BMCR 2023.05.10

Tacitus’ wonders: empire and paradox in ancient Rome

, , Tacitus' wonders: empire and paradox in ancient Rome. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. 296. ISBN 9781350241725.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This book has its origin in the conference ‘Tacitus’ Wonders’ held at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, on 27–29 August 2019. The contributors represent almost every stage of the academic career. Some are probably long familiar already to most potential readers as specialists in Tacitean studies, but others are relatively new voices, from whom one may expect (and hope) to hear again, based on the contents of this volume.

In a measured introduction that does everything that one would expect in a volume such as this, the editors summarize recent advances in the study of paradoxography in ancient Greek and Roman literature, explain the rationale for this volume, and provide a brief description of each of the papers therein. It is important to note that the definition of ‘wonder’ used here is broader than one might initially have assumed. It encompasses ‘both wonder as an emotional and intellectual response and wonders or marvels ranging from natural phenomena to foreign cultures, divine prodigies, the admirable conduct of significant individuals and the institutions of the Roman principate itself’. This means that one finds much more discussion of Tacitus’ minor works than one might otherwise have expected. Furthermore, while a great deal of attention is paid to the Histories and the Annals too, the focus is somewhat less predictable than one might have expected, although the obvious subjects and passages are not neglected.

The ten chapters following the introduction have been divided into three approximately equal parts. The first, ‘Paradoxography and Wonder’, contains four chapters, where the first two discuss the nature of Tacitus’ work in comparison to traditional paradoxographical literature and the second two aim to broaden the understanding of ‘wonder’ as an emotion. The second part, ‘Interpreting Wonders’, contains three chapters, where the emphasis is on the different interpretative frameworks one can adopt in the face of the wondrous, whether astrological, religious, or philosophical. It is in this section that one finds the detailed analyses of the more predictable passages describing unusual or incredible phenomena. Finally, the third part, ‘The Principate as Object of Wonder’, contains three chapters once more, where aspects of the behaviour of first Tiberius, then Vespasian are analysed as objects of wonder, before the final chapter considers the impact of the principate itself in redefining what behaviour was considered normal and what was considered wondrous. The grouping of the chapters in this way works well and seems entirely unforced. Unfortunately, there is insufficient space to treat each chapter in the manner that it deserves, so I will focus on the first chapter in each section, not least because they are representative of the approach taken to this topic throughout the volume as a whole.

Shannon-Henderson opens the first section by drawing attention to the fact that Tacitus devotes a surprising amount of space in his historical works to the description of what would have been regarded as wonders by the standards of ancient paradoxography. She then explains how these wonders can be divided into two broad groups, examples for which Tacitus offers a natural or scientific explanation, and examples for which he does not offer an explanation, although he may offer criticism of some of the stories associated with these phenomena. In the latter case, she suggests, Tacitus invites the readers ‘to assess the evidence presented and come to our own conclusions’. She includes an appendix to her paper entitled ‘Paradoxographical material in Tacitus’ works according to the categories of Giannini 1966’ which raises important methodological questions about what constitutes a wonder, or does not, and raises serious doubts about her analysis as a whole. The problem lies in her treatment of omens or prodigies. In some cases, these are included in the appendix, but in other cases they are not, even when they seem to be of the same or similar nature, and there is no clear explanation for this. For example, she includes the dying and revival of the Ruminal fig-tree as described at Ann. 13.58 in category c (mirabilia de plantis), but does not include the sudden fall, but rise again, of the cypress tree as described at Hist. 2.78.2 there, or anywhere else. Similarly, she includes the two-headed animals and humans described at Ann. 15.47 in category i (mirabilia de corpore), but does not include the hermaphroditic babies or the pig with a hawk’s talons as described at Ann. 12.64. More importantly, how do omens or prodigies fit into the larger grouping of wonders? On the one hand, Tacitus does not offer a natural or scientific explanation in their cases, but he does not need to because, by definition, they are supernatural in origin. On the other hand, he cannot be said to have left them without explanation because their identification as omens, however achieved, points to this supernatural origin. It is unfortunate that the author does not address this topic more explicitly and directly than she does.

Baroud opens the second section by analysing Tacitus’ descriptions of three alleged wonders occurring towards the end of the first hexad in the Annals and the conclusion of the reign of Tiberius in order to conclude that he uses them to create aporia and to ‘invite the reader to participate in the process of authentication and serve as an entry point for deeper historiographic introspection’. The three alleged wonders are the appearance of an impostor who claimed to be Drusus, the son of Germanicus, as described at Ann. 5.10, the astrological predictions both of the emperor Tiberius himself and of his chief astrologer Thrasyllus as described at Ann. 6.20–22, and the alleged appearance of a phoenix at Egypt as described at Ann. 6.28. On a minor point, the title to this chapter is somewhat puzzling in that ‘Marvellous Predictions’ seems to apply to only one of the three wonders discussed, the astrological predictions. More importantly, it is doubtful whether all of these events deserve to be recognised as wonders. It is also doubtful whether they deserve to be treated together as a group in the way that they are. On the first point, Baroud emphasises the fact that Tacitus explains how the false Drusus attracted followers because of the predilection of the Greek mind ‘for novelties and wonders’ (ad nova et mira) as if this justified his characterization of this event as a wonder. But was the rise of this false Drusus a ‘novelty’ rather than a ‘wonder’? As for the astrological predictions of Tiberius and Thrasyllus, since, as Baraud himself stresses, Tacitus’ emphasises their professional expertise and knowledge in what was regarded as a proper science at the time and enjoyed huge popularity, it is difficult to believe that Tacitus himself thought of their predictions as unusual or wondrous in any significant sense. They were the entirely predictable results (excuse the pun) of skilled professionals doing what they did best, no more and no less. As for the manner in which these examples are treated as a cohesive group despite their varied topics and clear separation from one another within the narrative, it is noteworthy that, if the same standards of identification were applied, one could easily have chosen a different group of alleged wonders for discussion from within the same range of text. For example, fear and wonder (admiratio) struck the senators when Tiberius caused the detailed record of Drusus’ behaviour when held in detention in Rome to be read out in full before them (Ann. 6.24). So, was Tiberius’ behaviour in this matter not a ‘wonder’ also?

Christoforou continues the discussion of Tiberius in his paper opening the third section. His main argument, as revealed by the sub-title of his paper, is that Tiberius’ prolonged absences on the island of Capri during the period AD 27–37 were a source of wonder, but he muddies the water somewhat in declaring them a source of both wonder and uncertainty. No-one doubts that these absences did provoke uncertainty, and the lengthy description of how Tacitus considered Tiberius extremely difficult to read, while reinforcing the idea of Tiberius as a source of uncertainty, adds little or nothing to our understanding of him, or his behaviour, as a source of wonder, which ought to be the focus here. In the end, Christoforou says relatively little about how Tiberius’ absences on Capri were a source of wonder, and what he does say does not strike me as particularly persuasive. For example, it is claimed that Capri is described in such a way as to render it ‘foreign’, that ‘Capri is said by Tacitus to be [my italics] a Greek island’, but this ignores Tacitus’ careful distinction between past and present when he says that tradition reports that the Greeks had held Capri’ (Graecos ea tenuisse), but that Tiberius had ‘then’ (tum) occupied it. In other words, Tacitus describes Capri as a Roman island that had once, long ago, been Greek. More importantly, even if the island were still Greek, so what? Greeks, or Greek culture, were hardly objects of wonder to Tacitus or any educated Roman of his day. Christoforou seeks to reinforce his argument by reference to Baroud’s paper, particularly his characterisation of Tiberius’ practice of astrology as a wonder, but, as already indicated, this is dubious also. One might have expected Christoforou to pay much more attention to Tiberius’ alleged sexual activities on Capri than he does, but they are barely acknowledged.

In conclusion, there is much of interest here, and the papers are all well-written and demonstrate a proper command of the appropriate modern scholarship, but the definition of what constitutes a wonder is so vague and elastic, so subjective, that it raises a serious question about how useful it really is in an analysis of Tacitus’ text. Readers may enjoy and be provoked by many of the papers, but they may not always be persuaded by them.


Authors and titles

  1. Tacitus and Paradoxography (Kelly E. Shannon-Henderson)
  2. Beyond ira and studium: Tacitus and the Hellenistic Anxiety about Wonder (Rik Peters)
  3. Wonderment in Aper’s Second Speech in Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus (Arthur Pomeroy)
  4. Laus eloquentiae and fama rerum: The Paradox of the Socially Marvellous in Tacitus’ Dialogus and Agricola (Brandon Jones)
  5. Marvellous Predictions: Wonders as Metahistory in Annals 6 (Georges Baroud)
  6. Prodigiosum dictu: Interpreting Signs and Oracles in Tacitus’ Histories (Callum Aldiss)
  7. Interpreting Wonders in the Agricola and Germania (James McNamara)
  8. Qualem diem Tiberius induisset: Tiberius’ Absences on Capri as an Inspiration for Wonder and Uncertainty (Panayiotis Christoforou)
  9. Tacitus’ Tragic Touch: Vespasian’s Healing Miracles at Histories 4.81–83 (Holly Haynes)
  10. Tacitus’ Ordinary Wonders (Victoria Emma Pagán)