BMCR 2020.07.32

Deconstructing imperial representation: Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius on Nero and Domitian

Verena Schulz, Deconstructing imperial representation: Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius on Nero and Domitian. Mnemosyne supplements, 427. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xii, 410 p.. ISBN 9789004407213 €132,00.

Two points immediately arise for anyone approaching this volume. The first, straightforwardly, is its aim. “Deconstructing imperial representation” promises many things, to many potential audiences. Schulz uses the term to denote a specific literary phenomenon, somewhat removed from that introduced by Derrida, through which critical narratives of Nero and Domitian derive directly from earlier panegyric. Crucially, all the target authors respond differently. The point is clearest in a short conclusion that describes how Tacitus, Dio and Suetonius use heavy rain at the funeral of Britannicus to construct three quite separate versions of Nero (362-64), and summarizes three contrasting presentations of the tyrannical rulers (364-66). This is the ultimate outcome of Schulz’s study: these emperors are identifiable not just as separate rulers, but as distinct (de)constructions across three authors with their own contrasting interests and rhetorical schemes.

The second point concerns the volume’s structure. This investigation is ‘lightly adapted’ from Schulz’s Habilitationsschrift (xi). Schulz offers three parallel studies, though with frequent cross-references. This delivers a clear structure in five parts: an introduction, three chapters per author (some form of introduction, an overview of material, and a more analytical discussion), and the conclusion. In turn, the primary contribution of the volume comes largely through its collation of materials and analysis. Specialists of the three authors will not be surprised by what they find. The target audience seems to be historians who assume that composite portraits of Nero and Domitian can be extracted from prima facie similar narratives. While it is abundantly clear from this volume that the emperors’ portrayals go beyond shared topoi, the journey to that largely successful endpoint is not without frustrations.

A short introduction separating Schulz’s project from historical investigation (1-7) leads into two chapters on methodology. The first, “Texts and Stories: ‘On Dinners with the Emperor’”, explores the rhetorical (re)coding of imperial dining as a worked case-study of deconstruction. As panegyric is recoded into critique, the praiseworthy luxuria of admirable liberalitas, for example, becomes the tyrannical greed of private excess (17-18; 21-22). The links to Lisa Cordes’s fuller treatment of the rhetorical coding of Nero and Domitian are evident;[1] as an introduction to the concept, however, I can easily envision using this chapter with students who cannot read Cordes in German.

Chapter 2, “Theory and History”, contains the formal definition of the volume’s key concepts. “Imperial representation” is introduced in its broadest terms: any communication between an emperor or his regime and his subjects, and any responses to it (33-38). In turn, “deconstruction” depends on discursive links developed from the previous chapter. ‘The historiographical discourse’ sits in opposition to ‘the panegyrical discourse’, recoding positive representations into negative forms (38-46). This division between two branches of discourse shows that critical portrayals of Nero and Domitian are not generic invective. Even so, Schulz’s claim that invective’s ‘most important medium is critical historiography’ (41) feels somewhat simplistic given the prevalence of anti-Domitianic rhetoric in Pliny’s Panegyricus, and the need to then label Suetonius’ critique part of ‘the biographical discourse’ in the next sentence.

Part Two addresses Tacitus, opening with an introduction vital to all three literary studies. “Imperial Representation and Topics of Deconstruction” elaborates the themes of Neronian and Domitianic praise.[2] Shared ideals such as connections with gods sit alongside Nero’s individual association with theatre and Domitian’s with military honours. Panegyric is placed directly alongside its critical counterpart. Only Tacitus’ response is discussed here, but the themes remain central to deconstruction in Dio and Suetonius, making it important reading for all three authors. Chapter 4, “Strategies of Deconstruction in Tacitus”, turns to the methods of deconstruction’s enaction through three techniques: the introduction of negative connotations of actions, suggesting unacceptable reasons for imperial actions, and the corruption of social and temporal norms.

“Creating Uncertainty” is a more analytical discussion built on narratological theories of closure and disconcertion, made up of two main discussions separated by a brief interlude. Schulz first describes Tacitean narrative as disconcerting in its rejection of certainty (133-48). The reader looking for clear historical explanations is repeatedly thrown off guard, as Tacitus throughout his corpus offers alternative explanations for events without indicating his own view. A brief study of Agricola 1-3 (147-48) shows how ambiguities in temporal language conflate the Domitianic past with the regimes of Nerva and Trajan. The remainder turns to a broader understanding of historiography. Schulz analyses Tacitus’ deconstruction of apparent binary opposites, with particular focus on the lack of easy assessment of “good” and “bad” (154-58). For Schulz, this shows a historian who is not hiding any particular historical truth, but demonstrating the futility of interpreting imperial Rome’s past (159-63).

Part 3 begins with “Writing Historiography under the Severans”. An outline of Cassius Dio’s career and the textual challenges caused by the epitomised Roman History is followed by a short section on specific aspects of imperial representation. Chapter 7, “Strategies of Deconstruction in Cassius Dio”, provides the bulk of material, split into five sections: ‘negative connotations’, by which the transgression of social norms is made unquestionably negative; the construction of believable ‘persuasive characters’; ‘the rhetoric of combination’, where multiple events reinforce a negative portrayal; a problematic section on the ‘selection and focus’ of material;[3] and the invocation of fear and ridicule to ‘spoil the atmosphere’.

Chapter 8, “Deconstruction and the Construction of Memory”, explores the presentation of imperial genealogy in connection with Jan Assmann’s theories of memory. The “communicative memory” of shared, lived experience is contrasted with the “cultural” memory of events outside that experience, here presented as ‘hot memory’ (254). The first century is reshaped to be relevant to a Severan context, allowing Dio to ‘correct’ (261) artificial Severan links with the Antonines by comparing them to earlier corrupt emperors (263). The benefits of introducing a new methodological framework are not entirely clear. Only eight heavily footnoted pages both outline Assmann’s approach and apply it to Dio. Its introduction quotes Assmann directly, describing adults ‘leav[ing] their future-oriented professional career’ after forty years, reaching an age where they ‘desire to fix [memory] and pass it on’ (254). It is difficult not to question whether this approach is valid for ancient Rome—especially when Dio, author too of contemporary political history, was writing by Schulz’s own dating (255) throughout his senatorial career. Schulz’s brevity leaves no space to acknowledge methodological concerns.

Suetonius is introduced in “Biography and Eccentric Representation” with rapid overviews of recent scholarship and the organising principle of thematic rubrics. “Strategies of Deconstruction in Suetonius”—bulkier still than its Dionean counterpart—then adjusts the previous structure. Rather than a catalogue of techniques, Schulz discusses the Vitae in relation to historiography: those ‘historiographical techniques’ which Suetonius also employs, such as negative coding of events; the specifically Suetonian ‘effect of rubrics’ that guides readers’ interpretation of events; and ‘ambivalent techniques’, read as a challenge to a view of Domitian and Nero as absolutely bad.

At times it is difficult to know what exactly Schulz wants Suetonius to be doing with these strategies. The section on ambivalent descriptions highlights occasions when positive attributes appear within negative rubrics, and vice versa. For example, Nero displays the virtues of pietas, liberalitas, clementia and comitas; Domitian’s positive actions include public spectacula and buildings. Yet just a few pages earlier, these same examples are used to demonstrate the impact of the two emperors’ faults. Schulz describes the ostentatio of the same four Neronian virtues as a prelude to his theatrical performances, and argues that the Domitianic building programme is deliberately undersold (319-20). It may well be possible to reconcile these positions, but Schulz makes no attempt to do so.

Chapter 11, “Deconstructed Elements and Miscellanism”, argues that Suetonius can best be understood in relation to encyclopaedic and miscellanist literature, represented by Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius respectively. Clear headers for rubrics, often repeated across each biography, enable readers to find particular information relatively easily, if less directly than Pliny’s topical organisation. An ‘active reader’ is encouraged to read across different lives, and to compare their content with chronologically structured accounts (348-51). Ultimately, Schulz suggests that Suetonius’ structure can be understood as a mixture of entertainment and a source of anecdotes to share with learned friends in the performance of elite education.

While these conclusions may not be unreasonable, they raise the volume’s most significant flaw. As Schulz notes here, ‘the motif of “memory” and “the emperor destroying memory” must have been a suitable conversation topic in the second century’ (354). I do not disagree. I do, however, find it remarkable that there is not even a cross-reference to the preceding discussion of Dio’s control of memory. Dio is apparently able to use Nero and Domitian so effectively because they only existed within a longer-term cultural memory. This implies that Tacitus and Suetonius faced a different prospect writing for an audience that had lived through Domitian’s reign and likely had personal knowledge of Nero’s. The impact on Suetonius is not the only missed opportunity. Tacitus’ rejection of historiography as a hermeneutic tool would take on greater force if read in dialogue with post-Domitianic efforts to redefine collective memory.[4]

Other results of reading across the three studies are more actively problematic. It is striking that Dio’s political career is given a full introduction, while Tacitus’ successful career under Domitian is not even mentioned. The Dio chapter in turn is weakened considerably by the other two analyses. Schulz’s construction of Tacitus and Suetonius is framed around their subtlety as authors. Tacitus is able to challenge the very notion of historical authority, Suetonius to create ambivalence even in criticism. Conversely, ‘Hadrian is more useful for Dio as a good emperor than as a bad one’ (256). Ambivalence in Dio is acknowledged only to be dismissed. Such flaws are highlighted by a structure that demands readers look across the volume’s three main parts. This reviewer is left with a feeling more usually associated with edited volumes or conference proceedings: it feels like there was minimal communication between the different sections’ authors.

On the whole, the text is well presented. I noticed very few typos—‘arch[e]s’ (62); Suet. Calig. 27 for 37 (400). Proofing has missed a sentence of Suetonius which is translated both immediately before and after its quotation (325). There are few apparent errors. A dream is portrayed as an actual event to demonstrate Dio’s personal connection to Septimius Severus (257 n. 36), but most slips are jarring rather than misleading. As an indicative selection, describing Domitian’s title Germanicus as ‘innovative’ (56) seems misplaced; furor is madness for Caligula, but specifically not madness for Nero (287-88). Finally, readers should note that the index locorum includes only ‘the most relevant passages’, with no explanation of their selection.


[1] Cordes, L. (2017) Kaiser und Tyrann: Die Kodierung und Umkodierung der Herrscherrepräsentation Neros und Domitians, Berlin. See also Bönisch-Meyer, S. et al. (eds.). (2014) Nero und Domitian: Mediale Diskurse der Herrscherrepräsentation im Vergleich, Tübingen.

[2] Readers again will benefit from having Cordes’s book at hand for more detail.

[3] Despite the earlier statement that, due to the text’s epitomisation, ‘it is important not to draw arguments from the lack of any piece of information’ (177), this includes a section specifically on omissions. The defence that Dio omits material in earlier books, and so these omissions could be his (241), is hardly convincing.

[4] Alice König and Chris Whitton’s 2018 volume (Roman Literature under Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian: Literary Interactions AD 96-138, Cambridge) would have provided numerous comparisons.