Read an Excerpt
In The Annals of Imperial Rome, the Roman historian Tacitus offers a dramatic vision of imperial Rome during roughly the first half of the first century AD. Starting with the death of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, in AD 14, he describes how the Julio-Claudian dynasty consolidated its grip upon the empire, only to end suddenly in AD 68 with the suicide of its last representative, the emperor Nero, after he had eliminated all other members of his family. Tacitus explores how increasingly decadent behavior by the emperors alienated the upper classes and, in the best traditions of a tabloid journalist, he spares the reader no court intrigue, even while expressing his own scepticism about the accuracy of reports of scandals such as Nero’s incest with his mother. He includes vivid accounts of orgiastic revels lighted by human torches—some of the earliest Christians, who found themselves made scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome to counter rumors that Nero had started the fire, then sung (not fiddled!—that is one of Hollywood’s inventions) while Rome burned. Tacitus also describes the impact of the dynasty upon Rome’s provincial subjects and its wars of expansion, including Claudius’ conquest of Britain and the subsequent revolt led by the British queen Boudicca (or Boadicea).
Tacitus himself held a prominent place in Roman society during the early second century, rising to the highest political rank of consul (AD 97), and subsequently acting as governor of the prestigious province of Asia (AD 112–13). He was born c. AD 56, probably in northern Italy or southern France, and so had to make his way in the city of Rome as a newcomer. For the Romans, history writing was not the task of professional scholars, but was the duty of senators who had held the highest political offices, and who could thus offer real insight into Roman politics. The Annals is a work of Tacitus’ maturity as an historian. Before the Annals, he had written four other works: in AD 98, the Agricola (a historical biography of his father-in-law, the general Agricola, who played an important role in the pacification of Britain); also in AD 98, the Germania (an ethnographical description of the Germans living on the fringes of the Roman empire); and, in c. AD 101 or 102, the Dialogue On Orators (an exploration of the declining role of rhetoric in contemporary society). He wrote the Histories in c. AD 109–10, which is his account of the turbulent civil wars of AD 68–69 and of the Flavian dynasty, which ended in AD 96. The Annals was his final work, perhaps composed between c. AD 114 and 120. It took him back to the period preceding that covered in the Histories, from the death of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and succession of Tiberius to the reign of Nero (AD 14–68). In the Annals, he presents a picture of how rule by emperors at Rome took a firm hold. Substantial portions of this work are lost, including most of book five relating to Tiberius, the whole of his account of Gaius-Caligula, the start of Claudius’ reign, and the end of Nero’s.
“This I regard as history's highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds,” writes Tacitus. In one of his rare reflections upon the task of writing history, Tacitus reveals that, in common with other Roman historians, he regards his work as serving a moral purpose. As he states a little later on, “there must be good in carefully noting and recording this period, for it is but few who have the foresight to distinguish right from wrong or what is sound from what is hurtful, while most men learn wisdom from the fortunes of others.” Writing for an elite audience, the men who ruled the Roman Empire, he is concerned with providing his peers with examples of behavior, good and bad, for them to emulate or avoid. The actions of emperors such as Nero, whose modern-day reputation for extravagant living and sexual depravity largely derives from Tacitus, provided a rich hunting ground for examples of the latter. In addition to his serious purpose, however, Tacitus is also concerned with entertaining his audience, above all by producing a work of literary merit.
It is for these reasons that Tacitus’ historical writings have had such a significant impact upon historians and politicians in later times. Although his works were neglected during the Middle Ages, humanists during the early fifteenth century began to take a new interest in them. This Tacitean revival received fresh impetus with the rediscovery of what is still our sole manuscript copy of the first six books of the Annals, published in 1515 under the auspices of Pope Leo X. Admiration for Tacitus’ style, historical and political astuteness, and moral stance led to a wave of interest in his works, known as “Tacitism,” between c. 1580 and c. 1680. Gaining popularity particularly in the court circles of the Medici and Farnese in Italy, Tacitus influenced such writers as Machiavelli, and provided the inspiration for dramas such as Ben Jonson’s Sejanus (1603) and Jean Racine’s Britannicus (1669), as well as Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppaea (1643), and, more recently, Robert Graves’ novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Even the Hollywood blockbuster movie Gladiator (2000) seems to mirror Tacitus’ nostalgia for the days of the Republic.
Tacitus’ purpose in writing the Annals continues to inspire debate. Some scholars have argued that Tacitus used his historical writings in order to express hostility towards the relatively new political system of rule by emperors—the Principate—and in order to advocate a return to the constitution of the Republic, when Senate and People were supreme. They maintain that the rule of the tyrannical emperor Domitian, which is covered in the Histories, jaundiced Tacitus’ view of emperors as a whole, and resulted in negative depictions of earlier emperors described in the Annals, notably Tiberius and Nero. Certainly, he paints a sinister picture of Domitian in his earliest work, the Agricola, and superficially at least he expresses discontent with the type of history which he can write about imperial Rome:
Much of what I have related and shall have to relate, may perhaps, I am aware, seem petty trifles to record. But no one must compare my annals with the writings of those who have described Rome in old days. They told of great wars, of the storming of cities, of the defeat and capture of kings… My labors are circumscribed and inglorious; peace wholly unbroken or but slightly disturbed, dismal misery in the capital, an emperor careless about the enlargement of the empire, such is my theme. Still it will not be useless to study those at first sight trifling events out of which the movements of vast changes often take their rise…. Still, though this is instructive, it gives very little pleasure. … I have to present in succession the merciless biddings of a tyrant, incessant prosecutions, faithless friendships, the ruin of innocence, the same causes issuing in the same results, and I am everywhere confronted by a wearisome monotony in my subject matter.
Indeed, Tacitus chose to adopt the traditional annalistic format of Roman historians, whereby his narrative is structured year by year and punctuated by the taking up of office by the annual consuls on January 1. In histories composed during the Republic, this narrative structure suited events, since the two consuls were Rome’s chief magistrates, who had a huge impact upon events during their year in office. Thus, the year was shaped by their taking up office at Rome, their departure on military campaign during the summer months, and finally their return to Rome. In parallel to this, the typical narrative structure for each year in annalistic history was established as: home affairs, campaigns abroad, home affairs. Under the rule of emperors, however, consuls had much less influence (they did not lead troops out on campaign, for instance), and Tacitus exploits a traditional historical framework in order to emphasize how little sense a year-by-year account of Roman history actually makes once an emperor is in continuous power.
All these aspects suggest that Tacitus was critical of the Principate. Nevertheless, Tacitus himself acknowledged that his career had been furthered by Domitian, along with the other Flavian emperors: “I would not deny that my elevation was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian.” Even if he did deplore the state of Rome as a whole under Domitian, it is quite clear that he himself suffered no personal setback. It is also difficult to justify the view that Tacitus himself opposed the system of the Principate as a whole, because he might have risked offending the current emperor, and also because he himself clearly flourished under it. Instead, it is possible that what Tacitus was trying to explore was how the existing system of the Principate could actually work successfully, and how the Senate in particular could work productively alongside the emperor. He condemns the rise of imperial freedmen (slaves freed by the emperor), who came to wield considerable informal and unaccountable power in the imperial household under Claudius in particular, and draws a scathing picture of the subservience of most of the Senate. Rare words of praise are elicited in the case of Marcus Lepidus, a senator whom he describes as “a wise and high-principled man. Many a cruel suggestion made by the flattery of others he changed for the better, and yet he did not want tact, seeing that he always enjoyed an uniform prestige, and also the favor of Tiberius.” One is tempted to wonder whether this positive image of a senator who collaborated with the emperor is in some way a reflection of how Tacitus saw his own role. He also delineates portraits of a sequence of powerful imperial women: Livia—wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius—whose machinations placed her son on the throne; the Elder Agrippina—granddaughter of Augustus and wife of Germanicus—who accompanied her husband on military service and even on occasion commanded the troops; Messalina—wife of Claudius—who was so indiscreet in conducting her affairs with her paramours that all of Rome knew what was going on, except for her bumbling husband; and finally the Younger Agrippina—mother of Nero—whose domineering behavior towards her son was cut short only after several increasingly unsubtle attempts at assassination.
Nevertheless, we are left wondering what Tacitus really thought about his subject matter because of his pithy, elusive, often almost epigrammatic style of writing. It is quite possible, however, that this very obscurity is far from accidental, but is intended to reflect the key problem faced by Tacitus of how to represent the intrigues at the court of the early Roman emperors. The theme of dissimulation permeates his whole work. His portrayal of the emperor Tiberius, whose inscrutable features present a problem for friend and foe alike, sets the tone for all later emperors.
When reading Tacitus, it is essential to appreciate some key differences between history writing in Roman times and today. You will find no footnotes and very few references of any kind to specific sources of information. Very occasionally, Tacitus alludes to earlier historians or other types of written source material, but he does so in a competitive spirit, simply to demonstrate his own accuracy. More surprising is the way in which Tacitus often alludes to rumor or vague unconfirmed reports, even if he specifically discounts their veracity. This allows him to present multiple interpretations of characters and events, leaving his audience to decide for themselves what to think. Some aspects of his historical writing seem alien to modern ideas of history. For instance, in elaborating some episodes in the Annals, he draws upon similar episodes included in his earlier works. Whereas very few people who had actually witnessed events recorded in the Annals would still have been alive in Tacitus’ day, he would have been able to elaborate upon eyewitness accounts which he would have consulted for the Histories, which covers events closer to his own time.
This technique of elaboration has been dubbed “self-imitation” by scholar Tony Woodman. Above all, it is crucial to realize that all the speeches recorded in his works are imaginative reconstructions, not accurate renditions. This is true of all history writing in both Rome and Greece, and reflects the aim to produce a work of literature. If Tacitus had reproduced speeches verbatim, the different styles adopted by the individual speakers would have disrupted the unified stylistic flow of his work, and would have impaired its literary quality. In the case of a speech made by the emperor Claudius to the Senate, we actually have an independent record of the speech inscribed upon a bronze tablet, which was found in modern Lyons. This reveals that Tacitus makes the emperor’s speech a much more effective piece of rhetoric, cutting out his tendency towards rambling asides. But his adaptations go beyond simply rewriting the speeches in his own style. He also modifies them to suit his own historical themes. This too emerges from the same speech, where he inserts one of his pet themes, the rise of freedmen in public life. Consequently, it is always crucial to assess Tacitus’ literary aims alongside his historical aims.
In many ways, Tacitus’ Annals represents the apogee of Roman historical writing. As it turns out, his contemporary Pliny the Younger was not mistaken in his conviction that Tacitus’ writings would be immortal. After Tacitus, no other major histories were composed in Latin for more than two hundred years, until Ammianus Marcellinus in the late fourth century AD. It may be that, after all, Tacitus was right to imply that writing history under emperors presented particular problems, with the result that no later Roman chose to face up to the task.
Dr. Alison E. Cooley is lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, specializing in Roman history. She has recently published two books on Pompeii: Pompeii (2003) and Pompeii: A Sourcebook (with M. G. L. Cooley; 2004).