BMCR 2013.05.17

Tacitus the Epic Successor: Virgil, Lucan, and the Narrative of Civil War in the Histories. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 345

, Tacitus the Epic Successor: Virgil, Lucan, and the Narrative of Civil War in the Histories. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 345. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. xi, 215. ISBN 9789004229044. $136.00.


In this relatively short book, comprising four chapters, T.A. Joseph offers a sophisticated reading of Tacitus’ Histories through the lens of intertextuality, an approach that has mostly been used to investigate Latin poetry and its models, but that has recently found applicability also to prose texts, especially historiography.1 Joseph’s methodology is based on the belief that poetry was, in the eyes of the ancients, a genre very akin to both oratory and history. Therefore it is to be expected that Roman historians allude also to poetic texts. Tacitus has been considered the most “poetic” historian, and Vergil is undoubtedly his main poetic intertext. In this study, Joseph does not limit himself to detecting and listing all the possible allusions to Vergil, a mechanical exercise that has already been partly done. On the contrary, Joseph shows how Tacitus makes use of Vergil (and, to a lesser extent, Lucan) both intertextually and intratextually at key moments of the narrative to emphasize the repetitive character of civil war. Neither is the use of Virgilian allusions random in Tacitus, nor are the allusions merely “ornamental”. They mostly occur, in the form of clusters, at key events of the narrative, such as the deaths of emperors and the two battles of Cremona. In his use of Vergil, therefore, as Joseph explains in the introduction (1-28), Tacitus is not very far from Lucan or the other epic successors of Virgil.

The first chapter (“History as Epic”: 29-78) analyzes Tacitus’ “epic technique”. Already from its programmatic opening (1.2.1 opus adgredior), Tacitus links his work to the epic tradition by evoking Virgil’s maius opus moveo ( Aen. 7.45). Tacitus’ opus, however, is not only maius, but also opimum, atrox, discors, and saevum. Tacitus does not simply allude to his model: through creative emulation, he also surpasses it, as it were. Similarly, as Joseph shows, by opening his Histories in the middle of the civil war, Tacitus adopts a strategy that was especially recognized as epic, particularly Homeric; and also Tacitus’ survey of forces involved in the war at 1.4.1-11, which is unparalleled in historiography, is similar to the “catalogues” traditional in epic descriptions. Another element that Tacitus borrows from epic narratives is the “proem in the middle”, as Joseph defines 2.37-38, several elements of which point to the fact that Tacitus places his work within both the historiographical and the epic traditions. At 2.38.2, in particular, the eadem … deum ira, eadem hominum rabies, which Tacitus blames for the civil wars, recalls both the “anger of the gods” motif at the opening of the Iliad and the Aeneid, and Lucan’s poem, from which Tacitus probably inherited “the same madness of humans” theme. The trope of repetition was a particularly epic feature: by suggesting the repetitiveness ( eadem) of past disasters, Tacitus implies that his war will be worse.

In the second chapter (“The Death of Galba and the Desecration of Rome”: 79-112) Joseph analyzes in great detail this famous episode, pointing out all the possible intertextual (Vergil, Lucan, Sallust, Livy) and intratextual allusions (for example, as an anticipatory doublet of the “death” of the Capitol). Scholars have long noted that Galba dies “as another Priam”, with clear allusions to Aeneid 2. But Tacitus offers a unique portrayal of Galba: from Vergil’s Priam he adapts both the pathetic element and an emphasis on religio. Tacitus’ purpose, Joseph argues, is to emphasize the destruction and desecration recounted in his Histories. Unlike Priam’s death, which marked the beginning of a new era, Tacitus’ narrative foreshadows only more death and desecration. The burning of the Capitol, which Tacitus describes in Book 3, is interpreted by Joseph as closely linked with and anticipated by the death of Galba. The connections are striking, and Joseph skillfully brings to the surface the common theme (the beheading of the head of state, caput), the hostility of and disrespect for the gods, and the cowardliness of the soldiers. Thus the Capitol episode underlines again “the general repetitive arc of the Histories : the disasters and death in these civil wars only get bigger, greater, worse” (101). And just as Galba’s death recalls Priam’s, similarly the burning of the Capitol recalls the fall of Troy; likewise, the death of Vitellius in Book 3 is characterized by a marked Vergilian allusion to the fall of Troy, while the last battle between the Vitellians and the Flavians recalls, once again through a Vergilian allusion, the sacrilegious death of Priam, which is of course “repeated” in the death of Galba. All these intertextual and intratextual allusions form a sort of ring-composition that validates Joseph’s main argument of the epic repetitiveness of the civil war theme.

The third chapter (“The Battles of Cremona”: 113-152) is devoted to the two battles that took place at Cremona/Bedriacum, the first between the Othonians and the Vitellians in April (Cremona I), and the second between the Vitellians and the Flavians in October (Cremona II). In between, Tacitus places Vitellius’ visit to the site of Cremona I, which looks forward to the role-reversal that he will suffer at Cremona II. The motif of repetition that characterizes the two battles is clearly exploited by Tacitus in various ways: through the use of similar words, themes (e.g. the commiseration between the two sides after the battle), and poetic allusions. Although Tacitus’ narrative of the two battles shares many elements with the other sources that have recorded these events, much of the material Tacitus uses to emphasize the repetition motif, as Joseph points out, is found only in Tacitus (e.g. in the two failed sieges, of the Othonians at Placentia before Cremona I, and of the Vitellians at Cremona II, respectively). This reveals that the parallelism between the two battles is owed mainly to Tacitus’ inventio. Through his skillfully constructed narrative, Tacitus once again uses the motif of repetition to emphasize the dark nature and never-ending effects of the civil war. Of the two battles, Cremona II is the more evocative: first, Joseph analyzes the similarities of language that the siege of the Vitellians shares with the epic battles of Aeneid 9 between Latins and Trojans (which in turn evokes the siege of Troy in Book 2) and the siege of Massilia in Lucan’s Book 3; then Joseph offers a convincing interpretation of the undeniable allusions to Vergil in Tacitus’ description of the sack of Cremona (3.33.1-2). Not only the Vergilian language, but the entire account of the sack is unique (many details are found only in Tacitus, and not in the other sources), and so in line with the “rhetorical” treatment of the urbs capta motif, that it is obvious that Tacitus consciously shaped his civil war narrative so as to suggest a parallel to and therefore a repetition of his epic predecessors–but with far worse consequences.

Otho’s exemplary death (2.46-49), which, in sharp contrast to his past mode of life, Joseph sees “as the one voice opposing the trope of repetition”, is the subject of the last chapter ( Otho’s Exemplary Response : 153-67). As one of the most climactic events of the Histories, this section naturally shows a clustering of Vergilian allusions, which, Joseph argues, contribute to characterize Otho as an anti-Aeneas, for, while the allusions point to specific passages of the Aeneid that describe the hero as pensive, self-reflective, and hesitant, the Otho that emerges from the Tacitean narrative is in fact resolute, deliberative, and pius, unlike the Aeneas who refuses Mezentius’ request at Aeneid 10, to which a passage in Histories I alludes. Otho’s exemplum is unique: Vitellius will not follow it, and destruction will continue. Thus Otho’s death is another cautionary example for the readership of the Histories.

In the Epilogue (169-89), the focus shifts to Book 4, which, Joseph maintains, though apparently dealing with a more peaceful period, in fact continues the escalation motif that ran across Books 1-3. The links between this post-war narrative and the preceding books are activated mainly through intratextual, rather than intertextual, correspondences. A striking example of this is offered by the opening chapters of Book 4, which explicitly recall both the situation at Rome at the beginning of the year 69 and the urbs capta motif of Cremona II. Other episodes suggest that the civil war is not over: the contest in the senate between Helvidius Priscus and Eprius Marcellus, which Tacitus describes with civil-war language; the arrival of Mucianus at Rome, for which Tacitus uses a verb, ingredior, that he otherwise applies to hostile generals entering the city; the vengeance that some senators try to exact on notable informers from Nero’s years. All these episodes point to a continuation of civil war. We can only speculate on how Tacitus would have treated the remaining years of the Flavian dynasty. Joseph believes, rather convincingly, that the first books prepared for the last books, which must have centered on Domitian’s most cruel years. If this is the case, then Tacitus wished to suggest a never-ending state of civil war at Rome, and perhaps also wished to foreshadow the possibility of more civil war to come, if Galba’s forced adoption of Piso was looking forward to Nerva’s of Trajan.

There is little I disagree with in this book. Its traditional methodology, which is philologically grounded and based on close, textual readings of Tacitus’ texts, is more a merit than a limit. Some, but not I, might complain that a more theoretical approach would have produced more “original” results. Joseph is, however, clearly familiar with much of the theoretical scholarship on allusions and intertextuality: he simply chooses a different approach.2

Its relatively small size is deceptive: this is a dense, well-thought-out study (though at times still betraying a “dissertation flavor”), which will be of interest to scholars and graduate students working not only on Tacitus, but also on Vergil, Lucan, and, more generally, on intertextuality in Latin literature. The book’s editorial quality, too, is good, with few typos, none of which affects its context.3


1. See e.g. D.S. Levene, Livy on the Hannibalic War (Oxford 2010), V.E. Pagán (ed.), A Companion to Tacitus (Blackwell 2012).

2. The bibliography is extensive but not excessive. I have not noticed any significant absence from the relevant Tacitean scholarship. Among the seminal works on allusions, the absence of Barchiesi’s work is perhaps the most striking. I would also recommend J. Farrell’s article in Phoenix (2005).

3. I would like to point out that at p. 16 (n. 51), the reference to the manuscript M should be M2. At p. 86 (n. 16), Damon (2010) should be (2010b). In the bibliography (p. 200), Roller is misplaced, and three items that are cited in the notes are omitted altogether: Funari (1989) = R. Funari, “Tacito e il linguaggio ‘espressionistico’: un saggio di commento a Hist. 2.70,” Athenaeum 67 (1989), 584-94; Perutelli (2004) = A. Perutelli, “Dopo la battaglia: la poetica delle rovine in Lucano (con un’appendice su Tacito),” in P. Esposito and E. Ariemma (eds.), Lucano e la tradizione epica latina. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi, Fisciano-Salerno, 19-20 ottobre 2001 (Naples, 2004), 85-108; Shochat (1981) = Y. Shochat, “Tacitus’ attitude to Otho,” Latomus 40 (1981), 365–77.