Style of Tacitus

From Stuart, Duane Reed. 1909. Tacitus: The Agricola. New York: Macmillan. Pp. xix-xxv.

As the Agricola, notwithstanding its biographical form, contains the first premonitions of the works that have assigned to Tacitus for all time historian as his characteristic title, so stylistically the work marks a beginning. The earlier Dialogus was modeled consciously on the manner of Cicero, whose style was regarded by a school of Tacitus's contemporaries as the embodiment of correct rhetorical theory. In the four later works Tacitus discarded the Ciceronian idea and developed the unique medium of expression with which his name is associated par excellence.

The principles on which this style was based were not evolved by Tacitus. During the first century of the Empire, in the rhetorical schools and among literary (xx) craftsmen, there had been forming a movement away from the style of the Golden Age with its parallelism and symmetry in construction and in diction, its formalism in syntax, its utilization of the periodic sentence, its restraint in expression. The adherents of the New Style favored variety in expression above regularity, brevity and condensation above the developed sentence and the long period. By way of diversifying the monotony of classical syntax innovations suggested by the Greek and by the usage of the poets were received into prose. Similarly poetic words and turns of expression established themselves in the prose vocabulary. The effect on the reader was ever uppermost in the mind of the writer. There was constant striving to stir admiration and to retain interest. To these ends a plentiful use of epigrams, sententious sayings, and graphic descriptions contributed.

In the course of the thorough rhetorical training which Tacitus enjoyed he had of course become familiar with all the prevalent doctrines. He was therefore fitted to pick and choose a style in which to write his narrative works. It was quite in keeping with the canons of ancient taste that an author should adopt an established style which he might deem appropriate to his work in preference to writing as his personality might inspire him. However, a master mind does not pay absolute fealty to a system — and a master mind Tacitus was. In practice he leaned toward the innovative tendencies of his day as we have described them. Nevertheless he was not dominated by them. He took the elements which lay ready to his hand, worked them over in the crucible of his individuality, and so produced ultimately a creation of his own genius.

Of the extant works the Agricola, as has been said, was (xxi) the first essay in the style which we regard as typically Tacitean. Critical study, to be sure, reveals certain differences in diction and in usage between the Agricola and the longer works. During the fifteen years of literary work that followed the composition of the biography, the style of Tacitus underwent various modifications. This is a law of stylistic evolution. In the Agricola Tacitus was feeling his way; he had not yet acquired the sure touch exhibited in the Annals. Furthermore some of the rhetorical features peculiar to the Agricola are due to the fact that the book was written, as was the Dialogus, under the influence of a literary model. However, there had been a change of masters. Sallust had been substituted for Cicero. Lastly, traces of Tacitus's scholastic training in rhetoric are still visible in the Agricola. Witness the frequent recurrence of pairs of synonyms such as incensum ac flagrantem 4.3; indecorus atque humilis 16.4; fictum ac compositum 40.2; celebritate et frequentia 40.3. Examples are numerous. This device suggests the efforts of the pleader to drive home his argument by means of emphatic redundancy. The last chapter of the Agricola has an oratorical coloring which the eulogistic character of the piece naturally justifies.

Nevertheless, after due allowance has been made for its local stylistic features, the Agricola still displays clearly the characteristic qualities which differentiate so unmistakably the style of Tacitus from that of the other prose writers hitherto encountered by the student. Before all else there is evident that penchant for succinctness of statement that became with Tacitus a fine art. The desire for brevity often led him to compress his thought to the point of obscurity. In such contexts as 5.1 rudimenta (xxii) ... adprobavit; 21.2 ingenia Britannorum studiis Gallorum anteferre, he places on the reader the brunt of discovering the real meaning of the sentence. Ellipsis of the forms of sum is more affected by him than by the writers of the classical period; e.g. 6.4 idem praeturae tenor et silentium; 16.3 discordia laboratum; 26.2 donec pulsi hostes. Other verbs, easily supplied from the context, are occasionally omitted, as in 15.1 accendere: [nam dicebat]; 19.2 nihil per libertos ... [egit]; 33.1 agmina et armorum fulgores ... [apparebant]. The generic noun is commonly omitted with the genitive and the ablative of description, as in 4.1 Iulius Graecinus [vir] senatorii ordinis; 4.2 Procilla fuit [mulier] rarae castitatis.

The complicated period so characteristic of Livy is not so highly favored by Tacitus. There is a noticeable inclination for short, independent sentences, which is especially apparent in some of the descriptive chapters of the Agricola and in the inserted speeches. This device imparts to the narrative tenseness and onward sweep, effects which are often heightened by a sparing use of connectives. Compare the following passages: 12.5; 13.2; 15.2; 24.2. Asyndeton is strikingly common. Note by way of example, 12.5 tarde mitescunt, cito proveniunt; 20.2 multus in agmine, laudare modestiam, disiectos coercere: 30.5 auferre, trucidare, rapere; 36.3 vagi currus, exterriti . . . equi. Another favorite device of Tacitus for securing economy of expression is zeugma, which is in its usual form the "yoking" together of two different nouns by a verb logically appropriate to one only. In the later works the historian went to great lengths in this direction. We meet in the Agricola such instances (xxiii) as 3.1 nec spem modo ac votum securitas publica, [conceperit] sed ... fiduciam ac robur adsumpserit; 31.2 neque ... metalla aut portus sunt, quibus exercendis reservemur (exercendis is strictly applicable to metalla only); boldest of all — if the text be correct — is 45.1 nos Maurici Rusticique visus [foedavit], nos innocenti sanguine Senecio perfudit.

Tacitus cherished an especial antipathy toward conventional phraseology. He was constantly going out of his way to vary current modes of expression, to put things in different fashion from what the reader was anticipating. This tendency led him to shift from one construction to another, as in 9.4 ostentanda virtute aut per artem; 41.2 temeritate aut per ignaviam ducum; to indulge in such unexpected combinations of abstract and concrete as 25.1 mixti copiis et laetitia and 37.5 nox et satietas; to avoid using stock formulae by resorting to new coinages, such as 6.4 ludos . . . duxit for ludos fecit and 37.3 terga praestare instead of terga praebere. The technical term for this quality of style which is so much in evidence in the writings of Tacitus inconcinnity.

Tacitus shared the taste of his day for epigram and pithy saying. He kept, however, within artistic bounds and did not overreach himself in an effort to sparkle in every sentence. Hence, he escaped the pitfalls which caught many of his contemporaries in whom the sententious too often degenerates into the banal, the original into the overwrought. The books of Tacitus are full of effective phrases and turns of expression which lend themselves to quotation. Some of these, such as 30.5 ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant and 42.3 proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris, have become part of (xxiv) the common heritage of literature. Tacitus has a notable way of closing a chapter with a sentence which rings in the ear of the reader and brings the context to a fitting climax. For illustration may be noted 15.5 porro in eius modi consiliis periculosius esse deprehendi quam audere; 21.2 idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur cum pars servitutis esset. Rhetorical effects are constantly heightened by the use of antithesis and alliteration; compare 5.3 nec minus periculum ex magna fama quam ex mala; 16.4 seditio sine sanguine stetit; 41.4 simul suis virtutibus, simul vitiis aliorum; 46.4 multos veterum velut inglorios et ignobilis oblivio obruit.

For much of the distinctive color of his style Tacitus is indebted to poetry. Vergil was his favorite poet, and the influence of the "Mantuan" is often in evidence in the narrative works. In the Agricola, quibus cruda ac viridis senectus 29.4 is an indubitable reminiscence of Aeneid 6.304 sed cruda deo viridisque senectus; femina duce 16.1 and et aliquando etiam victis ira virtusque 37.3 may be echoes of dux femina facti, Aeneid 1.364 and 2.367 quondam etiam victis redit in praecordia virtus. Many examples of poetic parlance in Tacitus are not due to deliberate requisition upon some one poet. From the time of Livy on the usages of the great poets were continually being incorporated into prose. Tacitus thus often utilized modes of expression that had been originally struck out by the poets, but had in time become part and parcel of the literary language of the Silver Age. Poetic usage manifests itself in the Agricola in such words as 14.3 rebellibus; 27.1 magniloqui; 31.1 annus in the sense of annona; 38.1 pignorum; in the frequent use of metaphorical phraseology, as illustrated by 18.2 transvecta (xxv) aestas; 36.2 miscere ictus; 38.2 spargi bellum; in such personifications as 22.1 annus . . . aperuit; 38.2 dies faciem victoriae . . . aperuit; in a few constructions such as 8.1 the infinitive with peritus; 43.3 securus followed by a genitive; 45.4 the local ablative animo without a preposition.