BMCR 2006.01.16

Tacitus. Studienbücher Antike, Band 14

, Tacitus. Studienbücher Antike, Bd. 14. Hildesheim: Olms, 2005. 240 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3487128845. €18.00 (pb).

Stephan Schmal’s introduction to Tacitus is the fourteenth in a series aimed at initiating the reader into an ancient author. Schmal’s previous work in the same series on Sallust (BMCR 2002.10.12) totaled 216 pages. Thus it seems surprising that Tacitus, perhaps not a more important writer, but certainly a more copious one (Tacitus weighs in with 5 Loeb volumes; Sallust fits into one), merits only 24 more pages. Even more surprising is the author’s failure to discuss epigraphic finds which have immensely broadened our understanding of Tacitus. Although Schmal mentions (p. 76 n. 55) the Lyons tablet which includes Claudius’s speech on giving citizenship and powers to the Gallic nobility ( ILS 7021), no mention is made of the letter from Tiberius to Gythion on divine honors (Ehrenberg and Jones 102), the Tabula Siarensis and Tabula Hebana, or more importantly, the Senatus Consultum concerning the trial of Piso and the death of Germanicus (for a text of and important articles on this last inscription, generally known as the SCPP, see the reference list following this review. An entire issue of AJP (120.1, 1999) was dedicated to discussing the document). While Schmal does seem to have a good grasp on the other major topics regarding Tacitus and his Nachleben, the absence of these epigraphic sources lowers the overall value of this book.

The structure of the book follows basically the same format as Schmal’s previous discussion of Sallust. The first chapter provides an introduction to Tacitus’ Leben und Zeit. The next chapter addresses the Agricola, chapter 3 discusses the Germania, and chapter 4, the Dialogus. It is worth noting that the Agricola and the Dialogus each merit six pages, but the Germania occupies thirteen. In the discussion of these works, as in the discussions of the Histories and Annals which follow them, very little Latin is offered (one of the few citations is actually incorrect, as bellis inexpertis is offered for bellis inexpertus in citing Histories 1.8.1 on p. 112). Instead, quotations are given in German. After the chapters on the individual works, Schmal turns to general themes regarding Tacitus. Chapter 7, Der Dichter, addresses Tacitus as an artist; chapter 8, Der Historiker, examines Tacitus as a historian; chapter 9, Der Geschichtsdenker, explores Tacitus’ philosophical and religious views; chapter 10, Der Soziologe, looks at the value of Tacitus for social historians and his prejudices with regards to class; chapter 10, Der politische Analytiker, examines the importance of Tacitus for political scientists. The last two chapters concern themselves with the Nachleben of Tacitus, ending with conjectures about what the state of Tacitean research might be in 2025. The bibliography is extensive, including works in German, English, French and Italian, but some key works (discussed below) are missing.

Within each chapter there are general overviews of most of the major problems facing Tacitean scholars. I would like at this point to make some general comments regarding the individual chapters.

Chapter 1 provides a good background to the tradition of historical writing in Rome and how Tacitus viewed himself within that tradition. Background information is also given about the senatorial politics of the time and the increase in provincial politicians, including (most likely) Tacitus himself. Since most of our biographical evidence for Tacitus comes either from his own writings or from the letters of the younger Pliny, it seems that there should have been more discussion of the letters. Also, the notion that Tacitus, who was consul in 97, may have been designated consul by Domitian not Nerva, is relegated to a footnote (p. 17, n. 28). Although it may seem like a minor point, the answer to the question who appointed Tacitus consul would shed some light on Tacitus’ position under the emperor he detested and feared.

The next chapter on the Agricola presents in an organized manner the overarching arguments of the work and its hybrid nature as part biography, part geography, part political apology. The discussion provides a good springboard for further discussion, although more might have been said about the views of imperialism expressed in the work.

The Germania merits, as I mentioned, twice as much discussion as the other two opera minora. Schmal seems to have a good handle on the material and provides the reader with enough background to make sense of the discussion of the importance of the Germania to German nationalism which comes in chapter 12.

The Dialogus is the most problematic work of Tacitus, so there are many difficulties in trying to introduce it to a new reader. The difficulties with the manuscript tradition only add to the difficulties of the material itself. Schmal introduces the characters in the dialogue all at once, failing to indicate that Messalla makes a late appearance midway through the dialogue. Messalla’s entrance and its literary meaning are important to the dynamics of the debate. In the end, many of the questions raised by the dialogue are left unresolved by Schmal, perhaps rightly so.

As Schmal turns to the Histories, he takes a systematic approach of discussing the work book by book. In his summary of Book 4, Schmal makes no mention of the miracles of Vespasian and Tacitus’ treatment of them. In fact, in general he neglects accounts of omens and prodigies. He ends his discussion of the Histories with an overview of the structure (Aufbau) of the work and speculation as to what some of the missing books might have contained.

Moving on to the Annals, Schmal pauses to address the problematic inconistency that Tacitus promised ( Hist. 1.1) that he would write a history of the blessed age of Trajan, yet instead turned back to the beginning of the principate. Schmal puts forth the notion that Tacitus invented the negative view of Augustus presented during his funeral. It might have been useful here to recall that some of the same criticisms leveled at Augustus during his funeral show up in Suetonius. Schmal expresses similar disbelief in Caligula’s role in the mutinies, but once again, Suetonius backs up this tradition. While it is possible Suetonius used Tacitus as a source, it seems more likely that both found the material elsewhere.

Schmal discusses Books 2 and 3 of the Annals together, thus seeing them as a unit. The discussion would have been greatly helped by the SCPP and the AJP edition dedicated to it, as well as Griffin and Barnes treatments elsewhere (see below for references). As an instructor who has read the Annals with a Latin class, I know how the SCPP can change doubters into believers and boost Tacitus’ credibility. Schmal does nicely point out (p. 70) the importance of Junia’s funeral as a signal for the death of the Republic and as a fitting end to Book 3.

The last three books of the Tiberian hexad are lumped together. While Schmal does point to Velleius Paterculus for an alternative view of Sejanus before his fall, he does not include in his bibliography or in his discussion Woodman’s extensive commentary on the Tiberian historian. Schmal ends his discussion of Book 4 with the trial of Cremutius Cordus, failing to discuss the exchange of letters between Tiberius and Sejanus, the confrontation between Agrippina and Tiberius, Tiberius’ retreat from Rome and the cave-in at Sperlonga, the disaster at Fidenae, the trial of Sabinus, or the Frisian uprising. In discussing Tiberius’ letter to the senate in Book 6, Levick’s interpretation that the letter must be seen in its context should be considered. If placed in the context of the senatorial debate of yet another meaningless case of maiestas, the letter which supposedly lays bare the self-tortured tyrant is actually an expression of imperial exasperation with the senate. In discussing the obituary of Tiberius, Woodman’s article in Tacitus Reviewed would have been useful.

After addressing the huge lacuna in the Annals and the missing books on Caligula, Schmal turns his attention to the Claudian books. He nicely points out Tacitus’ difficulty in maintaining an annalistic structure, although Ginsburg’s book is not mentioned. In his discussion of the Neronian books, Schmal points out the parallel between the opening of the Tiberian principate and that of Nero, but the failure to print the Latin hinders further analysis ( primum facinus novi principatus fuit Postumi Agrippae caedes — Ann. 1.6; prima novo principatu mors Iunii Silani proconsulis Asiae ignaro Nerone per dolum Agrippinae paratur — Ann. 13.1). Book 14, Schmal rightly points out, is dominated by women. First the death of Agrippina, then the ascendancy of Poppaea, and of course the exile and execution of the virtuous Octavia, are contrasted with the righteous wrath of Boudicca. Book 15 and the fire at Rome earn due discussion, although n. 73 on p. 82 might have been more useful if, instead of alluding to the CD burning program named after Nero, it had included the collection of essays Reflections of Nero. Schmal presents a good discussion of the problems surrounding the suicide scenes towards the end of the Annals and rightly sees the irony connecting the Philosophentod of Seneca and the whimsical suicide of Petronius. He concludes his discussion with an overview of the structure of the Annals, a discussion which would have been greatly helped by Ginsburg’s book. Also missing from the discussion of the Annals is Walker’s book on Tacitus’ conflict between factual honesty and rhetorical persuasion.

After his analyses of the individual works, Schmal turns his attention to the general issues facing the Tacitean reader. In his discussion of humor in Tacitus, Schmal fails to mention the work of Plass, whose Wit and the Writing of History focuses on the irony and satire prevalent in Tacitus’ work. Lacking from the discussion of Tacitean rhetorical brevitas is Sinclair’s Tacitus the Sententious Historian. The overview of the artistic techniques of Tacitus is fairly strong, but the section on the use of speech in Tacitus seems a bit weak. Wharton’s article elaborating on the work of Miller could have helped significantly.

The discussion of Tacitus as a historian is the section which suffers the most from the failure to address epigraphic evidence. Nevertheless, there are some valuable points. Schmal brings up the other authors by which Tacitus can be measured, including Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, and Josephus. He also addresses the difficulties of Tacitean Quellenforschung. The section on the Subjektivität of Tacitus summarizes the difficulties with Tacitus’ claim to write sine ira et studio.

The next three chapters dealing with the philosophical and ideological views of Tacitus raise important questions without answering them. This seems logical as it would entice the reader of the monograph to want to read Tacitus for him- or herself. His discussion of Tacitus’ views on women is nicely turned, but does fail to mention of Agricola’s sainted mother.

As Schmal turns to the political views of Tacitus and their influence on later thinkers, he seems to come into his own. The end of the book is by far the strongest and most valuable section. Schmal’s discussion of what libertas meant for Tacitus is finely tuned to the difference between libertas for the senate and the licentia of the people. Ultimately, it is Tacitus’ survival and advancement under Domitian which drives the reader to look more closely at the historian’s criticisms of the principate. Moderatio, as exemplified by Agricola and M. Lepidus, is the touchstone of the Tacitean corpus.

Despite the lack of appreciation for Tacitus by his immediate successors (excluding Ammianus), Tacitus enjoyed a rather curious Nachleben after the rediscovery of the Histories and Annals. Schmal treats this cursorily, but thoroughly. As expected, the importance of the Germania and the legend of Arminius to German identity dominate the discussion.

Schmal closes with an overview of current scholarship on Tacitus. I was shocked to read that Tacitus failed to make the list of the top 15 Latin authors taught in German schools (p. 197). Hopefully Schmal’s readable introduction will change that. Having taught Tacitus myself in an American university, I know how challenging he can be. But as Schmal points out, the difficulty of Tacitus is what makes him so good. Tacitean complexity is becoming more and more understandable in a world where nothing is as it seems, where wars are fought on television, and where nations and their citizens are constantly forced to question their identity.


Barnes, T. D. “Tacitus and the Senatus Consultum De Cn. Pisone Patre.” Phoenix 52 (1998): 125-48.

Damon, Cynthia. “The Trial of Cn. Piso in Tacitus’ Annales and the Senatus Consultum De Cn. Pisone Patre : New Light on Narrative Technique.” AJP 120 (1999): 143-62.

Eck, Werner, Antonio Caballos, and Fernando Fernández, ed. Das Senatus Consultum De Cn. Pisone Patre. München: Beck, 1996.

Ehrenberg, Victor and A. H. M Jones. Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius. 2. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Elsner, Jas and Jamie Masters, ed. Reflections of Nero: Culture, History and Representation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Ginsburg, Judith. Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus. New York: Arno Press, 1981.

Griffin, Miriam. “The Senate’s Story (Review of SCPP).” JRS 87 (1997): 249-63.

Levick, Barbara. “A Cry From the Heart From Tiberius Caesar.” Historia 27 (1978): 95-101.

Miller, Norma. “Tiberius Speaks: an Examination of the Utterances Ascribed to Him in the Annals of Tacitus.” AJP 89 (1968): 1-19.

Plass, Paul. Wit and the Writing of History: the Rhetoric of Historiography in Imperial Rome. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Sinclair, Patrick. Tacitus the Sententious Historian: a Sociology of Rhetoric in Annales 1-6. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Sánchez-Ostiz Gutiérrez, Álvaro. Tabula Siarensis: Edición, Traducción y Comentario. Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 1999.

Talbert, Richard. “Tacitus and the Senatus Consultum De Cn. Pisone Patre.” AJP 120 (1999): 89-97.

Walker, B. The Annals of Tacitus: a Study in the Writing of History. 2. ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960.

Wharton, David. “Tacitus’ Tiberius: the State of the Evidence for the Emperor’s ipsissima verba in the Annals.” AJP 118 (1997): 119-25.

Woodman, A. J. Tacitus Reviewed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Woodman, A. J. Velleius Paterculus: The Tiberian Narrative, 2.94-131. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.