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American Journal of Philology 121.4 (2000) 655-658

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RONALD MELLOR. The Roman Historians. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. x + 212 pp. Paper, $21.99.

This is a textbook, the purpose of which is to provide "an introduction to the masterpieces of Roman historical and biographical writing" (ix). Although the question of the usefulness of these writings to the modern historian is not overlooked, the principal concern is "to take Roman historical writing on its own terms" (196). Very little background is assumed, and no Latin (by "Roman" the title refers to works composed in Latin, regardless of subject matter: hence Nepos' Pelopidas is in, but Polybius, Diodorus, and Dio are out, except [End Page 655] as background or comparanda). The author is a distinguished Tacitean scholar, and his style is at once clear and attractive. His survey begins with the origins of Roman historiography, with special attention given to what can be known of the early annalists, to the contribution of the elder Cato, and especially to Cicero's verdict on the efforts of them all. Fine chapters on Sallust and Livy follow, and, naturally in view of the author's predilections, a long and adoring chapter on Tacitus. Ammianus Marcellinus also gets his due, in a chapter that is actually longer than Sallust's. A single chapter is devoted to Roman biography (Nepos, Tacitus once more, Suetonius and the Historia Augusta), another to autobiography (Caesar, Augustus' Res Gestae). An appraisal of the Roman achievement, and its influence, concludes the book. The strengths of Mellor's treatment of every author and every subject are many. He is keenly attentive to ancient expectations and the particular context of the central authors whose works he examines; he is especially good at fitting the purposes of a historian's writings to the historian's actual circumstances. He constantly reminds the reader of the differences between Roman and modern conceptions of historical writing. He appreciates the importance of style in appraising and understanding ancient historiography. And he makes frequent acute observations that will save instructors who use this book a good deal of time and explanation, as when he remarks of Tacitean characterization that, "since he could not easily explain ambiguities, they are expressed as contradictions" (104). In sum, then, the volume is intelligent, congenial, and will be very serviceable in courses dealing with Roman history or with historiography.

It is inevitable, when anyone reviews a work of such scope, that there will be quibbles. Let me record a few of mine. Students are likely to be misled by the use of "plebeian" on p. 20. To say that, in 52 B.C., Clodius Pulcher was "Caesar's man," in contrast to Milo who by implication was Pompey's (31), is to get it wrong (cf. W. Jeffrey Tatum, The Patrician Tribune [Chapel Hill 1999] 214-15, 234-35). Since Caesar reached the senior magistracies at the earliest possible age, it is not clear to me that "his early career progressed slowly" (171). The view of Roman marriage represented on p. 69 is somewhat old-fashioned, and, along those lines, it is anachronistic to speak of "the bigamous marriage celebration of the empress Messalina" (90: Tacitus' Narcissus is accurate when at Ann. 11.30 he asks Claudius: an discidium . . . tuum nosti?). One does not often hear, these days, of the "clinical objectivity of Thucydides" (44). In discussing Sallust's attraction to Thucydides (43-45), it might have been helpful to discuss the (admittedly not uncomplicated) issue of Atticism in late-first-century Rome. I am less convinced than Mellor is that the speech of Sallust's Caesar constitutes the historian's "plea for common sense" (38) in the midst of the triumviral proscriptions; after all, Sallust wrote Cato's speech as well. It can hardly be true, if only in view of Pliny's keen interest in his friend's literary productivity, that Suetonius' Lives "is a book written by and for the equestrian" (152), nor do I think the description of the imperial equestrian order that is given on [End Page 656] that page...


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