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Mind the Gap: Savile’s Bridge Between the End of Tacitus’ Annals and the Start of the Histories

Rhiannon Ash

Merton College, University of Oxford

In 1591 Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton College, Oxford, and Greek tutor to Queen Elizabeth I, published the first English translation of Tacitus (specifically, the Agricola and Histories 1-4) and dedicated it to the Queen. As well as translating Tacitus’ Latin text, Savile boldly made up for the unfortunate deficiencies in manuscript transmission by foregrounding his translation with a supplementary essay, The Ende of Nero and Beginning of Galba. This historiographical creation, just over 8,000 words, served to fill the gap between the Annals’ premature end in AD 66 and the start of the Histories in AD 69.

Savile had good precedent from antiquity, where third-parties used their creative skills to plug gaps (real or perceived) in other writers’ works. So, Sabinus imaginatively composes letters from the men in reply to Ovid’s heroines in the single Heroides (Amores 2.18.27-33). Or Caesar’s continuator, Hirtius, supplies an eighth book to the de Bello Gallico, writing in his prefatory letter to Balbus about the ‘most difficult task’ of ‘weaving together’ the separate parts of Caesar’s corpus as a unified fabric (hitherto marred by a large unwritten hole in the middle).  

Sabinus and Balbus were creating supplements, but they did at least know Ovid and Caesar personally. Savile substitutes for a text which had been written but was lost, thus ventriloquising a chronologically distant author – and moreover, doing so in English translation.

This project must have presented various questions for Savile. Should he play down his own identity and make his own supplement blend in with his translation of the real Tacitus? Or should he instead celebrate his own contribution? In general terms, he ostentatiously apologises to the Queen in the preface for his efforts, but how sincere his self-deprecating tone really was is debatable. As Paulina Kewes notes, ‘Although Savile’s name was not given on the title page, his Ende of Nero and Beginning of Galba had far more prominent typographical billing than Tacitus’s writings, its title positioned at the top and set in larger type than that of either the Histories or the Agricola’.

This paper drills down into linguistic and historiographical details of Savile’s supplement and analyses his creative techniques in filling this lacuna in Tacitus. In four main sections I consider: (i) Savile’s structure and use of formal historiographical devices, (ii) his verbal borrowings from Tacitus transported to imaginative new contexts, and his engagement with other ancient sources (Plutarch, Suetonius, Cassius Dio), (iii) Savile and word-play, and (iv) the ‘cutting-room floor’ (historical material excluded by Savile from his bridging passage shows editorial choices which illuminate his narrative priorities). I will show how Savile delivers an ambitious, miniaturized piece of accomplished historical writing, one which makes full and creative use of the sophisticated narrative devices associated with the genre of ancient historiography.


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Tacitus and the Incomplete

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