THE ANNALS OF TACITUS: BOOKS 5 AND 6

Edited by A.J. Woodman

CUP (2017) 325pp £89.99 (ISBN 9781107152700)

W.’s publication is the culmination of an ambitious project originally planned more than 50 years ago. This was to publish commentaries on Tacitus’ Annals 1-6 in the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries series (now affectionately known as the ‘Orange’ series). The work was initially undertaken by W.’s former doctoral supervisor, F.R.D. Goodyear, who sadly could complete only the volumes on Annals 1-2 before his death in 1987.

The project could then so easily have ground to a halt, but W. himself collaborated with Ronald Martin to produce commentaries on Annals 3 (1996) and Annals 4 (1989, though this is in the Cambridge ‘green and yellow’ series), both published after Martin had retired. Aris and Phillips published Ronald Martin’s own commentary on Annals 5 and 6 (2001), but the envisaged audience for that work is different from that of the current project, and there is certainly room for Martin (2001) and W. (2017) to co-exist. On a practical note, since W.’s project is a continuation of the series, he incorporates throughout cross-references to relevant discussions from previous volumes. Consequently, users of this commentary may be best advised to consult it in libraries holding the previous volumes in the series, though there is much to enjoy even without immediate access to those other commentaries.

In the compact introduction, W. focuses exclusively on the question of what actually constitutes Annals 5 and 6 and on the intriguing problems generated by the fact that the manuscripts do not indicate where book 5 ends or book 6 begins. Weighing up the positions of J. Lipsius (1574), who argued that A.6 should begin with the consuls’ names for AD 32 (Cn. Domitius Camillus Scribonianus, A.6.1.1), and F. Haase (1848), who maintained that A.6 should instead start with the lacuna preceding quattuor et quadraginta orationes (A.5.6), W. presents compelling arguments about why we should revert to Lipsius’ proposed division between the two books (which is decisively adopted in the Latin text itself). His consideration of the manuscripts’ technical problems sits alongside persuasive historiographical analysis informed by engagement with Tacitus’ annalistic practice elsewhere in the first hexad. In the commentary itself, the text is helpfully broken down into smaller units which are prefaced by miniature introductions clarifying annalistic units and Tacitean practice in a wealth of areas.

W.’s perceptive eye for detail and elegant turns of phrase pepper the commentary throughout. I can only pick out a few plums, which hopefully give a sense of this engaging commentary. Firstly, at 5.1.1 (Rubellio et Fufio consulibus), W. comments on the unique opening of A.5 because the ablative absolute dating formula for the annalistic year employs only one name for each consul and reserves their shared cognomen Geminus for a relative clause. This ‘encourages the reader to reflect on the double coincidence that two men whose name is “Twin” are twinned in a magistracy which was itself twinned’ (p.50). Tacitean wit here combines with W.’s distinctive and incisive commentary style to illuminate a reader’s enjoyment of the text.

Another instance involves Cotta Messalinus’ memorable response to being accused: me autem tuebitur Tiberiolus meus (‘However, my dear Tiberius will protect me’, 6.5.2, reproducing W.’s lemma and emphases). W. begins his note by observing that ‘Cotta’s punch-line is all the more effective for its chiastic alliteration, assonance (me ~ meus) and almost anagrammatic word-play’ (p.109). This typical sensitivity towards the sounds and word-play of Tacitus’ Latin is a prominent feature of W.’s commentary, often sitting alongside helpful comments on textual, literary and historical aspects.

Thirdly, Tacitus’ version of the wretched death by starvation of Drusus, son of Germanicus and Agrippina, includes the grim detail that he survived until the ninth day (nonum ad diem) by eating the straw from his prison bed (6.23.2). W. observes in parentheses that this is ‘an ironic evocation of the nouendialis cena which took place nine days after a burial’ (p.188), which raises the interesting question of fact versus creative embellishment. The rest of the note concentrates mainly on defending Tacitus’ phrase mandendo e cubili tomento (‘by chewing the stuffing from the bed’) to which Ritter had objected, but it characterises W.’s approach that when appropriate, his rich lemmata range widely and incorporate diverse elements.

At the heart of Annals 1-6 and this commentary lies Tacitus’ extraordinary creation, the emperor Tiberius. W. devotes a whole appendix to Tiberius and the evolution of his principate in Tacitus’ account, synthesising his discussion of details in the commentary. W.’s Tacitean Tiberius emerges (for all his flaws) as fundamentally an altruistic presence—a man who ‘performs the functions of princeps without ever having formally agreed to assume the role of being princeps’ (p.307). A main concern for Woodman here is to reinforce his argument that Tacitus’ obituary at Annals 6.51 is complementary to the preceding narrative rather than in conflict with it. That obituary memorably outlines how Tiberius’ deterioration is periodised by the loss of successive ‘helpers’ until in the final phase, ‘he experiences the isolation of power which he so dreaded in AD 14’ (p.310). Whatever the nature of the ‘real’ Tiberius, Tacitus, with sympathetic imagination, draws out the horror of Tiberius’ enforced self-reliance and solitude—both for him and for his subjects. At one point Suetonius, considering Tiberius’ reluctance to become emperor, preserves Tacitus’ expressive maxim about what it was like to be emperor: Tiberius often said that ‘he was holding a wolf by the ears’ (ut saepe lupum se auribus tenere diceret, S. Tiberius 25.1). These extraordinary words have often struck me as reflecting the essence of Tacitus’ imaginative portrait. Perhaps Tiberius’ imperial ‘wolf’ is facing away from him, as he hangs on for dear life while the animal careers out of control, or towards him, as the ravening wolf threatens to bite his own face. Either way, for Tiberius the responsibilities of being emperor are both terrifying and unrelenting: one cannot for a single moment release the wolf’s ears.

It is indeed poignant that Martin in his 2001 publication thanks W. for reading and replying with unfailing kindness and alacrity to numerous drafts over the years. Subsequently, W. in 2017 expresses regret that he can no longer test his ideas on his former collaborator, concluding that his volume will be the poorer for his absence. Nonetheless, in the body of the commentary there are many instances where W. remains in spirited dialogue with Martin on particular points of detail and interpretation (e.g. pp.290-3 on Tiberius’ mores at A.6.51.3 within Tacitus’ obituary). Here and elsewhere, there are tangible traces which reflect the long and productive working relationship between the two commentators over the decades before Martin’s death in 2008. All in all, this is a most welcome volume to the ‘Orange’ series.

Rhiannon Ash

 

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