The aim of this Ph.D. project was to elucidate the specific Tacitean representation of the urbs Roma in comparison to other literary representations and the material Rome of the Tacitean age which as part of a specific construction of past and memory reflects a subjective “Romerlebnis” that exemplifies important aspects of former values and norms.

In particular, the investigation focused on how Tacitus perceives, presents, connotes and functionalizes the city, its urban spaces and topographies which among others implies questions about thematic, symbolic, characterizing or psychologizing functions that can be identified in the text.



Urbem Romam a principio reges habuere (Tac. ann. 1,1) – these are the first well known words in the Annals of Tacitus, his second historiographical opus which focuses on Roman history from the beginning of Tiberius’s reign until the end of Nero. Remarkable is the position of the urbs Roma at the beginning of the sentence as it marks, based on epic tradition, the focus of his work: the history of the city in relation to the inhabitants.Thus, one can also conceive the text as a so called „Stadttext“ in which the city not just functions as a setting of a narrative but serves particularly as one of the main themes. This specific relationship between the author and the city constitutes the topic of the dissertation project which examined literary resonances of the city and also the city’s resonance in literature in the extant texts of the two historical works of Tacitus, the Histories and the Annals.

Theoretical and methodological approach

The theoretical background of the study is based on the theory of a constructive conception of space which implies that space is not perceived as a pre-existing frame but as a product that gains its shape mainly through movement, action and communication between figures. Therefore the research was based on three theoretical assumptions:

1. Literary representations of space are always selective and have to be discerned from the real, physical ones as they generate their own symbolic and imaginary entity. Literary spaces can therefore be defined as mental images, which reshape elements of real, existing spaces into a new concept.

2. A specific space can be endlessly rewritten. That means that each text represents its own image and overwrites, to a greater or lesser degree, the previous mental representations.

3. Especially in imperial Roman historiography, representations of space serve particularly to construct past and memory. Topographies can be connected with specific narratives, whereas both are in constant interrelationship.

By analysing pivotal passages of the text, the narrative model of space by the literary scholar Gerhard Hoffmann (1978) constitutes the main methodological background of the study. For him narrative space is constituted by the way it is experienced. He therefore speaks of a so called “gelebter Raum”. This marked a rather new approach to the concept of narrative space as it from then on no longer was just reduced to his ornamental functions as a simple backdrop for the plot. Hoffmann differentiates between three models of space:

1. “gestimmter Raum”: space of atmosphere which marks space, in the way it is perceived by the surrounding atmosphere or mood.

2. “Aktionsraum”: space of action which marks a space of movement of figures and refers to the figures, that act in that space

3. “Anschauungsraum”: space of visual perception in which everything gains importance that can be seen by the figures.


In both historiographical works of Tacitus, the city of Rome appears hardly as a monumental and physical space (“Anschauungsraum”) shaped through the building policy of the Emperors. The author on the contrary rarely mentions architecture of the post republican time. The image of the urbs appears therefore extremely selective.

In addition to that, one can assume differences between the literary representation of Rome in the Histories and in the Annals: In pivotal passages of the Histories, Rome and its central urban spaces, most notably the Forum Romanum, the Capitol and the Palatine, form a central part in the narrative with a highly memorializing function. In these passages it is especially striking, how Tacitus reacts to former narratives (esp. Livy) by transforming their semantics of space into something new. In doing so, he creates new literary monumenta that do not only remind the reader of the horrible events of Civil war from 69 AD, likewise they act as reminder since they also imply didactic and moralizing effects.

In the extant texts of the Annals, the city of Rome and its urban spaces appear less explicitly, and less dramatically than in the extant texts of the Histories. Whereas in the Tiberian narrative, the city – as the emperor – does not seem to be present at all, topographical references increase in the Claudian and especially in the Neronian narrative in which the urbs-capta motive becomes particularly obvious. The city appears as an “Aktionsraum“, a space of action, in which moral decline reaches its peak. Rome is transformed into a “Heterotopie“, that Tacitus contrasts with the idealized Rome from the early period.

This Ph.D. thesis has been written within the program “Ancient Languages and Texts” (ALT) of the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies (BerGSAS) and was successfully completed in 2018.