Holly Haynes, The History of Make-Believe: Tacitus on Imperial Rome. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 229. ISBN 0- 520-23650-5. US$55.00, UK£36.95.
Richard J. Evans
School of History & Archaeology, Cardiff University, Wales
Quoting Napoleon and referring to the Wizard of Oz (pp. 1f.) may seem unlikely points of departure from which to study Tacitus’ Histories, however, this is perhaps not so surprising given the fact that Haynes is concerned with the ‘significance of the relationship of style to content’ and that ‘literary analysis, while indispensable to the interpretation of historiography, is inadequate unless it incorporates investigation into the experience of a lived, historical reality. In his history of ideology, Tacitus gives us ample ground for both analysis and investigation’ (p. 2). Haynes nuances her aims by adding (p. 3) that this ‘book traces Tacitus’s development of the fingere/credere dynamic both backward and slightly forward from the year A.D. 69.’ The entire Julio-Claudian period before the civil war and years leading to Domitian’s assassination afterwards, in fact, figure prominently in the discussion.
The work as a whole is divided into five chapters: ‘An Anatomy of Make-Believe’ (pp. 3-33); ‘Nero: The Specter of Civil War’ (pp. 34-70); ‘Power and Simulacra: The Emperor Vitellius (pp. 71-111); ‘Vespasian: The Emperor who Succeeded’ (pp. 112-47); and ‘A Civil Disturbance: The Batavian Revolts’ (pp. 148-77). A conclusion is followed by endnotes, references, and an index (pp. 179-231). In order to highlight the development of the ‘fingere/credere dynamic’ or what is imagined or believed (p. 4), considered here ‘central to Tacitus’ narrative’ (p. 8), Haynes announces a chronological treatment of the principes of AD 69 with Chapter 1 acting as an introductory section in which such make-believe can be contextualised. Speeches, either directly or indirectly related, by Otho, Germanicus, Segestes, Plato’s Glaucon, and Socrates all focus the discussion to the idea of simulation, analysing what various characters -- senate, princeps, hero, philosopher, urban plebs, soldier -- believes or imagines. Haynes further seems to be suggesting that Tacitus ‘does not write about the reality of imperial politics and culture, but about the imaginary picture that imperial society makes of its relation to these concrete conditions of existence’ (p. 30). In Chapter 2, the shadow cast by Nero and the Julio-Claudian dynasty on the events in AD 69 is examined through a discussion of Galba’s attempt to distance himself from the previous regime and through his adoption of Piso, while Otho’s known connection with Nero conflicts with attempts to set aside the accumulated baggage of that link. However, Galba’s ‘very short principate’ (p. 47) was actually nearly twice as long as Otho’s, and no ‘tangled web of civil war’ (p. 34) preceded Nero’s suicide. Since Tacitus provides no speeches for Vitellius, in Chapter 3 the theme of simulation switches to those actions which may have been observed as spectacles, for example, the death of Junius Blaesus (p. 80, 86; cf. p. 28). Here the order of the discussion itself becomes disjointed as Vitellius is placed first at Bedriacum (pp. 80-96), then at ‘Lyons, the next stop on his journey’ (p. 96), and then an arrival at Rome (p. 103) where the new princeps, with as much association with the Julio- Claudians as his two immediate predecessors, seems to be cast rather as another Nero (p. 111). The focus in Chapter 4 is the success of Vespasian, arising messiah-like from the east and, indeed, Haynes devotes much space to an analysis of Tacitus’ description of the Jews (pp. 140-45) and the omens and miracles which accompanied the installation of the new dynasty (pp. 118-22, 129-35). Ethnographic digression and reporting portents are both common elements in ancient historical prose, but Haynes seems to be arguing that here, these points have an added dimension: ‘that Tacitus presents the ascent of Vespasian as a turning point in Roman ideology, where the emperor’s authority was now viewed as a product of military influence governed by the favour of the gods. He therefore becomes an object of superstitio for all his subjects’ (p. 145). In Chapter 5 the focus begins with Civilis’ address to fellow Batavians then shifts to Mucianus’ letter to the senate (pp. 152f.), thence to speeches by Eprius Marcellus and Petillius Cerealis (pp. 163-71). Again Haynes uses rhetorical passages inserted into Latin historical prose as evidence of Tacitus’ inventiveness in showing that the Batavian leadership, in an apparent quest for freedom, behave all too like the Roman generals whom they oppose. This is useful and informative, but worrying if it is also advanced as being the foundation of the history. Finally, Haynes insists that ‘if we remain wary of illusions, we may glimpse both the appearance of the past, and the truth of historiography’ (p. 183).
Rather dubiously all the rulers of AD 69 are entitled ‘pretenders’. This is frequently reiterated (pp. 4, 33, 54, 68, 80, 85, 116), but never explained. ‘Contenders’ might have been a more precise term for Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, since all were principes. It is precision which is noticeably absent throughout Haynes’ discussion. For example, ‘republic’ which features frequently (for example, pp. 50-52, 112, 121) does not appear to derive its meaning from res publica, yet Haynes refers to Plato, and also to the ‘normative concept of the Republic’ (p. 52) and ‘rest of the country’ (p. 106), ‘in the old days of the Republic’ (p. 112), but manages to convey what appears to be an indifferent knowledge of what the polis or the ancient city- state represents. Imprecision and errors are uncomfortably frequent here. To state (p. 97) that Germanicus was not a military leader simply ignores the evidence to the contrary of his campaigns in Germany (cf. p. 116), Verginius Rufus did not instigate the civil war in AD 68 (p. 112), while Vespasian obviously had a distinguished military career (p. 116) prior to his acclamation as new ruler in 69. Errors may be observed in the quoted Greek texts (p. 20, 113f.) and in the translations of the Latin text (p. 45, 134) -- in the latter nepotes refers to Augustus’ grandsons not ‘nephews’ as he had only one, and that one, Marcellus, is specified in the text. The characterisation of Marius and Sulla as being from opposite ‘ends of the social hierarchy’ (p. 158) is simply incorrect, while Pompey was no longer alive at the battle of Phlippi (p. 158) and Domitian could not have arrived in Rome (p. 172) with Mucianus since he had never left the city. Further errors occur in the index, and something is not quite right with the footnote order to pages 134-37.
Ultimately, the events in the Histories are not ‘make-believe’, and while Tacitus may be guilty or conversely innocent of dramatising or even inventing scenes, it is still, as it was to him, history not fiction and justifiable within the boundaries of ancient historical prose composition. He did not create a fiction and call it history. If we were to go down the road of disbelieving Tacitus or assuming that his history is simply an elaborate construction then that assumption would also have to be applied to all other ancient writers of history. Where would that leave Ancient History as a discipline? The answer, one suspects, is as a sub-genre of Literary Studies, with which we began.