The Histories - The Original Classic Editionby Tacitus Tacitus
The Histories, an account of the tumultuous year of 69 AD, is a historical tour de force by the Roman senator Cornelius Tacitus. Although part of the original work which was written in 105-108 AD has been lost, that which remains is still one of the better works of an ancient historian. The main strengths of this history lie in good organization and rich detail, combined with an excellent writing style and pithy observations. The main characters are the four men who vied for imperial power in the wake of the emperor Neros demise: the elderly Galba, the playboy Otho, the porcine Vitellius and the veteran soldier Vespasian. All of these men sought to establish themselves in power and the result was a yearlong civil war that spread across virtually the entire empire.
Organizationally, the book is divided into chapters that cover various events in chronological order. The tension and drama mounts as chapters follow the murder of Galba, Vitellius march on Rome, the suicide of Otho, Vespasians bid for power and the revolt of upper Germany under Civilis. Tacitus has organized the work well and the book quickly becomes a page-turner, as the drama and intrigue is interwoven between chapters. There are virtually no diversions from the main themes and little material that is irrelevant.
One of the main values of Tacitus work is the richness of detail. There is considerable information on military order of battle and campaigns, as well as senatorial debates, imperial finances and political intrigues. Militarily, the Roman army does not appear so grand in Tacitus account of their civil war behavior. Tacitus hates civil war and feels that it erodes the morality and discipline that made Rome great. Indiscipline is rife, with jealous generals competing against each other and troops always on the verge of mutiny or massacring civilians. Tacitus recounts that each of the armies of the imperial aspirants committed atrocities along the way to Rome in order to demonstrate the moral ambivalence of the civil struggle. In combat, the Roman soldier of this period performed poorly, whether against fellow Romans or Germans. Without discipline Tacitus suggests, the Roman army was little more than an armed mob led by criminals. He notes that, a career of riot and looting was just the thing to acclimatize them to the idea of civil war.
Tacitus is highly readable because his writing style is fluid and vivid. In describing cowardly senators who were quick to switch allegiances he writes that, they expressed themselves in violent language, and played the hero with their tongue. Galba is undone by the united chorus of delusion of his witless advisors. When civil order in Rome begins to break down, Tacitus notes the willingness of the better men to obey orders had been neutralized by the darkness. Tacitus also provides numerous pithy observations as well for the student of politics. He says that, since time immemorial, man has had an instinctive love of power. However he has contempt for the masses, writing, political issues are usually above the heads of the lower classes and the man in the street owing to their complexity. Tacitus views the role of chance as critical in the outcome of events, rather than the relative merits of a cause.
Tacitus account of this critical year in history, when the Roman Empire swung in the balance, is gripping and dramatic. Although biased toward the ultimate victor, this is still an incredibly detailed and rich account of events. Superb writing and organization complete the value of this historical triumph.
- Emereo Publishing
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