Tacitus' Style (as an instrument of thought)

 

Tacitus is one of the great prose stylists to write in Latin.36 Indeed, to be able to read him in the original is held by some to be in itself sufficient justification ‘to believe that learning Latin is worthwhile.’37 But readers of Tacitus weaned on Ciceronian Latin are in for a disquieting experience. While it is important to bear in mind F. R. D. Goodyear’s point that Tacitean style is protean (both across his oeuvre and within a single work) and his writings constitute an ‘endless experiment with his medium, the discontent with and reshaping of what had been achieved before, the obsessive restlessness of a stylist never satisfied that he had reached perfection’, it is nevertheless possible to identify some pervasive features that are also amply on display in the set text.38

(a) Where Cicero aims for fullness of expression (copia verborum), the name of Tacitus’ game is brevity (brevitas), not least in how he deploys ellipsis and asyndeton. As Ronald Syme puts it, ‘The omission of words and connectives goes to ruthless extremes for the sake of speed, concentration, and antithesis; and stages in a sequence of thought or action are suppressed, baffling translation (but not hard to understand).’39

(b) Whereas Cicero’s diction tends to be conservative, Tacitus delights in the unusual lexical choice.40

(c) Cicero takes pride in balance and symmetry; Tacitus goes for disjunctive varietas. His ‘studied avoidance of syntactical balance and the pursuit of asymmetry’ is in evidence throughout the set text and noted in the commentary.41

(d) One particular Tacitean technique of throwing syntactical symmetry off-balance is to unsettle ‘the relationship and respective weight of main clauses and subordinate clauses.’42 As Ronald Martin put it: ‘[Tacitus] makes use, far more than any other Latin writer, of sentences in which the main clause is completed early and the centre of gravity is displaced to appended, syntactically subordinate, elements.’43 The first sentence of the set text (15.20.1) is an excellent case in point.

(e) More generally, Cicero and Tacitus differ in their deployment of irony – which advances to something of a master-trope in Tacitus. O’Gorman defines irony as ‘a mode of speaking which establishes an unquantifiable distinction between a statement and “its” meaning’ and adds an important clarification: ‘A crude definition of an ironic statement would define the meaning as opposite to what is said, but it is better to conceive of the meaning of an ironic statement as different from what is said, not exclusively or even necessarily its opposite.’44 She aptly calls on Cicero, who equates irony with dissimulation (de OratoreOn the Ideal Orator 2.269):45

Urbana etiam dissimulatio est, cum alia dicuntur ac sentias, non illo genere, de quo ante dixi, cum contraria dicas, ut Lamiae Crassus, sed cum toto genere orationis severe ludas, cum aliter sentias ac loquare.

Irony, that is, saying something different from what you think, is also elegant and witty. I don’t mean the kind I mentioned earlier, saying the exact opposite (as Crassus did to Lamia), but being mock-serious in your whole manner of speaking, while thinking something different from what you are saying.

As O’Gorman puts it: ‘Irony depends upon the divergence in sense between utterance (quae dicuntur) and the unsaid (quae sentias). But the nature of the unsaid is indeterminable; all we know about it is that it is aliud – other than what is uttered.’46 In the case of irony in Cicero’s orations, however, it is often rather obvious what Cicero thinks, even if it is not what he says: an orator, after all, relies on his eloquence to produce tangible results (a verdict of innocence or guilt, a decision on a matter of policy) and therefore must communicate what he means. Also, for an ironic utterance to be witty, both meanings, the stated and the implied, must resonate simultaneously. In contrast, Tacitus’ use of irony is more opaque. And indeed he often leaves it unstated of what precisely he means – even if we realize that authoritative irony is in play: in his works, irony is not a local phenomenon, applied for special effect – it is an ubiquitous feature of his narrative and authorial voice, the counterpart to his claim to be in ruthless pursuit of the truth. In Cicero, irony is an occasional figure of speech; in Tacitus, it is a pervasive mode of critique.

This leads to a more general consideration: as with his resourceful manipulation of genre, style in Tacitus is a formal instrument of thought – an essential aspect of how he defines his authorial voice. His style ought to be embraced as a means and a medium of political commentary.47 It enacts his interpretation of history: it is as dark, difficult, and fractured as the world in pieces he sets out to describe. If the empire struck, Tacitus strikes back – often with a dark sense of humour, manifesting itself in ‘arch wit, appalled satire, sleazy innuendo, surreal coincidence …’48

In part, Tacitus thereby addresses the problem of authenticity. How do you develop an authentic voice on subject matter suffused with fraud and deceit? How do you avoid your own authorial project, your own rhetoric becoming subsumed by the imperial vices you set out to chronicle and expose? One way is to deploy irony to shift and hide. As a result, coming up with the definitive interpretation of Tacitus is a bit like trying to find a stable position in quicksand. Or, as Henderson puts it, ‘he’ll never be caught with his rhetorical trousers down, his work is ironized beyond anything so crude. Instead, his text writes in “anti-language”, held always just beyond reach of secure reading, recuperative comprehension, not a “story” but a deadly serious challenge to think out, re-think and be out-thought by “the consular historian”.’49

Footnotes

36 Our discussion in this section draws above all on Martin (1981), Henderson (1998), O’Gorman (2000), and Oakley (2009b).

37 Woodman (2009b) 14.

38 Goodyear (2012) 369.

39 Syme (1958) 347.

40 Martin (1981) 214–15.

41 Martin (1981) 220.

42 O’Gorman (2000) 3.

43 Martin (1981) 221.

44 O’Gorman (2000) 11.

45 O’Gorman (2000) 11; we give the translation of J. M. May and J. Wisse, Cicero On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore), New York and Oxford 2001.

46 O’Gorman (2000) 11.

47 See O’Gorman (2000) 2: ‘The formal structures of Tacitus’ prose embody a political judgement of the principate. Tacitean style can be seen as the manifestation in narrative of a particular historical understanding, one which is integrally linked to a senatorial view of the principate.’

48 John Henderson, per litteras.

49 Henderson (1998) 260–61.

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