Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 14.

Rhiannon Ash, Ordering Anarchy: Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1999. Pp. x + 246. ISBN 0-7156-2800-3. UKú40.00.

David Wardle
University of Cape Town

The loss of most of Tacitus' Histories is the more tragic when we see what Ash can do with what remains, the extended narrative of just two years' epoch-making events. Ash rightly comments (p. vii) on the remarkable prominence Tacitus affords to these events and, even had all twelve books survived, a study devoted to them would have been justified.

Ash locates herself firmly as a follower of Woodman (and Wiseman) in holding that Roman historiography should be read primarily as a rhetorical construct and that the focus of study should be on presentation more than on facts.[[1]] She aims 'primarily (though not only) to elucidate Tacitus' techniques as a literary artist' (p. viii), through a study of how the historian characterises the four emperors, their forces, and the prominent individual Antonius Primus.

The first chapter, 'Images of Leaders and Armies in Civil War Narratives' (pp. 5-22), examines differing ways in which Julius Caesar, Appian and Cassius Dio faced up to the particular problems of narrating civil war in order to contrast Tacitus' approach. Here, as in the use of Suetonius throughout subsequent chapters, the procedure is not unproblematic: the loss of all Tacitus' predecessors in the writing of annalistic history of the imperial period makes it hazardous and uncertain to attribute innovation or unique subtlety to Tacitus;[[2]] again dramatic monographs such as Coelius Antipater on the Hannibalic War, or Livy's extended narrative of civil war in the first century BC, may have focused as intently as Tacitus does on the psychology and fragmentation of the troops; thirdly, the scale of Suetonius' biographies is very much smaller than Tacitus' Histories, so it is not surprising that Suetonius omits much that Tacitus includes; in particular Suetonius is quite ruthless in suppressing personal names.

Chapter 2, 'Galbians and Othonians' (pp. 23-36), deals with Galbians and Othonians and demonstrates the very different characters of the respective armies: the reaction of Galba's army to its austere and stingy commander varies with rank and Tacitus carefully brings out the complexity, whereas Suetonius and Plutarch 'tend to talk more in terms of large, unstratified military groups' (p. 26). The Othonians are similarly analysed by what Ash calls Tacitus' 'internal focalisation' (for example, 1.27.2); by comparison with the Galbians they are devoted to their emperor and suspicious of their superior officers. Ash brings out well the devotion of the Othonians but comments that it is 'perhaps particularly surprising given that they did not have anyone like Julius Caesar to write a flattering account on their behalf' (p. 36). As Plutarch also emphasises this (Otho 27.3-5), it must be a part of the historiographical tradition which precedes Tacitus; the Flavians had nothing to fear from a positive presentation of Otho, to whom Vespasian was ostensibly loyal.[[3]] What would be surprising was a tradition which did not vilify Vitellius!

Chapter 3 deals with the Vitellians and Flavians (pp. 37-72). Ash shows how Tacitus subtly compares the Vitellians with the invading armies of Gauls which had terrorised Italy in 390 BC and in the late second century BC, possessed of a mad lust for plunder: for example, Tacitus gives them no encompassing label until 1.75.1, but before that emphasises the various nationalities of the troops in Vitellius' forces, in effect showing them as non-Roman. In Rome they act like tourists, fall into luxurious ways as well as into illness: 'Tacitus is manipulating a familiar ethnographic stereotype . . . but below the surface may lie the historical reality of a large influx of men who had not been exposed to the endemic diseases of Rome' (p. 47). However, another aspect of Tacitus' depiction which Ash emphasises, over time the rank- and-file Vitellians acquire a certain nobility through their loyalty to Vitellius, whereas their officers are self-seeking and treacherous.[[4]]

Tacitus' presentation of the Flavian troops differs sharply from that in Josephus -- he is no simple flatterer of the Flavians -- but he allows some Flavian supporters a positive motivation for their revolt (2.7.2). Ash seems too strong in glossing Tacitus' description of the Flavian troops (2.6.2) as 'desperate not to miss out on the spoils of civil war' (p. 57). If the Vitellians improved, the reverse was the case for the Flavians, among whom the desire for plunder becomes dominant and whose behaviour resembles that of Hannibal's Carthaginians.

Chapter 4, 'Galba and Otho' (pp. 73-94), begins Ash's study of the individual emperors. She shows that the characterisation of Galba is notable for Tacitus' rejection of the propagandistic and contemporary association of the emperor as adsertor libertatis and for a concentration on his old- fashioned discipline which lost him the crucial support of his forces and on his old age and feebleness. Tacitus' Galba dies a passive, helpless cripple whereas Suetonius' retains a certain nobility in the face of death.[[5]]

Otho presented writers with a paradox: his life was riddled with the vices of Nero, yet his death was heroic and selfless. Ash examines the different tendencies of propaganda about Otho which were influential in 69, and subsequently under the Flavians, and discusses the contribution of exitus literature to Tacitus' narrative of the suicide. She establishes that there is no fundamental inconsistency in Tacitus' presentation of Otho, but one in which the different traits are well integrated. In passing (p. 89) Ash seems to endorse the approach of David Shotter to the treatment of rumours in Tacitus, positing a thoughtful reconstruction of the 'malicious atmosphere of the times' rather than a Tacitus who deliberately undermines his own narrative.[[6]] This is an issue which has loomed large in Tacitean scholarship since the 1950s and perhaps the reader could expect a little more than he gets on this.

Chapter 5, 'Vitellius' (pp. 95-125). This is the emperor whose reputation we would expect to have been traduced most by the Flavians to justify Vespasian's rebellion against him. Ash shows how Vitellius' gluttony and drunkenness were emphasised in Suetonius, Josephus and Plutarch, involving an implicit contrast with the frugality and restraint of Vespasian and how this is downplayed by Tacitus. His Vitellius is passive rather than 'a power-hungry usurper' (p. 106), a convenient figurehead for the mutinous German legions, a commander manipulated by his legates Caecina and Valens. Passive verbs appear frequently (1.56.3, for example) in connection with Vitellius. His weakness as a leader on campaign and in Rome leads to his troops' committing atrocities, losing discipline and becoming enervated by Rome. As defeat approached Vitellius is revealed as out of touch with reality, responding inadequately to crises; his most decisive action is ironically his offer to abdicate, and that is thwarted. Ash suggests that the reader is to feel pity for Vitellius (p. 121), but, as Jason Davies has suggested, we cannot be certain what a second century AD reader might have felt -- contempt is as possible as pity.[[7]] Nonetheless, Ash's reading of the end of Vitellius shows her sensitivity to Tacitus' narrative at its best.

Chapter 6, 'Vespasian, Titus and Domitian' (pp. 127- 46), deals with Tacitus' presentation of the Flavians; Vespasian was very little different from his predecessors: 'there was actually a disturbing continuity between the way in which Vespasian and his predecessors gained control' (p. 128). Beginning from Tacitus' words occulta fati et ostentis ac responsis destinatum Vespasiano liberisque eius imperium post fortunam credidimus (1.10.3), Ash looks at the omens and prodigies which announced Vespasian's rise. As Davies has pointed out,[[8]] this section suffers from a less secure grasp of Roman religion than of historiography: superstitio should not be translated willy- nilly as 'superstition', rather as religious practices outside the Roman state cults under the control of the Senate; the formulation of Basilides' pronouncement 'whatever it is which you have in mind . . .' would not, I suspect, be 'disturbing' to any Roman familiar with augural procedures (cf. Val. Max. 1.4.1) such as a former magistrate; Vespasian's 'turning' of the omen of a comet against the Parthian king is wholly in accordance with the spirit which pervades the Romans' treatment of omens.[[9]] These points aside Ash is right to see this religious material as a major means by which Tacitus characterises Vespasian in the extant books of the Histories at least.

Ash shows that in his treatment of Vespasian and his two sons Tacitus ignores the contemporary raptures, that at last there was an emperor with adult male sons who could ensure the succession, and to have highlighted the tensions in their mutual relationships (4.52, for example, and the rumour of 4.86). The future despotism of Domitian is alluded to in his budding dissimulation (4.86.2) and blushing (4.40.1).[[10]]

By contrast, Titus appears as initially dwarfing his father in popular estimation and in that of Galba, although his problematic relationship with Berenice is foreshadowed (2.2.1) and doubtless was covered in more detail in the missing books.

The final chapter, 'Antonius Primus' (pp. 147-65), deals in detail with the headstrong general Antonius Primus, whose disobedience won Vespasian his throne at less cost than the agreed policy was likely to have. Ash shows that Tacitus was not the victim of his sources in creating his Primus and that he presents eloquently the problems posed to Vespasian by a man like Primus in peacetime. Her analysis of Primus' speech at 3.2 shows him 'reinventing the past in such a way as to orchestrate the present' (p. 154): Tacitus does not contradict himself, rather a general (like politicians) bends the truth.

Ash has certainly gone a long way towards ordering anarchy in this work. Her subtle literary interpretation has added much to my appreciation of Tacitus' Histories.[[11]]


[[1]] A. J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (London 1988); T. P. Wiseman, Clio's Cosmetics (Leicester 1979).

[[2]] Cf. D. Wardle, 'Cluvius Rufus and Suetonius', Hermes 120 (1992) 466-82 for some of the problems in recreating that lost historiography and the suggestion that Cluvius Rufus, for one, displayed many of the features which had been seen as Tacitus' contribution to the genre.

[[3]] Ash is keen to provide literary parallels, but we should probably not see Tacitus' is primus dies Othonianas partes adflixit as an echo of Virgil's ille dies primus leti (Aen. 4.169) but within the wider historiographical tradition which goes back at least to Herodotus (5.97) and most clearly to Thucydides (2.12.4). At p. 87 Ash shows how in AD 69 the Flavians accentuated Otho's good qualities to win the support of his troops.

[[4]] Ash sees in Tacitus' longus deditorum ordo (4.2.2) a recollection of Virgil's 'longo ordine' (Aen. 2.766f., 8.722), but this is far from compelling.

[[5]] Many of Ash's putative intertextual links with the death of Pompey (pp. 80-83) are to me somewhat forced, although the overall comparison of Galba and Pompey is appealing.

[[6]] Among his many articles taking this line, D. C. A. Shotter, 'Tacitus, Tiberius and Germanicus', Historia 17 (1968) 194-214.

[[7]] Jason Davies, Review of Ash, BMCR 00.05.21.

[[8]] See above [5].

[[9]] See examples at Val. Max. 1.5; with my comments, D. Wardle, Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings Book I (Oxford 1998).

[[10]] A rare example of over subtle interpretation is the suggestion that we should see in the name Basilides a reference to Domitian, son of the king, and should interpret his prophecy as a warning about Domitian (pp. 141f.).

[[11]] Ash's translation of extracts from Tacitus is good. I have only quibbles: there is inconsistency in the translation of et obsequia meliorum nox abstulerat (1.80.2) between page 29 ('night had taken away the obedience of the better men') and page 33 ('the darkness even demolished the obedience of the better men'); (p. 53) the translation of abrupta (3.63.1) by 'collapsed'; (p. 58) the wrong positioning of 'only' on 2.8.2 (cf. page 127: 'Tacitus only owed his career'); (p. 114) on 2.62.1 epularum foeda et inexplebilis libido 'it was his . . .' is better as 'he had a . . .'. The standard of proof reading is exemplary and Duckworth has done its usual job of providing a solid appealing book (even if having end-notes instead of footnotes makes the act of reading more tedious).