BMCR 2020.09.22

Tacitus. The annals of Tacitus book 4

, Tacitus. The annals of Tacitus book 4. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries, 58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xxi, 349 p.. ISBN 9781108419611 £84.00.


Woodman notes (ix) that this volume “completes the sequence” of commentaries on the Tiberian books of the Annals begun in 1972 by F.R.D. Goodyear for the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries series (the “Cambridge orange” series) and continued by Woodman and R.H. Martin.[1] Woodman and Martin also contributed commentaries on this material outside the imprint of the orange series, including their 1989 collaboration on Book 4 for the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics (“green and yellow”) series, but it certainly made sense for Woodman to revisit it.[2] In the nearly half century since Goodyear’s first volume, scholarship on classical historiography and on Tacitus in particular has in many ways been reshaped by the work of Woodman himself. In an early and influential work on Tacitean “self-imitation” that appeared before Goodyear’s relevant commentary in volume 2, Woodman demonstrated that Tacitus recycles unrelated material from his Histories to describe the aftermath of the Teutoburg Forest disaster in Annals Book 1.[3] Many—including Goodyear—worried about the implications for the historian’s reliability,[4] but now no student of Tacitus can afford to ignore the highly literary and rhetorical nature of his work.

Accordingly, Woodman’s new commentary on Book 4 pays special attention to literary matters, as is also fitting both for the orange commentary series[5] and for the dramatic narrative of Annals 4. The book—Woodman approvingly quotes Syme’s judgment that it is “the best that Tacitus ever wrote”[6]—tells the story of the years 23 to 28 CE, when the reign of the enigmatic emperor Tiberius took a sharp turn for the worse, and it is thus an especially attractive subject for study. Woodman has, however, already tackled it in the aforementioned 1989 commentary with Martin. So what’s new, apart from an orange jacket cover and an updated bibliography? According to the author, everything: “The present book should be read on the assumption that its contents are more or less entirely new,” an assumption meant to free himself and readers from “the tedium of repeated confessions” when he has changed his views (x). “Entirely new” is perhaps overstated, but the overlap is slight, as the two works are clearly intended for different audiences, although they can usefully be consulted together.

An obvious difference, suitable to the orange series, is the length of the work. After a “Preface” briefly discussing Goodyear’s project and presenting the traditional acknowledgements, there are ten pages of “References and Abbreviations,” a short “Introduction,” and then the text of Book 4 with apparatus, followed by the commentary itself. This last is naturally the bulk of the work, weighing in at 279 pages (the entire 1989 book from Introduction to Index had only 281). The present volume concludes with three Indexes: General, Latin Words, and Names (of figures in the Annals; other names can be found in the General Index).

The different audiences for the two commentaries can be observed by comparing the Introductions. The green-and-yellow book provided its student readers with fourteen pages of background on Latin historiography, the career of Tacitus, and the Annals in general before spending twenty more on various aspects of Book 4 itself. The new volume’s Introduction, on the other hand, goes directly into the material at hand, focusing in particular on the Sallustian portrait of Sejanus and providing a preview of the dense detail to come (half of p. 8 is a list of Sallustian reminiscences in Books 4-6, many overlooked by previous scholarship). The helpful structural schema illustrating the ring composition of Book 4 from 1989 (15ff.) has been reshaped in 2018 into a narrative description that observes the same general arrangement (9-10); the descriptive headings (e.g., “Sejanus and a seduction” [1989, 15 = 2018, 10]) are maintained throughout the commentary. One reviewer has found the new introduction “oddly oblique” (E. O’Gorman, CR 69.2 [2019] 475) in its refusal to provide an “over-arching interpretation” of Book 4, and it is true that Woodman seems reluctant even to explain the significance of all that Sallust (9). A concluding idea that Tacitus views the life of Tiberius “as a tragedy” (12), of which Book 4 narrates the middle act, seems to deserve more than a brief suggestion. But Woodman has already written extensively on the characterization of the Tacitean Tiberius,[7] and a recent overview already exists in an Appendix to his 2017 commentary on Books 5 and 6.

In the commentary section itself, an immediately obvious difference from 1989 is that Woodman, as in his 2017 commentary, marks assonance and alliteration with italicized letters and underlined syllables (e.g., prauis sermonibus tumidos spiritus perstimulare, 119). Other reviewers[8] have regretted that he does not often suggest how these rhetorical flourishes should be interpreted (although he notes that it is often “a feature of Tiberian speech,” 103), but it is a useful visual reminder of how frequently Tacitus plays with words.

Another obvious difference is the greater scope available for discussing individual passages. Woodman tends to provide new observations rather than new details that support old ones. In a recent history of the orange series,[9] Roy Gibson compares “representative” entries on “short lemmata” from Woodman and Martin’s earlier collaborations on Books 3 and 4. A look at what Woodman has now done with the same Book 4 passage (4.2.2) chosen by Gibson supports Gibson’s observations: although both commentaries provide some interpretive guidance, the green-and-yellow explains grammar and syntax while keeping citations to a minimum, whereas the orange supports its new material  with more expansive references to scholarship and comparanda.

Thus Martin and Woodman’s 1989 note on Ann. 4.2.2 “adeundo, appellando” (89) provides just over seven lines explaining Sejanus’s activities in winning over the Praetorians. Three of these lines identify an understood direct object and an idiosyncratic feature of Tacitean usage; the others point out via Sallust that the phrase evokes the image of a battlefield harangue as Sejanus begins his “battle for the principate.” This note is followed by a separate one (not treated by Gibson) of three lines on the phrase “ipse deligere” explaining that Sejanus is exceeding his authority and that Tacitus likes archaic verbs. All of this is primarily aimed at helping a student reader with the grammar, vocabulary, and imagery—in short, with what Tacitus is saying at that moment.

In the present volume (p. 70f.), Woodman writes two paragraphs, nearly 23 lines, on “adeundo, appelando; simul … ipse deligere.” Most of the content is new. The first paragraph of just over six lines does include two on Sejanus’ “battle for the principate,” offering different Sallustian reminiscences, but Woodman’s main point is now that the activities adeundo and appellando are “characteristic of the ideal leader,” which Tacitus, as often, makes “sinister.” The rest of the note, fifteen and a half lines, demonstrates with numerous examples Tacitus’ fondness for “two-element asyndeton.” Woodman lists ten other instances of asyndeton of just “two unqualified words” from Book 4 along with comparandaand scholarship. Finally, for the “archaizing deligere” he refers us not to his earlier commentary with Martin but to Malloch’s more recent one on Book 11. As often, Woodman does not suggest whether readers can or should make anything of all of this asyndeton.[10] This new note on “adeundo, appellando,” then, primarily calls detailed attention to a recurring feature of Tacitean style without explicitly illuminating the specific passage at hand.

It would be wrong to understand, however, that readers turning to this volume for interpretive guidance will be frustrated. Woodman has always shown a special interest in the interpretation of passages related to Tiberius’ character, for example, and Book 4 is rich in such material. In Ann. 4.9.1, Tiberius considers restoring the Republic after the death of his son Drusus. In a long note (104-6) on this sentence, which has been “generally passed over by commentators” (including Woodman himself), Woodman sees a genuine expression of Tiberius’ wish, with any doubts (e.g., uana et … inrisa) coming from the senators rather than from Tacitus himself. This tacit challenge to a common reading works on its own and is especially worth considering in light of Woodman’s other work on the Tacitean Tiberius, but he does not repeat or cite himself.[11]

Historical details receive their due, from minor points (at Ann. 4.17.1, Cornelius Cethegus, cos. 24, a “nonentity” in 1989, now has a few lines on his career) to ongoing controversies (sorting out how maiestas charges were applied in a number of trials throughout—for example, at 4.19.4, where Woodman corrects the usual understanding by, characteristically, closely reading the Latin).

Woodman has always excelled at deepening our understanding of Tacitus’ art, even if he often leaves the implications beyond a specific case-study as an exercise for the reader. For a discipline aimed at making new observations about millennia-old texts, it is not always easy to find many that are genuinely new. Woodman’s latest commentary is a treasury of them, and it is an instantly indispensable resource for any Tacitean scholars working on contributing their own.


[1] The other volumes in the series are F.R.D. Goodyear, The Annals of Tacitus. Books 1-6, Vol. I: Annals 1.1-54, Cambridge 1972 and Vol. II: Annals 1.55-81 and Annals 2, Cambridge 1981; A.J. Woodman and R.H. Martin, The Annals of Tacitus Book 3, Cambridge 1996; and A.J. Woodman, The Annals of Tacitus Books 5 and 6, Cambridge 2017.

[2] R.H. Martin and A.J. Woodman, Tacitus Annals Book IV, Cambridge 1989, revised and reprinted 1999. Martin also wrote a commentary for Aris & Phillips (R. Martin, Tacitus Annals V & VI, Warminster 2001).

[3] A. J. Woodman, “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History: Tacitus, Annals I.61-5 and Histories 2. 70, 5. 14-15,” in Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, ed. D. West and T. Woodman, Cambridge 1979, 143-155, 231-235 (repr. in A.J. Woodman, Tacitus Reviewed, Oxford 1998).

[4] Goodyear 1981, 97.

[5] Goodyear himself intended to emphasize “text and language” (1972, vii), as he felt the recent four-volume commentary by E. Koestermann (Tacitus Annalen, Heidelberg 1963-1968) had thoroughly handled historiographical matters.

[6] R. Syme, Roman Papers, ed. A. Birley, vol. 3, Oxford 1984, 1031, qtd. Woodman 2018, 12 (cf. Martin and Woodman 1989, vii).

[7] See especially A.J. Woodman, “Tacitus’ Obituary of Tiberius, CQ 39 (1989) 197-205 (repr. in Tacitus Reviewed).

[8] E. O’Gorman, CR 69.2 (2019) 474; cf. R. Edwards, BMCR 2017.10.16.

[9] R. Gibson, “Fifty Shades of Orange: Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries” in Classical Commentaries, ed. C.S. Kraus and C. Stray, Oxford 2016.

[10] Compare Malloch 2013, 205 at Ann. 11.12.3, cited by Woodman as a source of further examples, who suggests that the asyndeton in largiri opes honores effectively conveys Silius’ “accumulation” of benefits and Messalina’s “passion.”

[11] See above with n. 7.