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Tacitus and Techniques of Insidious Suggestion*

  • R. Develin (a1)


Tacitus is remarkably confident in the analysis and interpretation of motive and causal sequence. Having made up his mind on a matter, he opens up with all the stylistic artillery he can muster. With one eye open for pretence, he is by no means reticent to take upon himself the responsibility for stripping away the pretence and revealing the intentions and state of mind of characters. This will be readily granted. Yet it is in fact notable how often he seems to depart from the practice of simply setting forth the results of his researches and interpretations as outright statement. He creates, as it were, a distance between himself and facts, suspicions, rumours, motives and the reports of his sources. This provokes a number of questions, dealt with here in three sections. First, there are instances where he appears to allow uncertainty, where he uses expressions alluding to report, varying from rumour to historical record: why and when does he do this? In the same vein, why and when does he cite authorities and among them why does he cite some by name, which he does so seldom? Second, there is a distinct, but connected, category of usage which presents alternatives of motive. Last, I will examine larger, thematic areas where techniques are combined.



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1 For a selection of citations see Whitehead, D.Tacitus and the loaded Alternative’, Latomus 38 (1979), 474 f. After their first appearance, secondary works will be identified in abbreviated form, where possible by author’s name alone. The works of Tacitus are cited as H. = Histories, A. = Annals, Ag. = Agricola.

2 Whitehead 475 on A. 6.25.1: ‘the innuendo is blatant, but it is the syntax which hammers it home.’

3 In general within categories passages will be treated in the order in which they appear in the works of Tacitus.

4 For ‘in incerto fuit’ see also H. 3.84, B 28 in Whitehead’s register. I will not always be referring to Whitehead’s classifications, with not all of which I can agree, as he will understand, to judge from his remarks 477 f.

5 Gnaros’ might be read.

6 I will argue that Tacitus’ supposed favour towards Seneca is only aimed at Nero’s discredit.

7 See also H. 4.86 (below on Domitian) and above n. 4.

8 See Ryberg, I.S.Tacitus’ Art of Innuendo’, TAPA 73 (1942), 389;Shatzman, I.Tacitean Rumours’, Latomus 33 (1974), 568–9.

9 See H. 3.71, where the point of noting such a divergence escapes me.

10 See also A. 12.30.2; 14.9.2.

11 Cf. Germania 3 on Ulysses.

12 Cf. H. 3.33.2: ‘loco seu numine defensum’; A. 2.24.4, on miracula: ‘visa sive ex metu credita’.

13 Apparently innocent are A. 5.10, where Tacitus cannot find the beginning or end of an affair, and 6.7, where he does not know the origin of Quadratus.

14 Rogers, R.S.A Tacitean Pattern in Narrating Treason-Trials’, TAPA 83 (1952), 302–3;Syme, R.Tacitus (Oxford 1958), 419 n. 3 notes the article, but refutes it only by the context of his own argument.

15 Cf. Scott, R.D.The Death of Nero’s Mother (Tacitas Annals, XIV, 1–13)’, Latomus 33 (1974), 105 ff.

16 Syme 380–1. and n. 6; cf. 485. At 694 Syme tries to suggest the results of revision, a ‘hasty insertion’. Hardly.

17 Goodyear, F.R.The Annals of Tacitus I (Ann. I. 1–53) (Cambridge 1972).

18 57.4.5; see Goodyear ad loc. and Koestermann, E.Die Annalen (Heidelberg 1963), 1. 107.

20 Contra Wellesley, K.Cornelius Tacitus. The Histories Book III (Sydney 1972), ad loc.

21 Ryberg 397–8.

22 Cf. Walker, B.The Annals of Tacitus (Manchester 1952), 120.

23 See also H. 4. 86 (below under Domitian).

24 Ryberg 389–90.

25 But cf. Wellesley ad loc.

26 See Goodyear, F.R.Tacitus (Greece and Rome Survey 1970), 31–2. Ryberg 386,388; Shatzman 549 ff.

27 Ogilvie, R.M. and Richmond, I.Agricola (Oxford 1967), 299.

28 Shatzman 553.

29 Shatzman 558 ff.

30 See Ryberg 387; Syme 272–3; Reid, J.S.Tacitus as a Historian’, JRS 11 (1921), 194–5;Miller, N.P.Style and Content in Tacitus’, in Tacitus, ed. Dorey, T.A. (London 1969), 99 ff.

31 Syme 431: ‘Yet equity and verisimilitude demanded that the unedifying origins of resplendent success should be mercilessly exposed. Men must have said those things’ — not in public in A.D. 14. Shorter, D.C.A.The Debate on Augustus (Tacilus Annals 19–10)’, Mnem. 20 (1967), 171 ff., argues that the length of comment is natural to each side; the eulogists were likely to generalize, the critics had the easier task; Tacitus displays no obvious sympathy.

32 Jerome, T.S.The Tacitean Tiberius’, CPh 7 (1912), 279 ff.

33 Cf. Wellesley 8.

34 I find indefensible the remarks of Ogilvie, R.M. in his Commentary on Livy 1–5 (Oxford 1965), 5: ‘Frequently he will name variants or cite alternatives, but this is no more than the scholarly pedantry expected of an historian. It means very little’; p. 7; ‘Livy’s name–dropping is not to be treated too seriously’. What warrant is there for believing the practice was ‘expected of an historian’? Why is there an unwillingness to think of Tacitus in such terms?

35 I am not unaware that my expression here (as elsewhere) is very Tacitean.

36 Sall. Hist. 1.88; Syme 283 n. 1.

37 292 n. 9 — in this case Pliny.

38 Otho 9; Syme 185.

39 Shatzman 571–2.

40 Syme 345.

41 Cf. Syme 180.

42 Attempted mitigation for Tacitus by Wellesley ad loc.

43 Cf. Syme 289.

44 Syme 300.

45 Ryberg 388 ff., 396 ff.; Goodyear, Tacitus 32; Reid 194.

46 Yavetz, Z.Forte an Dolo Principis (Tac. Ann. 15.38)’, in The Ancient Historian and His Materials (Essays in honour of Stevens, C.E.) (Farnborough 1975), 190. Yavetz’s ‘perhaps’ led to Whitehead’s examination, but the point I would make is that we may be missing something if we only wish to decide on Tacitus’ point of view.

47 Cf. H. 5.10.

48 See Ryberg 388–9; Syme 306; Goodyear ad loc. especially.

49 See also A. 2.67.3; ‘Rhescuporis Alexandriam devectus atque illic fugam temptans an ficto crimine interficitur’. Whitehead’s remark (483, B 51) is: ‘There is nothing in chs. 64–7 to help us choose between these’. That is not necessarily the point.

50 See Fischer, D.H.Historians’ Fallacies (New York 1970), 912.

51 See Ryberg 403.

52 See Whitehead 482, B 43.

53 Whitehead 479, B 10 supposes ‘simple odium might be the most plausible motive of the three’.

54 Whitehead 479, B 3 is again perhaps too charitable.

55 Apposite remarks in Ogilvie and Richmond ad loc.

56 In his Introduction Wellesley has difficulty with Antonius: ‘It is scarcely surprising therefore that the portrait he draws of Antonius Primus in this book is inconsistent and baffling’ (p. 18).

57 See too 3.62.2; Whitehead 489, C 16.

58 Ryberg 398 ff., 404; cf. Syme 360.

59 Cf. Whitehead 491, C 36.

60 Does this work against Syme 343 and n. 2: ‘No “ebrii”, “vinosi”, or “vinolenti” in the Ann.’?

61 Cf. also A. 13.45.3 on Poppaea’s mysterious and infrequent public appearances, ‘ne satiaret adspectum, vel quia sic decebat’.

62 See Ryberg 398 ff.; Syme 290 f.; Yavetz 181 ff.

63 Ryberg 400 ff.; cf. Syme 551 f.

64 Ryberg 384.

65 Add 2.42.3 (Whitehead 483, B 49, 50); Ryberg 390. 4.54.1 (Whitehead 484, B 57) is not so serious.

66 Cf. also 4.8.2 (Whitehead 491, C 30).

67 Syme 306 ff.

68 Goodyear 125 ff. and ad loc.; Ryberg 387; Shatzman 561 ff.; Syme 306 f., 692 f.

69 See Shatzman 563 ff.; Walker 110 ff.

70 Cf. also Syme 491 and App. 72.

71 Cf. Shatzman 566–7; Ryberg 391.

72 ‘Tacitus, Tiberius and Germanicus’, Historia 17 (1968), 208.

73 Compare Whitehead 495.

74 Whitehead 495. After this paper was completed I saw Pauw, D.A.Impersonal Expressions and Unidentified Spokesmen in Greek and Roman Historiography and Biography’, Acta Classica 23 (1980), 8395. This is properly cynical towards Tacitus, but he is the only Roman historian treated and it is not deep or systematic enough.

* This is a revised version of a paper presented at a seminar on Thucydides and Tacitus held at Monash University in August 1977. My thanks go to Paul Gallivan for his comments then and later. If the imperfections remain, they are my responsibility and I realize that there is more to be done developing (and perhaps softening) the picture.

Tacitus and Techniques of Insidious Suggestion*

  • R. Develin (a1)


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