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Tacitus: The Classical Heritage.

This book is designed to trace the influence of the Roman historian Tacitus on the intellectual life of Europe and the United States. Since Tacitus was largely ignored in the Middle Ages, Melior begins his survey with the Italian humanists who effectively recovered his works and then traces the influence of those works through the German Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Tudor-Stuart England, and late-Renaissance France. The survey continues on into the twentieth century, but considerably more than half of the material presented here should directly interest readers of this journal.

Melior begins with a fifty-four-page introduction which provides the narrative structure for the book, starting with his own view of Tacitus's moral and political vision and of the astringent, asymmetrical style he designed in order to reveal what Cicero's comfortably rolling periods tend to obscure. This story has been told before, but there is value in Mellor's retelling of it. Tacitus finds a kindred spirit in Machiavelli, who discovered much of value in his predecessor's analysis of how both ruler and ruled deceive themselves and one another as they are corrupted by power. Read selectively, the Germania, in turn helped the humanists of Reformation Germany craft the image of themselves with which they challenged the papacy; indeed, Tacitus seemed especially relevant throughout the sixteenth century when, as Muret pointed out, it made little sense to read Cicero and Livy on the Roman Republic when there were hardly any republics left. Since Tacitus's style, with what Peter Burke calls "its stresses on the unexpected, the ambiguous, the difficult, and the dissonant" (quoted on xxv), matches the instability of the later Renaissance, it is little wonder that writers like Lipsius and Bacon helped revive a Tacitean genus humile which challenged the Ciceronianism favored by earlier humanists. In fact, the spread of absolutism in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was accompanied by a virtual obsession with Tacitus, though not all readers approved of what they found. Indeed, one of the merits of Mellor's survey is that it reveals how many Tacituses his post-classical readers saw, including both the so-called "Black" Tacitus who provided strategies to tyrants and models for their sycophantic courtiers, and the "Red" Tacitus (the terms are Toffanin's) whose challenge to established authority inspired the Puritans in London, the colonists in Boston, and the republicans in Paris.

In several of the other volumes in this series, the editors have assembled a collection of articles dealing with various aspects of the influence of the Greek or Latin author under consideration. Mellor has proceeded differently by selecting fifty extracts, in English translation, through which writers who have been influenced by Tacitus provide their assessments of him in their own words. The principal value of the book rests here. Some of these extracts are exactly what we would expect: one could hardly put together such a volume without including something from Ben Jonson's Sejanus, for example, or the writings of Justus Lipsius. Other selections, however, are much less predictable. Mellor's translation of Ulrich von Hutten's Arminius, for example, marks the first appearance in English of a dialogue which made the Getmania a best-seller in Renaissance Germany, and this volume also contains the first English translation of Marc Antoine Muret's 1580 lecture on Tacitus, which sets forth an analysis that summarizes the major concerns of several generations of Renaissance scholars. And who today has even heard of Isaac Dorislaus, the first professor of history at Cambridge, whose lectures on Tacitus, excerpted here, began a series of events which led first to his being silenced at Cambridge, then to his murder on the continent by royalists who found too much of the Roman historian in the Puritan disciple?

To be sure, there are things in this book that give one pause: some of the extracts are quite short, and most of them have been taken out of context, which makes the project feel a bit like the testimonia collections that have been popular with classical scholars since the Renaissance. I would also have liked something on the influence of Tacitus in art and music to correspond to what has been done in several other volumes in the series. Nevertheless this is a very useful book, one that collects in one place information that would be difficult to assemble again. Mellor's book should become a basic reference tool for anyone with a serious interest in Tacitus and his Renaissance fortuna.

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Author:Kallendorf, Craig
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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Next Article:Tacitus' Germania and Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1587): A Study of the Editorial and Exegetical Contribution of a Sixteenth Century Scholar.

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