Ouden pros ton Erôta: The Staging of Tacitus' Dialogus

A.P.A. (Washington, D.C.), December 29, 1998

© M. Hendry 1998-2000

Tacitus' Dialogus de Oratoribus is a problematic work, subtler and more devious than sometimes supposed: a veritable Rubik's cube of literature. To illustrate this statement, I will begin with two subtleties from the end of Maternus' first speech (passage 1).

Maternus closes his speech by juxtaposing the life of the orator (13.4) with his own (13.5-6). The transitional words (the ones in quotation marks) are taken with acknowledgements ('ut Vergilius ait') from the end of the second book of the Georgics (passage 2). Although Adolf Gudeman in his commentary on the Dialogus includes the following seven words of Vergilian context in his quotation of the phrase, and Rudolf Güngerich in his more recent commentary adds that Tacitus' insanum . . . forum (towards the end of 13.5) is taken from line 502, neither notes the appropriateness of the immediately preceding lines to Maternus' general position. Perhaps the most famous passage of the Georgics is Vergil's extended praise of country life, beginning with (passage 3):

O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint,

'O most blessed farmers', and so on, and going on for another two dozen lines before ending with:

                . . . extrema per illos
Iustitia excedens terris uestigia fecit.

'Justice, leaving the earth' (for the last time, at the end of the Golden Age), 'made her last footprints among them' (meaning country people). It seems to me then that Maternus is speaking Aesopically, quoting politically innocuous words that will remind his listeners — if they know their Vergil, which of course they do — of a far from innocuous context, which in this case is also a subtext. He is not saying but implying that he is a poet because there is no justice on earth, and only poetry offers a partial refuge from injustice. My interpretation fits with the other indications in Maternus' speech that he is not the apolitical poet he sometimes pretends to be, but an opponent of the imperial regime. Some of these indications are his choice of dramatic topics, his pride in having offended the powerful, his promise to go even further in his next play, and especially his bold statement (12.3) that the crowds in the theater used to honor Vergil 'as if he were Augustus'. Since some have doubted whether this Maternus is the same man as the 'sophist Maternus' who was later executed, I will say that I think it is perfectly clear that this Maternus is playing a very dangerous game, and the idea that he came to a bad end soon after is therefore plausible, if not strictly provable.

There is a second subtlety in 13.6, where the poet doesn't have to worry about being awakened by a 'panting freedman' (anhelans libertus). Gudeman's note reads (translating passage 4):

"a panting freedman will wake me: that is, to deliver a message to the 'friend of Caesar' or to announce to him that the Emperor is now ready to receive the customary morning visits".

Güngerich's explanation is slightly different:

"no doubt one of the Emperor's freedmen, who is summoning the orator to the Imperial court for some reason or other".

Though true as far as they go, both of these assertions seem incomplete and even downright naive. The whole context of the phrase (with its talk of last wills and testaments) suggests that the anhelans libertus may be a messenger of death. That is, the emperor's freedman may be bringing anything from the offer of a governorship to an order to commit suicide, and the recipient never knows which until he arrives. I don't think it is reading too much into this passage to suppose that the freedman is panting (and no doubt sweating) not only because he is in a hurry and eager to do a good job, but because of his fear of what will happen to him if he does not. Messenger and recipient are both in the same position of privileged terror. Maternus' question a little earlier, quid habent in hac sua fortuna concupiscendum: quod timent, an quod timentur? (13.4) applies with equal force to orator and freedman: any servant of the Flavian régime must endure a mixture of great hopes and greater fears at all times. Maternus in fact equates the situation of orator and freedman at the end of the same section (13.4): tantum posse liberti solent, 'freedmen have just as much power' (as orators).

So much for small-scale subtleties, which could be multiplied almost indefinitely. If there were academy awards for works of literature, Tacitus' Dialogus would be a shoo-in for first prize in the category 'best dialogue not written by Plato'. Turning now to my main topic:

Perhaps the biggest puzzle about the Dialogus is the dramatic date: Why did a man just ending a distinguished career as a full-time orator open his new career as a historian with a dialogue set at the beginning of his oratorical career? Two other very difficult questions are closely related: Why does Tacitus begin his work with a debate between Oratory and Poetry (specifically Tragedy), omitting History entirely? And why does he give his fictional self nothing whatever to say? To put the last question the other way around, why does he put himself into the dialogue, if he's just going to sit there and listen?

T. D. Barnes has argued (in Harvard Studies for 1986) that pushing the dramatic date of the dialogue back into the 70s allowed Tacitus to do some discreet Quintilian-bashing without having to mention Quintilian by name. However, this does not explain the coincidence of the dramatic date with the author's own choice of a first career. I suggest that the answers to my three questions could not be stated outright, even under the relatively benevolent despotism of Nerva and Trajan, and that the details of the staging, action and setting of the dialogue provide important clues to the meaning of the dialogue.

First, the STAGING. Since theatricality and what might be called 'metacriticism' are so popular these days, I will begin by observing that several details suggest that Tacitus thought of the Dialogus itself as something like a play. Although I see no plausible way to divide it into five acts, I do think it is significant that there are three main speakers, plus one subsidiary speaker and one silent participant. Is it purely coincidental that this subsidiary speaker, the man who agit secundas partes, is named 'Secundus', while the kophon prosopon is named 'Tacitus'? If the historical Maternus was in fact executed soon after the dramatic date of the Dialogus, Tacitus' little drama is a tragedy, in which the protagonist dies off-stage in the tasteful ancient manner.

The ACTION of the dialogue is also very important. The effect of the speeches on the silent participant is generally disregarded. When it comes to the first debate, between oratory and poetry, most modern readers much prefer Maternus' position to Aper's. However, we know, as the original readers knew, that the historical Tacitus in fact became an orator, not a poet, and began his oratorical career right around the dramatic date of the dialogue. Not to mention that his fictional counterpart appears to leave with Aper at the end. This shows that Tacitus must have found Aper's position more convincing than Maternus', no matter how superficially attractive the latter was. Since everyone but Aper agrees on the sad state of contemporary oratory, and no one except Aper has anything to say against poetry, we are perhaps meant to understand that Maternus' arguments are only refuted, as it were, by his execution soon after. In either case, the hierarchy implied by Tacitus' own career choice is: Oratory over Poetry. Whether oratory is preferred as less dangerous, or more serious, or a little of each, is an interesting question. Although I cannot prove it, I suspect that by the time the Dialogus was published, Maternus' tragedies were either entirely forgotten or agreed to be very bad. Surely one reason for Tacitus' career choice is that it is better to be a good orator than a bad poet.

The SETTING of the Dialogus is modeled on Plato's Symposium: some friends visit a playwright after he has presented a tragic drama to the public. The choice of model is distinctly odd: Tacitus is not the most erotic of authors, and the two dialogues could hardly be more different in every other way. A thought that has surely occurred to many besides myself is that the comparison of Poetry and Oratory implies a third term, History, which combines the advantages of the other two. Like Poetry, History is composed in the peace and tranquillity of one's own home or the countryside, does not depend on the whims of the mobile uulgus, deals with subjects that do not lose their interest in later generations, and is, in the best case, immortal. Like Oratory, History has everything to do with the real world, is useful rather than merely ornamental, and is, in the best case, just as much as Poetry a ktêma es aieí.

I will go one step further and suggest that Tacitus' Platonic opening subtly alludes to the ending of the Symposium, where Socrates argues (passage 5) that the same man could write Tragedy and Comedy, though such a combination of skills had never been seen. Most scholars see the 'same man' as referring to Plato himself, author of a tragic Phaedo and a comic Hippias or two and a lot of dialogues that combine the two characteristics. Similarly, Tacitus more obliquely suggests that the same man (again, himself) might write works that combine the advantages of Poetry and Oratory. The implicit hierarchy is now: History first, Oratory second, Poetry a poor third. Oratory is the safe second-best, a suitable career for one who is waiting for a regime that will tolerate History.

The works of Tacitus' contemporary, the younger Pliny, provide a useful comparison. Letters, no matter how elegantly composed, don't really fit into the scheme I have outlined. However, I think it is significant that Pliny's excursions into informal historiography, most notably his account of the eruption of Vesuvius in letters 6.16 and 6.20, are excellent works, while it is generally agreed that his one surviving oration, the Panegyricus, is rather bad, and that his poems are beneath contempt. It seems to be the judgment of posterity that Pliny would have been wise to stick to narrative prose, like his friend Tacitus. He tells us in letter 5.8 that some of his friends were urging him to take up historiography. Perhaps he should have done so.

Quotations from Handout:

Tacitus, Dialogus de Oratoribus 13.4-5:

. . . . nam Crispus iste et Marcellus, ad quorum exempla me uocas, quid habent in hac sua fortuna concupiscendum: quod timent, an quod timentur? quod, cum cotidie aliquid rogentur, ii quibus praestant indignantur? quod alligati cum adulatione nec imperantibus umquam satis serui uidentur nec nobis satis liberi? quae haec summa eorum potentia est? tantum posse liberti solent.
'Me uero dulces' (ut Vergilius ait) 'Musae', remotum a sollicitudinibus et curis et necessitate cotidie aliquid contra animum faciendi, in illa sacra illosque fontis ferant, nec insanum ultra et lubricum forum famamque pallentem trepidus experiar.
non me fremitus salutantium nec anhelans libertus excitet, nec incertus futuri testamentum pro pignore scribam, nec plus habeam quam quod possim cui uelim relinquere (quandoque enim fatalis et meus dies ueniet): statuarque tumulo non maestus et atrox sed hilaris et coronatus, et pro memoria mei nec consulat quisquam nec roget.
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Vergil, Georgics 2.475-78:

Me uero primum dulces ante omnia Musae,
quarum sacra fero ingenti percussus amore,
accipiant caelique uias et sidera monstrent,
defectus solis uarios lunaeque labores; . . .
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Vergil, Georgics 2.458-59, 473-74:

O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint,
                . . . extrema per illos
Iustitia excedens terris uestigia fecit.
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A. Gudeman (Leipzig/Berlin 1914) and R. Güngerich (Göttingen 1980) on 13.6:

anhelans libertus excitet nämlich um dem 'amicus Caesaris' eine Botschaft zu überbringen oder ihm zu melden, dab der Kaiser schon bereit sei, die üblichen Morgenbesuche zu empfangen.

. . . natürlich ein Freigelassener des Kaisers, der den Anwalt aus irgendeinem Grunde zum Hofe befiehlt (vgl. z.B. Agr. 40,2; hist.1,58,1).
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Plato, Symposium 223 d 3-6:

toû autoû andròs eînai komoidían kaì tragoidían epístasthai poieîn kaì tòn tékhnei tragoidopoiòn ónta komoidopoiòn eînai
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