- The World of Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus: Aesthetics and Empire in Ancient Rome by Christopher S. van den Berg
Set against his other works, there is little reason, ostensibly, to unroll Tacitus’ opusculum, the Dialogus. Common opinion maintains that industry expended on its Ciceronian prose enforces regret upon the reader for missing the promiscuous concourse of personalities found in the remainder of the corpus: ignominious freedmen, knavish emperors, pernicious imperial consorts, and mischievous prefects. In the past two decades, however, there has been increasing interest in this “least Tacitean” of Tacitus’ works, and van den Berg’s study now takes its place among those of R. Mayer (Tacitus: The Dialogus de Oratoribus [Cambridge 2001]), D. S. Levene (“Tacitus’ Dialogus as Literary History,” TAPA 134  157–200), and others. Van den Berg starts (chapters 1 and 2) with the Dialogus’ political and cultural context and a review of the scholarship to provide the reader with background for the remainder of the study.
Chapter 3 examines some of the work’s central themes, including the tension between ingenium and fama, a theme Tacitus explores more than once in the dialogue. The next two chapters argue that the diverse opinions expressed throughout the Dialogus ought not be read as in disagreement with one another; rather, each provides a unique perspective concerning eloquentia. This includes a lively discussion on how the first two speeches grapple with the “social effi-cacy” of eloquentia in Tacitus’ day, examining the elite role in imperial society and its basis in more traditional Roman values to explore the various challenges to Roman social order and the Dialogus’ response to those challenges; van den Berg rightly suggests that generally here the historical and literary exemplars the interlocutors cite in their arguments undermine “the larger arguments in which they occur.” The next chapter analyses the Dialogus’ final four speeches, which concern the historical and cultural conditions productive of eloquentia. While at variance, the speeches collectively create a complex explanation of the conditions for vigorous and lively oratory (e.g., Aper’s first speech and Maternus’ last, seemingly polar opposites, both indicate a continuity of practice between the Republic and Empire). Chapter 6 examines the Dialogus’ forebears (emphasizing particularly Cicero’s De Oratore), and how Tacitus masterfully remolds them into his contemporary milieu. The final chapter situates the Dialogus in [End Page 573] the larger tradition of ancient literary criticism, and considers how Tacitus’ work encompasses a variety of threads from this tradition.
Van den Berg’s contribution offers a lively and vibrant perspective on this confounding work, arguing against a monovalent interpretation and favoring agnosticism, noting that throughout the Dialogus viewpoints are variously expressed, abandoned, or revised. Readers will appreciate his innovative discussion concerning the intertextual allusions within the work itself, their significance, and the careful ring-like structure of the whole (e.g., allusions to laus and gloria are prominent at both the work’s inception and conclusion). Indeed, the author offers a number of similarly fresh observations; among the most interesting is his deconstruction of Maternus’ historically deterministic review of oratory in the late Republic, where Cicero is cited as the sole standard to argue that the political conditions favorable for Ciceronian style no longer obtain. But, as the author notes, citation of the exceptional Cicero as the exclusive exemplar distorts the historical record and impugns Maternus’ veracity. Worse, remove Cicero, and the eloquentia of the early Empire possibly equaled that of Cicero’s day. Loss of comparable material renders this unprovable though plausible. Might not early imperial orators—Domitius Afer, Vibius Crispus, Julius Africanus, and others—hold their own against Marcus Brutus, Licinius Macer Calvus, or M. Caelius Rufus? Furthermore, as the author rightly admonishes, to correlate cultural production with a given political system is perilous; talent in a variety of fields still flourished into Tacitus’ day and beyond. The problem, the author maintains, is one of social perceptions: under the emperors oratory enabled men of low standing...