The Annals of Imperial Rome

The Annals of Imperial Rome

In "The Annals of Imperial Rome", his last and greatest work, Tacitus (AD c.55-c.117) covers the period from AD 14, just before the death of Augustus, to the death of Nero in AD 68. Not all the passages have survived, but in those that have the depth and diversity of genius are manifest. From a vicious, vituperative biography of Tiberius to the more straightforward...

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Title:The Annals of Imperial Rome
Author:Tacitus
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Edition Language:English

The Annals of Imperial Rome Reviews

  • Lisa (Harmonybites)

    A friend of mine who teaches Latin for a living says it was this book (and Suetonius'

    ) that led to her fascination with things Roman and a change in her concentration. I wasn't hugely enamored at first. As our initial conversation went:

    Me: Well, so far this isn't five star love it, but not first star hate.

    Her: Keep going. It's good for you.

    Me: Like broccoli?

    Well, in the end it was more like a feast. This does have its dry patches--I considered dropping it a star because of

    A friend of mine who teaches Latin for a living says it was this book (and Suetonius'

    ) that led to her fascination with things Roman and a change in her concentration. I wasn't hugely enamored at first. As our initial conversation went:

    Me: Well, so far this isn't five star love it, but not first star hate.

    Her: Keep going. It's good for you.

    Me: Like broccoli?

    Well, in the end it was more like a feast. This does have its dry patches--I considered dropping it a star because of that but decided it just had too much that was awesome. This is a year by year narrative of Imperial Roman history from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, from 14 to 66 AD. Tacitus at times gives accounts of trials of people who aren't exactly famous. It's as if 2,000 years later one is reading bulletins of trials of John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich. Military battles and mutinies are related in sometimes (for me) eye-glazing detail. But though the events described here happened largely before Tacitus was born, being high up in the state himself, he had access to first hand Senate records--and of course he must have known people who could give him first hand accounts. Ancient Rome came vividly to life here. Reading, for instance, of all the suicides committed to anticipate arrest and execution or the real life instance of the origin of the word "decimate." Or even this little bit where an accused man "offered his slaves to the torture." (Testimony of slaves extracted without torture wasn't valid.) But the narrative really came alive when it dealt with the doings of the emperors, their entourage and family: incest, murder, betrayal. The doings of the emperors seemed an illustration of Acton's aphorism that "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." Honestly, often what came through was Roman barbarism rather than Roman civilization--maybe all the more when Tacitus was recounting events he seemingly took for granted or approved of--for instance freedmen being treated like second class citizens. I read--and did love--Thucydides'

    , which has good claim to be the first real history--dealing with forces and people without attributing it to Gods. At first I thought Tacitus didn't compare well. But my goodness, I don't remember the Greeks being this colorful or Thucydides this gossipy. Note this passage about the Empress Messalina, Claudius' wife:

    Something else was markably absent from Thucydides by the way very present in that quote--women. I can't recall and from googling online can't find that Thucydides so much as mentions an individual woman in his acount of the Peloponnesian War. About the most famous passage even regarding women in Thucydides' history is in Pericles' Funeral Oration where he purportedly said the best women pass anonymously through history. Women on the other hand, are very present in the

    . I'm not saying Tacitus was some proto-feminist. There are plenty of misogynist remarks--but women are a vital part of this history: Livia, Agrippina, Messalina, Pompeia--and not just those married to or the mother of Emperors--but figures such as Boudicca, the Warrior Queen of Britain, make quite the impression. I felt reading this one could write many a novel just based on single paragraphs in the history. I've read (some) of Gibbon's famous

    , I've read historical fiction about Rome by Robert Graves and Colleen McCullough among others, and I've dipped into contemporary popular histories of Rome. None really substitute for sustained reading of the real thing--from inside the head of a real Roman. So yes, whatever its faults, this was amazing.

  • David Sarkies

    27 September 2015

    As I was reading this for the second time I simply could not believe how brutal this piece of literature was, and what is more impressive is that it is based on real life events. It is authors like Tacitus that make me want to throw modern historical fiction into the fire place. In fact he is the one reason that I simply won't write historical fiction because he has set the standard so high that at this stage in my life I simply could not even think of equalling,

    27 September 2015

    As I was reading this for the second time I simply could not believe how brutal this piece of literature was, and what is more impressive is that it is based on real life events. It is authors like Tacitus that make me want to throw modern historical fiction into the fire place. In fact he is the one reason that I simply won't write historical fiction because he has set the standard so high that at this stage in my life I simply could not even think of equalling, let alone exceeding, his mastery of story telling. In fact, why don't historians write like Tacitus these days? Why do that have to be so academic and dry when you could write a rollicking good story without having to create historical fiction.

    Actually, I have to say that this story is actually more brutal than

    . Consider this, you have Agrippina, who is almost a carbon copy of:

    Nero:

    Though I have to admit that Nero was nowhere near as psychotic as Joffrey was at his age. Hey, you could even consider Arminius to basically be this guy:

    And if you like the fact that

    has yet to finish his epic then the same goes with Tacitus because this is how it ends:

    Okay, unlike Martin, Tacitus had originally completed his work (though this is disputed because some suggested that he died before he could finish it), but unfortunately we have lost a large chunk of the text. In fact the text that was handed down to us was in two chunks, with a large portion dealing with the emperor Calligula missing (as well as the last section which deals with Nero's removal from the throne and the beginning of the Jewish War). Okay, granted, you don't have a civil war involving multiple claimants to the throne, but you get that in the sequel,

    .

    This is one of those books that I could probably read again, and again, and write heaps on, though I will try to restrain myself in this review and go into more detail in

    . Anyway, I will touch on a couple of things here, namely what I call the bush wars (that is the wars on the fringe on the empire) and the political manoeuvrings in the capitol city.

    The Annals, or at least what we have, deal with the history of Rome across three emperors. Tacitus begins at the end of Augustus' reign, namely because he felt that there was already quite a lot written about him that he didn't need to go over the same ground. Actually, even when he was writing, there was still a huge amount of respect towards Augustus and one of the main purposes of his book was to show how cretinous some of these later emperors were (though as I have mentioned we are missing the reign of Calligula).

    If there is one thing that we can say about the emperors and that is where power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Okay, Claudius wasn't necessarily corrupt in the same way that Tiberius and Nero where, but that was because he was actually a very simply person. I don't want to say idiot because Claudius actually had some physical disability – Nero was the idiot, particularly since he considered himself a great musician and anybody who said otherwise would have their life-span cut considerably short. In fact there is one part where Tacitus mentions that Nero was competing in a competition and the judges wanted to award him first prize before the competition even began (probably so they didn't have to put up with his singing) but Nero insisted that he be put on a level playing field with everybody else. Mind you, Nero's idea of a level playing field was 'you give me first prize or you die, but you have to listen to me first'. Okay, when he did finish he was rewarded with a standing ovation, but once again when you have a psychotic emperor on the throne that is basically the only thing that you can do after he finishes playing his lute.

    I don't want to say too much about Claudius here because I will speak further on him below, except to mention that he was a rather simple person and easily swayed. In fact he wasn't the type of person to make up his own mind but rather to resort to those whom he trusted, which meant that it was always a game to get his ear and his respect. Mind you Claudius didn't claw his way onto the throne but rather was put there by those with vested interests in seeing him there.

    As for Tiberius, the other emperor whom we have a substantial section preserved, what we see is a slow descent into madness. Remember that Tiberius was Augustus' anointed one, and while Augustus seemed to be pretty steady throughout his reign (despite the fact that he had his sister and mother arrested for sexual immorality – but then again Augustus was intent on promoting family values among the ruling class), Tiberius didn't remain as such. I suspect that Augustus had a much stronger willpower than many of the other emperors, though we should also remember that all of the writers that we do have seem to heap praise upon him.

    Tiberius didn't remain that way though, though I have to admit much of what I am writing here is also coming out of

    , or at least what I can remember. What I do know is that in the later years of his reign he ended up retreating from Rome to spend the rest of his life on an island indulging in sensual pleasures.

    I remember my Classical Studies lecturer telling us one that in Imperial Rome there was suddenly only so far you could climb the ladder before you hit the ceiling. Okay, he was talking about a later period (namely the period in which Tacitus was writing – in fact I remember another one of them mentioning how they should study Tacitus and I blew him off in favour of

    – how wrong I was, but then again I was still young and relatively unread) but from what I have gathered from reading Tacitus the idea of climbing onto the Emperor's throne was not necessarily the top of the ladder. Well, it probably depended on the emperor, but it is clear that during this period even though the emperor may have had the final say, the emperor was not necessarily the ultimate power.

    The reason I suggest this is because it is not so much gaining the throne, but rather gaining the ear of the emperor. The political manoeuvrings were more in a way of gaining the emperor's favour, and turning the emperor against your enemies. Further it was not just men involved in this manoeuvring but the women as well. In fact one of the most powerful people in this period was Agrippina (though she ended up getting murdered by Nero, namely because she had become so powerful that she was a threat – she had already dispatched one emperor to put Nero on the throne).

    I mentioned how Tiberius retired to an island to engage in sensual pleasures, and this was namely so that he was out of the way so that the senate could orchestrate their plans. That did not necessarily mean that Tiberius was not in charge, he was just ruling through proxies since he had other interests to pursue. However, as they say, when the cats away then the mice would play, and the mice certainly did play a very bloodthirsty game.

    As for Claudius, well, as I suggested, he was a simpleton. Sure, he was the emperor but in name only. The game during his reign was to gain his ear and his trust so that one could rule through him. In fact Claudius never made a decision but rather was swayed by the people he trusted, which is why his wives were so powerful. In fact Agrippina got to where she was by convincing Claudius to dispatch his current wife and to marry her (and after getting him to name her child Nero heir, proceeded to dispatch him – with a feather no less).

    I want to finish off this review by talking about what I call the bush wars. The political manoeuvrings in Rome are punctuated by the wars on the fringes of the empire. When I say fringes I am really only talking about the North and the East (since the Atlantic Ocean was to the west and the Sahara desert to the south). Rome never got over the defeat of the legions in the Teutoberg Forest – meaning that they never conquered Germany. Sure, they managed to hold the frontier, but the Germans would regularly raid the outer provinces while Rome would regularly send troops into Germany to suppress the tribes.

    To the East lay the empire of Parthia, another empire that they could never effectively conquer. Sure, during the 2nd century Trajan did manage to conquer Parthia, but he never managed to hold the region. In a way Rome had grown so big that it simply was not able to grow any further. This happens with many empires because the further away from the centre the more difficult it is to control. It is not just native populations revolting against the rule, but also corrupt governors and also difficulties with reinforcing the troops. In fact it can be quite dangerous to send too many troops to the front because by doing so creates opportunities for revolts to arise in other parts of the empire.

    The one thing I love about reading about the wars in the East is the kingdom of Armenia. Since my family originally went to England from there in the 19th Century I have always had a soft spot for the country and it somehow thrills me to read about how this little (or I probably should say not so little because it was quite large during that period) has been around since the times of Alexander the Great. Back in those days Armenia played a very important role as a buffer state between Rome and Parthia.

    Oh, I almost forgot, we also hear about Boadecea here – the Briton queen who raised an army and fought against the Roman occupation (and was ultimately defeat, namely because while fighting the Romans they weren't able to plant their crops and as such began to starve). Despite the fact that England has inherited a lot of its Roman heritage, there is still a statue of Boadecea standing prominently outside the houses of Parliament.

  • Gary Inbinder

    The Annals is Tacitus’s final history. It covers the Julio-Claudian emperors from the death of Augustus (14 A.D.) almost to the end of Nero’s reign (68 A.D.). Sections of the Annals were lost, e.g. Caligula, Nero’s death and events leading to Galba’s accession, and what historians believe was a planned section covering the forty-one-year reign of arguably the greatest of all Roman emperors, Augustus.

    Tacitus (55? A.D. to 117 A.D.) was an orator and politician, as well as historian, and it’s

    The Annals is Tacitus’s final history. It covers the Julio-Claudian emperors from the death of Augustus (14 A.D.) almost to the end of Nero’s reign (68 A.D.). Sections of the Annals were lost, e.g. Caligula, Nero’s death and events leading to Galba’s accession, and what historians believe was a planned section covering the forty-one-year reign of arguably the greatest of all Roman emperors, Augustus.

    Tacitus (55? A.D. to 117 A.D.) was an orator and politician, as well as historian, and it’s believed that his high position in the administration (quaestor, praetor, senator and consul) under the Flavian emperors (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian) and two of the “Good Emperors” (Nerva and Trajan) provided him access to the senate’s records, making his histories of the period among the most reliable. Moreover, under Nerva and Trajan, Tacitus was relatively free to criticize the excesses and corruption of the Julio-Claudian period.

    In addition to the politics of the period, the Annals covers military conflicts, including the seeming “Forever War” with the Parthians (Rome and the Parthians/Persians fought for centuries; an almost perpetual conflict interrupted by short periods of relative peace.)

    Regarding the Julio-Claudians covered in the Annals, they go from bad (Tiberius) to worse (Nero). Among this rogue’s gallery, Claudius comes off the best, that is to say he was the least offensive turd in the dung heap.

  • J.G. Keely

    The great benefit of a republic is the slowness with which it moves. In America or Rome, the long, careful consideration of matters by fractious, embittered rivals tend to assure that the only measures which pass are those which are beneficial, or those which are useless. In a dictatorship, much more may be achieved. In little time, a great man may do a great many things, and a lesser man make many errors.

    As Tacitus, Machiavelli, Jefferson, or any proponent of the republic will tell you, great

    The great benefit of a republic is the slowness with which it moves. In America or Rome, the long, careful consideration of matters by fractious, embittered rivals tend to assure that the only measures which pass are those which are beneficial, or those which are useless. In a dictatorship, much more may be achieved. In little time, a great man may do a great many things, and a lesser man make many errors.

    As Tacitus, Machiavelli, Jefferson, or any proponent of the republic will tell you, great men are scarce, but you will never want for the lesser kind. If you marvel at my inclusion of Machiavelli among men of the republic, you may be surprised to hear that the vast majority of his works were against tyranny, and his well-known work about tyrants did not paint them in a very flattering light.

    Tacitus' portraits of these Roman tyrants is much less than flattering, echoing Sallust's partisan accounts. After all, Plutarch's example was to paint history in terms of moral lessons, that the past is full of errors we can learn to avoid and of virtues to which we might aspire. But the time of the Annals was one mainly of errors, with virtues serving only to highlight the tragic fates of those who tried to uphold them.

    Tacitus also took his Latinate style from Sallust, narrowing it into concise aphorisms which his English translators have come to lament. Things cannot be said as simply, as succinctly, or as precisely in a language so reliant copulas, pronouns, and word order. We may be missing the force of his terse invectives, but for examples, Tacitus never lacks. His is a case study of the craven, sycophantic rule of a series of inadequate monarchs.

    For five hundred years, the Roman Republic had ruled, by far the most successful example of such a state. The had survived their enemies, civil wars, and dictators, finally to be undone by the frantic success of their unchecked expansion, which gave their generals the wherewithal to declare themselves king.

    The long reign of Augustus showed what a monarch can achieve. His many heirs showed the more common faces of the monarch: debauched, indecisive, paranoid, cruel, incompetent. Despite his claims of objectivism, Tacitus often seems to paint these men more negatively than their actions merit. Certainly, Tiberius is unsure and weak-willed, but Tacitus seeks to ascribe to him a more nefarious character.

    It may have been something nebulous which Tacitus could not support with a mere recitation of the facts, or it may be that he sees behind every foul act of a tyrant a willfullness, disguised as it might be by a milder character. Again, he is reminiscent of Sallust, who saw conspiracies everywhere, though it is not an enviable task for a historian to pick the true conspiracies from the fanciful.

    I do not think Tacitus needed to embellish the facts; to me, the thoroughly incompetent, frightened ruler is just as threatening as the devious, malicious one. As tyrants, both are equally dangerous to the state.

    It is unfortunate that not all of the Annals have survived, though large parts are intact. For those interested, it might be noted that Robert Graves' two novels, 'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius the God' were written to precisely cover the break in the Annals from Caligula to Claudius, ending where Tacitus picks up, again.

    As Tacitus himself laments, this period is not the most exciting from the point of view of the historian. There are few great battles or civil wars, few admirable characters, and many vicissitudes, atrocities, tragedies, adulteries, murders, suicides, conspiracies, assassinations, and other mockeries of Rome's former nobility. Then again, some people might find that kind of thing intriguing.

    The work is certainly full of unusual stories of a type which are less commonly encountered than the heroism of battle or the benevolence of a good ruler. To anyone looking toward the bredth and scope of roman history, not merely its glories, the Annals are uncommon, if not unique.

  • Szplug

    There is nothing quite like the terse and clean prose of Tacitus—the leanness of which is apparently found in the Latin source as well as the English rendering—and the way it provides the reader with such a comfortable passage through his

    . The coverage of the reign of Tiberius is liberal and thoroughly vituperative; the reluctant Caesar—he of the moving anecdote of pursuing the ex-wife he truly loved across a Roman marketplace whilst sobbing bitterly at the cruel fate which forced him to

    There is nothing quite like the terse and clean prose of Tacitus—the leanness of which is apparently found in the Latin source as well as the English rendering—and the way it provides the reader with such a comfortable passage through his

    . The coverage of the reign of Tiberius is liberal and thoroughly vituperative; the reluctant Caesar—he of the moving anecdote of pursuing the ex-wife he truly loved across a Roman marketplace whilst sobbing bitterly at the cruel fate which forced him to share the matrimonial bed with Augustus' lascivious daughter, Julia—is presented in a severely unfavorable light. From the opening moments of his reign shown to be a dissembling fool and butt of some gentle-but-searing mockery from the Senators, the Tiberius of Tacitus' tale is an inwardly brooding and rancorous monarch—alternately under the thumb of his overweening mother and his ambitious and cunning Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus—whose behavior was somewhat restrained by the moderating maternal influence; when she passed on, all the black passions and lusts of his twisted soul were given their free reign. Although later histories have presented the Imperial administration of Tiberius as one of general competence and peace (the only

    danger lay in being either a member of the Imperial family or that of the capital city's aristocracy), none possess the august flavor of the

    , and his portrait of Tiberius is always the one uppermost in my mind when I think on Augustus' successor.

    Unfortunately, his coverage of the reign of the disturbed Caligula is missing in its entirety, and we are left with fragments of the rule of the aged Claudius and the megalomaniac Nero, both of which prove, in many ways, more the story of the women and mistresses in their lives, both in how these monarch's favors were manipulated and bribed, and in how their murderous impulses were aroused when these same women, inevitably, pushed them too far. If these histories lack the gravitas found in that of the much more sober and capable Tiberius—who, in some ways, served as an early exemplar of the despotic tyranny that Tacitus so deplored in the reign of Diocletian—they still fascinate with glimpses of the pleasures and perils attending the position of being master of the Roman World.

    For my money, the concluding passage of

    , which is a summing up of the long life and reign of Tiberius, is a marvelous example of Tacitus' unique style of presentation and judgement:

  • Roy Lotz

    In preparation for my trip to Rome, I decided that it was finally time to read Tacitus. I had been meaning to for a long while. Edward Gibbon, my favorite historian, always spoke of Tacitus in terms of deep reverence; and when your idols have idols, you had better see why.

    The

    is Tacitus’s last major historical work, considered by many to be his masterpiece. In it, he covers the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—though the

    In preparation for my trip to Rome, I decided that it was finally time to read Tacitus. I had been meaning to for a long while. Edward Gibbon, my favorite historian, always spoke of Tacitus in terms of deep reverence; and when your idols have idols, you had better see why.

    The

    is Tacitus’s last major historical work, considered by many to be his masterpiece. In it, he covers the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—though the books covering Caligula’s reign have been lost to time. As the title suggests, Tacitus takes an annalistic approach to his history, keeping the narrative in strict chronological order. With such a style, it is difficult to pull away from the trees and see the forest; rather, the reader often feels lost in the thickets of battles, intrigues, and executions. The final effect is that of being pulled into the history, absorbed in its dramas and scandals, too engrossed for analysis.

    Tacitus’s proclaimed motive for writing his history is the defects of his predecessors:

    This leads to Tacitus’s famous promise to write his record “without rancour or bias” since he was “far removed” from the events recorded therein. This is, of course, a dubious claim, especially once you peruse his book. The

    is often little more than a catalogue of crimes committed by the emperors, related in merciless succession by Tacitus.

    Hardly a day went by, it seems, without a poisoning, a false conviction, a forced suicide, the torture of slaves, the murder of relatives, or a mass execution. The lucky ones got off with an exile, though half the time a centurion was later sent to finish the job. All of this is related succinctly, dispassionately, but no less vividly by Tacitus; and the cumulative effect is overpowering. The book is absolutely riveting; so often I could not put it down, even as I felt my stomach tightening from the stream of tragedy.

    The only thing that breaks this chain of woe are forays into the provinces—the north and the east, to be precise—wherein certain kings and tribes occasionally rouse up trouble, until the Roman legions come in to ‘pacify’ the region. These episodes of provincial warfare are often a great relief from corrupt scenes of Rome, not to mention excellent examples of military history, with rousing depictions of battles, stratagems, and the horrors of war. The best of these sections come near the beginning, when Tacitus relates the career of Germanicus, the Roman Alexander, whose military victories were a cause of constant jealousy on Tiberius’s part.

    It is difficult to evaluate Tacitus as a historian, since he came from such a different time, and wrote with different aims and motives. Lamentably, but not surprisingly, he most often does not disclose his sources, which makes it nearly impossible to evaluate the veracity of most of his claims. Tacitus’s aim is relatively narrow, confining himself to political and military history, with no concern for economic, social, artistic, or religious history. He is generally not concerned with seeking causes or analyzing patterns. Rather, Tacitus sees history as a moral and a practical exercise, recording evil deeds so they can be avoided, and good deeds so they can be imitated.

    Where Tacitus excels is not as a historian as such, but an author. His famously terse prose doubtless loses most of its tang through translation. Even with this loss, however, Tacitus is a writer of the highest caliber. He is capable of evoking scenes, portraying personalities, depicting battles in just a few lines, which nonetheless can knock the reader over with their dramatic power. The combination of Tacitus’s own political experience with his keen literary talent serves to make him a rival of the best novelists as a storyteller. It is difficult to exaggerate how exciting this book can be.

    I feel very happy now, for I'm sure that I made an excellent choice. No other book could have given me such a vivid portrait of Ancient Rome. Now I can join Gibbon as an admirer of Tacitus, and will soon join Gibbon as another pilgrim to that ancient city.

  • Scriptor Ignotus

    Before there was George R. R. Martin, there was Tacitus. Though fragmentary and incomplete, the

    have definitively captured the public imagination regarding the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the early years of the Roman Principate -- their sensationalist qualities and questionable historical accuracy notwithstanding. The surviving material covers the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. The absence of Caligula, perhaps the most notorious of all Roman emperors, is a notable disappointment;

    Before there was George R. R. Martin, there was Tacitus. Though fragmentary and incomplete, the

    have definitively captured the public imagination regarding the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the early years of the Roman Principate -- their sensationalist qualities and questionable historical accuracy notwithstanding. The surviving material covers the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. The absence of Caligula, perhaps the most notorious of all Roman emperors, is a notable disappointment; but even in the surviving books, there is no shortage of drama.

    When reading the

    , one stylistic trait of Tacitus's writing presents itself immediately, and this is his heavy usage of indirect quotations, wherein he sort of channels the thoughts of the characters he portrays without quoting them directly. He is certainly not as dry as Livy; he has a real flair for the dramatic and does not shy away from interjecting with some of his own thoughts. He presents his history as an unfolding moral drama, with wars abroad, intrigue at home, and traditional Roman values being everywhere discarded.

    Tacitus is often painted as a cynic (in the present-day sense of the word, not in reference to the philosophical school). If he is, then he also lives up to the old adage about cynics: that they are merely disappointed idealists. In Book 3, he gives us a surprisingly Rousseauian account of human nature and the origins of law and government:

    For Tacitus, politics as he knew it was a grotesque caricature of human nature, not a result of it. So when he details the scandals that rocked first-century Rome, he is not necessarily driven by hard-headed realism, but rather by an underlying conviction that the human race does not need to be the way it is. If man was by nature a creature of corruption and power seeking, Tacitus may not have seen a need to chronicle the display of these traits in his own society.

    But the

    are not merely a historical or political work. They are also a work of literature and high drama. He paints vivid portraits of moments and characters: when Germanicus visits the battlefield where Varus's legions met their end and has a nightmare in which the ill-fated general rises vampirically from the German swamp; or when Sejanus, the power-hungry captain of the Praetorian Guard, seduces the wife of Drusus, Tiberius's son, and conspires with her to poison him, eliminating Tiberius's only heir and ultimately making way not for his own rise, but for that of Caligula.

  • Matt

    Augustus might have established the Principate, but it was up to his successors to continue it and prevent Rome from once against descending into civil war. Tacitus in

    , the reigns of the Caesars from Tiberius to the death of Nero which would lead to the events in the writer’s

    .

    The work begins with Tacitus reviewing the reign of Augustus and how Tiberius became his successor, over his more popular nephew Germanicus whose side of the family would eventual

    Augustus might have established the Principate, but it was up to his successors to continue it and prevent Rome from once against descending into civil war. Tacitus in

    , the reigns of the Caesars from Tiberius to the death of Nero which would lead to the events in the writer’s

    .

    The work begins with Tacitus reviewing the reign of Augustus and how Tiberius became his successor, over his more popular nephew Germanicus whose side of the family would eventual rule. Tiberius shrewdly attempts to be modest in claiming the Imperial title, but this hides his dark nature that he developed during his self-imposed exile before becoming Augustus’ heir. Under Tiberius is when the show trials and political persecutions of leading men that would begin that would become notorious under later Emperors. The middle and the very end of Tiberius’ reign, all of Gaius (Caligula)’s reign, and the first half of Claudius’ reign have been lost. Tacitus’ work picks up with how Claudius’ wife Messalina was brought down and his niece Agrippina shrewdly manipulating her way into marriage with her uncle so as to get her son, the future Nero, to become Emperor. Though the show trials and political persecutions continue, Claudius doesn’t instigate them and attempts to be lenient for those being wrongly convicted. Yet once Nero becomes an adult and Claudius’ son Britannicus still a child, Claudius’ days are numbered. Once his great-uncle and adoptive father is dead, Nero assumes the leadership and begins consolidating power including poisoning Britannicus at dinner one night. Though his mother Agrippina attempts to influence him, Nero humors her while attempting to get rid of her and finally succeeding. Though taught and tutored by the renowned Seneca, Nero has learned to rule in the guise of Tiberius yet with the ruthlessness of Gaius and soon anyone that offended him or could have been a threat to him or perceived to be by his hangers on. Though the end of Nero’s reign is missing, the trials and murders of senators were increasing in number to the point that later as mentioned in

    they decided to turn on Nero and proclaim Galba.

    The unfortunate incompleteness of Tacitus’ work does not diminish the great historical account that it presents of early Imperial history as well as his critique of the Roman aristocracy during the reigns of Augustus’ Julio-Claudian successors. Though we know his opinions of Tiberius and Nero the best since their reigns survived the best, Tacitus critiques of those family members that did not rule were highly invaluable especially all those who in the writer’s opinion might have been more fitting successors to Augustus if not for political intrigue or bad luck. If there is a complaint with this book it is with a decision by translator Michael Grant decision to use modern military terminology in reference to Roman’s military was it, but his decision to use Roman numerals to help identify different historical actors who had the same name—a very common Roman practice—without a doubt help keep things straight. The biggest complaint that I had with Tacitus’ other works, which I had from Oxford World Classics, were non-existent with Penguin Classics and thus I encourage others towards that particular publisher.

    is Tacitus’ finest work, showing the corruption of absolute power and how many choose to allow it overcome them instead of standing up to it. Although probably (at least) one-third of the work is missing, the portions we have covers how a politically stable Rome begins to slowly unravel through ever increasing fear of the most powerful man in the Empire. The end result of this is chronicles in Tacitus’ previous work.

  • Markus

    It all sounds strangely like something Steven Erikson would write.

    It all sounds strangely like something Steven Erikson would write.

  • Jan-Maat

    This is less accessible than

    '

    , in which the narrative of the civil war and the German revolt, actually aided by the richness of detail, gives coherence to the whole work. By contrast

    covers a longer period fairly strictly year by year which breaks up the flows of particular events and works against analysis.

    Tacitus may be working from sources that are less detailed in

    , he is certainly at a greater remove from the events, while his own experience as a

    This is less accessible than

    '

    , in which the narrative of the civil war and the German revolt, actually aided by the richness of detail, gives coherence to the whole work. By contrast

    covers a longer period fairly strictly year by year which breaks up the flows of particular events and works against analysis.

    Tacitus may be working from sources that are less detailed in

    , he is certainly at a greater remove from the events, while his own experience as a Senator under the Emperor Domitian probably colours his attitudes to the treason trials under Tiberius and the plots against Nero.

    Tacitus has the insidious habit of writing opinion as though it were fact, for example Tiberius giving himself over to malevolent thoughts and secret orgies on Capri is a statement, but it seems unlikely that Tacitus had access to Tiberius diary (

    ). Tacitus' negative slants become hard to take at face value. Of course it is a power grab when Livia seals off the house in which Augustus is dying and holds off announcing his death until Tiberius arrives, but since at the time before Augustus the Roman world had a series of civil wars, securing a peaceful succession is also perhaps, wise, prudent and stateswomanlike?

    There are reasons for his negative attitude. Firstly his sources include the writings of Senators, and he himself was a Senator, people used to dealing with and possibly resenting Emperors and their own loss of power relative to the good old days of the Republic - and here Tacitus nails his colours to the mast early on writing about Augustus' reign "

    ."

    Later he goes further and defines his philosophy of history. Men were originally equal and good in his view, (you can imagine Hobbes choking on his breakfast beer as he read that) while inequality led to despotism and a fall from the Golden Age. This sounds nice but he qualifies this by telling us that the Twelve Tables (the first Roman law code circa 450 BC) were the last equitable laws. Since under those laws slavery was accepted as an already existing institution and there were restrictions on marriage between those of the Senatorial order and plebeians, Tacitus' idea of equality seems somewhat peculiar. Later equalising legislation like the land reforms of the Brothers Grachii is dismissed by Tacitus as as "class warfare". Michael Grant, the translator doesn't give a gloss as to what the original Latin was, presumably something equally uncomplimentary but with a Roman twist.

    Therefore by definition things for Tacitus are always getting worse in the Roman world. The time when things were good was long ago. Standards today are slipping like togas, revealing secret orgies all over the place.

    But on the slightly positive side this does mean that Tacitus quite likes his noble savages. The more savage, the more noble, because they are primitive and simple like the ancient Romans. They fight for freedom, which Tacitus seems to quite like, so long as this freedom is restricted to regions beyond the Imperial frontier like Germany (he is not keen on people within the Empire rebelling for freedom). So Arminus, leader of the freedom loving Germans, gets some good speeches as does the Caledonian leader in the

    .

    This does mean that his views do seem to be out of tune with Roman public opinion even as he describes it. People seem to enjoy Nero's theatre performances (unless they are old style virtuous Romans from the countryside), the chariot races and the taverns built round Augustus' naval lake. Tacitus dislikes all these things.

    Ovid at the beginning of

    compares the rustic theatre of Romulus to that of his own day, where men and women go to see and be seen, seduction is a hunt, a military triumph an opportunity to impress your sweetheart. Of a sudden Ovid conjures up a history of Rome that is driven by sexual, not military, conquest. Such a viewpoint must have been anathema for Tacitus. For him the relative good times of peace after decades of civil war were a sad fall from the days of ancient virtue when power struggles involved armies and not informants.

    Anyway a slight oddity in his history is his relatively sympathetic treatment of mutinous soldiers at the beginning of Tiberius' reign. Their pay was low, their service periods had been unilaterally extended under Augustus, they were subject to disciplinary beatings, and Tacitus describes their clothes as rags. When Germanicus

    arrives at a camp to smooth things over, soldiers seize his hand as if to kiss it, but instead slip his fingers in their mouths so he can feel that they have no teeth left (presumably army rations were provided in the form of soup) to demonstrate the privations they have endured in the service of the Empire. Germanicus' response to this vile mutiny perpetrated by these scarred veterans is:

    (i) to promise improvements to the conditions of service

    (ii) having the ringleaders flogged to death

    (iii) getting the toothless soldiers to attack the Germans.

    Which they successfully do. Either toothless, ragged and aged soldiers are a mysteriously effective combat force or Tacitus is having his cake here and enjoying eating it

    (although he may be reflecting his sources here). Still you can't help thinking that the mutineers actually had fair grounds for complaint, even if this was jolly unRoman on their part.

    The final awkwardness about reading

    is that only two bits have survived: the end of Augustus' reign and much of Tiberius', and then the end of Claudius' reign and a good chunk of Nero's. Sadly no medieval scribe thought that Caligula making his horse a senator was interesting enough to be worth copying. So much for the judgement of medieval monks. The translator puts this down to Tacitus' difficult prose style, which he tries not to imitate. So much for his unRoman work ethic.

    One of the great features of Tacitus' style is that his prejudices are so extreme that they become entertaining (unless you share them, in which case Tacitus is an ideal read). Tacitus comes across as the bitter bastard child of a snide newspaper columnist and an internet troll. He doesn't pass up on opportunities to insinuate the unpleasant and derogatory.

    Then there is a timelessness to his depiction of the business of an empire managing its client states. When one puppet ruler is deposed by the angry population and has his ears cut off I couldn't help but think about Hamid Kharzai

    (if anyone remembers who he was). The players change, but the game's the same.

    There is also an insight into the early Roman empire with dependant kings in Thrace fighting each other and the weird repetitiveness of taxation leading to rebellions in Gaul and Batavia, as well as the murder of a governor in Spain. It would have been nice to see some analysis here from Tacitus who had been a pro-consul of Asia, but possibly with an army that was able to crush rebellions (whose soldiers enjoyed the opportunities for loot to supplement wages and whose officers were keen on recognition for bold deeds) there was no incentive for moderation in Roman extortion

    .

    We get to see something of the operation of the senate too. Overwhelmed by a moral panic that too many criminals are evading Roman justice by claiming sanctuary rights in temples, the Senate decides to audit all the temples to determine if they should be allowed to offer sanctuary. Cue deputations from round the Mediterranean of priests with tales of what the gods did to justify the sanctuary rights they offer ,all of which have to be duly audited by the Senate.

    Finally there are these nice snippets of information, tribes moving in search of better land on the German frontier (just the kind of thing that triggered

    and Rome's advance towards the Rhine), collapsing theatres (see what happens when you have no building codes), brawling ballet fans and the Emperor Nero having a night out on the town Roman style (caution: involves punch ups with random strangers).

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