Review: BMCR 2015.05.43 Pagán on van den Berg, The World of Tacitus’ ‘Dialogus de Oratoribus’

BMCR 2015.05.43 (

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.43

Christopher S. van den Berg, The World of Tacitus’ ‘Dialogus de Oratoribus’: Aesthetics and Empire in Ancient Rome. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiii, 344. ISBN 9781107020900. $110.00.

Reviewed by Victoria E. Pagán, University of Florida (vepagan​ AT

Preview (

[Disclaimer: The author contributed to the Companion to Tacitus which I edited; other than this we have no connection.]

In this close analysis of Tacitus’ Dialogus, Christopher van den Berg foregrounds two problems and related ideas that lead toward a comprehensive understanding of the place of eloquentia in the literary history and literary criticism of the Roman empire. First, in challenging the assumption that the work is about the decline of oratory under the principate, van den Berg reevaluates the inconsistencies in the speeches that have detracted from its interpretive value and he shows instead that Tacitus is able “to employ meaningful inconsistencies in the service of a larger argument and to intervene obliquely in a work so as to inform our understanding of its statements” (p. 72; cf. p. 56). Second, beyond identifying the interconnections between the Dialogus and Cicero’s oratorical treatises, van den Berg demonstrates how “the Dialogus’ voracious allusions absorb the strategies of its predecessor, remodeling de Oratore’s procedures to suit its own designs” (p. 227). That is, the
Dialogus is an account of the changes in rhetorical practice that constitute the modern incarnation of eloquentia. These two strategies for reading the Dialogus allow for a fresh hermeneutic: “Rather than thinking of the Dialogus in terms of decline or its opposite, we might better be served by attempting to understand what might be at stake for Tacitus in choosing to frame the problem in those terms” (p. 238). We are certainly served well by van den Berg’s thorough and sophisticated analysis.


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