BMCR 2019.12.04

Religion and Memory in Tacitus’ Annals. Oxford classical monographs

, Religion and Memory in Tacitus' Annals. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. x, 414. ISBN 9780198832768. $119.95.


The broad page of Roman history is ‘crowded so full with memorable events’, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne, that ‘one obliterates another; as if Time had crossed and re-crossed his own records till they grew illegible’.1 Hawthorne presented this obliteration as a natural consequence of the weight of Rome’s historical layers. There are simply too many events, over too many centuries, for anyone to remember them with any precision. Memory and Religion in Tacitus’ Annals explores a more corrupt and insidious form of erasure. According to Kelly Shannon-Henderson, Tacitus interprets the changes in Imperial Roman religion as a process of unremitting decline, by which Romans gradually lose touch with the vital traditions of earlier religious practice. In the Annals, the language of divinity is increasingly used of living emperors, customary rituals and procedures fall into disuse, and superstitio gains ground over authorized modes of religious understanding. While ‘memory’ and ‘religion’ are the two watchwords throughout the book, Shannon-Henderson has in fact written a learned and detailed examination of Roman forgetfulness. I raise some questions below about whether the chosen theoretical paradigm of cultural memory studies really does much to help us understand how and why the religious tradition has shifted over time. But Memory and Religion in Tacitus’ Annals certainly demonstrates the extent of Tacitus’ concern over the correct worship of the gods, and it will hardly be possible after this study to dismiss Tacitus’ attention to divine phenomena as simply a literary device or a convention of the annalistic tradition. This is a major new work on the author, and scholars of Tacitus and Roman religion will benefit from reading and debating its claims.

The book is structured as a sequential reading of the Annals, with chapters one to five devoted to the Tiberian hexad, and the final two chapters treating Claudius and Nero. Shannon-Henderson shows that impieties that went unchecked in one generation were liable to become defining aspects of public life in the next generation. We begin with Tiberius. He was, at least in Tacitus’ estimation, both autocratic and unconscientious. Faced with the apparent prodigy of the Tiber’s flooding at Annals 1.76, he rejects the proposal to consult the Sibylline books, and Shannon-Henderson interprets this incident as a paradigm for Tiberius’ disregard for religious observances or debate throughout his rule. Soon Germanicus emerges as a competing interpreter of religious knowledge, albeit one with his own blind spots. Shannon-Henderson follows Christopher Pelling in seeing Germanicus as an essentially nostalgic figure: a hero from the Republican past who has failed to adapt to the new political circumstances of the Imperial present.2 Yet Germanicus’ failure to follow proper ritual procedures is also in keeping with emerging trends. In his response to the mutiny in Germany, Germanicus condemns the soldiers’ sacrilege ( Annals 1.42), and yet he fails to ‘give his troops clear guidance about religiously correct behavior’ (79), and he seems to act improperly by consulting the oracle at Colophon without offering a sacrifice as well (106). Shannon-Henderson usefully explores one explicit debate between the two figures about religious propriety. When Tiberius claims that Germanicus has polluted himself by building the tumulus at the site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest ( Annals 1.62), his claim finds little support in legal or literary accounts of similar situations in antiquity. Instead, the episode exposes the emperor’s own desire to establish himself as the ultimate arbiter of religious affairs.

The following three chapters survey descriptions of ritual behavior in books three to six, demonstrating that the emperor is not the only one guilty of failures of propriety. Shannon-Henderson discusses the Senate’s treatment of appeals for the right of asylum at Greek sanctuaries ( Annals 3.60-3). The Senate is no longer up to the job: it delegates its decisions to the consuls because it is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information, and then the consuls themselves make decisions that do not accord proper reverence to the long religious history of those sites (they fail to ‘give proper respect to the weight of tradition’, 158). The reverence accorded to members of the Imperial family is also an increasing concern. When the pontifices undertake vows for the safety of Nero and Drusus ( Annals 4.17), the emperor condemns the boys’ elevation to this religious privilege, though seemingly out of jealousy rather than out of any genuine attempt to restrict the expansion of the imperial cult (183). Another theme is the increasing awareness that the calamities befalling Rome are in fact the product of the gods’ anger at Rome’s mounting impiety. As Shannon- Henderson notes, characters within the Annals are usually oblivious to such divine agency, but it is made increasingly obvious to the reader that the misfortunes of Rome can and should be attributed to divine punishment for human misdeeds. Shannon- Henderson makes the important point that allusions to religious ideas in the text are not merely literary, since they inevitably perform ‘theological work’ (16), and yet the narrative pattern (flawed human beings pursued by angry divinities) is highly reminiscent of Greek and Roman epic. Timothy Joseph argues that the presence of the same motif in the Histories reflects the influence of Virgil and Lucan on Tacitus’ conception of history; the connections he draws between poetry and prose would make a useful point of comparison for Shannon-Henderson’s analysis.3

The final two chapters examine the contrasting attitudes of Claudius and Nero towards religious practice. Claudius is unparalleled in the Annals in his active interest in traditional Roman ritual and cult, as reflected, for example, in his revival of the augurium salutis ( Annals 12.23). But Tacitus juxtaposes this punctilious attention to antiquarian detail with Claudius’ laxity in regulating the moral behavior of his own household. Nor is he loath to violate religious taboos when it suits him: he recklessly courts divine retribution by marrying Agrippina, an act described as incestum in the text (259-60). Nero, for his part, is a religious ‘actor’ in every sense of that word, since his apparent devotion to the gods is so often the product of mere pretense. In a particularly nuanced and effective discussion (302-3), Shannon-Henderson explores the account of prodigies at Annals 14.12, which are said to occur ‘without the care of the gods’ ( sine cura deum). As she notes, the phrase is deliberately ambiguous: it could signify the vengeful gods’ lack of affection towards mortals (subjective genitive), or it could mean that human beings have abandoned proper attention to the gods and their prodigies (objective genitive). The evolution of emperor-worship reaches a climax in the proposal to build a public temple to Nero while he is still alive ( Annals 15.74), a development that Shannon-Henderson describes as ‘the logical conclusion to which the problems of the Annals have been tending’ (331). In the Great Fire of 64 and then the plague of 65, the destructive powers of the natural world represent both the wrath of the gods against Rome and the violence that Nero himself has done to Roman memory and tradition.

Shannon-Henderson argues convincingly that derelictions of religious duty are a frequent theme in the Annals. But how to interpret that theme? Should we be investigating each character’s rise and fall to discover what they did wrong? For Shannon- Henderson, the answer is yes: the reader is implicitly challenged to assess the significance of religious information in the text, even when Tacitus gives little explicit guidance about how to do so (17). In the conclusion, she writes that if we view the Annals ‘through the lens of religious memory’, we see that Tacitus ‘constructs a clear narrative of divine anger and punishment, tied to an equally clear narrative of Imperial Romans’ changing attitudes to the maintenance of traditional religious norms’ (353). This is certainly a good summary of the book’s approach, which finds a teleological relationship between human action and divine punishment all throughout the Annals, even when that relationship is not, in fact, very clear. ‘For what misdeed, exactly, is Rome being punished?’, Shannon-Henderson asks on page 139. ‘What exactly had Germanicus done wrong?’, she asks on page 102. The book amply demonstrates the Annals’ concern with religious impropriety, but some readers are likely to resist the call to find didactic patterns of cause-and-effect in a text so marked by descriptions of moral chaos.

The focus on failure and neglect also raises questions about what the lens of cultural memory can show us about the fracturing of tradition. Since Alain Gowing’s influential Empire and Memory, classicists have increasingly turned to scholarship on cultural memory as a resource for understanding the relationship between Latin literature and Roman history, and Shannon-Henderson offers an accessible introduction to the field in her opening pages (2-10).4 Concepts such as Jan Assmann’s Speichergedächtnis and Pierre Nora’s lieu de mémoire are invoked by Shannon-Henderson mostly when things are going well, and memories are being preserved. The bulk of the study, however, focuses on things going wrong. Although the book does link the perversion of proper cult to the rise of flattery within the Roman Empire, it makes no broader attempt to theorize about why these Romans forgot their past so often. Is it trauma? The deliberate suppression of certain practices for political gain? Or the ordinary attrition of antiquarian expertise over time? Time and again, Shannon-Henderson concludes in her close readings that Tacitus represents certain practices and phenomena as ‘problematic’. The word appears up to three times on a single page (30, 308); in one paragraph, it describes both the influx of foreign religions under Claudius and the adultery of his wife (250). It is easy, of course, to fall into lexical habits when we write. But in this case I wonder if the tendency to describe so many different phenomena as ‘problematic’ reflects the lack of any more fine-grained apparatus for analyzing fractures in the religious tradition. If studies of cultural memory presume the orderly preservation of the past as a societal norm, then forgetfulness too easily becomes a theoretical blank space.

Memory and Religion in Tacitus’ Annals is an important new study of the historian’s work, full of detailed close readings and sensitive verbal analysis. The multilingual bibliography offers wide coverage of scholarship on Roman historiography and Roman religion. Shannon-Henderson has produced a valuable corrective to analyses of the Annals that either ignore or underplay the importance of religious material to the text, and her arguments shed new light on the tone and motivation of Tacitus’ writing. As she notes in the introduction, readers have long treasured the historian for qualities that make him seem proto-modern. To many, Tacitus is the relentless cynic, the skeptical historian always attuned to ‘spin’, the author best able to expose the manipulation of myths by society’s most powerful members. If we treasure his cynicism above all else, we might be misled into thinking that he was somehow beyond any genuine conviction in the efficacy or importance of Rome’s ancient customs. In demonstrating Tacitus’ pervasive concern with the deterioration of religious ritual, though, Shannon-Henderson does not show us a writer who is any less cynical, simply one who was deeply attached to the Roman traditions whose history he so vividly preserved.


1. The Marble Faun, ed. Susan Manning (Oxford, 2002), 79.

2. ‘Tacitus and Germanicus’, in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman (eds.), Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton, 1993), 59-85, at 72 (‘He belongs in a simpler, older world’).

3. Tacitus the Epic Successor: Virgil, Lucan, and the Narrative of Civil War in the Histories (Leiden, 2012), 66-73, 102-3.

4. Alain M. Gowing, Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture (Cambridge, 2005). For other examples of recent work, see e.g. Karl Galinsky (ed.), Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity (Oxford, 2016) and Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, Staging Memory, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the Octavia (Oxford, 2016).