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A question for the Classicists

28 January, 2006

A question for the Classicists

I was looking at a lecture for a friend earlier today, and there was a point at which he referred to Tacitus. Actually, he didn’t; the reference was implied, but clear to anyone who’s taught the Germania. Whatever. It made me think, and via a very circuitous route, about Tacitus’ Latin, and how I’ve always found him rather difficult to read. Sallust (at least the stuff on Catiline, which is the bulk of my experience), however, I’ve always found pretty straightforward. But although they are both more or less writing exemplary moral stuff, Sallust has always seemed to be aimed more at a ‘popular’ audience, at least to me. I have no idea if this is true, by the way. But if it is, could this be part of the difference (development of the language and change of style over time notwithstanding)? Is Sallust easier because he is writing for a broader audience? Is Tacitus stuffy and difficult because he is writing for a senatorial aristocracy that he thinks should be able to read Latin at a much higher and stylistically difficult level? Or am I just all wrong on this — something I’m all too willing to believe since I’m not a real Classicist, despite a fairly good grounding?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 January, 2006 4:51 am

    One of my professors at UCLA, more years ago than either of us probably would like to recall, quoted (I think) a description of Tacitus as “having a style that consisted mainly of saying slightly less than absolutely necessary.”Well, he was a Germanist, himself, and very conscious of how much the “Germania” leaves unclear. But it seems that you are not alone in your opinion.

  2. 29 January, 2006 11:21 am

    Tacitus had a fearsome reputation, but when I actually came to read him in the original, I found him surprisingly easy. I always thought this was because I used to write latin proses the same way Tacitus writes. So I don’t think he’s writing specifically to be awkward, and he was probably more comprehensible to his audience of the day than Sallust, who probably seemed rather archaic (after all, there’s nearly 150 years between the two – think of how writing styles have changed between Dickens’ day and now).

  3. 29 January, 2006 5:29 pm

    That’s why I mentioned the time difference 😉 I’m just not enough of a Classics person anymore to be able to tell. And I tend more towards the ‘translate’ end than the ‘read’ end of things — funny for someone who got into grad school partially because of her Latin skills! These days, everything I read is 6th c. and later — mostly 8th and 9th century land donations, etc. That stuff, I can pretty much skim through, and if I find myself in trouble, I can often find a Latin-German edition in the newer MGH series. Anything I use, I do translate out to make sure I’m dead right, but I do that with passages in German, too. I just have to make myself certain that no one will catch me out for being a language dummy — something I know I’m not, but worry about on a regular basis. Insecurity much?

  4. 29 January, 2006 6:06 pm

    It just amuses me how much difference stylistic choices make. Now, my Latin is pretty rusty, and if I were to tackle any of the stuff that you study, I’d be in big trouble. But while I think that the Latin in the period I study is completely basic and easy (and it largely is – none of the Latin word order stuff for these people!), the vocabulary is distinctive enough that people I consider Latin gods look at it and get pretty confused (on an initial reading, that is). Which basically means I, personally, can’t tell if something is “hard” or “easy” or just reflecting my own weaknesses in Latin! (Good thing I get to cheat and avoid Latin a lot…)

  5. 31 January, 2006 4:16 pm

    I know no Latin, but I thought that Tacitus was highly regarded for his writing — he has the reputation of being “a student of Cicero” (not literally, of course.) His style, however, tends to be terse, and he tends to write in aphorisms.

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