Rhiannon Ash Meets... Tacitus

The perfect companion for dinner? Ninety nine people out of a hundred would probably choose not Tacitus himself, but one of his larger than life imperial creations – the warped performance artist Nero or the dashing but dangerous prince Germanicus. It would definitely be intriguing to ask them what they made of Tacitus’ portraits of them and to hear their side of the story. 

Yet Tacitus is the one for me. This is the uniquely talented operator who managed somehow to flourish under Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian when so many others fell by the wayside. Simultaneously insider and outsider, exquisitely witty and sharp-eyed, through his vivid powers of imagination he brings to life whole scenes which he never himself witnessed.

Think of the extraordinary death of Tiberius (Annals 6.50), where the canny old emperor apparently expires, only to reanimate himself briefly, just as Caligula is being congratulated by adoring courtiers – they all promptly scatter when the awkward news breaks that Tiberius is not in fact dead.

Or Tigellinus’ fabulously transgressive dinner party, complete with floating pontoon, birds and wild beasts from far-flung lands, and the banks packed with illustrious ladies and naked prostitutes. After dark circumiecta tecta consonare cantu et luminibus clarescere, 'the surrounding houses resounded with singing and shone with lights’. What extraordinary Latin: the historic infinitives arranged chiastically capture the noise and lights, assaulting our own senses as alliteration, including an elegant ‘echo’ effect delivered through homoioteleuton, aptly mirrors the noisy revelry (Annals 15.37).

Tacitus is of course a ruthless manipulator of Latin. Most memorably, he pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of the short-lived Galba, omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset, ‘by everyone’s agreement [he was] capable of being emperor – if he had not held power’ (Histories 1.49.4). This is vintage Tacitus, as an apparent compliment in the apodosis is transformed into a caustic and cutting coda in the protasis.  

What would we talk about at dinner? I would ask whether having a short-lived disabled brother (Pliny Natural History 7.76) later made you more sensitive to greedy self-serving men in positions of power who squandered their advantages to the detriment of the vulnerable people they were supposed to protect. I would ask what you ended up doing with those famous letters of Pliny the Younger about the eruption of Vesuvius (Pliny Epistle 6.16, 6.20). Did you rewrite the whole scene in the Histories so that Pliny the Elder was less of an epic hero?

I am sure too that we would talk about emperors. Do you agree with people who suggest that your portrait of Tiberius is shaped by your own experiences under Domitian? Or is it (as I suspect) far more complicated than that? I also want to know what happened to you. How long did you survive under Hadrian? How strange it is that you brought so many death-scenes to life, but your own final years are completely shrouded in mystery. Finally, I would want to know whether you were perturbed about me poring over your writings all this time later – a person whose distant ancestors were among those confronting Suetonius Paulinus on Anglesey in AD 61, including women: in modum Furiarum ueste ferali, crinibus disiectis faces praeferebant,‘in funereal clothing and with tumbling hair, they were flourishing firebrands in the manner of Furies’ (Annals 14.30.1).

Finally, what if you offered to bring a little something with you to dinner as a present? Forget that bottle of Falernian wine (‘the only wine that catches fire when a flame is applied to it’, Pliny the Elder Natural History 14.63). Please could you bring a signed copy of the books from the Annals where you cover Caligula’s principate? Now that would really make my evening.

Rhiannon Ash is a Fellow and Tutor at Merton College, Oxford.