Tacitus /

edited by Cynthia Damon

Style and Rhetoric

[[NB. Footnote numbers (in square brackets) differ from those in the print edition, where a new series begins on each page. References to ancient texts are given here in modern form. Lower case Roman numerals (in round brackets) indicate the page number in the print edition.]]

Tacitus is not only the greatest historian whom Rome produced, but he is also one of the greatest stylistic artists in the world's literature.

Equipped with the most thorough rhetorical training which his time afforded (and without such, it must be remembered, no ancient author, least of all in the post-Augustan age, could hope for recognition or an abiding renown), Tacitus began his career as a writer with the brilliant Dialogus de oratoribus. This exhibits the youthful author still completely under the spell of the exuberant diction of Cicero, a return to whose style Quintilian, Tacitus's great teacher, advocated with lifelong enthusiasm, to offset the corrupting influence of Seneca. Nearly twenty years were to elapse before Tacitus broke the silence imposed by the despotism of Domitian with the publication of the Agricola. The great difference which confronts us in the style of the two treatises is easily accounted for, but only one of the causes[54] calls for special mention here. The exigencies of artistic prose imperatively demanded a distinctly different treatment for each species of literary composition, a history, an encomium, a speech, or a letter exhibiting a stylistic type peculiarly distinct. Now, when Tacitus designed the Agricola, he conformed to existing rhetorical canons for the βασιλικὸς λόγος, or biographical eulogy, as we have seen, but for its stylistic framework he selected as his model the historian Sallust.[55] And certainly Sallust's ‘immortal swiftness,’ his epigrammatic directness and general sty- (xxv) listic originality, may well have exerted a powerful attraction upon a mind such as Tacitus's. But, at the same time, he seems to have been captivated by the nobility of Vergilian diction. In the Histories and Annals he to some extent emancipated himself from the style of Sallust, but the influence of the great poet never waned, remaining conspicuously in evidence in all his works.

In the Agricola these two streams still blend in happy harmony, producing a style as far removed from the ‘milky richness’ of the Dialogus as it is from the succinctness of expression in the Histories, or the still greater conciseness of the Annals. But a man of such literary gifts as Tacitus is never a mere imitator, and hence we find that certain features characteristic of his mature and developed style already appear in the Agricola, his earliest treatise of an historical character. The most noteworthy of these are a straining for the utmost brevity, which occasionally resulted in obscurity, and a deliberate avoidance of the commonplace, the trite, or formulaic, which led him to coin new expressions, or to give a novel turn to old ones.

The following survey aims to give in a conveniently tabulated form a collection of the most interesting stylistic and rhetorical features met with in this treatise.[56]



[54] On the others, see Introd. to Dialogus, pp. xi.-xvii.

[55] Ann. 3.30.2 he is called rerum Romanarum florentissimus auctor, with which estimate Martial, Tacitus's contemporary, fully agrees. See 14.191 Primus Romana Crispus in historia.

[56] Further comment, whenever called for, as well as a discussion of the syntactical peculiarities, will be found in the commentary.

Article Nav
Citation Block