From the October 2020 Desktop News | Dr. Kelly Shannon-Henderson, an associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Classics, was recently awarded the C.J. Goodwin Award of Merit for outstanding publications for her book Religion and Memory in Tacitus’ Annals.
The award comes from the Society for Classical Studies, an international organization dedicated to the research of Greek and Roman antiquity. The society grants three Goodwin Awards of Merit annually, each going to a distinguished publication appearing within the previous three years.
Shannon-Henderson’s book explores the complicated history of Tacitus, a historian and politician in the Roman empire active in the 110s AD. Tacitus is best known for his critiques of previous dynasties of emperors and for detailing their reigns in his works, the Annals and the Histories. But Shannon-Henderson wanted to explore a lesser-studied aspect of Tacitus: his use of religious material.
“Because he was a senator, a lot of his work is seen as very political,” Shannon-Henderson said. “He was really interested in the political debates of the time, and religious material was often seen as separate from that. But one of the few biographical details we know about Tacitus is that he held a priesthood in the Roman religion, and that’s probably something that he would have spent a lot of time and energy on during his life. So I thought, ‘if religion was important to Tacitus, what can it tell us about his view, particularly of the Emperors that he’s talking about?’”
Throughout her book, Shannon-Henderson analyzes Tacitus’s Annals through this lens of religion, looking for ways in which his interest in religion affected the way he criticized the emperors at the time. She found that many of his criticisms can be interpreted from a religious point of view as well as a political one.
“A lot of what I found seemed to be Tacitus showcasing the ways in which the emperors didn’t follow the traditions of Roman religion: how they break them, change them, twist things to their own purposes, and Tacitus seems to think that that is really detrimental,” Shannon-Henderson said. “In other words, his problem with the emperors is not just political, but also cultural—that he thinks that the empire’s one-man rule is really dangerous for Roman religion, which is one of the prime drivers of Roman identity and the preservation of ancient traditions.”
As this is her first book, Shannon-Henderson did not expect it to receive the recognition that it has, but she is grateful that people are interested in her work and want to learn more about Tacitus’s influences. She hopes the book will change how people think not only about Tacitus as a historian, but how they study religion and other cultural phenomena in classical writings.
“I hope it’ll change how people think about Tacitus,” Shannon-Henderson said. “Since the 1950s, there’s been a lot of people saying that religion shouldn’t be an influence when you talk about Tacitus, and so I hope that my book will offer sort of a corrective.
“I also want people to think about this kind of material in a different way, not only in Tacitus’s writing, but in other authors’ and ancient historians’ works, as well. People tend to read them a lot because of the political content, and it’s not often that things like religion and omens are taken seriously. So I hope this makes people think about these things again.”