Congratulations to Kelly Shannon-Henderson, whose Religion and Memory in Tacitus’ Annals (OUP, 2019) has won a Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit from the Society for Classical Studies, recognizing outstanding achievement in classical scholarship. The full award citation follows:
Tacitus is a complex and pessimistic author who found a new audience in the dark days of the twentieth century, when his themes of looming autocracy and cowardice in the face of moral and political decay gained a special urgency; the voice of Ronald Syme often still sets the tone for Tacitean scholarship. Kelly Shannon-Henderson’s book Religion and Memory in Tacitus’ Annals offers an original and thought-provoking new way to read Tacitus’ narrative of the Julio-Claudians in the context of Roman social memory and religious practice. Her vision presents a bold corrective to Syme.
Shannon-Henderson’s book examines individual episodes in the Annals, at the same time as it traces important overarching themes that shape the narrative of the principate from the death of Augustus to the demise of Nero. She thoughtfully reimagines the experience of the ancient reader who encounters the narrative sequentially, as it develops the powerful themes of remembering and forgetting, of decline and fall, themselves linked to a complex and nuanced picture of how religion operated within Roman society.
Tacitus served as a Quindecemvir from an early stage of his career and displays considerable expertise in his understanding of the actual and potential role of religion within Roman society. Shannon-Henderson makes the case for taking religion seriously in Tacitus, whether in terms of his very detailed expositions of individual episodes, or on the level of the general patterns traced by the emerging principate as an autocratic system destructive of traditional cultic memory and ritual practice. Topics include many traditional religious practices and the actions of priests, the development of the imperial cult within city and empire, the role of fate and the will of the gods in Roman history, the system of prodigies, the rise of astrology and its powerful effects on members of Rome’s political elite, and above all the continual alterations to cultic memory produced by the very nature of one-man rule.
Tacitus begins the Annals with the death of Augustus. The promotion of the first princeps to the official status of divus in effect launched the religious phenomenon of the imperial cult, whose many effects shape Tacitus’ account of the Julio-Claudians. New portraits emerge of Germanicus (the man who was never emperor) and Claudius (his brother who had the least prospects of being elevated to that supreme position). Germanicus is revealed as a “theatrical opportunist” who tries to use traditional religion for his own purposes but is often ignorant of its form and content. The learned Claudius aims to restore traditional practices and rituals but is too weak and easily influenced to halt the decline inherent in Roman political culture by his day. Tacitus uses the themes of religion and memory to shape his analysis of the very nature of the principate.
The committee congratulates Kelly Shannon-Henderson on a distinguished first book, that sheds new light on how a literary text can represent religion as embodied in but also constitutive of Roman political culture.