BMCR 2001.10.29

Tacitus : Annals V & VI

, Tacitus: Annals V & VI. Classical Texts. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 2001. xii, 209 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0856687227 $28.00.

Martin’s new commentary on Tacitus Annals V and VI brings to completion a project, originally conceived by Goodyear, to write a series of commentaries on the first six books of the Annals. However, this edition differs in two important respects from the previous volumes in which Martin has been involved as an editor.1 Firstly, this is a solo project, which means that there is no longer that characteristic delineation of differing interpretations from Martin and Woodman indicated by initials, to which we have grown accustomed in previous collaborative volumes. Secondly, in keeping with the format of the Aris and Phillips series, Martin has provided a facing English translation, from which lemmata in the commentary are generally taken, although some derive from the Latin, where appropriate. In the introduction to the commentary, Martin offers sections on “Roman Historical Writing Before Tacitus”, “Tacitus: Life and Works”, “Structure of Annals V and VI”, “Sources”, “Language and Style” and (briefly) “Text and Translation”. In addition, there are two appendices on the financial crisis of AD 33 ( Annals 6.1617) and on the obituary of Tiberius (Annals 6.51.3). Finally, there are three indices (as with the Cambridge commentary on Annals 4) on general topics, on Latin words and on names, as well as a stemma of the families of Augustus and Tiberius.

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. This impression grew steadily as I read through the edition, but to illustrate my point it is worth noting some items from the general index of Martin and Woodman’s commentary on Annals 4, which are absent from the general index of the current edition: alliteration, assonance, asyndeton, battle narrative (conventional elements of), chiasmus, drama and dramatic arrangement, ethnography, innuendo, litotes, peripeteia, tricolon, and zeugma. It is not necessarily the case that the commentary totally avoids discussion of these items, but they are not highlighted in the index.2 Conversely, there are certain items from the general index of Martin’s commentary on Annals 5 and 6 which did not feature in the general index of the commentary on Annals 4: aerarium and aerarium militare, Arval Brethren, banks, Etesian winds, Fasti Ostienses, Gemonian steps, insulae (tenements), interest rates, marriageable age for women, suouetaurilia, treasury, and usury. My method of comparison here is rather crude, and of course, some items only feature in the respective lists because they are relevant to one particular volume. Nevertheless, the differences do reflect the distinctive natures of the two commentaries.

Some concrete examples should clarify matters. So, although Martin comments (p.118) on the alliteration and assonance of the Sallustian facinora atque flagitia ( Annals 6.6.1), he does not draw attention to the alliteration of seditionem a satellite Seiani quaesitam ( Annals 6.3.2), pericula et poenas ( Annals 6.7.5) or cecidere coniurationis crimine ( Annals 6.14.1), which are arguably just as striking as the instance at Annals 6.6.1. Martin can certainly open his readers’ eyes to rhetorical effects (as in the excellent note on “There lay scattered a huge mass of the slaughtered”, p.142), but in this commentary he has been relatively selective.

Another section which illustrates Martin’s more historical interests is his analysis of 6.31-37, events relating to Rome and Parthia. Martin prefaces the section with a useful historical survey (pp.166-7), moving from Crassus’ assault on Parthia in 53BC through to the death of Artaxias in AD35 and the imposition on the throne of Armenia of Artabanus’ son Arsaces; Martin also draws attention to the “immediate topicality” (p.167) of the narrative about Armenia in light of its annexation as a Roman province in AD 114, and relates this to the dating of the Annals. Yet there is little, either in the introductory discussion (pp.166-7) or in the commentary (pp.167-76) on the broader literary aspects, such as the suggestive interplay between events in the east and in Rome. So, despite apparent markers of barbarian difference (such as Tacitus’ comment on castration, Annals 6.31.2), one could see suggestive points of contact with the main players in Rome. The Parthian minister Sinnaces, who sends envoys to Rome without the knowledge of the Parthian king Artabanus (Annals 6.31.2), can perhaps be read as a Sejanus figure. Also, the Parthian king Artabanus, attended by foreign bodyguards ( Annals 6.36.3) and himself a fugitive from the centre of power ( Annals 6.36.4), resembles Tiberius, who asks for a bodyguard ( Annals 6.15.2), despite initially rejecting one ( Annals 6.2.4), and who has abandoned Rome for self-imposed exile on Capri. Such points of contact between the ruling house in Parthia and the imperial domus in Rome help to plot the potential of power to corrupt. Readers have already seen an eloquent marker of the warped state of affairs at the centre in Tacitus’ extraordinary portrait of Rubrius Fabatus and his abortive attempt to flee from Rome to the compassion of the Parthians ( Annals 6.14.2). The implication is that if anything, the situation in Rome is worse than in Parthia.

One could make similar observations about the emphasis of Martin’s comments (pp.171-4) on Tacitus’ narrative of the battle between the Parthians and a combined force of Iberians, Albanians and Sarmatians ( Annals 6.34-5). Although Martin throughout this section helpfully elucidates the Latin of a difficult passage, he does not address the broader questions of the historicity of the battle and the extent to which Tacitus might have embellished his description to entertain his readers.3 Such questions are surely hovering over Martin’s concession that “…T. does not give any indication of where the battle took place…” (p.171). We can zoom in on a specific example. In a pre-battle harangue, the Iberian king Pharasmenes contrasts his own bristling army with the ” picta auro Medorum agmina” ( Annals 6.34.3). Martin’s note (p.172) focuses on (a) a linguistic point, the rarity of a defining ablative after pictus, and (b) on a point of interpretation, the fact that it is unclear whether Tacitus “means (literally) painted or embossed or embroidered”. (Martin opts for the second meaning on the analogy of Livy 7.10.7 and Curtius Rufus 9.3.21). It would have been possible to have made a broader point (c) about the rhetorical strategy of Pharasmenes, who loosely refers to the Parthians as Medes (cf. Pliny HN 6.16.41) and activates a negative Persian stereotype by focusing on their golden paraphernalia, and perhaps also (d) about the freedom which Tacitus had to embellish setpieces such as battles regardless of historicity.4

Still, such observations may be out of place, given that Martin’s stated aim in the commentary is “to provide readers with the information, both historical and linguistic, for a fuller understanding of Tacitus’ skill and artistry in delineating the final years of the septuagenarian Tiberius” (vi). It is arguable that students who are studying Annals 5 and 6 without the framework offered by an A-level in Ancient History will generally need more help with historical than with literary questions. This Martin certainly provides. In discussing (pp.135-9, pp.197-8 with additional bibliography) the financial crisis of AD 33 ( Annals 6.161-7), Martin clarifies exactly how Tacitus’ account differs from those of Suetonius and Dio, and illuminates a section of narrative which students will almost certainly find difficult. For instance, when Tacitus says ( Annals 6.17.3) that Tiberius made available a sum of 100 million sesterces to alleviate the crisis, Martin analyses what this means in real terms: “since the minimum figure required of a senator, if he were to retain his status, was a million sesterces, and since many senators’ wealth far exceeded that figure, Tiberius’ subvention, though substantial, was not enormous” (p.139). Not only that, but, as Martin explains in his discussion of Tiberius’ seizure of Sextus Marius’ gold and silver mines (Annals 6.19.1), “That Tiberius had a fund of money on which he could lay his hands is clearly shown by his ability to release the hundred million sesterces with which the crisis was resolved” (p.141). Imperial generosity is thus put into context.

Linguistic help is provided both through Martin’s excellent facing translation of the Latin, which succeeds in its aim of being “an exact translation in straightforward English” (p.29), as well as through specific analysis in the body of the commentary. As with any commentary on a Latin text which deploys the medium of English, sometimes translation alone serves to provide the reader with linguistic help, but often this is supplemented by further discussion of grammar and syntax in the commentary. A good example of Martin helpfully dovetailing translation and commentary can be seen in his treatment of Annals 6.36.1: peritia locorum ab Hiberis melius pugnatum; nec ideo abscedebat, ni contractis legionibus Vitellius et subdito rumore tamquam Mesopotamiam inuasurus metum Romani belli fecisset (p.76). Martin translates this as follows: “Through their knowledge of the land the engagement was fought more successfully by the Iberians; yet Artabanus was not for that reason disposed to move away, had not Vitellius, after gathering his legions together and putting about a rumour to the effect that he was about to invade Mesopotamia, created fear of war with Rome” (p.77).

There are several features of this translation which indicate that Martin is sensitive to the linguistic needs of his readers and which illustrate his general practice. Firstly, Martin makes it clear that the subject of the main verb ” abscedebat” is still Artabanus, the subject of the previous sentence (though this is not repeated in the Latin). Then there is his decision to render the two ablative absolutes, ” contractis legionibus” and ” subdito rumore…inuasurus“, as subordinate clauses with Vitellius as the subject, thereby providing minimal distraction from the main difficulty of the sentence, the combination of indicative and subjunctive moods. Students might initially find it odd that Martin translates the imperfect indicative (” abscedebat“) in the apodosis as “was…disposed to move away”, but clarification is provided in the commentary (p.174): “yet Artabanus was not…disposed to move away, had not Vitellius…created fear of war with Rome: the main verb in the indicative is coupled with ni + pluperfect subjunctive (the normal mood to express an unfulfilled condition in past time); the imperfect indicative describes an action that has been begun (or attempted), but not completed. In such ‘mixed’ conditions it is commonly assumed that there is an ellipse of an unfulfilled apodosis, e.g. `he was in the process of completing an action (imperfect indicative), [and would have completed it (pluperfect subjunctive)], had not something stopped him’. The construction occurs in a number of authors (including Cicero and Livy), but is particularly common in Tacitus; e.g. 1.35.4, 63.2. For ‘ ni‘ rather than ‘ nisi‘ cf. MW 4.13.3n. and WM 3.14.4n.”.

In this lemma, Martin usefully elucidates a specific point about Tacitus’ deployment of a mixed conditional construction in such a way as to reinforce a student’s broader knowledge of Latin. It is always helpful when commentators differentiate between normal and abnormal usage in the Latin of Tacitus and other authors, and Martin shows a deft touch in this respect.5 In addition, since Martin points out that this construction occurs in other authors such as Cicero and Livy, he offers students a powerful incentive to remember his explanation when reading other texts.6 Perhaps it would also be helpful if at the end of the lemma Martin had pointed readers towards his earlier note on ni and nisi (p.115), which is probably more accessible (in practical terms) for students than the cross-references to discussions in his earlier collaborative volumes with Woodman.

I end this review with some miscellaneous observations. “White (1961)” (xi): this should be 1991. “Since Sallust is the single most important influence on Tacitus’ style…” (p.4): add to the index under “Sallust, imitates p.147, 150, 170” references to p. 126, p.131, and p.195. “lactea ubertas” (p.5): see further S. Hays, ” Lactea Ubertas : What’s Milky about Livy?”, CJ 82 (1987) 107-16. “…there is little evidence that he [Livy] had a significant influence on the thought of senatorial or political historians” (p.5): this generalisation seems to sit oddly with (e.g) the analysis by Woodman and Martin of Annals 3.32-35, modelled on the debate at Livy 34.27 on the repeal of the Oppian law in 195BC.7 “‘keeping his monstrous temper concealed by a deceptive modesty'” (p.17, p.144): with this description of Caligula, compare Histories 4.86.2 on the young Domitian. “the senatorial decree (SCPP) which concluded the trial of Cn. Calpurnius Piso” (p.25): there is a useful supplementary bibliography about this in S.P. Oakley’s review of Woodman and Martin’s Annals 3 ( BMCR 00.01.28). “Velleius Paterculus had described him…” (p.110): add reference (2.72.3). “the phrase is borrowed from Curtius Rufus 4.10.24” (p.112): this presupposes that Curtius Rufus wrote before Tacitus, as Martin makes clear on p.121. “Millar (1977)” (p.113): not in the bibliography. “public mourning could be regarded as politically subversive” (p.125): compare Agrippina the Younger at Annals 3.1. “because a rumour was going about” (p.152): for another rumour about an elderly emperor finding reconciliation with a hitherto ostracised member of his family, see Annals 1.5 (Augustus and Agrippa Postumus). “she had died on the same day” (p.154): cf. Annals 15.41.2 and C.S. Kraus, Livy Ab Vrbe Condita VI (Cambridge 1994) 93-4. “the death of Aelius Lamia” (p.156): add a reference to Velleius Paterculus 2.116.3. “That these matters are…exaggerated by fabulous details” (p.161): see Annals 11.18.3 for another instance. “his wife Paxaea” (p.162): for an (abortive) emulative suicide by a wife, compare Seneca’s wife Paulina ( Annals 15.64.12). “with the addition of verses…against Tiberius” (p.163): see S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge and London 1994) 63-97. “to an immense height” (p.174): for the opposite extreme see Plutarch Lucullus 24, a remarkable diminution of the Euphrates. “his wife Ennia” (p.185): for other such lovetriangles, see Annals 4.3 (Sejanus / Livia / Drusus) and Histories 1.13 (Nero / Poppaea / Otho). “the villa of…Lucius Lucullus” (p.190): Lucullus’ sharp mental deterioration in old age could also be mentioned, if only as a point of contrast with Tiberius.

Martin has produced a stimulating commentary on a fascinating text: Annals 5 and 6 deserve to attract a wider audience than they have done so far, and the publication of this edition should do much to rectify this.


1. R.H. Martin and A.J. Woodman (eds), 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. So, Martin highlights (e.g.) alliteration (p.118), anaphora (p.142), assonance (p.118), asyndeton (p.123), drama (p.167), and zeugma (p.122, p.152), but these items are not listed in the index.

3. In contrast, Martin is much more sensitive to the potential for “a colourful foreign episode” to serve as a “welcome relief from the gloomy chronicle of events at home” (p.158) in his discussion of the reappearance of the phoenix at Annals 6.28.

4. See further R. Ash, “An Exemplary Conflict: Tacitus’ Parthian Battle Narrative ( Annals 6.34-35)”, Phoenix 53 (1999) 114-35.

5. There are numerous examples throughout the commentary, but see (e.g.) notes on “what faced him” (p.101), laqueum iuxta (p.107), “hurrying past” (p.108), repens (p.120), iuxta seditionem uentum (p.131), exspes (p.152), picta auro (p.172), and “the swift hands” (p.178).

6. In the index (1 General), under “conditional cl., mixed”, add a reference to p.181 ( Ac si statim … petiuisset … omnes in unum cedebant), which gives specific instances in Cicero and Livy to which Martin here refers in general terms.

7. A.J. Woodman and R.H. Martin, The Annals of Tacitus Book 3 (Cambridge 1996) 285-307.