed problems of sources and historicity make more sense with a strongly literary reading of the text: in a nutshell, it seems difficult to argue, in connection with any particular passage, against W.’s assertion in ch.1 that ancient historians were more like reporters than (pedantic) modern historians; thirdly, and most importantly, it is not W.’s fault that ancient historians do not fit with our preconceptions, which seems to be the essential objection of most of W.’s critics. His arguments are backed carefully and approached logically. In fact, although his conclusions are radical, and too radical for many, he is scrupulous in adhering to the particular focus of any paper, taking each point as it comes and moving on only when the difficulties are exhausted. W. is careful not to take his argument to gratuitous lengths: despite the various protests that have appeared over the years to individual points, I wait for the day when W. quotes Servius’ aside historia est quicquid secundum naturam dicitur, siue factum siue non factum.2 If any quotation gives him license to ply his trade, it is that one.

W. is clearly aware of the likely initial reactions to these controversial positions, which perhaps makes his ‘wait and see’ approach eminently suitable: his elegantly witty (and surely disingenuous) disclaimers also indicate some reservation about scholarly reactions (e.g. after his acknowledgement of various commentators on ch.4 he hastens to point out ‘it should not be assumed that any of them believes a single word of it’ (40)). Yet it is hard to disagree with his discussions, such is the thoroughness and clarity with which he proceeds.

Arguably greater than W.’s individual interpretations is his legacy: building on Wiseman’s continuing work (as he claims in Latin Historians), W. has made it possible to study historians as literature in detail (rather than with cursory remarks on ‘rhetoric’ before the ‘real scholarship’ of bemoaning ‘factual errors’). It cannot be coincidence that a great number of writers on historians as literary practitioners, especially Livy, have taken the opportunity created by W.’s example, dramatically revising our understanding of these authors along literary lines. To be sure, it is impossible to say that W. is individually responsible for this but without him it would be a lesser movement.

The strength of the articles does not automatically lead to a recommendation for purchase: it would, for instance, be useful to have a full listing of W.’s publications, which are not all on Tacitus. More pragmatically, the majority of those interested in W.’s comments will surely have copies in the original journals of at least a handful of these discussions and though Oxford have, as usual, maintained high standards of production, the price borders on the edge of what many academics can afford; postgraduate students, who would probably be those most likely to want this tome for frequent reference, will be unlikely to budget for it easily. Reserve your copy — in the library.

The full listing of the chapters is as follows with relevant details of the original publication in square brackets:

1. Introduction: the Literature of War. [Inaugural address: original version printed in University of Leeds Review 26 (1983), 107-124 as ‘From Hannibal to Hitler: The Literature of War]

2. The Preface to the Annals: More Sallust [CQ 42 (1992) 567-8]

3. A Death in the First Act (Annals 1.6). [Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 8 (1995), 257-74]

4. Tacitus on Tiberius’ Accession

5. Self-Imitation and the Substance of History: Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15. [David West & Tony Woodman (eds. Creative Imitation and Latin Literature (1979), 143-55, 231-5]

6. praecipuum munus annalium: The Construction, Convention and Context of Annals 3.65.1. [Mus. Helv. 52 (1995), 111-126]

7. History and Alternative Histories. [Adapted from ‘History and Alternative Histories: Tacitus’, in Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (1988), 160-196]

8. The Structure and Content of Annals 4.57-67. [‘Remarks on the Structure and Content of Tacitus Annals 4.57-67’, CQ 22 (1972), 150-8]

9. Tacitus’ Obituary of Tiberius. [CQ 39 (1989), 197-25]

10. Nero’s Alien Capital: Tacitus as Paradoxographer (Annals 15.36-7). [Tony Woodman & Jonathan Powell (eds.) Author and Imitation in Latin Literature (1992), 173-88, 251-5]

11. Amateur Dramatics at the Court of Nero (Annals 15.48-74). [T. J. Luce & A. J. Woodman (eds.) Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (1993), 104-128]

12. Epilogue: Lectorum incuria?


1. C. S. Kraus & A. J. Woodman (1997) Latin Historians (G & R New Surveys in the Classics 27: Oxford), 6.

2. Quoted tellingly by D. C. Feeney in The Gods In Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford 1991), 260-1.