The Annals of Imperial Rome

September 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm Leave a comment

Review by Steve Savage

The surviving Annals of Tacitus cover the period from the death of Augustus to the middle of Nero’s period in power in Rome – a period of about fifty years. Not all the text has survived. The fall of Sejanus is missing; also the reign of Caligula and the first few years of Claudius’s reign; and the end of Nero’s reign.

Tacitus’s idea appears to have been to set down the events of each year – military, political, social – particularly events which might have been missed by other historians. Different things caught his attention in different years, and the modern reader will no doubt be less interested in the succession of treason trials than in the Roman credit crunch which Tiberius sorted out by distributing ‘a hundred million sesterces among specially established banks, for interest-free three-year State loans’.

Details of Senate proceedings are given, but only where exceptionally praiseworthy or blameworthy. Modern historians bemoan his failure to cite sources in detail. Very occasionally he mentions a specific source, such as the memoirs of Nero’s mother, but only because he has found a detail unnoticed by other historians.

In the Annals we find interesting material about German resistance to Rome and about the revolt of the Iceni in Britain. Decades after the Germans’ great defeat of Varus, the Roman army succeeded in recovering some survivors of that battle who had been enslaved for forty years. An eye-catching detail – but Tacitus (who also wrote the survey Germania) gives credit to the German leader known to the Romans as Arminius for successfully maintaining the Germans’ independence from Rome.

When we look back at the way Augustus (Octavian) took power and was eventually succeeded by Tiberius, we are accustomed to disguising what actually happened by using the term ‘Emperor’. To us that means the same as ‘King’ only more so, but of course Julius Caesar was assassinated after he made it clear that he wanted to be king, and Augustus and his successors used other terms to describe their power. Where the English version has ‘Emperor’, the original Latin is often ‘princeps’. The dynastic succession was pretty tenuous. Augustus was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, Tiberius was Augustus’s stepson, and so on.

Tacitus gives details of the transfers of power – including rivals murdered beforehand, and sometimes on the day. Modern historians object to his portrayal of Tiberius and his mother. Tacitus was apparently influenced by his experience of Domitian! The translator of this volume writes, ‘Nowadays we believe that Tiberius was a gloomy but apparently honest ruler’. So gloomy that, as Suetonius tells us, he ordered that Agrippina, Augustus’s grand-daughter and the widow of Tiberius’s nephew (who himself had probably been murdered) should be flogged by a centurion for protesting about her captivity – she lost an eye in the process.

Tacitus describes how, after Agrippina’s son Drusus Caesar had been starved to death in captivity, Tiberius ordered that the daily reports of his guards be read out, intending to demonstrate Drusus’s dangerousness, but in fact revealing the conditions of his adoptive grandson’s captivity – ‘battered by an officer, beaten by slaves, vainly begging the bare necessities of life’.

The reader will find many fascinating details. Claudius makes a speech defending the right of non-Romans (such as Gauls) to enter the Senate, and arguing the benefits of immigration and assimilation. (The notes tell us that the speech is preserved on a bronze tablet in Lyon, and that Tacitus’s paraphrase is not particularly faithful). Nero’s relationship with his tutor Seneca is fleshed out, and Tacitus suggests that Seneca may indeed have had ambitions of power.

Tacitus gives two occasions where the Senate discussed limiting the stream of denunciations and prosecutions. It was suggested that accusers should forfeit their rewards where a man prosecuted for treason killed himself. Tiberius stuck up for the informers. Twenty years later there was a move to restrict unscrupulous prosecutions by punishing advocates for extorting money. Claudius stuck up for the advocates, although he did set a maximum fee.

Sometimes Tacitus’s description of one treason trial after another, one suicide after another (the wills of suicides were generally honoured), smacks of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. In fact he apologises for not being able to write about great wars, or struggles between consuls and tribunes. His history, he says, is circumscribed and inglorious: his themes include ‘cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined’.

Steve Savage


Author: Tacitus (translated by Michael Grant)

Publisher: Penguin

Entry filed under: Reviews. Tags: , , .

Publius Cornelius Tacitus Robin Hull

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and get email notification of new posts.

Join 30 other followers

%d bloggers like this: