Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 25.


Ellen O'Gorman, Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. vii + 200. ISBN 0521- 66056-4. UKú37.50.

Vincent Hunink
University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands

After reading two pages of Tacitus, any reader is bound to be struck by the author's extraordinary style, his black pessimism, and his cynical view of the Roman Empire, notably of the `bad emperors' such as Tiberius or Nero. One cannot do justice to this historian by studying the events described by him without taking into account how he describes them. It is surely not an exaggeration to say that Tacitus' style is the key to understand his work and that its interpretation should not remain the exclusive domain of historians. Fortunately, Tacitus also attracts the attention of scholars with refined literary interests and talents.

In the first pages of O'Gorman's new study of Tacitus, we find an interesting close reading of the opening paragraph of the Annals. The Latin text consists of a series of clauses on the control of power in Rome:

urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit. Dictaturae ad tempus sumebantur; neque decemviralis potestas ultra biennium, neque tribunorum militum consulare ius diu valuit. Non Cinnae, non Sullae longa dominatio; et Pompei Crassique potentia cito in Caesarem, Lepidi atque Antonii arma in Augustum cessere, qui cuncta discordiis civilibus fessa nomine principis sub imperium accepit.

'In the beginning, Rome was ruled by kings; L. Brutus established a free state governed by consuls. Dictatorships were held at times of crisis only. The power of the decemvirs did not last beyond two years, nor did the consular rights of the military tribunes last long. Cinna and Sulla dominated the state briefly; the power of Pompeius and of Crassus was soon succeeded by that of Caesar; the armies of Lepidus and Antonius passed to Augustus, who received a world wearied by civil strife under his command though he called himself only its leader'.

At first sight this looks like a neutral enumeration of successive forms of power, arranged chronologically without evaluation. However, it clearly confronts the reader with some pressing questions: is Augustus' principate the end of libertas and the resumption, under another name, of the power of the early kings? Or is Augustus' command the continuation and fulfilment of libertas? These conflicting views could both find support in the Latin text, as O'Gorman shows. In other words, Tacitus leaves it up to reader to decide. Because of Tacitus' highly ambiguous and richly evocative words, the reader inevitably becomes responsible for the interpretation. He must `create a plot' in order to make `"full" sense of the passage' (p. 9). And whatever the choice he makes, he is `implicated from the very outset of the narrative in the process and politics of historical interpretation' (p. 9).

This initial analysis looks promising enough, and the range of texts discussed by O'Gorman further enhances the reader's expectations. After an introductory chapter, 'Introduction: Irony, History, Reading' (pp. 1-22), she concentrates on a limited number of passages, which seems a sensible decision, given the obvious impossibility of covering all of the Annals. Chapter 2, 'Imperium sine fine: Problems of Definition in Annals I' (pp. 23-45), is followed by chapters concerned with the passages on Germanicus (Chapter 3, 'Germanicus and the Reader in the Text', pp. 46-77); the portrait of Tiberius, interpreted as a representation of Tacitean narrative itself (Chapter 4, 'Reading Tiberius at Face Value', pp. 78-105); and the paradox of the 'obliteration' of the literate emperor Claudius (Chapter 5, 'Obliteration and the Literate Emperor', pp. 106-121). Perhaps inevitably, much room is devoted to Agrippina (Chapter 6, 'The Empress's Plot', pp. 122-143) and Nero (Chapter 7, 'Ghostwriting the Emperor Nero', pp. 144-175). A brief, concluding chapter with the rather ominous title `The End of History' (pp. 176- 183), completes the book.

So is this study a success? I have my doubts. The book starts with some good questions, but almost always tends towards extreme positions and thereby fails to convince. Let me illustrate my point with some detailed remarks.

`Deconstructing' texts is one thing (in the case of Tacitus certainly a method not to be despised), but arriving at conclusions that openly contradict a given text is something else. In Ann. 1.28 Tacitus vividly describes a threatening mutiny by Roman soldiers. When it is about to break out, an eclipse of the moon occurs. The ignorant soldiers (miles rationis ignarus, 'soldiers ignorant of reason', as Tacitus says) take this as an omen of the coming events and become frightened. They start to produce all kinds of noises in order to make the moon shine again. When clouds cover the moon, they start to lament, ut sunt mobiles ad superstitionem perculsae semel mentes ('since minds once shocked are prone to superstition'), and fear that the gods have left them. This happily ends their rebellion, and order is restored.

It is difficult to miss Tacitus' scorn of the superstitious soldiers here, but O'Gorman actually manages to do so. In her view, `the judgment of the soldier as ignorant is undermined by the way in which his interpretation fits with the narrative of the mutiny as a whole'. The soldiers interpret the waning of the moon as a symbol of the army's neglect of its duties, `arguably a plausible recognition of one similarity between the two events . . . Indeed, it is arguable that Tacitus stacks the cards against his explicit judgement of the soldier as ignorant by the semantic subtlety with which the "ignorant" interpretation is represented' (p. 32). So the soldiers seem to be right, if only because of the widespread interpretation of eclipses as omens elsewhere in ancient texts. This of course in turn produces a difficult question: `Why does Tacitus tell us that the soldier is ignorant while demonstrating the range and complexity of his interpretation?' (p. 33). So O'Gorman suggests that the soldiers are right, while Tacitus openly says that they are not.

But what is the point of undermining a text so far as to make it say what it actually does not? Surely, if we try to establish what Tacitus means, we must say that he generally disapproves of the mob, of mutiny and chaos, and of superstition. Here the result of the army's silly superstition, however widely it was held, is felicitous, but that does not prove that its motive (its `reading') was correct. Events may simply turn out positively on the basis of false arguments or defective reasoning. The fact that the soldiers discern a parallel between the eclipse and their own behaviour does not prove them to be rational: it is, on the contrary, the essence of magical thinking to believe in patterns of `analogy' and `sympathy'. And magical thinking is nothing more than superstition, in Tacitus' terms, even if he occasionally lapses into this same mode of thinking himself.

This does not mean that it is not legitimate for a scholar to make this kind of argument, to produce complex `readings' in which modern interests and preoccupations shine through (e.g., Agrippina representing the suppressed `female voice' in Tacitus, p. 123; soldiers gathering bones for burial being seen as inventive `readers', because the verb used is condere, p. 52; or the `unattainability of certain knowledge through a process of reading', p. 88), but I would contend that all this does not help us understand Tacitus. And such deeper understanding, whatever form it takes, in my view remains the primary task of students of historiography.

O'Gorman seems to be inclined towards the extreme also on the level of style. Her academic language is difficult to read and regularly involves the reader in prolix expositions. One example must suffice here. Speaking about Claudius' invention of letters which had fallen into disuse but which were still to be seen in bronze inscriptions (Ann. 11.14.3), O'Gorman concludes:

`In that sense the letters come to stand for the potential meaninglessness of the past, and their continued presence, fixed on bronze, can be read as the intransigence of past traces in the face of present attempts to comprehend them. From this perspective Claudius loses control over a history of continuous power. His own writings, the letters in use only during his reign, stand as a monument to his mortality.' (p. 112).

I prefer to think that Claudius' invention simply made him immortal in the end, even if it was a failure.

O'Gorman remains focused on the process of `reading'. The word is actually used at every page for almost any human activity whatsoever. Sejanus `reads' Tiberius and we `read' Tiberius, as if he were no more than text; Claudius `could be read as a warner to the reader of history' (p. 109); Roman soldiers `read bones' on the battlefield (p. 52), and so forth. As a metaphor for attributing sense and meaning, the concept of reading is surely attractive, but not everywhere and all the time.

We may be tempted to `read' the enigmatic Tiberius as if he were a symbol of Tacitus' ambiguous Annals itself (p. 78), but would it not be reasonable to assume that Tacitus ultimately wanted to teach us something about Tiberius through his words, rather than vice versa? Certainly, Tacitus' style is the key to understand his work, but this style serves an aim: in the end it is concerned with something other than reflecting upon itself.

O'Gorman's book has made me think again about the limits of interpretation, about the extent in which one may deconstruct an ancient text, and about the nature of style. But I must admit that I have not learned a great deal about Tacitus that a careful reading of the Latin text has not already given me.

By overstating the case about `reading' this study will disappoint not only historians who look for reconstructions of the past or historical facts, but also literary scholars, who want to understand more about the great stylist that Tacitus was. I am not arguing that a reading of Tacitus should produce clear-cut results, or a reliable reconstruction of objective truth, or of the undoubted intentions of the author. But what I do suggest is that an interpretation of his style, while shaking our certainties, in the end must make us learn something about Tacitus rather than about the limitations of our own minds.