Usages of the Past in Roman Historiography

The Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University


Exit Pursued by a Bear: Tacitus' Nero, Agrippina, and the Dramatic Turn

Prof. Rhiannon Ash, Oxford

What does it mean when a notorious incident from the past is presented to us in a historical narrative as if it were the finale of a staged drama unfolding before our very eyes? Is a historian's credibility compromised when 'real life' is given a dramatic fictionalised turn in this way? Is this misusing the past? This paper will consider Tacitus’ extraordinary narrative of the death of Agrippina the Younger in AD59 (Annals 14.1-13), particularly the infamous incident of the collapsing boat, to see how he exploits dramatic aspects in his account and to consider what this reveals about his 'usages of the past'.

The boundary between ancient historiography and poetry was notoriously permeable (Quintilian called history proxima poetis, 10.1.31) and historical narratives had an established relationship with staged historical dramas in the form of the fabula praetexta. Indeed, Agrippina's death is also narrated by the chorus in the pseudo-Senecan Octauia (309-76), although the playwright's presentation diverges from Tacitus' version in important ways. This paper will compare the two accounts in detail and analyse how such differences illuminate Tacitus's historiographical techniques.

Principatus ac libertas!? Tacitus, the past and the principate of Traianus

Prof. Kai Ruffing, Kassel

Principatus ac libertas is a well-known quote from Tacitus’ Agricola. Tacitus’ conceptualization of freedom and its relation to autocracy of Roman emperors has provoked a lot of scholarly interest. An example for this interest is the recently published monograph ‘History after Liberty’ written by Thomas E. Strunk, who takes a stand the much-debated question on Tacitus’ personal political views (monarchist vs. republican). The aim of this paper is to show that Tacitus used the past in order to act as a supporter of the new regime established after the murder of Domitianus. In order to do so, firstly Tacitus’ description and staging of the past emperors will be sketched in its relationship to his own present. Then the autocratic structures of Traianus’ principate will be discussed shortly in order to demonstrate that its autocratic structures were much more pronounced than in the time before.


Settling the Margins: Myth and Migration in the Roman Historical Digression

Dr. Kyle Khellaf, Yale

Ancient historiography is replete with digressions that transport the reader from the primary narrative to the plupast in order to provide an aetiology for upcoming historical conflicts. Many of these digressions deal extensively with questions of migration, settlement, and intercultural contact and conflict. In this paper, I examine several instances of this discursive “mobile memory” in Roman historiography: Sallust’s African Ethnography (Iug. 17-19), Diodorus Siculus’ Celtic ethnography (5.24-32), and Livy’s Gallo-Etruscan digression (5.33.2-35.3). I am particularly keen on exploring the significance of Hercules as a recurring exemplar for wandering, intercultural civic foundation, and intersectional identity politics in these narrative excursions.


Livy’s Faliscan schoolmaster (5.26-7)

Prof. Christina S. Kraus, Yale

The account of the schoolmaster who betrays Falerii to the Romans during the course of the central Italian wars in 396 BCE has generally been treated as a typical example of Livian exemplary storytelling.  A “triumph of Roman values over Greek,” it reflects the surrounding grand narratives in which Rome is confronted first with Etruria, and then with Gaul, conflicts which test Roman systems of leadership, justice, and virtus. This paper will consider the episode instead in its relation to its immediate narrative context, suggesting that Livy (characteristically) problematizes those Roman systems as he explores the intersections of lofty and slender historiographical themes.


Sensing the Republic in Tacitus

Prof. Ellen O’Gorman, Bristol

In the preface to his Annals, Tacitus evokes the gap between Republic and Principate with the words quotus quisque reliquus, qui rem publicam vidisset? This paper will explore the different ways in which experiencing the Republic can be understood in visual terms, and what the consequences of these are. For Tacitus, these different ways of ‘sensing’ configure different attitudes towards the past, whether the past of the Republic (Annals) or of the reign of Domitian (Agricola).


No dim Spaniards: Numantia, the Caudine Forks, and the (late) making of Marcus Furius Camillus’ legal armoury

Dr. Ulrike Roth, Edinburgh

The paper demonstrates the dependence of the constitutional aspect of Camillus’ interference in the Romano-Gallic ransom exchange in (traditionally) 390 BC on two later events, and proposes a terminus post quem for the invention of Camillus’ ‘legal armoury’ of 136 BC. The question thus raised is why it was important to attach this legal armoury to this Roman hero in the late Republic.


Grief and Genre: The Mourning of Tiberius

Dr. Johan Vekselius, Lund

This contribution compares literary representations of Tiberius in a range of episodes (the mourning of Augustus, Drusus the Elder, Germanicus, Drusus the Younger, Livia) represented in different genres (historiography, bibliography, consolations poetry, inscriptions). Descriptions of Tiberius’ mourning represent an interplay between “historical” behaviors and attitudes, sociocultural norms, generic conventions, and the opinion of audiences and authors. During a formative period, both Tiberius and authors struggled to conceptualize the Princeps' role through his mourning. Tiberius by his mourning behavior tried to forge a notion of Princeps that tended self-control and maiestas. This conception both was traditionally Roman and idiosyncratic, a contradiction reflected in literature.


Mos antiquus then and now: Tacitus on master-murder (Annals 14.42-5)

Dr. Christopher Whitton, Cambridge

Following the murder of Pedanius Secundus by one of his slaves in ad 61, the senate debated whether his slaves should be executed en masse. In Tacitus’ account, Cassius Longinus speaks in Sallustian (and Senecan) tones and at length in favour of execution, styled as ‘ancestral custom’. My paper will explore the uses of the past in this episode: first, in terms of mos antiquus and its value in the imperial present(s) of Cassius and Tacitus; and second, to consider how the Sallustian and Senecan ‘plupasts’ latent in Cassius’ speech inform historical analysis for Tacitus, and for his readers.


Past and Present in the Annals of Tacitus

Dr. S. J. V. Malloch, Nottingham

This paper offers an interpretation of the relationship between the present of the Julio-Claudian principate and the past of earlier Roman history in the Annals of Tacitus through a reading of the preface and the device scholars customarily describe as ‘digressions’.


In Short, The Republic: (Re)Writing the Republic in Imperial Historiography

Rachel Love, Yale

This paper begins with the observation that after Livy, the long-practiced Republican tradition of writing ab urbe condita history becomes an entirely epitomical category of production. It seems that after Livy's own monumental history, Latin historians intending to write a history of Rome beginning with the founding of the city turn exclusively to short format works such as epitomes and breviaria. The significance of this phenomenon resides in the fact that auc histories inevitably provide an account of the rise and fall of the Republic, and so offer unique opportunities and challenges to imperial writers attempting to reconcile Rome's republican past with the reality of the Principate.

Taking Florus as a case study, the author's second century Epitome is read in the context of the observations made by his near contemporaries Tacitus and Pliny concerning the fundamental nature and function of history and other public writing in a post-Republican Rome. These writers characterize imperial historiography as something disconnected and distanced from the previous valorized mode of historiography practiced under the Republic. The ultimate goal of this paper is to bring the ways in which Tacitus and Pliny remember the Republic to bear upon the ways in which Florus actually writes about the Republic. Through Florus' work, the specific features of short format history are reassessed with a view towards understanding why imperial historians saw epitome as an effective tool for writing about the Republican past and the role it played in shaping the legacy and memory of the Republic.


Livy’s Battle in the Forum between Roman monuments and Greek literature

Prof. Dennis Pausch, Dresden

In the first book of ab urbe condita, Livy depicts the decisive battle between the Romans and the Sabines taking place where later the forum Romanum will be (11.5-13.5). In doing so, he renders not only the reasons for the foundation of many of its buildings, but incorporates them into one coherent story-line and thus creates a kind of ‘super-aition’ that ensures a very vivid description. The idea of my talk is to discuss the origins of this literary technique and to see if it has already been part of the tradition at Rome or if there are other models for this way to present prehistoric events. An intriguing parallel is offered by a fragment from the Atthis of Kleidemos (= Plutarch, Theseus 27.2-7), dealing with the siege of Athens by the Amazons, but also the Roman writers and the tradition manifested in many of the monuments of the city will be taken into account.


Talking and not talking about Carthage in Sallust's Bellum Jugurthinum

Dr. Edwin Shaw, Bristol

“As to Carthage, I think it better to be silent rather than say too little, since time warns me to hasten on to other topics” (Jug. 19.2); such is Sallust's dismissal of the city in the geographical digression of the Bellum Jugurthinum. This attitude is replicated across the rest of the work; despite its demonstrable importance in Sallust's historical understanding - exemplified by its role in his model of mtus hostilis and Roman moral decline - and its historical and geographical significance to the Africa of the Jugurthine War, Sallust avoids discussion of the city's history or importance. Where Carthage does appear explicitly, it is introduced only tangentially, and with no mention of its historical significance (as in the discussion of the Carthaginian brothers Philaeni at Jug. 79). Nonetheless, echoes of the Carthaginian past resound throughout the narrative, from Sallust's discussion to the value of history to his formulation of the particular qualities of Rome's African opponents.

In this paper, I will suggest that the complex role of Carthage in the text is part of a deliberate historiographical strategy; the reference to Carthage in the digression is a kind of historical praeteritio, by which Sallust deliberately draws attention to the city's elision from his history of this African conflict. The conscious and clearly signalled omission of such an important element of the historical context sets Sallust sharply against the canons of Roman historiography, in which Carthage loomed large; at the same time, it also prompts the reader to consideration of the precisely un-Punic elements of his own historical narrative. Sallust sets up an implicit comparison between the locus classicus of Rome's virtuous past and her unedifying present, manipulating the historical resonances of a central episode of Roman history as a commentary on his own period.