02 - Generic Intrusion and Exemplary Depletion in Tacitus’ Histories 3

"The inescapable and regrettable fact about ancient historians, according to much of the scholarship, is that they made things up" (Haynes: 29). Since Hayden White's 1973 Metahistory, it has been widely recognized that literary historians emplot their texts, crafting stories about the past along generic lines. A growing body of scholarship has examined Tacitus' use of epic (e.g. Joseph, Jacobs), theatrical (e.g. Keitel, Pomeroy), and philosophical (e.g. Olshausen, Turpin) material in the Annals and the Histories. However, few studies have focused on Tacitus' engagement with more than one genre - that is, treating Tacitus' references to epic, philosophical, and dramatic models not in isolation, but as part of an interrelated constellation of genre-encoded shifts. My paper adopts such an approach, analyzing Histories 3, one of Tacitus' most understudied books, through the use of methodologies established in Harrison's 2007 book, Generic Enrichment in Vergil and Horace. I argue that Tacitus introduces variously genre-encoded "cameo" figures at the end of the book to illustrate his narrative's dearth of exempla. By depicting an unprecedented breakdown of generic boundaries, Tacitus suggests that 69 CE requires its own brand of historiography - one that cannot (and does not) insist on maintaining its generic integrity by incorporating "lesser" genres exclusively via erasure.

I begin with the Histories' preface, in which Tacitus' list of bona exempla does not center the "great men" traditionally celebrated in epic poetry and historical prose - "those distinguished in reputation and name," qui fama ac nomine excellent (Cic. De Or. 2.63) - but mothers, wives, and enslaved people (matres… coniuges… servorum fides, Hist. 1.3.1). As Hardie and Feldherr have demonstrated, such marginalized figures tend to threaten epic and historical works' teleological drive unless swiftly assimilated and subordinated to the main narrative. By centering these figures, Tacitus embeds generic tension into his history's programmatic statement. As the narrative moves on, we meet numerous figures (generals, soldiers, senators) who would traditionally provide exemplary content, but here fail to model virtuous conduct, instead ostentatiously performing across generic bounds.

Three characters in the second half of Histories 3 exemplify a proliferation of genre-encoded cameos: Julius Agrestis commits a Stoic-inspired suicide, Verulana Gratilla enters battle with a vengeance rivalling Medea's, while Petilius Cerialis, as his name suggests (cerealis, "pertaining to the cultivation of land, grain or agriculture," L&S s.v. I), costumes himself as a character from an eclogue. Though described in language that recalls Tacitus' promise of bona exempla in 1.3.1, these figures fail to provide the edifying content demanded by historical narrative. Instead, they function as representatives of philosophy, tragedy, and bucolic, respectively, challenging traditional historiographical norms. Tacitus' introduction of other genres illustrates that the power vacuum of 69 CE extends beyond the absence of a long-lasting emperor: it envelops nearly everyone who might provide the moralizing content upon which conventional historiography relies, prompting the need for a new kind of historia.


Elizabeth Raab, Yale University