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Broken Bodies and Severed Limbs: Tacitus’ Fragmentary Methodology

Rachel Love

Harvard University

Plato and Aristotle agree that a well-made, complete text is akin to a body in which all the various parts are integrated and subordinated to the whole (Phaedrus 264c, cf. Poetics 1459c-2460b). This paper, however, will take us into two sections of Tacitus’s Histories and Annals that are distinguished for their particularly spectacular depictions of bodies that have been dismembered: the site of the Varronian disaster (Ann. 1.60-1) and the aftermath of Bedriacum (Hist. 2.70). Woodman (1979) has already identified these two scenes as loci of historiographical importance, which shed light on Tacitus’ compositional methodologies. Building on Woodman’s discussion of “substantive self-imitation”, this paper re-reads his broadly historiographic models within the specific imperial context cued by the rest of the Tacitean corpus (e.g. Sailor 2008, O’Gorman 2001, Moles 1998).

The aim of this paper is to articulate in part Tacitus’ own approach to the integration of incomplete and insufficient evidence from the post-republican corpus historiarum (cf. Front. Strat. Praef. 2) into his own histories; that is, how did Tacitus deal with ‘fragmentary’ sources and in what ways is it distinct or antithetical to modern fragmentary methodologies? The paper unfolds in three sections. The argument begins by reviewing ancient conceptions of incomplete texts, taking its cue from Most’s (2013) assessment that ancient readers did not have a stable idiom for literary ‘fragments’.

Next, the paper shifts its focus to corporal metaphors, focusing on the historiographical polyvalence of the conception of the body. In the first place, authors of histories at least since Polybius—who very likely borrowed the idea from the philosophers in the first place—have employed the image of the discorporate body as a metaphor for the process of historical interpretation (Poly.1.4.7). This particular formulation of the corpus is a counterpart to the long-standing metaphor that equates the person of the author with his literary output, and by extension, the literary output within a particular genre (e.g. Hor.Sat. 1.4.62; cf. Cic.Ad.Fam. 5.12.4). Underscoring both these literary usages is the prevalence in the Late Republic of the rhetorical ‘body politic’, the corpus rei publicae, and the role that the imperial reimagining of the corpus imperii played in legitimating one-man rule in Rome (Squire 2015). 

Finally, the paper returns to Bedriacum and the Teutoburg Forest, where the lacera corpora, trunci artus, putres virorum equorumque formae (Hist. 2.70) await. Digging into specific features of each passage—i.e. the presence of an exegetist to ‘read’ the otherwise impossible-to-understand carnage and the internal narrative significance placed on supplying the correct interpretation—this paper employs the broken and scattered bodies positioned in both scenes as a historiographical metaphor for the incomplete and fragmented historiographical tradition that Tacitus laments elsewhere in his oeuvre as a feature of imperial historiography. The paper concludes by returning to Woodman’s formulation of substantive imitation to articulate a ‘fragmentary methodology’ that seeks to reconstitute a tradition through inventive supplementation, which is diametrically opposed to the ways in which scholars have interacted with literary fragments since the Renaissance (Dionisotti; Grafton 1997).

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Tacitus and the Incomplete

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