Bloomsbury (2020) p/b 158pp £16.99 (ISBN 9781350060302)
Is it possible to write an A Level commentary which celebrates the brilliance of Tacitus at the same time as accusing him of being snobbish, manipulative and morally monotone? The new Annals IV selection from Bloomsbury proves that it is possible—and in doing so sets a new and entertaining standard in student-facing commentaries.
This volume is part of the OCR-endorsed series to support A and AS Level Latin students in the examination years 2021-23. It follows a traditional Introduction-Text-Notes format, with a vocabulary list at the end, and provides additional reference material including a Julio-Claudian family tree and a very useful list of rhetorical terms. There is also a Further Reading list, although this seems to be focused more on easily accessible older publications than on recent scholarship. The text selection covers only the sections of text prescribed for OCR A Level study; here the focus is primarily on episodes relating to Sejanus. Other interesting bits of Annals IV (like the trial of Cremutius Cordus) are covered only in brief summary form.
This is very much a practical book, written for an exam-board driven purpose—but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless. Unlike some other volumes in the same series, here the Introduction and Notes are written by the same author, allowing a strong authorial voice to come through. The Notes, too, tend to be more discursive than in other volumes, with a focus on conveying Tacitus’ narrative purpose. This isn’t a basic commentary; rather, it introduces students to higher-level insights and observations about the text.
C. is keen throughout to stand between Tacitus and Tiberius, and to defend Tiberius from the most vicious of Tacitus’ attacks. As C. points out, ‘Tacitus’ bias against Tiberius and his reign has the merit of being overt. Thus we as readers may account for it and argue against it accordingly’. This he does with enthusiasm throughout both the Introduction and the Notes, frequently quoting Velleius Paterculus as a counterpoint to some of Tacitus’ more sneaky insinuations.
Yet while C. encourages his readers to question Tacitus’ claims, he also demands that we appreciate Tacitus’ artistry. Adjectives like ‘pleasing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘astoundingly bold’ are sprinkled throughout the Notes, prompting students to appreciate the Latin as well as to understand it. At the very beginning of his commentary, for instance, C. explains the ablative absolute expressing the consular year—but then devotes a whole paragraph to discussion of how this formula is used with particular skill by Tacitus at the start of Annals IV to indicate the growing irrelevance of the consuls who by now are ‘nothing more than a vestige of an all-but-forgotten republic’. C.’s delight in Tacitus’ wit and narrative cleverness is difficult to ignore, and impossible not to share.
This book does the job it sets out to do, and more. Students working from this text are likely to take away from it not just an understanding of Tacitus’ Latin, but also a fond appreciation of his quirks—making this a truly exceptional teaching resource.
Cora Beth Knowles