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Ordering Anarchy : Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories

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Ordering Anarchy - Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories
By Rhiannon Ash. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp 246.) ISBN 0-472-11113-2.


Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 1, 2000

"Paradoxes and troublesome details, which at first do not seem to fit, are often deeply thought-provoking when analyzed more closely." (p. 148).

Tacitus' Histories has received a great deal of study and criticism as an historical document. However, one aspect of the text which has often been disregarded is Tacitus' skill as a literary artisan. Rhiannon Ash's main purposes in writing Ordering Anarchy: Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories was to rectify this oversight. Ash, a lecturer in the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London, accomplishes this goal by comparing Tacitus' techniques, stylistically and historically, to the methodologies used by other classical authors. In addition, Ash demonstrates how Tacitus tackeled the conceptual and moral problems inherent in writing about a civil war.

The book begins with an overview of how Julius Caesar, Appian, and Cassius Dio characterized specific civil war armies and their leaders. Ash also illustrates how various authors allowed political overtones to filter into their works and how, through the manipulation of data, they could skew the perceptions engendered by their narratives.

"...suggestive juxtaposition of episodes, pointed allusion to previous writers, selection or omission of material, the allocation of speeches to individual protagonists, and the starting and finishing points of a narrative, can all be used, subtly and cumulatively, to manipulate a reader's interpretations." (Preface, p. viii).

Ash then embarks on an in-depth historical and literary analysis of Tacitus' treatment of the armies which fought in the Roman civil wars between A.D. 68-9. This analysis is conducted by examining corresponding accounts of the 68-9 civil wars. These comparisons not only serve to highlight Tacitus' literary talents, but also prove that Tacitus' historical methodology was unique. Most of the ancient authors, including Plutarch and Seutonius, treated the various armies as homogeneous entities and offered only generalized explanations for their actions. Tacitus, on his part, took great care to differentiate between various subgroups within the armies, and to explain the motivating factors of each. Ash also illustrates how Tacitus' exploration of the internal motivations of the soldiers and their officers was crucial in explaining how, and why, there were continual breakdowns in military discipline and how these lapses affected the outcome of the various conflicts.

Following the detailed analysis of the armies in Tacitus' Histories, Ash continues with an equally detailed examination of Tacitus' characterizations of the emperors, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian, as well as Vespasian's sons, Domitian and Titus. Included is a critique of Tacitus' handling of the relationship between the emperors and the military commanding staffs, and between the emperors and the common soldiers. In addition, Ash considers the impact that propaganda had on distorting the historical record and how, despite these problems, Tacitus strove to provide a balance portrait of each emperor.

Lastly, Ash devotes an entire chapter to the Flavian general, Antonius Primus. Interwoven within the analysis of Tacitus' portrayal of Primus, is a discussion on how modern critics have interpreted Tacitus' style. Included is an acknowledgment that some critics have contended that Tacitus did not appreciate the defects inherent in the materials he used, and that as a consequence, his historiographical methodology was flawed. In response, Ash uses the analysis of Primus as a backdrop to discount these contentions, authoritatively proving that Tacitus had a firm grasp and understanding of the source materials that he used. This proof if offered by showing how Tacitus' description of Primus, despite appearing inconsistent, is totally consistent when all the integral factors involved are considered. "Tacitus' apparently contradictory portrait of Primus is therefore an eloquent marker of a society in flux." (p. 149).

On the whole, I found this book to be enlightening and compelling. Ash acquaints the reader with the literary complexities of the Histories, as well as with the innovative techniques Tacitus used to write his narrative. Ash's fluency in Latin and detailed knowledge of the literature allowed her to delineate Tacitus' use of innuendo and allegory in the text, and to accentuate his use of linguistic subtleties.

"Tacitus characterizes Galba's entry into Rome as ill-omened, ‘with thousands of unarmed troops having been massacred (trucidatis tot milibus inermium militum)' (l.6.2), although again the ablative absolute leaves open the question of responsibility. The description of these soldiers as ‘unarmed' not only makes their deaths seem pitiful, but also makes the perpetrators seem cowardly..." (p. 77).
One of the strongest points in this text is Ash's comparison of the Histories against the 68-9 civil war commentaries of Josephus, Plutarch, Seutonius, and Dio. By juxtaposing these commentaries, Ash illuminates the intertextual differences, and provides the reader with new insights into Tacitus' work.

This book is primarily intended for a scholarly audience. The text is intellectually engaging and has been augmented by Ash's meticulously annotated endnotes. Other additions, which will be of great value to the researcher, are the extensive bibliography, an index locorum, and a glossary of place names. Although written for a scholarly audience, this book is accessible to the non-classicist. However, to fully appreciate the scope of this work, one should have at least a general acquaintanceship with the classical historians and the literary traditions of this period.


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