BMCR 2008.10.34

Tacitus: Histories Book II. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics

, , Histories. Book 2. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ix, 415 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521814461. $39.99.

As a teacher and scholar I am delighted that the Cambridge “Green and Yellow” series is continuing to provide new and engaging commentaries on the works of Tacitus. Having taught the fourth book of the Annals using the commentary of Martin and Woodman (1989), and the first book of the Histories using that of Damon (2003), I look forward to using Ash’s commentary on Book II of the Histories in the classroom. One can only hope that the climactic Book III will soon be added to the series.1

Ash states in her introduction, “…it is the aim of this commentary to enrich students’ understanding of Tacitus Histories 2 at whatever point they encounter the text. The goal throughout has been to elucidate how Tacitus’ style and arrangement of material impose meaning on complex historical events” (vii). In this review, I will try to assess how successful Ash is achieving this goal, while also examining other aspects of the commentary.

Preceding the text and commentary is an introduction divided into eleven separate sections. The first section is a very brief biography of Tacitus. This is followed by an overview of historiography as a genre, then a section on civil war and Roman identity. After discussing these broader themes, the introduction moves on to Book II of the Histories. A brief overview prefaces a list of the dramatis personae, dividing the various characters of the book into ‘Othonians,’ ‘Vitellians,’ ‘Flavians,’ and ‘Others.’ To me, the designation ‘Others’ seems somewhat ambiguous, and perhaps this information could have been expanded into an appendix. Nevertheless, the classification could be helpful, especially to students with no background to the material. This is followed by a discussion of Tacitean style. In particular, Ash is interested in wordplay and puns on names, a feature which will recur throughout the commentary. Next is a study of ‘ sententiae and moralising allusions,’ succeeded by discussions of Tacitus’ sources, the parallel tradition, and pro-Flavian historiography. The last section elucidates the textual tradition and includes a list of deviations in Ash’s text from the 1978 Teubner of Heubner.

Ironically, my biggest complaint about the introduction concerns that which Ash herself found wanting in the commentary of Damon (BMCR 2003.09.14). Ash criticized Damon for not including “a separate section in the introduction on the bellum Neronis.” I would have liked a section in Ash’s introduction that summarized the events of Book I.

The text itself is subdivided into digestible paragraphs, just as the commentary is divided into thematic sections. For the most part these sections are sensible, although I do think the large section “The Victorious Vitellius Advances Toward Rome” (57-73) could have been divided into smaller sections. Each section gives an overview of the narrative to be analyzed and allows students to get a look at the big picture before they wade into the Latin. These sections are also useful for scholars as they highlight key difficulties, themes, etc., and often provide useful insights. In particular, her previous work on the military chaos of civil war informs her comments on the relationship between generals (including Vespasian) who are less than honorable and armies that are more barbarian than Roman.2 For example, in her preface to Caecina’s assault on Placentia (20.2-23.2), she compares Tacitus’ account with that of Plutarch, noting, “T., unlike Plutarch, tells the story from a Vitellian perspective (Morgan (1997) 348 n.41, 356), focusing on Caecina’s hopes (20.2) and ultimate disappointment (2.22.3, 24.1). This dovetails with a broader theme of the first two books, the growing rivalry between Vitellius’ generals, Caecina and Valens, each anxious about his own standing in relation to the other (92.1n)” (131).3 This sets the stage for both of these generals to fail Vitellius, and, in particular, for Caecina to betray him.

These insights extend into the commentary itself. In commenting on Otho’s suicide, Ash notes that T. omits the vignette, found in the parallel tradition, of a soldier giving Otho courage to take his own life by setting an example. Ash points out further that Otho’s suicide is premeditated only in T.’s version. Finally, discussing the acceleration of Otho’s death to gain clemency for his family, Ash comments, “Otho in death, as in life…is presented as almost addicted to speed” (209).

Ash also points out elements in the book which allude to previous ideas or suggest ring composition. Otho’s soldiers kiss ( exosculentes) their general’s wounds and hands. Ash notes, “The verb suggest peripeteia : the jubilant people exosculari Othonis manum (1.45.1) just after his victory over Galba” (213).

Other nice touches are the aforementioned attention drawn to wordplay and plays on names. Commenting on the treachery of Varus against his friend Dolabella and his regret which comes too late, Ash notes that seram veniam post scelus quaerebat is ambiguous. While ostensibly it means that Varus changed his mind too late to save Dolabella from execution, it could also refer to the fact that Varus has tried too late to redeem his reputation after the scelus of betraying his friend. “The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive; or perhaps the first reading (immediate context) indicates what did happen, while the second reading (wider context) denotes what should have happened” (251).

With regards to plays on names, Ash points out that “the Legio XXI Rapax (aptly) rapuit the enemy’s standards (43.1n. rapuit).” T. also plays on the cognomen of Caecina (Alienus) when he says Caecinae haud alienus (22.3), and that of Valens when “with the arrival of Valens, the party convaluerant (93.2n.)” (19).

Another feature which makes this commentary particularly attractive for use in the classroom is the lucid explanation of technical terms. When describing the preparations for the siege of Placentia, Ash defines the different devices and their uses: “crates: fascines (i.e. bundles of brush), used for building fortifications or for cover (2.22.2, 3.20.3) and for filling in ditches (A. 1.68.2, 4.51.1, Caes. Gal. 3.18.6)” (134). Similar clarity is used in glossing pluteos and vineas, helping students to get a visual picture of the Roman war machine.

Finally, Ash has the ability to amuse as well as to instruct. When describing the Othonians preparing for the battle at Bedriacum, she muses, “It is like watching a crash in slow motion” (184). Commenting on quem ipse ductaverat (100.2), Ash points out that Sallust tried to appropriate the word for historiography, but that it was originally a comedic term meaning “to take home a prostitute (OLD ducto 1b) (376)…Given Valens’ propensity for sexual misdemeanors (30.3n foedum et maculosum), T.’s unique selection of a Sallustian expression, riddled with double entendre, does not seem entirely innocent” (376).

The commentary includes two maps, one of the Roman Empire as a whole, as well as a more detailed map of Italy. The modern names of places are not given in the text, but for a few exceptions (Augustodunum = Autun 244; Augusta Taurinorum = Turin 259).The bibliography is extensive and up-to-date. There are two indices, one a general index, and one dealing specifically with Latin words. Surprisingly, given Ash’s praise for the appendices of Damon, there are none in her own commentary. While Ash does discuss deviations from the parallel sources at relevant points in her commentary, appendices like those in Damon’s commentary, which compare the parallel narratives, would have been nice.

In conclusion, I am grateful to the editors of the Cambridge series for continuing to publish quality commentaries for senior undergraduate and graduate level Latin courses. These commentaries, including the one under review, provide adequate help for students while also allowing teachers the opportunity to initiate scholarly discussions of the material. These books are not only useful in the classroom, but outside as well. Ash’s commentary on Book II of the Histories will no doubt find itself on the bookshelf of Tacitean scholars alongside the previous volumes in the series.

I noticed a few errata. On page 20 in the introduction, the citation isque primus dies principatus dies in posterum celebratus… (2.79) should be short the first dies (the correct reading is found in the text). The name of the procurator of Corsica in 2.16 switches from Picarius to Pacarius. In the commentary, Ash uses Picarius, which is probably correct.4 At 21.3 molis is found in the text, but the commentary reads moles, the reading preferred by the Teubner. The comment on 52.1 discussing Mutina should name Pansa not Pansus (219). The text in the comment on 54.2 omits the crucial sibi before quisque consuluere. The note on 66.2 should read, as the text does, Augustae, not Augusta (259). The text at 71.2 reads Marci Macri, while the commentary has the correct Marti Macri (278). In the note on 82.2, Agrippa should be Agricola (320). At 2.89.1, the text reads a ponte Mulvio, while the commentary has the correct reading, a ponte Mulvi.


1. The series also includes a commentary on the Dialogus by Roland Mayer (2001). There are also Cambridge commentaries (non-“Green and Yellow”) by Goodyear on Annals 1.1-54 (1972); Annals 1.55-81 and Annals 2 (1981); and Woodman and Martin on Annals 3 (1996), but they are rather pricy for use in the classroom.

2. Ordering Anarchy: armies and leaders in Tacitus’ Histories. University of Michigan Press, 1999.

3. The reference is to M. G. Morgan, “Caecina’s assault on Placentia: Tacitus Histories 2.20.2-22.3,” Philologus 141 (1997): 338-61.

4. Chilver’s commentary on this passage (Oxford 1979) prefers Picarius, referencing A. Stein, RE XXI col. 1186.