Bloomsbury (2018) p/b 200pp £14.99 (ISBN 9781350023512)
Tacitus in his greatest work mordantly analysed the Roman principate from the death of Augustus to the death of Nero, last of the Julio-Claudians. The transmitted text of the Annals has gaps, and breaks off midway through this sixteenth book (probably of an original or planned eighteen). Its short compass offers concentrated variety and tantalising drama: Nero’s mad quest for the lost gold of Dido, his embarrassing artistic aspirations, the suspicious death of Poppaea, and the dramatic suicides of Petronius and Thrasea Paetus. Accidental curtailment only intensifies our curiosity about where it can all end.
F. rightly urges that Book XVI provides an ideal first experience of the historian. He has produced for the Bloomsbury ‘Latin Texts’ series an edition to help readers new to Tacitean Latin. It also offers new insights to more advanced students (notably on intertextual allusion to Virgil). F. writes with verve and enthusiasm. His brief general introduction to the author and his times is as good as any I have read. The notes give clear explanations of syntax and the nuances of individual words, though use of grammatical terminology sometimes seems idiosyncratic (a gerundive described as ‘passive periphrastic’, a preposition with an ‘object’, predicative dative explained without being named). Comments on the content draw attention (often with a nice turn of phrase) to recurrent themes in the disparate material. There is a pervasive grimness: the narrative is ‘a seemingly interminable catalogue of victims’, Tacitus conveying ‘a sense of weariness and dry contempt’ at the emperor’s doings. There is the ‘spurious allure’ of the myths of Rome’s foundation, with which Nero was ever keen to associate himself, and his fascination with gold and a Golden Age. Above all there is theatricality, ‘the Tacitean preoccupation with image, death tableaux, and the visual’: ‘life in Rome has become akin to one of Nero’s stage productions’; ‘if Nero fancied himself a dramatic artist, then in some sense Petronius has upstaged him.’
The book is handsomely produced, with some attractive monochrome photos. It ends with a full alphabetical vocabulary, though there is some inconsistency of presentation between this and the commentary (e.g. fourth principal part -us in the former, -um in the latter). A rather high number of typos (some evidently caused by an officious autocorrect) and other minor errors can be corrected in a reprint.
John Taylor—University of Manchester