BMCR 2023.03.15

Tacitean visual narrative

, Tacitean visual narrative. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781350097001.



Phillip Waddell’s Tacitean Visual Narrative applies techniques from film (notably the classical Hollywood film) and ancient visual narrative to Tacitus’ Annals. In so doing, the study aims to improve the reader’s understanding of rhetorical and visual aspects in ancient literature, and in Tacitus in particular. Another objective of the study is “to augment and expand the narratological investigation of Tacitus” (p.4). One of the strongest contributions of this publication is the way in which the analyses and comparisons with film techniques complement and illustrate already existing narratological analyses for those unfamiliar with narratology.

The book presents itself as introduction to Tacitus’ visual historiography, aimed at those new to Tacitus or new to Tacitus’ literary qualities. Though called Tacitean Visual Narrative, the monograph almost exclusively focuses on the Annals, with minimal attention to the Agricola and almost none to the Histories. The book spends very little time situating itself within the rich scholarship on Tacitus, not only regarding Tacitus’ depiction of the Julio-Claudians, but also Tacitus’ ability to paint a vivid scene in a very concise way.[1] Because of this, the book sometimes struggles to express in what way it is moving Tacitean scholarship forward.

The book’s introduction begins with a brief summary of Tacitus’ literary and visual techniques, before a brief overview of key trends in Classics and Film Studies, “visuality” in the Roman world (focusing on art and Livy), narratology, and the classical Hollywood film. This is followed by five chapters, divided into two sections: “Lens and Voice” (chapters 1, 2, and 3) and “Transition and Connection” (chapters 4 and 5). Whereas the first section looks at the framing and portrayal of characters in Tacitus, the second part focuses on the position and transition of scenes, often creating connections between scenes. Waddell’s main focus is on the visual portrayal of characters, notably those connected to the imperial family.

The first chapter, “Focalizing Empire,” looks at focalization, or: “who sees.” Waddell explains focalization by means of the use of specific camera positions, which allows the camera to show the perspective of a character. This is then applied to important characters of the Annals, in particular Tiberius, Sejanus and Agrippina the Younger. Though not necessarily offering new viewpoints on Tacitus’ use of focalization,[2] the chapter does a good job at illustrating focalization, which is helped by the comparison with shots from Hollywood movies and ancient art: for instance, in The Third Man (1949), for a short period there is focalization by the villain Harry Lime as he talks about killing people. Waddell compares this to the Annals, where we have temporary focalization through Sejanus, implicating the reader in his visions. The chapter also introduces the “shot-reverse-shot” technique (the quick change of perspective—and focalization—between people engaged in a scene) and applies it to Nero’s murder of Agrippina in Ann. 14, which is an interesting way to describe the dynamic of the narrative. Future research could connect this in more detail to the influences from ancient drama, which also includes frequent back-and-forth, which can also be found in this episode.

Chapter 2, “Vox Caesaris, Vox Taciti”, discusses alignment. Like focalization, it is part of the umbrella “point of view,” but in contrast to focalization it concerns itself with “who speaks.” Waddell uses film effectively to illustrate how in the Annals, the voices of the primary narrator and the character often merge. Tacitus plays intelligently with this in the Annals, unsettling and disorienting the reader. The focus of this chapter is on digressions, for Waddell argues that in Tacitus alignment happens “uniquely during digressions” (p. 62) (although one might identify some counterexamples of alignment in other parts of the text, e.g. the puzzling use of ulciscenda in Ann. 3.19.2). The clearest example of Tacitus’ alignment that Waddell discusses is the alignment of Tacitus’ voice with that of the “antiquarian” Claudius in the digression on the history of writing (Ann. 11.13.2-14.3), clarifying the concept.

In chapter 3, “The Directed Gaze and the Construction of Meaning”, Waddell applies the concept of the gaze to Tacitus’ Annals. This concept is familiar from a variety of disciplines, including narratology, film studies, and feminism, and has recently extensively been applied to ancient texts, in particular epic. Waddell discusses various examples that illustrate Tacitus’ use of the gaze well, such as Tiberius’ attitude during maiestas trials (e.g. in Ann. 3.12–15 during the trial of Piso) and the reactions of the onlookers to Britannicus’ murder (Ann. 13.16). The connection to Roman visual art by means of the concept damnatio memoriae in the second half of the chapter feels slightly forced. Waddell writes that it is against memory loss Tacitus is writing “so that the reader can remember both the good and the evil who have become invisible” (p. 117). Memory and preserving memory are big topics in the Annals and Roman historiography in general and could have been discussed in more depth and nuance.[3]

Chapter 4, “Shadows over Rome: Temporal Suggestion”, looks at foreshadowing and backshadowing. Waddell’s analysis of foreshadowing mostly takes the form of Tacitus’ use of names to allude to other characters, e.g. Tiberius being called Nero on several occasions, portraying him as a forerunner of the future emperor Nero. More noteworthy is the discussion of backshadowing (though conceptually reiterating intratextuality). A convincing case of backshadowing in this chapter is the nightmare of Caecina (Ann. 1.65.2), who is plagued by Varus’ ghost, drawing a parallel between the two. Waddell describes Germanicus’ visit to the battlefield (Ann. 1.60.3–1.61) as “a dramatically visual passage” (p. 159). There was a real opportunity here to comment in more detail on the visual elements of this passage, e.g. the tension between the animate and inanimate as the dead remains of soldiers seem to come alive through the vivid descriptions Tacitus provides of the battlefield, and through the focalization of the soldiers who survived the carnage.

The final chapter, “Eloquent Collisions: The Quick-Cut” is the most original and strongest chapter of the book. Waddell distinguishes between the “narrative quick-cut” and the “intellectual quick-cut”. The former juxtaposes two events, which the brain is then invited to connect narratively. The latter juxtaposes images or themes that seen to be unrelated in the narrative, but by putting them side by side, the structure of the narrative invites the reader to creating meaning between them. This innovative methodology could fruitfully be applied to other ancient historians, although maybe none uses this type of “quick-cut” as well as Tacitus. The examples of the Fire of Rome (Ann. 15.38-39), connecting one of Nero’s parties and the start of the fire, and the Ruminal Fig (Ann. 13.58), which at the end of the book thematically connects the narratives of Ann. 13 and 14, will leave the reader with ample food for thought. This chapter also engages with Tacitus’ syntax, pointing out Tacitus’ use of the ablative absolute to create subtle and ambiguous connections between material, and the connective at to switch between scenes.[4] Future research might investigate how far the “quick-cut” overlaps or is limited by the annalistic framework and its progression throughout the Annals.

There is not always a one-to-one comparison between the Hollywood movies and Tacitus. For instance, the comparison between Claudius and the viewer of Murder, My Sweet (1944) may seem a little far-fetched, comparing “the hazy and clouded vision of the aligned author/emperor” (p. 89) with a shot in the movie where smoke clears as the character’s head clears. And where The Godfather (1972) flips back and forth between the christening and the murders taking place, this alternating does not in occur in Tacitus, and it is the juxtaposition of scenes following each other that is jarring instead. Nevertheless, even though we cannot lay these films perfectly on Tacitus’ writing (something we should not expect anyway), these comparisons are clear enough to result in several interesting and sometimes unexpected observations. Indeed, Waddell’s book invites the reader to read Tacitus while almost pretending to be the director of a classical Hollywood movie, visualizing Tacitus’ world before the reader’s eyes. Whilst many of the concepts discussed by Waddell could be (and indeed have been) analyzed already through other narrative frameworks (such as intratextuality theory and the analysis of suggestive juxtapositions), the parallels with classical Hollywood movies will undoubtedly help those unfamiliar with narratology to grasp these concepts better and probe the reader to think about the visual nature of Tacitus’ works, and ancient historians more broadly.[5]

In short, Tacitean Visual Narrative is a thought-provoking publication and an interesting starting point, showing the opportunities that can be taken from looking at Tacitus’ Annals by means of techniques from film. The question remains to what extent film techniques provide new readings of the Annals and whether the observations made in this book can be explained by other methodologies, too.



[1] Some omissions from the bibliography regarding Tacitean scholarship include U. Rademacher, Die Bildkunst des Tacitus (Hildesheim 1975) on Tacitus’ literary and visual aspects, M. Baar, Das Bild des Kaisers Tiberius bei Tacitus, Sueton und Cassius Dio (Stuttgart 1990) on characterization, and J. Ginsburg, Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus (New York 1981) on Tacitus more generally.

[2] On the effect of focalization in the Annals, see for instance J. Grethlein, Experience and Teleology in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge 2013).

[3] See for instance A. Gowing, Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture (Cambridge 2005) and K. Shannon-Henderson, Religion and Memory in Tacitus’ Annals (Oxford 2019).

[4] Caesar’s writing also finds a similar early use of “thematic discontinuity” expressed by at. See C. Kroon, Discourse Particles in Latin: A Study of Nam, Enim, Autem, Vero and At (Amsterdam 1995), 355–356.

[5] However, Waddell’s limited engagement with recent, relevant scholarship is a shortcoming. One glaring omission is H. Lovatt, The Epic Gaze: Vision, Gender and Narrative in Ancient Epic (Cambridge 2013), which could be seen as a pivotal work in the exploration of visual techniques and focalization in many ancient texts. There is also no acknowledgement of various work on historiography and epic that use film camera analogies, such as J. Lendon, “Battle Description in the Ancient Historians, Part I: Structure, Array, and Fighting,” Greece and Rome 64 (2017), 39–64, which employs “low camera” and “high camera” analogies to describe battle narratives. A good overview of scholarship on visual narratives can be found in M. Myers, “Vision and Space in Tacitus,” PhD thesis (Nottingham 2017), which also incorporates Tacitus’ Histories.