BMCR 2007.02.42

From Augustus to Nero: An Intermediate Latin Reader

, , From Augustus to Nero : an intermediate Latin reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. x, 214 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780521821209. $28.00 (pb).

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This prose anthology is intended for students who have completed an elementary course in Latin. The selections, drawn from Tacitus and Suetonius, narrate episodes in the lives of the five Julio-Claudian emperors. The needs of the learners are accommodated by a general introduction to the history and the historians, notes on the passages, appreciations of them (both historical observations and literary insights), and a vocabulary. The volume is attractive, containing many fine and useful illustrations, and handy to use. The readings are exciting, even sensational, yet somewhat narrow in content. The notes, although they are usually very helpful, especially in regard to language, and although they address those questions that puzzle students the most (I speak from thirty-eight years of experience teaching intermediate Latin), are sometimes mistaken or misleading and not rarely are jejune in the philological and historical information they convey: opportunities are regularly missed to show the students something about the Latin language or the ancient world that is interesting or otherwise valuable. The appreciations of the passages, by contrast, are an unalloyed good—a unique feature that will feed the students’ understanding of what they read and nourish their enjoyment. The book is a welcome, quite good, but somewhat limited tool for intermediate Latin instruction.

Two-thirds of the 82 selections are drawn from Tacitus’s Annals, nearly all the remainder from Suetonius, whose contributions are concentrated in those sections where Tacitus is unavailable, the ones about Augustus and Caligula. One entertaining passage, on Claudius’s arrival in heaven, is taken from Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis. Because the selections are short and well defined, the students will have the satisfaction of completing a passage (or two) for each class meeting. A concise preface does an excellent job of announcing the subject of each selection and connecting it to the others: the students will never be lost. Following in the footsteps of the ancient historians, the editors have arranged the material according to a biographical scheme, with successive sections on Augustus, Tiberius, and so on.

Their choices of what to include tend towards the sensational, towards warfare, cruelty, perversion—one third of the Nero passages narrate the attempts to murder his mother, Agrippina—and this too might be seen as reflecting the choices made by their sources. Many students doubtless will feel such material to be fascinating. There are also famous passages of wider interest that anyone should be thrilled to read in the original. Suetonius describes for us, in this anthology, Augustus’s adulteries, but he also summarizes his achievements in peace and war, including Augustus’s boast about the city of Rome ( marmoream se relinquere quam latericiam accepisset) and his desperate cry, uttered while banging his head against the wall, ” Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” We read here of the battle of Idistaviso, won by Germanicus, yet we also witness the moving scene in which some of the veterans in his army return to the Teutoburg Forest, the site of their disastrous defeat at the hands of Arminius. The editors do choose to retail Nero’s murders of his mother and Britannicus, to be sure, but they also include the great fire of 64, along with its important consequences: scapegoating of the Christians and construction of the Domus Aurea.

Though Fagan and Murgatroyd do not state which editions they followed, their choices do not surprise. (The replacement of the received adulteria with lupanaria in Cal. 11, on p. 77 of the anthology, deserves note since it forms a better parallel to ganeas.) They have made the passages easier to read by judicious pruning, maintaining the flow while omitting nothing important. Not only are phrases and clauses dropped, but also, rather often, particles such as vero and quidem. Some names that are unnecessary and would merely confuse are removed (Antonia, Cal. 29, p. 82); some are replaced by others that will be more readily recognizable (Caesar by Gaius, Cal. 45.3, p. 87). These are smart decisions. Matters of substance are prudently cut too: the reader who is not told the name and location of Tiberius’s villa at Sperlonga ( Ann. 4.59.1, p. 64) will enjoy nonetheless the account of the emperor’s staged withdrawal to Capri. Suetonius, who is almost as inept as Pliny the Elder at constructing a handsome periodic sentence, actually often emerges from the hands of these editors somewhat improved. Admired characteristic traits of Tacitus, however, sometimes get lost.1

For students at the intermediate level no feature of a textbook is more important than the notes. In that regard, the present anthology scores quite high. The editors’ feeling for where students reading real, continuous Latin for the first time are likely to need help is unerring. The help supplied, moreover, is generally excellent. Uses of case and mood are identified where necessary, understood words supplied, agreements and dependencies indicated, translations of tricky phrases offered, historical references elucidated. The familiar technique of explanation through translation is employed here to outstanding effect, with a literal rendering often preceding an intelligible one. The comment on Ann. 15.37.4 (p. 152) is typical: “‘had left untried no sexual abomination by means of which he might live more depraved’ = ‘had tried every sexual abomination to heighten the depravity of his existence’.” Such translations, and there are many, perfectly model for the learner the turning of Latin into idiomatic English, which is the surest guarantee of understanding.

Nevertheless, many notes could have been considerably improved—more correct, more exact, more informative, more engaging in other ways as well. In presenting translations, the editors have a habit that, though not dangerous, is extremely irksome and ill advised: they often offer two translations and refuse to decide between them. 2 Also, translation can sometimes become confused with explanation: the authors occasionally write as if English were the norm to which the Latin has failed to conform, and this denies the students the chance to experience and appreciate the differences between the languages.3

It is not worthwhile to cite examples of notes that are both right on target and right—let it be clearly understood that they constitute the great bulk. The mistaken, deficient, and missing notes, however, do require at least selective attention. Cal. 13 (p. 79): obviorum refers, not to those accompanying Caligula, but to those who came to greet him. Cal. 45.2 (p. 87): est is not understood with insecutus, which must be simply a participle since no connective joins it to reduxit. Ann.11.28.1 (p. 106): res (plural) is wrongly translated “the state.” Ibid.: dignitate is not an ablative of description: lacking an adjective, it must be an ablative of cause. Ann. 15.40.1 (p. 154): eo is not the adverb but an ablative of cause or degree of difference.

Outright mistakes like these are few; more numerous are notes that are misleading, incomplete, or inadequate. For example, the historic infinitive, the students are told (p. 37), is used in place of the perfect: yet it can equally well represent the imperfect. Likewise, the alternative ending -is for -es is identified several times (pp. 37, 50), but nowhere do students learn that it is confined to i-stem words.4

In some places the editors supply help where surely none is needed.5 But in far more places, the editors, while providing a correct, useful explanation or an accurate translation of the passage in question, fail to generalize the point, and thus lose the opportunity to teach the students something of which they will be able to avail themselves in many another passage: the students are being given a fish rather than taught to fish. 6 What is utterly lacking from the book is any sense that a language is not a collection of timeless, arbitrary rules, but rather a system of communication that has a history itself and is otherwise intelligible besides.7

As with linguistic, so with historical information in the notes: what is served up is often thin gruel. Phrases involving the monetary system (p. 85) or the calendar are simply translated (p. 92: “VIII Kal. Febr.: ‘on January 24th’;” also p. 69); no attempt is made to explain the peculiar Roman institutions or the forms of expressing them. Ostia is identified thus: “this was Rome’s port nearby” (p. 105); nothing indicates that it is exceptionally well preserved and can be visited today. Antium and Troy are accorded similarly dry descriptions (p. 154). On patrui in Ann. 14.2.2 (p. 137), it would have been helpful to remind the reader that Agrippina had been married to Claudius. One feels that precise knowledge is eschewed.

The notes on stylistic features are few, which is a pity, since at this stage students are prepared to absorb such observations, and Latin prose offers an exceptionally rich and rewarding field for observation. The notes on style occupy the same range as those on language. On Ann. 4.35.5 (p. 62), the editors point out that glisco, a poetic verb, is a favorite of Tacitus, and is found there in a typically Tacitean sententia —two true, telling remarks. On the same page they also inform the students that it is traditional in ancient historiography to invent speeches intended “to provide a psychological portrait, to present differing points of view, issues, policies, etc.” All this is excellent. But here too opportunities are missed: on p. 44 (ad Ann. 1.61.4), the opportunity to name and describe repraesentatio, common in Livy but found in other Latin authors; on p. 54, apropos anxia sui ( Ann. 2.75.1), to indicate Tacitus’s predilection, fomented by the poets and shared with other Silver Age writers, for rather loose uses of the genitive; on p. 59, apropos sui obtegens, in alios criminator ( Ann. 4.1.3), to point out his shunning of parallel expression; on p. 80 (ad Cal. 24.2), to explain that the perfect infinitives reproduce legal usage.

No feature of the book more consistently approaches the ideal than the appreciations of the passages, which are placed at the end of each section, after all the texts and notes, close yet distant enough not to interfere with the first reading and decoding. It is wonderful, it is thrilling, to see how much relevant information and literary insight is packed into these single paragraphs; I know no other textbook that does such a remarkable job of provoking readers’ interest in the material. Some samples may indicate the wide range and high value of the editors’ interpretive comments. On passage 6 of the Tiberius section ( Ann. 2.72-73, 75, 3.1, p. 72), they remark on the Germans’ possible view of the episode, assess the comparison attempted between Germanicus and Alexander the Great, explain how the passage develops the character of Agrippina, and indicate Tacitus’s “cinematic” technique. On Tiberius 9 ( Ann. 4.1-2, pp. 73-74), they suggest comparisons with other works of literature, with tragedies exhibiting divine retribution, with the figures of Allecto in the Aeneid and of Catiline in Sallust. On Caligula 8 ( Cal. 43, pp. 96-97), they set the emperor’s behavior against the background of Roman expectations of martial prowess, show how the readers’ view of his behavior alters in the course of the passage, and end with several fine observations on the nuances of certain key words. On Claudius 3 ( Ann. 11.12, pp. 121-122), they make clear the inversion of customary male and female roles in the relationship of Messalina to Silius. On Claudius 20 (Sen. Apoc. 4-5, p. 128), they compact into a paragraph insightful, helpful comments on Roman views of weakness and gladiatorial games and on the tradition of recording famous last words. On Nero 27 ( Ann. 16.1-3, p. 173), the editors brilliantly reveal the Aeneid as an ironic sub-text of Tacitus’s depiction of Nero’s mad extravagance. With these notes, Fagan and Murgatroyd (the latter is chiefly responsible) superbly model for the students insightful readings of various sorts.

The secondary features of the book vary from well to not-so-well thought out. The illustrations are inviting: the inscription reproduced on p. 120 from the Arch of Claudius in Rome might lead students to take an interest in that fascinating branch of study; the barge found in Lake Nemi (photograph on p. 83) might provoke excitement about archeology and material culture. The notes never rely on abbreviations. But the book lacks a grammatical appendix, or index at least, to which students might refer; even cross-references within the notes, which might serve to amplify a grammatical point through a further example, are lacking; and the glossary of technical terms is inadequate. Graver yet is the failure to mark quantities in the vocabulary: the students will not be able to tell whether omittent is present or future, and will not be able to read the passages aloud correctly.

On the basis of the anthology’s features, one may sketch, tentatively, the student audience that it implicitly addresses. These are students not very well trained in the Latin language. They may have come to the study of Latin because moved by seeing . Gladiator or re-runs of I, Claudius. They do not much care about either general features of the Roman world or precise or detailed knowledge of history and language. This book represents a terminal for them. They are not likely to go on to further study, nor are they equipped to do so, since, after a diet of Tacitus and an exercise regimen that avoids strenuously acquired knowledge and understanding of the language, they will encounter great difficulty in reading Cicero, Caesar, Livy, or Pliny the Younger, not to mention the poets.

But a textbook does not have merely to reflect a readership: it might also help to form one. Granted, many students do enter elementary Latin drawn by sensational aspects of ancient life, and many exit inadequately trained. Nonetheless, however they make their way to our classroom, they could be both more fully instructed there than by this textbook and, at the same time, more profoundly, more thoroughly engaged. They could be treated to a richer diet—indeed, even a banquet—of learning. They could work with a textbook that includes: a larger variety of authors, perhaps even some poets; passages illustrating also the social, economic, administrative, religious, and domestic features of life under the early Empire (and perhaps arranged according to a scheme not biographical); notes that provide a broad and firm foundation for reading widely in Latin and that penetrate more deeply into historical and cultural matters.

Much guidance towards reaching these goals is given by an older intermediate Latin textbook, comparison with which is virtually invited by the title: Mason Hammond and Anne Amory’s Aeneas to Augustus, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1967). It too is organized historically and consists of short selections, with introductions, notes, and vocabulary. It utterly lacks illustrations and those priceless appreciations; a certain number of the passages are certainly very dull; and its notes, especially on the historical side, can be excessively informative: Hammond and Amory’s comment on Surus, the one-tusked elephant in a Carthaginian army (Plin. Nat. 8.5.11, pp. 37-38), can only be likened in its excess to Pease’s comment on the bubo (ad Aen. 4.462). And yet, it features a great variety of prose authors, a graded selection of poetry by Ovid, Virgil, Catullus, Horace, Lucan, Lucretius, and others, and an extensive series of notes that not only render all those readings possible for intermediate students but also fit the students to continue on to others. Fagan and Murgatroyd’s work, if it had taken the same stance towards its audience, would have been truly outstanding, perhaps the textbook for two or three generations of Latin students. As it stands, it is a very engaging and useful textbook for intermediate students—provided they do not intend to go further.


1. His love of contrast, paradox, non-parallelism, and the telling parenthesis becomes concealed through the excisions made in Ann. 4.1.2 (p. 58), describing Sejanus: mox Tiberium variis artibus devinxit, adeo ut [ obscurum adversum alios ] sibi uni incautum intectumque efficeret, non tam sollertia [ (quippe isdem artibus victus est) ] quam deum ira in rem Romanam.

2. Fiducia is rendered “confidence/courage” (p. 59, but in the next line the commentary endorses the former). On p. 57 verbera is translated as “beat/flog,” on p. 155 monumenta ingeniorum as “records/documents of genius/men of genius.” If a significant difference can be perceived between the different versions (“beat” and “flog”), then the duty of the editors, as more learned and more experienced than the students, is to pick the more suitable one, or, if the two are equally suitable, to signal that by some means other than a slash, which implies either/or: “confidence, courage” they might have written (implying both meanings are possible, both fit), or “(men of) genius” (abstraction or human embodiment thereof).

3. A note on the partitive genitive runs (p. 53): “such a genitive is often used after neuter adjectives and pronouns instead of an adjective in agreement (e.g. multum auri‘much of gold’ in place of multum aurum‘much gold’).” Though helpful in practice, such a remark misrepresents the situation: the Romans were not replacing an adjective with a noun. Similarly (p. 27): “the adjective vetus (‘long-standing’) functions virtually as an adverb here (= ‘long ago’).” No, what is really meant is “can be suitably translated into English as an adverb,” which is rather different. (For a fine statement about the value of reminding readers of the alien-ness of the ancient world, see A. J. Woodman, transl. Tacitus: The Annals [Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004], p. xxvi.).

4. About Ann. 14.3.2, ferrum et caedes quonam modo occultaretur, nemo reperiebat (p. 137), the editors say that ferrum et caedes“belongs inside the indirect question … in which occultaretur is deliberative or potential subjunctive”: the first notion would be more accurately expressed “the interrogative words, instead of being put first, as is usual, are slightly postponed, so that the vivid ferrum et caedes may stand at the head of the sentence” (same slip on p. 64); and occultaretur is subjunctive only because it is in an indirect question, not because it expresses deliberation or potential. On p. 145 inverted cum clauses are given a useless description (“in such clauses A is happening when B happens”), and it is left to the students to infer that in such clauses the verb is in the indicative, not the subjunctive. The quality of instruction also suffers when alternative construings of the Latin are ignored. On Ann. 2.23.3 (p. 50), insulas saxis abruptis vel per occulta vada infestas, the editors describe saxis abruptis as ablative of description with insulas : perhaps, but it might also be ablative of cause with infestas, which would join it to the non-parallel per occulta vada, very much in the Tacitean manner. On Ann. 11.26.2 (p. 105), flagitiis [v. l. flagitii ] manifestis subsidium ab audacia petendum, they term flagitiis manifestis dative with subsidium, although it could equally well be ablative of attendant circumstance or—what amounts to the same thing—ablative absolute. These alternatives, since they will occur to some students and since they deserve consideration in their own right—to me, indeed, they seem preferable—ought to be anticipated, if not embraced, by a commentary.

5. On pp. 158-159, at the very end of the text, they are still pointing out that obtulerat comes from offero and spectata from specto (a regular first conjugation verb!), and that esse has to be understood with two participles, even though students not only are likely to know these things before picking up the book, but have been reminded of them repeatedly (of the last, 25 times) while working their way through the book. Such unwanted help might even be taken by the audience as a mild insult. The reverse, though unusual, does occur too, namely that explanations are not supplied to the students where they ought to be. On Ann. 2.26.1 (p. 52), pensavisset should have been identified as a subjunctive giving the alleged reason: this is common in Latin and constitutes a valuable distinction, one that cannot so handily be made in English. On Cal. 45.3 (p. 87), the use of quod, rather than ut, with the subjunctive to give the content of an edict ought to have been noted for its oddity.

6. Here is a selection of general points not made that ought to have been made: the ablative expresses degree of difference (pp. 25, 28, 102); neque … et are correlative (p. 28), just like neque … neque and et … et; with intransitive verbs, the only passive possible is an impersonal (p. 37); comparatives often express “rather” or “too” instead of “more” (p. 56); a neuter adjective frequently is used as a noun, especially by Tacitus (p. 64); ut qui plus the subjunctive, a variety of relative clause of characteristic, means “because he” (p. 80); the antecedent of a relative is often omitted, especially when it would be in the same form as the relative (p. 101); the suffix -met makes the pronoun more emphatic (p. 101); pono commonly appears, especially in poetry, for depono (p. 154). These and other such would have promoted students’ mastery of the language.

7. It could have been explained to the students that familias, in matres familias, is an archaic form of the genitive singular preserved in this collocation (p. 31—and English paterfamilias could have been mentioned); that the periphrasis fore ut plus the subjunctive is employed because Latin lacks a future passive infinitive (p. 37); that, given the verb’s defectiveness, meminisset is an imperfect subjunctive in effect (pp. 53) and memento a necessary freak (p. 82); that the subjunctive in a generalizing if-clause is mostly post-classical (p. 101), as is the use of dum with nearly the force of “because” (p. 50). The students at whom the book is aimed are capable of understanding and, what is more, of being engaged by such knowledge.