Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 31.

Roland Mayer (ed.), Tacitus: Dialogus de Oratoribus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 227. ISBN 0-521-46996-1. UK£15.95/US$22.95.

William J. Dominik
University of Otago

While recent commentaries on Tacitus' Dialogus de Oratoribus have appeared in Italian by Bo (1974) and in German by Güngerich (1980),[[1]] this edition of Roland Mayer in the green and yellow Cambridge series is the first commentary in English on the Dialogus since those of Bennett (1894) and Gudeman (1898).[[2]] As he explains in the section on the transmission of the text in the introduction (pp. 47-50), the copies of the Dialogus left to us by the humanists are fraught with textual difficulties requiring conjectural emendations, and a significant lacuna. Mayer reconstructs the text (pp. 53-86) from earlier editions, especially those of Winterbottom (1975) and Güngerich (1980);[[3]] however, he does not provide an apparatus criticus and relies instead upon those of Peterson (1893), Winterbottom (1975) and Köstermann (1970).[[4]]

The introductory section (pp. 1-50) and the commentary (pp. 87- 216) are informative particularly on matters of dating and style and are supported by full indices of literary terms (pp. 222-27). Mayer rightly argues that there are good reasons for dating the Dialogus after Quintilian's Institutio despite the Ciceronian resemblances in style, which can be attributed to the genre and theme (pp. 23, 26f.). As Mayer points out, Tacitus suggests the style of Cicero without merely imitating it in his use of diction, balance, syntax, periodic structure and prose rhythm (pp. 27-30). There are differences from the Ciceronian style in degree and use of these stylistic elements. Tacitus is more Ciceronian in the Dialogus than he is when writing history, but his style in this work is still not as conversational as Cicero is in his own dialogues. In the notes themselves Mayer's observations on stylistic issues buttress the general remarks he makes in the introduction. Mayer often points out where Tacitus' thought and expression are similar to those of Cicero with reference to the major Latin grammars, while in matters of diction he often refers readers to the Oxford Latin Dictionary.

While Mayer excels on textual and stylistic issues, the introduction and commentary are constructed on contestable, if not dubious, grounds when dealing with the literary and political background of Tacitus' age. Mayer argues that Tacitus was moved to reflect upon the morality of oratory and 'found it either morally compromised or a sham' and believed that oratory had become 'politically dead' (p. 8); maintains that Tacitus thought it 'better to abandon it' (p. 8); declares that 'Tacitus used the rejection of contemporary oratory which he put in Maternus' mouth to justify his own defection from the ranks of the active pleaders' (p. 33); contends that 'Tacitus accepts, along with Fabius, that the oratory of the present day is inferior to that of the late Republic' (p. 33); asserts that Aper's defence of modern eloquence is 'somewhat playful' (p. 138); and believes that 'irony seems out of place' when considering Maternus' favourable remarks about the new dispensation (pp. 43f.). There is plenty to contest here. What follows is not intended to be a wholesale rebuttal of Mayer's conventional views but rather a brief response illustrating that the issues are more complex and open to very different interpretations. Basically Mayer assumes that (1) political role of oratory under the emperors had ceased to be important; (2) Tacitus had ceased to practice oratory; (3) the state of oratory had declined since the days of the republic; and (4) Aper's defence of modern eloquence is lighthearted and therefore presumably not very credible. All of the aforementioned assumptions are open to question.

There is little question that political oratory was constrained within the limits imposed by the new political order. The languishing of deliberative oratory in the empire was partly due to the loss of the senate as a venue for serious political debate under emperors who became progressively authoritarian in their rule. Despite its diminished importance in the political arena, it seems overstated to suggest that oratory became 'politically dead'. In any event, as Mayer notes (pp. 14f.), there were still plenty of opportunities to display oratorical skill, for oratory continued to assume a considerable role in the courts, in the schools, and even an increased role on the public stage despite its diminished importance in the political arena. The conventional view, which Mayer embraces, is that Tacitus rejected the modern practice of oratory and abandoned it for a literary career, but this is an argumentum ex silentio. Although we have no record of Tacitus practising oratory after the publication of Quintilian's Institutio in 95 CE, it is apparent that his reputation as an orator continued into 106-107 CE. In Epistle 9.23 Pliny relates how Tacitus, when asked if he was an Italian or a provincial by a Roman knight, replied, nosti me et quidem ex studiis ('But you know me from your studies'). Although it is impossible to say whether or not Tacitus still practiced oratory, the verb nosti suggests that he was still known for his oratorical talent.

Mayer, like most critics before him, maintains that oratory declined during the imperial period and that this was another reason why Tacitus abandoned it. Modern scholars have also argued that Quintilian believed there had been a decline in the standard of oratory[[5]] although in Institutio 10 he speaks highly of the orators of his own day for their powers of expression and description. Admittedly it is easy to claim that there was a decline in eloquence since Romans themselves argued for it, as evidenced not only in Tacitus but also in Petronius, the elder Seneca, the elder Pliny, Persius, Juvenal, Velleius Paterculus and Longinus, a few of whom Mayer cites in support of his own belief (pp. 12-16). But there was much debate and disagreement about whether there was such a decline. Since the various Roman discussions of decline are made with considerable articulacy and occur in contexts where they are brought to bear upon a series of essentially unconnected social, moral and political issues, it is questionable whether we should take them too seriously. Aper makes this very point about oratory in Dialogus 15, where he insists that Messalla's predilection for past standards blinds him to his own eloquence and that of his contemporaries. Undoubtedly there were bad orators, just as there were during the time of Cicero. Aper holds in the Dialogus that the main difference between his age and that of Cicero is one of style, not standard (17- 20).

Mayer maintains that it 'is generally agreed among the other interlocutors that Aper does not hold with the case he urges . . . and Aper neither assents to the charge . . . nor, more tellingly, does he deny it. . . . Now since everyone -- Tacitus, Fabius Justus, the other characters in the dialogue -- are all agreed about the inferiority of modern eloquence, it would suggest a perverted judgement in Aper if he alone stood out against them in finding contemporary oratory the match of antiquity. It was more respectful of his judgement to stress that he was basically in agreement with all the others' (p. 46). So are we really to disregard Aper's viewpoint about the eloquence of the orators of his own day? There are some important points to consider when examining this question. Aper significantly has a larger share of the debate and is delineated more clearly than any of the other interlocutors. It is true that Messalla and Maternus remark that Aper has taken on the role of an opponent. But why should Aper deny this? His point lies elsewhere. Aper argues against an absolute relativity of standards in style and the idea of a decline in oratorical standards. He is able to view the situation from a historical perspective and sees the necessity of adapting oratory to the requirements of a new age. What is important is that Aper gives no such indication himself that the views he advances are anything but his own. It should also be noted that his arguments in defence of the contemporary oratory are never refuted by the other speakers.

Although Mayer rightly contends that no 'one character . . . wholly represents the views of Tacitus himself', he believes that Maternus 'up to a point' is 'the mouth-piece of the author himself' (p. 47). While it is also possible, even likely, that Tacitus has offered some of his own opinions in the speeches of Maternus and even Aper and that these different voices reflect his ambivalent feelings, Tacitus may have identified himself most with the voice of Aper, whose preference for oratory over poetry mirrors that of Tacitus. Given the pointed stylistic qualities of his later prose works, he probably sympathized with Aper's arguments on the necessity of a change in style consistent with prevailing conditions and tastes (18-20, 22f.). Tacitus, like Aper, realized language must change not only to prosper but to survive, as his own works bear witness. To Tacitus, as attested in the comments of Aper and in his own style in the Histories and the Annals, this new style was a better way of reflecting upon contemporary society than the classical style.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of Mayer's edition is his tendency to ignore recent scholarship that directly challenges his views. There is no mention of the recent scholarship of Dominik (1997), for example, who not only argues on stylistic grounds that Tacitus may have identified himself most with the voice of Aper but also for an ironic interpretation of Maternus' remarks in his second speech (36-42).[[6]] Instead Mayer cites only the dated work of Costa (1969) when aligning Tacitus with Aper's opinion regarding the literary aspects of oratory (pp. 41f.)[[7]] and two German references on an ironic interpretation of Maternus' final remarks, one of them also somewhat dated (1973) and leading to earlier foreign language references in support of such an interpretation and one in English against it (p. 43).[[8]] This is strange indeed given his apparent intention to provide a commentary mainly for Anglophone university students (p. vii).

A more unfortunate omission, however, is that of Bartsch (1994), who argues most powerfully for an ironic interpretation of Maternus' comments.[[9]] Both Dominik and Bartsch maintain that the praise of the emperor by Maternus as sapientissimus et unus ('one man wise before all others', 41) seems tainted with irony, or at least is double-edged, given that he appears to have offended the emperor Vespasian by reciting a potentially subversive play praising Cato, an archetypal republican hero, and plans to write a political drama on Thyestes, a mythical tyrant (Dial. 2-3). If this is the Maternus mentioned in Dio Cassius 67.12.5 who was executed for delivering a practice speech against tyrants under Domitian or the one alluded to in Dialogus 13 who suffered death as a result of offending Vespasian, his death would have served to enhance the irony inherent in his praise of the imperial system. Mayer believes, however, that irony is not to be attributed to Maternus' comments (p. 44). He is entitled to this position and his view about Aper's role in the Dialogus, of course, but his lack of reference not only in the introduction and notes but also in the bibliography (pp. 217-21) to recent scholars who argue otherwise is regrettable given that his edition is likely to be consulted by readers who are uninformed about these issues and the debates that surround them.

Mayer's particular strength as an editor and commentator is on textual matters, which is fortunate given the nature of the sole manuscript of the Dialogus that emerged only in the fifteenth century and then disappeared again. Despite the lack of his own independent apparatus criticus, Mayer produces a text that is based upon good common sense. The accompanying notes on textual matters reveal a solid understanding of the textual issues at stake. The result is the best text yet produced of the Dialogus. Mayer is also particularly good in the introduction on issues of the dating (pp. 22-27) and style (p. 27-31) of the Dialogus. His comments on syntax and diction, which seem generally to be aimed at scholars as much as at undergraduates, are especially helpful. Although Mayer's traditional approach to the literary and political issues of the Dialogus is open to challenge, his edition on this undervalued treatise is a welcome addition to scholarship on Tacitus.


[[1]] D. Bo (ed.), Taciti Dialogus de Oratoribus (Turin 1974); R. Güngerich (ed. H. Heubner), Kommentar zum Dialogus des Tacitus (Göttingen 1980).

[[2]] C. E. Bennett (ed.), Tacitus, Dialogus de Oratoribus (Boston 1894); A. Gudeman (ed.), Tacitus, Dialogus de Oratoribus (Boston 1898).

[[3]] M. Winterbottom (ed.), Cornelii Taciti Opera Minora (Oxford 1975); Güngerich [1].

[[4]] W. Peterson (ed.), Cornelii Taciti Dialogus de Oratoribus (Oxford 1893); Winterbottom [3]; E. Köstermann, P. Cornelii Taciti Dialogus de Oratoribus (Leipzig 1970[3]).

[[5]] E.g., F. Kühnert, 'Quintilians Stellung zu der Beredsamkeit seiner Zeit', Listy Filologické 87 (1964) 33-50.

[[6]] W. J. Dominik, 'The Style is the Man: Seneca, Tacitus and Quintilian's Canon', in W. J. Dominik (ed.), Roman Eloquence (London 1997) 59-66 (for Aper); 61f. (for Maternus).

[[7]] C. D. N. Costa, 'The "Dialogus"', in T. A. Dorey (ed.), Tacitus (London 1969) 31.

[[8]] A. Köhnken, 'Das Problem der Ironie bei Tacitus', MH 30 (1973) 32-50; for further references S. Döpp, 'Zeitverhältnisse und Kultur im Taciteischen Dialogus', in B. Kühnert et al. (edd.), Prinzipat und Kultur im I. und 2. Jahrhundert (Bonn 1995) 223 n. 29.

[[9]] S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, Mass. 1994) 110-19.