ricardienne: (york)
Things I read over the last couple of days:

"Bitterly opposed as I am to anthologizing in general -- it is not only the history of the declining Roman Empire that teaches us how the epitomizers and anthologists move in not more than a century before the barbarian hordes -- I would make an exception of Seneca's prose works."-- C.J. Herington, "Senecan Tragedy"Arion 5.4 (1966), p. 433

"In AD 41, the year of his father's death and the first of Claudius' reign, he was exiled to Corsica for committing adultery with the Emperor's niece Julia. He spent his time there in philosophical reflection and writing, which is about all you can do on the island." Henry and Walker, G&R, 1963, p. 99.

"This is contemptuous in tone...but it is a reference of a kind so common in Tacitus that we may attribute it here largely to absent-minded malice" -- iidem, p. 101

"few would react with ready speech when woken in the middle of the night and told by an ex-pupil that he has failed to murder his mother and wants to have another try." --iidem (103)

"This reads as though Tacitus, feeling compelled to allow Seneca a proper appearance, had in the event been defeated by boredom. Stale similes, stale and conventional phrasing make Seneca's last attempt to escape the mesh a matter of indifference to writer and reader alike." --iidem (105 n. 1)

(on Tacitus on Seneca) "His sympathetic understanding reveals something of his own personality and ideals -- in short, the man of letters who serves the 'res public' to the best of his ability, without illusions and with little hope." (Syme, Tacitus, p. 582)

This is a nifty quote about the effect of reading history on the reader, and I can't believe I never came across it before!
Anger must be escaped with learned instructions; that is, the conscious fault of the mind, not the sort that occurs by some condition of human existence and therefore happens even to the wisest; chief among this sort of thing is that blow to the mind which moves us after becoming conscious of an injury. [3] This happens even at staged plays and while reading history. Often, we seem to get angry at Clodius when he is exiling Cicero and at Antony when he is killing him. Who is not stirred up against Marius's arms, against Sulla's Proscriptions? Who is not enraged at Theodotus and Achillas and 'that boy who dared no boyish crime'? [4] Sometimes even song incites us, and a stirring tune or the martial sound of the trumpet; the mind is disturbed by horrifying paintings and grim sight of even the most just executions. [5] This is why we smile at those who laugh and a crowd of mourners make us sad and we blow our tops at others' contests. This is not anger, no more than it is sorrow that makes us frown at the sight of an imitation shipwreck, no more than it is fear which runs through the minds of readers when Hannibal is besieging the walls after Cannae: rather, all of these are movements of minds that move not of their own volition: not emotions, but the first preludes of emotions. [6] So a veteran's ears, even when he is a civilian during peacetime, are sometimes aroused by the trumpet, and the clank of weapons stirs up army horses. They say that Alexander put his hand to his weapon while Xenophantes was reciting. (Seneca, De Ira, 2.2.2-6)

(NOTES: Theodotus and Achillas and that boy...: Ptolemy XII and his two advisers, who murdered Pompeius Magnus when he sought refuge in Egypt in 48 BC.

imitation shipwreck: slightly disturbing example of "fake emotion" in that a "mimicum naufragium" might well be a staged arena spectacle in which people were actually dying.

Xenophantes: A musician at the court of Alexander? Anyway, this passage is sort of interesting as an ancient reference to PTSD.)

I wonder if I could pitch an article to the Toast on the theme of "a partial list of people and things described as "sinister" in the works of Sir Ronald Syme." If there were a classics-themed The Toast, perhaps.
ricardienne: (library)
10:30 "In fact, his [sc. Tacitus's] interpretations consistently express a bitter disappointment with the Roman oligarchy, the only human group for which he really cared." Joan-Pau Rubiés, "Nero in Tacitus and Nero in Tacitism", p. 37.

I cannot quite say what about this sentence is so adorable. Poor Tacitus, continually disappointed by the only thing for which he can feel affection!

11:45: "Octavia, too, though still raw in years, had learned to hide grief, love -- all emotion." (Ann. 13.16.4) OH GOD OCTAVIA . Tacitus you are destroying my heart. Destroying it, I say. (The Neronian books are so depressing)

11:55 P. Celer -- equestrian agent of Agrippina in for the offing of Junius Silanus ("The new reign's first death": Ann. 13.1.1). He is probably not the same person as P. Egnatius Celer, but he could be, and it is a nice touch to the epic Clemenza AU -- as Agrippina's man, Celer saw his career crash and burn when she went out of power. Not sure how he managed to insinuate himself into Soranus's friendship though. Maybe he was really shaken by what he had done to Silanus, and 'got philosophy'. But then the temptation was too much for him--
--I just realized that I am basically thinking of him as Richard Rich from Man for All Seasons, who is torn between More and Cromwell at first, but who is eventually tempted over to the Side of Evil, in spite of the fact that thanks to Hilary Mantel I am fully behind Cromwell and fully against More by now. Although, really, even though Thomas More is a Christian martyr and all that, and that he has Thomas à Becket a his primary model, the whole More mythos also has a lot in common with Seneca/Thrasea/Soranus (principled martyrs brought down by unscrupulous court politicking/impressionable tyrants). And Cromwell has a lot in common with the sort of person that Tacitus hates -- low-born, relatively few scruples, making it by being the monarch's creature, etc. -- but to whom he also often gives really good lines. Pretty sure Cromwell would be wholeheartedly on board with such comments as "I pray for good princes, but I put up with whatever I get." (Hist. 4.8.2). I'm sure Cromwell read Tacitus. I would love to read Mantel on Cromwell on Tacitus. Maybe that will happen in the third book. How great would that be? It would be AMAZING and I would squee forever.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
Pursuant to this post, here's a random 18th century French historical painting of Servilia and her father before Nero's tribunal. Picture! )
ricardienne: (tacitus)
Last night Almost two months ago I saw a college friend of mine singing Vitellia, the lead soprano role, in La Clemenza di Tito. The production was a lovely, small, bare-bones presentation that was unfortunately in a black-box theatre that was both dead and small. So you couldn't get a great tone, and it was really loud (and: of the five major roles, 4 were soprano or mezzo). But the singing was excellent, I had a good time (although my ears were ringing afterwards), and I awoke the next day with a desperate need to figure out who all the characters (who have wonderfully specific names like "Sesto" and "Publio") could plausibly be. Interestingly, there are just enough threads to pull on to construct a pretty compelling subtext out of the prosopography.
The opera, its angsty political backdrop, and a lot of Tacitus )
Three thousand and some words later -- if anyone is still reading -- what are the conclusions, apart from the fact that [livejournal.com profile] ricardienne secretly wants to write fic about this opera? I suppose, that even an extremely superficially "plotted" opera actually has a lot of historical stuff going on behind it, although I would not venture a guess as to the extent to which we should imagine that audiences could or even were intended to recognize it. And, lest you be surprised that obscure characters from Tacitus are operatically viable, a future post will deal with Rimsky-Korsakov's practically unknown historical opera Servilia, which dramatizes the events of Tacitus with the added twist that everyone becomes a Christian before dying at the end.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
1. "with merely adumbrated cheer" (Annals 4.31.2) is my new favorite phrase.

2. Things like this: "For senator Catus Firmius the same penalty [sc. exile], as having attached his sister on false charges of treason." (4.31.4)

His sister? Granted Firmius Catus is an exhibit-A slimeball in all respects, but there's a story here, and I wish we got more than a tiny adumbration of it.

Thrasea!

Apr. 8th, 2012 12:25 pm
ricardienne: (tacitus)
I finally found a bigger image of the Bronnikov "Death of Thrasea" painting:

Image Beneath Cut )

I am still unsure which of the two seated women is Arria and which is Fannia, since neither the appearance nor the attitude of either seems more plausible for a wife than for a daughter. I suspect that the standing men in the main group are Helvidius, Rusticus, and Caecilianus (again not clear which is which, though I think the one in the bordered toga must be either Helvidius or Rusticus, and that Helvidius must be either that one or the one in the yellow cloak.

One thing that Bronnikov interestingly picked up is the gender of the Thrasea-group. Tacitus sets this scene amid a "illustrium virorum feminarumque coetus frequens", and the crowd in the background appears to have 4 women and 5 men (of course, 2 of the 4 women are in visible distress (plus Arria and Fannia in the foreground), whereas the men appear to be taking it rather more manfully. But there is that one woman who seems to be part of the otherwise male discussion. One thing that interests me is the role that seems to be given to women in accounts of "the opposition" in this period, and it's nice that it's shown here.

ALSO: An 18th century German play about Thrasea. Practice my Deutsch and be amused by adaptations of Tacitus at the same time!
ricardienne: (tacitus)
So as you know, I have a thing about finding novels, the trashier the better, about Tacitus, because there really aren't that many.* And I have just found another one, a German (self-published?) YA time-travel fantasy.

As far as I can tell, it's about a young boy named Steve who, while his family is on vacation in Ephesus, gets thrown back in time to Domitian's reign, where he gets embroiled in some sort of prophecy about a mysterious child who will show the emperor how to become a god...

Anyway, "der junge Senator Tacitus" seems to be skulking around the corners quite a bit, although in at least one point he's ranting about how evil Domitian is for persecuting Christians (which makes no sense); I've been looking at the preview on Amazon, and I can't quite tell whether Domitian is affably evil and Steve is deceived about his new friend/patron's intentions, or whether Domitian is Misunderstood By The Senatorial Establishment and Tacitus is the Villain.
Hilarity Ensures )
ricardienne: (tacitus)
No seriously. This was an actual thing in a respected commentary:

Henry Furneaux, Cornelii Taciti Vita Agricola (Oxford, 1898):
ad Agr. 30.7: auferre, trucidare, rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi desertem faciunt, pacem appellant.
pacem, the ' pax gentium ' of H. 1. 84, 9, 'pax Romana' of Seneca (de Prov. 4, 14), Pliny (N. H. 27.1, 3), &c.; the peace and order established through the Roman world, which warlike and predatory races naturally abhorred. Cp. 'additis qui pacem nostram metuebant,' A. 12. 33, 2.

That's right, guys! People don't like being conquered and added to empires because THEY HATE PEACE. Trufax, as they say.

So context: this is maybe the most famous moment of the big speech of the British chieftain Calgacus as he rallies the Britons to fight (and lose, by the way) against the Roman invaders in Tacitus' biography/euology/monograph on his father-in-law. Who is the Roman general, so obviously this is a complicated and problematic set-piece on How We Need to Defend Our Freedom, and people who go around saying things like "the great Roman historian Tacitus said of empires, that they "make a desert and call it peace" are talking, so to speak, out of their hats and probably horrifying the manes of dear Publius Cornelius T. But it's long, it's complex, it's rhetorically and emotionally compelling, and it is very much part of the debate on whether/how to fight or/and comply with (bad) power that Tacitus is rather interested in, at least.

Anyway, times have really changed. Not least because, as I was rereading the speech and translating it, I couldn't help but think that it would have worked really well during WWII, with very little changed.

Here's a translation of Calgacus's speech up to that point, for the interested:
Whenever I consider the the reasons and our necessity of war, I am completely of the opinion that this day today and your alliance will be the beginning of freedom for all of Britain; for both are we devoid of the universal state of enslavement and is no land and not even the sea secure, while the Roman fleet hangs over us. So battle and to arms, which are an honorable course to the brave and the safest course even to cowards. The previous skirmishes, where the fighting against the Romans fell out with varying success, kept hope and help in our hands, because we, the noblest men of all Britain and therefore set in her innermost corner itself, since we do not see the shores of the enslaved, have kept even our eyes from violation by the miasma of arbitrary power. The remoteness and seclusion of our reputation has protected us, inhabitants of the outermost lands and freedom, until this day; (that is because since anything unknown is considered magnified.) But now the boundary of Britain lies open; no race of people further out, nothing but rivers and stones, and -- even more inhospitable -- the Romans, from whose arrogance compliance and moderation would provide you with useless avenues of escape. Rapists of the world, after there is nothing left on the land they have destroyed, they turn their gaze even to the sea; if an enemy is rich, they are greedy, if poor, then ambitious. Neither the east nor the west has sated them; they alone of all people lust with equal passion for one's wealth and one's want. Plunder, slaughter, rape get the false name "empire," and where they make a desert, they call it "peace."
ricardienne: (tacitus)
What is it with Pliny the Younger? You may remember the worst Roman mystery series ever (where Pliny was Sherlock Holmes and Tacitus was a really dim incarnation of Watson). And now there seems to be a new series by Bruce Macbain, who is a real live Ph.D. in classics: the "Plinius Secundus" mysteries. The inner flap promises that Pliny will be paired with Martial to solve the murder of a notorious delator in the last years of Domitian's terror.

I will probably do a full review/rant when I finish (and it's a fleet book), but I'm now six chapters in. There is a LOT of info-dump, to the point where it the author periodically drops his novelist persona and starts writing an introductory textbook on Flavian Rome. That said, it appears to be a decent, if not super-subtle, textbook, and Macbain is not so in love with Pliny as a modern avatar that he can't integrate him into Roman elite norms and show him as a patriarchal, self-important pompous ass. It's still a much more positive and moderate picture than just about anyone who reads Pliny's Letters comes away with.

The thing that is ridiculous about historical novels based on literary figures is that they inevitably adopt absurdly biographical readings of their work -- it's a problem I'm not entirely sure can be avoided. Nevertheless, Martial is pretty entertainingly drawn, if with a certain amount of eye-rolling "grit and realism", and I'm a little impressed that Macbain appears to be going the Roman pederasty route with one of his main characters.

There is someone who seems, dare I say, conspicuously absent from this novel, however. Tacitus, one of the more notable of Pliny's acquaintances, does not appear in the list of characters, and I'm fairly sure he won't be appearing in this mystery. What's odder, though, is that Tacitus doesn't appear anywhere in the "for further reading" afterward. Macbain recommends Cassius Dio, for crying out loud (not that there's anything wrong with Dio), but he omits Tacitus?

Now I do know that Tacitus doesn't have to be everywhere, and not everyone has to love him, and that Tacitus is inevitably going to overshadow Pliny whereever the two appear together. Furthermore, we don't have a sustained Tacitean narrative of the end of Domitian's reign. But when you have your hero pondering the question of whether "a good man can exist under a bad emperor" and justifying his own "useful obedience" with "those senators who insisted upon throwing their lives away in futile defiance," it's a little ungrateful not to acknowledge that author anywhere. I'm just sayin'.



ETA: Ultimately, a decently-balanced book. Having Martial as a cynical scrappy secondary point of view who can see through Pliny's self-delusion really helped, and Pliny, I have to say, was done really quite well as an ambitious time-server who tells himself that he is serving the public good so he doesn't have to face his share in the collective shame of serving a tyrant, &c. A few really howler-ific lines, as when Pliny muses that "anyone with a bit of philosophy knows that slavery is unnatural." There was ultimately a single reference to Tacitus, where Pliny recalls Annals 15.44 (it seems unbelievable that Tacitus would be known as a historian at all at this point, let alone be giving recitations from the Very Freaking End of his extant work, but whatever), but Tacitus continued to be pervasive: if someone hypothetically read this mystery, and was interested in Life Under Domitian (at least as the senators tell it), sure, I would advise hir to read some of Pliny's letters (the Regulus ones, the one about the hair-cutting ghost, the ones about Fannia and Arria), but the main thing to read would be the Agricola.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
This book looks terrible but awesomely so: British chieftain's son in exile/captivity in Rome hangs out with Tacitus and Titus and has adventures? Sign me up! Only it appears to be self-published and basically non-existent. Too bad.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
How could a certain violent and bitter indignation not have beset his noble mind more each day and deeply disturbed it? Who does not see that what contributed so much to the pleasing and happy style of writing, which he used as a young man, must have been altered? For this is the rule and nature of the human mind: if someone who has been enraged and savaged once achieves a moment of expounding what things anguish and oppress his mind, he will indulge his everlasting anger with voluble, outpouring speech. If on the other hand for a length of time he is forced to force in his soul's impetus, when at last the power of speaking is returned, having spent so much time in angry thoughts he will lay bare his old indignation in harsh, short, truncated, bitter turns of phrase. Tacitus, for fifteen years forced into unwilling idleness and shameful silence, oppressed and injured by exceptionally cruel rule, in which Domitian, with no intervals of time and pauses for breath, but, as it were, with a single blow drank down the commonwealth, Tacitus, who watched so great a slaughter of former consuls, so many exiles and near-escapes of the most highly-born ladies, drenched as if with "the blood of innocent Senecio," in mental suffering and anguish spent a life full and packed with continuous anger and indignation.

For which reason it is not strange at all that he, when he finally began to compose "the memory of prior servitude and witness of present goods," the ability to speak freely finally restored, he was unable to revive that blooming and luxuriant, copious and even style in which he had flourished as a young man, just as a field injured and stricken down by continuous rains does not resurrect its earlier original and luxuriant growth, especially when it had begun to put up rich and frequent ears of grain. Such a style no longer fit his stricken, afflicted, embittered soul; he was almost unable to use another style than the one he did: short and vigorous, sometimes harsh and bitter.

Quare fieri non poterat, quin dolor quidam vehemens et acerbus nobilem eius animum in diem magis occuparet et penitus perturbaret. Quod quantum valuerit ad gratum illud ac laetum diceudi genus, quo iuvenis usus erat, immutandum, quis non videt? Nam haec est animi humani ratio ac natura, ut, si quis iratus ac lacessitus statim nanciscatur occasionem aperiendi, quae animum angant et premant, oratione volubili, profluente, perenni irae indulgeat, si vero per quoddam tempus ad animi impetum coercendum cogatur, oblata tandem libere loquendi potestate, diu in cogitationibus iracundis versatus, indignationem inveteratam patefaciat sententiis asperis, brevibus, abruptis, acerbis. Per quindecim annos Tacitus ad invitam desidiam et turpe silentium coactus, durissimo imperio pressus ac vexatus, quo Domitianus non per intervalla et spiramenta temporum sed continuo et velut uno ictu rem publicam exhausit, tot consularium caedes, tot nobilissimarum feminarum exsilia et fugas intuitus, innocenti Senecionis sanguine quasi perfusus, vitam degerat animi dolore et angore, continua ira ac indignatione plenam ac refertam. Quare minime mirum, eum, cum recuperata tandem libere loquendi facultate „memoriam prioris servitutis et testimonium praesentium bonorum" componere inciperet, redintegrare non potuisse floridum illud ao laetum, numerosum et aequabile dicendi genus, quo iuvenis viguerat, sicut continuis imbribus vexata et prostrata seges non ad priorem integrum laetumque florem resurgit, cum praesertim uberes iam et frequentes spicas conceperit. Animo eius concusso, exacerbato, indignato talis sermo non amplius conveniebat; uti potuit oratione non fere alia, quam qua usus est, brevi et nervosa, interdum aspera et acerba. --De Tacito Dialogi Auctore, Johann Andreas Heinrich Gerard Jansen (Gronigen: 1878), 69-70
ricardienne: (tacitus)
It never ceases to amuse me that Tacitus literally *does not* call a spade a spade.

The only upside of having signed up for an article presentation in German (it was stupid, yes) is that I get to read pages and pages of 19th century German squee about Tacitus. That, I can get behind.


To be sure this style (the charming and comfortable style of Herodotus, Xenophon, and Livy) has its own great advantages. However, history contains greater themes which it is able to fulfill with difficulty. Powerful struggles, enormous vicissitudes of great individuals and whole nations, the irrepressible passions that wrestle with one another -- these will, if we are to be wholly aware of them, have to be portrayed in a different style than one whose primary aim is to amuse us. The greatest historians of antiquity are above all aware of these stronger themes: Thucydides, Sallust, and Tacitus, and one can say that their greatness lies even in this awareness. They discerned that the task of history was not to amuse, but to apprehend and to ravish, and to impart to the reader the same powerful movement that roars in the life of history." --Nipperdey, Die Antike Historiographie

Who writes semnôs (=with solemnity), he writes first of all in an high style. In all of ancient literature, which indeed until the time of its decline bore an aristocratic exclusivity, there was no writer (with just possibly Thucydides excepted), who wrote so thoroughly in a high register as Tacitus. "I hate everything that is common" sounds around us on every side. He never descends to the level of his reader, he insists that one come to him, but he makes it difficult: he disdains to insert pleasant digressions for the amusement of the reader; there are indeed a few digressions, but they do not serve pleasure, being rather, as in Thucydides and Sallust, political or cultural-historical or personal (especially Annals 4.32) in content.--Eduard Norden, Die Antike Kunstprosa
ricardienne: (tacitus)
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Why would I not choose Tacitus, right?

Perhaps it would benefit me to blog my livejournal Tacitean.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
Or: this poetry is really bad, right? (I was going to post the whole thing, but it goes on forever, so here are the highlights, as it were)
Thrasea
Henry Sewell Stokes

Of Paetus Thrasea no bust remains,
But in the graphic page of Tacitus
He lives and moves, and still before us stands
Amid the Senate—still his earnest voice.
Though few and terse his words, is eloquent;
And now, as on the World's great theatre,
In the most awful drama of all time
We see and hear him his high part sustain ;
Dauntless as Brutus, but unstain'd with blood,
And worthy to be Cato's countryman.

And yet he seldom comes upon the state.. )

I can't imagine anyone actually reading this all the way through.
ricardienne: (tacitus)
A year or so ago, I dozed off during the Heiligedankesang during a performance of Beethoven's op. 132, and had one of those dreams where you can still hear everything going on around you. It was a dream about Tacitus at Agricola's death-bed.

Anyway, that movement always moves me to tears, as does Thrasea's death-scene in the Annals. iTunes brought them together just now, and now I certainly am not going to be able to disassociate Heiligedankesang from this sort of thing. (Also: I am reading someone's dissertation, which goes sort of the opposite direction from what I'm doing, but makes me wish I weren't. Because, damn it, I *WANT* subversive!Tacitus. I'm just not convinced that he's there.)
ricardienne: (tacitus)
And by 'out', I mean both "out" and "into a more reasonable, and less ancient-texts-and-their-biases mindset toward revisionist historians." (Now how hilarious is that, considering my username?)

But this (Annals XVI.28, semi oratio recta'd by yours truly) makes me quite upset and angry:
"The Emperor's former leniency has been diminished by insult. Until today, the senate has been far too mild, allowing Thrasea to get away with his seccession unpunished, allowing his son-in-law Helvidius Priscus in the same frenzy, and at the same time Paconius Agrippa, heir to family hatred against the principes, and Curtius Montanus, always making offensive verses.

We would ask for a consular in the senate, a priest in the sacrifices, a citizen in swearing the oath, had Thrasea not shown himself an open traitor and and an enemy against our institutions and rites of our ancestors. In short, let him come accustomed to play the senator and protect the emperor's critics: will would more easily endure him harping at particulars than we now endure his silence, condemning everything.

Is it peace throughout the world or victories without the cost of armies that displeases him? Let's not put a man in possession of perverse ambition, who is grieved at public good and who considers markets, theatres, temples a desert; who threatenes his own exile. These councils are not for him, nor these offices or the Roman City. Let him break off his life away from that state whose affection he has long ago discarded, and whose sight he now has.


"It wasn't my fault,* and besides, I suffered just as much from my friendship with the tyrant as you all did from your enmity." Like hell you did, Eprius Marcellus.

*Probably true, actually. Except, you know, for the other three people he dragged in, who weren't part of this until this accusation (per Tacitus at least; not the most reliable source, but I don't think it helps to say "well, they probably wouldn't have been accused in the first place if they hadn't been guilty of something!" [I'm looking at you, R.S. Rogers & Co.!]).
ricardienne: (Default)
I came across an awesome epigram today: Tacite vous apprend à vous taire et à vous tuer. Why is it awesome? Because when you think about it: what the heck does it actually mean? In what way is it even true? (I mean, apart from the obvious, that after reading all the way through the Annals, you will have amassed a large repertory of ways to kill yourself, from poison, to starvation, to open veins ± bath, to stabbing, to having someone else do the stabbing, to making them kill you, to throwing a party and draining a little blood out periodically over the course of the evening...)
But it sounds so convincing and authoritative.

Also, I read a very silly article whining about Livy falsifying history, but it did lead me to this very cute passage:

[Fabius Maximus Cunctator, (a great general, former dictator, war hero, etc.)] came to the camp in Suessula as a legate to his son[, the consul]. The son happened to be going out and his lictors, in modesty of his state, were preceding him silently, when the old man was traveling up on horseback. When the consul ordered the nearest lictor to take notice, and he in turn shouted out that he should descend from the horse, the old man said, only then dismounting: "I wanted to find out for myself, son, whether you knew well enough that you were a consul."(XII.44)


Awwww. Ancient Romans are so adorable when they get hung up over precedence.
ricardienne: (Default)
I CAN'T BELIEVE THERE IS A LACUNA RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF PRISCUS'S SPEECH TO VESPASIAN. Seriously, of all the places to lose something.

Vitellius

Jan. 17th, 2009 12:06 am
ricardienne: (Default)
I think, in the contest of amazingly oblivious stupidity among emperors, Vitellius has to win. (There are only a few more days in which such potshots can be gleefully taken, but whoever is prone to compare Bush to Nero or Caligula should reconsider.) First, he makes a proclamation about the religious ceremonies for a day that has been in auspicious for centuries. Merely stupid, I suppose. But then:
It happened that Helvidius Priscus the Praetor-designate made a proposal against his wishes. Vitellius, at first quite upset, nevertheless called for nothing more than the tribunes of plebs as an aid to his scorned power. Then, with his friends trying to soften him, as they feared that his anger was deeper, he answered that it was nothing unusual that two senators in a republic should disagree: he himself had been accustomed to speak against even Thrasea [Paetus]. Many mocked the effrontery of this emulation [aemulatio]; others were pleased by the very fact that he had not chosen one of the most powerful men, but Thrasea, for an exemplar of true glory.


I am still trying to work out what is going on at the end of that. Roughly: (1) V. tries to use his own disagreement the Only Principled Senator of the Neronian Age as an example of normal senatorial disagreement. It is ludicrous because to brag about opposing Thrasea Paetus is to brag about being an unprincipled syncophant.
(2) V. is invoking the context of (at least one of his instances of) disagreement with Thrasea -- the case of whether or not to execute the entire household of slaves in case of murder (annals 14.49). Th. was on the more liberal side here, and V. is claiming to have been more strict and more committed to the mos maiorum, by virtue of having disagreed on the side of strictness with Thrasea Paetus, he of the unpleasant "schoolmasterly sternness." It is ludicrous because it is a gross twisting of what is most inappropriate for a senator (syncophancy, what V. actually displayed) into what is appropriate(?) (rigid refusal to compromise on matters of law).
(3) While the second group appears to miss the point, they do get that someone with whom Vitellius disagreed must be quite a paragon of principle, given how depraved V. is.
(4) Nero is the big elephant in the curia, here. Because Thrasea's proper counterpart is Nero, to match Priscus and V. now.
ricardienne: (Default)
I finally found a copy of All Roads Lead to Murder for a price I was willing to pay (read: v. cheap). Given how awful the title is, I wasn't too optimistic, and yet... Pliny and Tacitus solve murders! And the author is a semi-legit scholar (PhD, a few articles on Pliny in respectable journals on JSTOR), so how bad can it be?

The answer, one chapter in, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, is very. First, the writing is bad: unprofessionally awkward and clunky, full of "as you know, Bob Publius" info-dumping. Secondly, and I am trying not to be judgmental here from a modern liberal perspective, or a pedantic Romans-actually-weren't-like-that perspective, or a Tacitus-fangirl perspective, but perhaps it is clear that there are issues in all of these areas.

I know that Pliny always gets the short end of the Pliny/Tacitus duo because on the one hand, the greatest historian ever of Rome, and keen observer-critic of Power and Dissimulation and Realpolitik; on the other, lots of letters of a nice Roman gentleman about how nice and gentlemanly he is. (Also the Panegyric, which doesn't exactly endear him to anyone). And obviously, that isn't completely fair. BUT, making Pliny out to be the superior intellect and deeper ethical thinker just doesn't work. In fact, it's ludicrous, and annoys me, and, insofar as one might want to base these characters on their literary representations on themselves (not that one should, at all), isn't true to what Pliny depicts of their relationship. And the author's note notes that the model for this relationship was Holmes and Watson. Um. Actually, I don't think that I can argue this rationally, because my argument does come down to: "no, but Tacitus was the intellectually superior one!"

And then there is this weird business where Tacitus has bisexual proclivities, and since Pliny does not approve of either homosexuality or marital infidelity (nb as of yet, T. has not actually propositioned P., but has just made passes at pretty slave boys and women, which it seems is nearly as bad; obviously, I am holding out for the former, because if you are going to make a big deal about this kind of thing, you might as well go all the way), this is the source of some tension between the two friends. At which point, two things came to mind: (1) The author is an ordained Baptist minister, and teaches at a small Christian college, neither of which *should* be meaningful, and yet... (2) seriously, would Pliny have been likely to care about this?

Also, the plot seems to revolve around a slave girl (T. has yet to seduce here, but I'm only a few chapters in) and an abusive master, and so far Pliny has been flipping between a very modern-compassionate "slaves are people too means you shouldn't beat them" and a Roman "this is not my business." I'm afraid it won't end well. But consistency is the least of the problems I'm finding, I suppose.

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