REVIEW: Tacitus, Annals, 15.20–23, 33–45 (Owen, Gildenhard) | @OpenBookPublish

REVIEW: Mathew Owen and Ingo Gildenhard, Tacitus, Annals, 15.20–23, 33–45—Latin Text, Study Aids with Vocabulary, and Commentary, Open Book Publishers, 2013.

REVIEWER:  Paul J Cowie, Classics Head of Department, The John Lyon School, Harrow on the Hill

Late September in London and the weather has turned prematurely chilly after a glorious summer. Autumnal cold notwithstanding, the end of the second full week of teaching gives fresh welcome to yet another Classics textbook from Open Book Publishers, its arrival more than sufficient to warm the heart of a busy Classics department head. This latest offering, as it happens, now marks the third volume released by the publishers in less than two years, following the successful advent of publications devoted to Cicero, in Verrem 2.1 (the prescribed AS prose text) and Virgil, Aeneid IV (one of the alternate verse prescriptions for A2).

Maintaining the fresh initiative in rapidly resourcing A Level studies, this most recent text deals with the Latin prose author who likely represents the more popular choice amongst teachers and students for the A2 Latin Prose module, Publius Cornelius Tacitus; more specifically, his Annals, XV. 20-23, 33-45. Placing secondary Classics departments even deeper in his debt in the process is Dr Ingo Gildenhard (University of Cambridge), sole author for the preceding Cicero and Virgil volumes; Mathew Owen (teacher in Classics at Caterham School, Surrey) now joins him as co-author for this latest outing on the Annals.

After an informative Preface and Acknowledgements, the Tacitus volume opens with an extended Introduction: a collection of six essays in total explores the Tacitean background, legacy and style, providing an astute overview of the ancient author’s life, times and subject matter, with particular focus on the political environment of the developing Principate. Especially useful for the A-Level prescription are twin essays devoted to the Neronian period: “Tacitus’ Nero-narrative: Rocky-Horror-Picture Show and Broadway on the Tiber” and “Thrasea Paetus and the so-called ‘Stoic opposition’”. The wording of the former, I suspect, reflects Gildenhard’s dry humour (of which we enjoyed many examples in his previous volumes) as well as his obvious delight in the salacious content of much of the prescribed text. The latter piece, meanwhile, provides a convenient overview of the difficult Thrasea Paetus passage and speech to the Senate that (perhaps somewhat incongruously) constitutes the first section of the prescribed lines chosen by the examiners. This excursion should prove a genuine life-saver in illuminating what for many students must prove a baffling detour away from the star of our prescription, the emperor Nero himself. Overall, the essays work hard to provide useful context and interesting insights into the set text. As our authors readily admit [page 8], none of these essays “offers anything close to an exhaustive discussion”—but neither do they need to for A Level students…. Succeed they will, nonetheless, as well-rounded and convenient springboards for wider reading and thematic discussion with interested students.

The protracted business of coming to grips with the text itself, of course, represents the greatest challenge, week on week, with regard to effective classroom provision and delivery. The difficult prose style of Tacitus, his brevitas and varietas, serves further to complicate this necessary task; it is here, however, that the authors’ efforts prove the greatest boon. In the third section of the present volume, therefore, the successive Tacitean ‘chapters’ from the prescription are laid out conveniently for student use, neatly combining the Latin text with study questions and vocabulary aid. The text, of course, we already possess in the ‘official’ Bristol Classical Press publication of the prescription (ed. Norma Miller, 1994), together with many useful notes and commentary. Making the third, Study Guide section in the new publication most effective, however, is the ‘bite-sized’ presentation of each chapter in turn—Tacitus’ somewhat fitful presentation of the events and characters of Nero’s reign during the years 62-64 AD / CE, as it happens, lends itself well to this approach.

Particularly useful in this regard is the outcome of the authors’ stated aim to provide a structured, yet varied pattern to the study of the set passages, thereby avoiding the tedious, hard slog that might otherwise be required merely in translating one’s way through a lengthy and difficult text, making useful observations on the way. The latter approach, I suspect, will be all too familiar to A-Level Classics teachers. Rather, each Tacitean chapter has been provided with three levels of activities for student study: in the first place, a pleasing variety of shorter grammatical, syntactical, stylistic and content questions, encouraging students selectively to unpick the intricacies of Tacitus’ style and narrative; secondly, a ‘Stylistic Appreciation’ question for each chapter, promoting the deeper, extended analysis of the language that must feature in the higher value questions for the examination, thereby providing useful student experience; thirdly and finally, a ‘Discussion Point’ asking students to reflect on their understanding of the larger text as a whole, inviting them successfully to relate their reading to the larger world and their wider knowledge and experience. It is this last feature, the present writer believes, that serves best to justify the value of reading Tacitus in the first place: Just what can historical writings of the developed Principate teach us in the modern world? The Study Guide goes a long way in providing ready, if not exactly easy, approaches to answers to this question.

Ideally to be kept from students—at least initially, while they explore the text and associated study questions—is the truly extensive fourth section of Gildenhard and Owen’s publication, the Commentary. Exploring in depth both the language and content of the prescribed excerpts from the Annals, these pages will provide an invaluable and detailed guide for the busy classroom teacher when preparing discussion of the text with his / her students. What they also offer, however—and herein lies a trap for the unwary practitioner!—are a great many of the answers to the Study Questions from the preceding section…. Were a clever student able to peruse these pages ahead of time, their information could provide an all-too-convenient shortcut away from independent thought and application. The reviewer’s advice therefore, founded on experience to date, would be to retain the Commentary separately in one’s teaching armoury, releasing additional insights only gradually, when and as they are needed.

In concluding this review, one might ask: Should we invest in the (extremely reasonable) cost of this new publication? (Note that the convenient digital provision of the publication makes this vanishingly small when compared to traditional textbooks…!) Will it, moreover, make life easier, both for myself and my students? Will it, above all, make Tacitus even more enjoyable and interesting? The answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘Yes’. Although not a complete ‘one-stop shop’ for all needs and teaching styles—I will continue, for example, to make use of David Carter’s excellent Classical Workbooks interlinear study guide, in making an invaluable ‘first pass’ over the text with students—the combined efforts of Gildenhard and Owen are nonetheless highly to be commended as a first rate teaching tool. I look forward with anticipation to future releases from these and other authors, now backed by a truly progressive publishing house, in the pursuit of our common, Classical ends.