BMCR 2014.02.31

A Companion to Tacitus. Blackwell companions to the ancient world

, A Companion to Tacitus. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. xvii, 599. ISBN 9781405190329 $199.95.


One might justifiably feel, in the second decade of the 21 st century, that sufficient copy – whether in ink, or, more recently, whatever the digital equivalent might be – has been expended on Tacitus: renowned historian ( Annales, Historia, biographer ( Agricola), rhetorician ( Dialogus de Oratoribus), ethnographer ( Germania) and statesman of imperial Rome during the 1 st and early 2nd centuries AD. Sufficient, possibly; but, to the exclusion of anything intellectually arresting, most certainly not. Relatively hot on the heels of The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus 1 comes the volume under review. Sharing a lone contributor (Christopher B. Krebs), both may rightly be regarded as intending to and satisfying the prescribed form and function of the literary “companion”: namely, a complementary purpose shared by each of a paired set, the literary text or texts under consideration – here, the works of Tacitus and their author – and the scholarly “reading” of the literature and its composer. In each instance, both the intention of the publication and the hope of its intended or interested readership would be that the designated author and his works (with whom and which one has spent, or may wish to spend, a good deal of time) are illuminated satisfactorily under the scrutiny of the companion’s assorted contributors. While the present reviewer defers to previous opinion in relation to the 2009 Cambridge Companion,2 it is pleasing to report that V. E. Pagán’s A Companion to Tacitus offers, by editorial design and as desired by its scholarly constituency, precisely the balance of intellectual grist and critical acquaintance that underpins the raison d’etre of such a publication.

In crisp, lucid prose, Pagán sets out the structural paradigm of the volume in her brief but usefully synthetic introduction (pp.1-12). Signalling the underlying organizing principle of the collection as an attempted rapprochement between (perceived) scholarly extremes – “the tradition of established scholarship and the innovation of groundbreaking discovery” (p.1) – Pagán outlines the volume’s format. Part I, “Texts” (pp.13-122), offers a review of the transmitted Tacitean tradition from antiquity to the present day and brief outlines of the relevant works. Part II, “Historiography” (pp.123-186), examines how Tacitus employed sources, interacted with other historical writers, and navigated the contested waters of the early principate with respect to historical method, validity, and scope, not to mention the distinction between justified belief and opinion. Part III, “Interpretations” (pp.187-330), supplies an indicative spectrum of explanatory approaches available to the reader of Tacitus. Part IV, “Intertextuality” (pp.331-428), explores – as a measure of the influence of “two momentous publications at the end of the twentieth century” (p.9)3 – how useful knowledge and understanding of the relationships between the works of Tacitus and other writings are to the explication of historiographical meaning (as it was produced and consumed, at the time and in the modern age). Part V, “Theoretical Approaches” (pp.429-528), aims to demonstrate the broad potential for interdisciplinary interactions with Tacitus – gender and women’s studies; post-colonial and political theory.

Given the breadth and depth of scholarship contained within the covers of this substantial book, only the briefest description and assessment are possible. Equally, given the range and insight of the work on offer, I see every reason to provide a taste at least of each of the twenty-four contributions to this excellent collection.

Part I begins with Charles E. Murgia’s chapter (“The Textual Transmission”, pp.15-22), which summarizes the manuscript tradition of major and minor Tacitean works, indicating (where necessary) contested arguments relating to identification, description, and classification of archetypes, variant codices, and facsimile editions. Dylan Sailor (“The Agricola, pp.23-44) considers the structure and content, stylistic and generic qualities, and historical utility of Tacitus’ first known work, the Agricola. James B. Rives (“ Germania ”, pp.45-61) reveals “the most marginal of Tacitus’ writings” (p.59) as a work simultaneously interested in Rome’s relations with its northern neighbours, the limits of Roman imperialism and notions of libertas, and the articulation of a very particular Roman identity. Steven H. Rutledge (“Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus ”, pp.62-83) mines for nuggets of social and cultural history Tacitus’ refined discussion about effective and/or persuasive oratory, poetic composition, and the condition of contemporary Roman paideia. Jonathan Master (“The Histories ”, pp.84-100) goes beyond the historian’s gritty rehearsal of civil war, open rebellion against designated authority, and the disintegration of military imperium to identify a significant conflation of style and substance. Herbert W. Benario (“The Annals ”, pp.101-122) contextualizes Tacitus’ account of Julio-Claudian rule in relation to the author’s career, his previous works, and his reception in later times.

In Part II, David S. Potter (“Tacitus’ Sources”, pp.125-140) interrogates the historian’s approach to the writings of other historians, public documents and monuments. Arthur Pomeroy (“Tacitus and Roman Historiography”, pp.140-161) explores the extent to which Tacitus and his audience would have been acquainted with the tricks of the historiographical trade – namely the techniques, preoccupations, and enthusiasms of Roman historical writers – and concludes that the historian and his readership were immersed in the genre and topoi embodied in the Tacitean oeuvre. Olivier Devillers (“The Concentration of Power and Writing History”, pp.162-186) conducts a close critical study of passages in Histories 1.1-49 (foreign affairs; speeches; portraits and obituaries; prodigies, portents, predictions) to identify and evaluate the forms of persuasion used by Tacitus in his treatment of Galba’s rule. Christopher S. van den Berg (“Deliberative Oratory in the Annals and the Dialogus, pp.189-211) opens the longest section of the Companion (Part III) with a survey of what he describes as “the deliberative system” in Greek and Roman writers, noting (as one might expect) that the Dialogus gives prominence to the categories of deliberative oratory more explicitly than Tacitus’ historical works. Kathryn Williams (“Tacitus’ Senatorial Embassies of 69 CE”, pp.212-236) examines three episodes in the Histories (1.19.2; 1.74.2; 3.80.81) when Rome (either the Senate or the beleaguered princeps) sent delegations to rebellious legions and generals. Rebecca Edwards (“ Deuotio, Disease, and Remedia in the Histories, pp.237-259) rehearses known parallels between the deaths of Galba and Otho and deuotiones (historical and legendary) of the past (the Decii, M. Curtius, Turnus). Barbara Levick (“Tacitus in the Twenty-First Century”, pp.261-281) evaluates Tacitus’ highly contested relationship with historical truth, rejecting extreme positions of the negative argument – which view the historian as an artistic embroiderer (less insidious) or Machiavellian misrepresenter (explicitly fraudulent) – in favour of a flawed middle- ground. Holly Haynes (“Tacitus’ History and Mine”, pp.282-304) traverses a different path in search of Tacitus’ view of history, foregrounding the inextricably aligned investment of author and reader in any engagement with Tacitean historiography. James Ker (“Seneca in Tacitus”, pp.305-329) identifies the characterization of Seneca in the Annals and examines how Seneca’s standing as a writer came to be integral to Tacitus’ portrayal of the man.

Christopher B. Krebs (“Annum quiete et otio transit”, pp.333-344) opens Part IV with a comparative study of Tacitean and Sallustian approaches to the concepts of liberty, tyranny, and human dignity. Christopher Whitton (“Tacitus and the Younger Pliny”, pp.345-368) asks us to consider our response to a deceptively simple question: in relation to Pliny’s Epistles 9.14, “[h]ow willing a companion is Tacitus on Pliny’s journey to the light of fame?” Timothy A. Joseph (“Tacitus and Epic”, pp.369-385) examines Tacitus’ engagement with Vergil and Lucan, finding a writer whose allusive insertions into otherwise historical passages denote far more than mere stylistic embroidery or aesthetic decoration. In addition to the portraits of Alexander in Diodorus, Curtius, and other narratives, Eleni Manolaraki and Antony Augoustakis (“Silius Italicus and Tacitus on the Tragic Hero”, pp.386-402) propose Silius’ Hannibal in the Punica as a model for Tacitus’ Germanicus in the Annals. Catherine Keane (“Historian and Satirist”, pp.403-427) rounds off this section by drawing attention to certain collocations of content, perspective, and blistering judgement that resonate between Tacitus and Juvenal.

Explicit theoretical engagement with Tacitus can be found in Part V. Thomas Späth (“Masculinity and Gender Performance in Tacitus”, pp.431-457) surveys the form and function of Tacitus’ narrative with respect to formulations of gender identity. Kristina Milnor (“Women and Domesticity”, pp.458-475) considers notions of representation and reality as they apply to the place of women in the Roman household in Tacitean “para-history” (Milnor’s term for the Agricola and Germania) and fully-fledged imperial political history (the Annals). Nancy Shumate (“Postcolonial Approaches to Tacitus”, pp.476-503) teases out how colonial discourse analysis illuminates the diversity of ways in which Tacitus naturalized those frames of thinking which validated imperial institutions and cultural practices. Daniel Kapust (“Tacitus and Political Thought”, pp.504-528) completes this final section with a bracing overview of Roman political thought, the historian’s philosophy in the context of the principate, and Tacitus’ role in the later history of political theory.

A particularly useful feature of this book is the “Guide to Further Reading” provided at the end of each chapter. It is clear that all contributors thought long and hard about which sources offered to specialist and interested reader alike the most perspicacious and salient approaches to ideas raised in the course of individual discussions. In conjunction with the “Works Cited” lists rounding off each chapter, the final “Bibliography” (pp.529-564), and the general “Index” (pp.565-599), these “Guides” support extended coverage of specific topics or scholarly dialogue along thematic or text- specific lines of enquiry.

In sum, this volume is highly recommended – to the novice or the expert alike – in its multiple forms and functions: as an effective introduction to the works of Tacitus; as a refresher on Tacitus’ formative role in shaping Latin historiographical practice and the reception of Latin historical writing by contemporary and modern readerships; as a collection of critically nuanced responses to the literary sophistication of Tacitus’ approaches to producing meaning in its many guises; and as a curative for critiques of Tacitus’ writing which fail to recognize the richness of his intellectual palette.

Congratulations to all concerned for recognizing with such clarity of vision and confidence of purpose the continuing importance of Syme’s clarion observation – “[t]here is work to be done.”4


1. A. J. Woodman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

2. E.g. Arthur Pomeroy (a contributor to the present volume) in BMCR 2010.10.06; David Wardle in Ancient History Bulletin Online Reviews 1.10 (2011); Sandra Bingham in Journal of the Classical Association of Canada 11.1 (2011).

3. Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (1998); David Levene and Damien Nelis (eds.), Clio and the Poets: Augustan Poetry and the Traditions of Ancient Historiography (2002).

4. Syme, R. “People in Pliny.” JRS 58:145.