BMCR 2017.04.19

Tacitus, Annals I: A Selection. OCR

, , Tacitus, Annals I: A Selection. OCR. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. viii, 174. ISBN 9781474265980. $29.95 (pb).


Because Tacitus has the reputation of being one of the most difficult Roman authors encountered by young students of Latin, texts like that of Radice and Mayer act as invaluable resources in the classroom. This well-organized handbook of 168 pages mitigates the intimidation of facing a challenging read like Annals I. Although the preface states that it is meant to help prepare students for OCR’s AS and A-level examinations from June 2017 to 2019, this book can be useful in any intermediate Latin reading course. Covering some of the most riveting passages of Tacitus, namely the beginning of Tiberius’ reign and the two revolts that follow, this book focuses on 28 chapters of Annals I: 3-7, 11-14, 16-30, and 46-49.

The forty-page introduction written by Roland Mayer is divided into thirteen short sections which provide adequate discussion on various topics and lay a strong foundation for approaching the text. The first section gives a concise overview of Roman history, much as Tacitus does in Annals I-II. A quick illustration of how the kingship and Republic unfolded and how Augustus set up his power leads to a brief mention of the following two dynasties and the start of Tacitus’ career. The next section delves further into the imperial system by discussing how Augustus set up a government led by a princeps, and how this type of government affected the Senate, army, courtiers, and his family members. After a brief discussion of Tacitus’ historical sources, the introduction then covers the awkward transition of power to Tiberius and cites a few passages of Tacitus.

Mayer then describes historiography in Rome, covering its earliest beginnings, Greek influences, and particularly Roman features. He addresses the fact that most writers were senators and thus had a certain view of Roman life, and plenty of reasons to be biased. The annalistic format and moralizing element are also touched upon. The next section focuses on the life, career, and writing style of Tacitus, followed by several sections focused on the Annals and the four specific episodes mentioned above. Mayer offers valuable insights for the young reader into complex topics, including how Tacitus sets up and connects different parts of his text, how he creates drama and suspense, and how he arouses suspicion while declining to pass judgment. Specific pieces of Latin and their citations are given when called for. Maps of Pannonia and Germania are provided in the sections concerning the mutinies in those regions.

Perhaps the most valuable part of Mayer’s introduction is the section on Tacitus’ style. Most of what Tacitus’ style has to offer is likely to be unfamiliar to the target audience, even if they have experience reading other Latin authors. Without this section, students are likely to miss much of the true flavor of Tacitus, or worse, are likely to feel completely lost. Mayer discusses elements from alliteration to zeugma while simultaneously pointing out sources of Tacitus’ inspiration such as Sallust and Livy. Specific examples from the text are cited throughout, and a short bibliography for further reading is provided at the very end.

The Latin text is divided in the following way: chapters 3-7 and 11-14 are marked as A-level, chapters 16-30 are marked as AS, and chapters 46-49 are again marked as A-level. The commentary explains that the AS text is meant for students just out of GCSE, so the commentary for chapters 16-30 contains fuller explanations of the text than the commentary for the A-level sections. Thus Radice advises that chapters 16-30 may be the best place to start. This, of course, will force students to backtrack later to chapters 3-7 and 11-14, and read Tacitus’ text in an unnatural and perhaps confusing order.

In a recent CJ review1 Herbert Benario has outlined specific points where this text and commentary could use more precision or clarification, so I will not replicate those remarks here. I agree, though, that line and section numbers are sorely needed so both students and teachers can more easily navigate within the text. The large amounts of white space throughout the book perhaps make it user-friendly for young readers: clean, approachable, unintimidating. At the end, Radice provides a helpful vocabulary section with words from OCR’s Defined Vocabulary List marked with stars. Three Indices follow. Places mentioned in the selections of text are given in the Index of Place Names, while other places pertinent to the subject matter like Colonia (Cologne) and Vetera (Xanten)(p. 127) are addressed in the commentary. As noted above, this book provides maps of Pannonia and Germania in the introduction, but perhaps a larger map embracing all locations in this index could be helpful here.

Another difficulty of reading Tacitus’ Annals lies in keeping all the various people straight, and Radice’s indices of members of the imperial household and of other named Romans aid the reader in this struggle and in the preparation for exams. Overall, the authors have created a nice tool for introducing first-time readers of Tacitus to these important opening portions of the Annals, whether they are taking OCR exams or not. The book is thorough enough so as not to be overwhelming for a beginner, and sufficient to get a student through the text with a strong understanding, and possibly even an eagerness to read more Tacitus.


1. See CJ Review 16.12.09: CJ -Online, 2016.12.09.