I remember when I was studying Greek and Roman Literature at University and our lecturers asked us if they should consider looking at any other works beyond the ones that we had studied and I immediately put my hand up and suggested a history such as Plutarch. My lecturer liked the idea of looking at a history but didn’t seem to be all that keen on my suggestion of author and instead suggested Tacitus. I immediately blew off Tacitus thinking that he was boring (and I had only just discovered Plutarch) however years later I picked a copy of his Annals of Imperial Rome from my shelf and gave it a read – and discovered that is was really good. It then went onto my ‘have already read’ bookshelf and promptly forgotten about. However, with the rise of social media, and in particular sites such as Goodreads and Booklikes, I decided that I would trawl through all of the books that I read and write a few thoughts on them along with the books that I was currently reading.
However there were a number of books that I had read but felt that I would not be doing the book justice if I were to just write about it without actually reading it again. So, a number of books moved from my ‘have read’ bookshelf and back onto my ‘to read’ bookshelf, and one of the authors that made the cut was none other than Tacitus. So, the fact that I am now writing this post suggests two things:
- I have just finished reading him for a second time;
- The experience was so good that I simply couldn’t just write a review I had to write an entire post on this work;
I should also add that this is not the last time that I will read this book, and these will not be the last words that I will be saying on it either.
Cornelius Publius Tacitus
Tacitus wrote during the golden age of Roman Literature (or at least the second golden age if you take into account the plethora of writings that occurred during the turmoil around the collapse of the Republic) and was a contemporary of the likes of Suetonius, Pliny, Juvenal, and Plutarch. Tacitus was most likely from the upper classes, which his ability to write is a strong indication. Like most of history it was only the upper classes who tended to be literate, or literate enough to be able to write complex treatises (though some slaves in Ancient Greece and Rome were also quite literate – it’s just we don’t have any of their writings, with the exception of maybe Aesop). His skill in writing also suggests that he would have studied rhetoric (one of the key skills required to succeed in Ancient Rome) and no doubt held a number of important posts during his life. Like a lot of things you can probably find out more on Wikipedia, however considering the article opens with the words ‘details about his personal life are scare’ I don’t think we can really make any hard and fast statements about the guy.
The interesting thing is that it seems that he was born around the later part of the 1st Century, meaning that he would have been a child during the period of which he was writing. Okay, much of the content of the Annals would have occurred prior to his birth (though once again the exact date of his birth is unknown – it’s not as if we can go down to the local registry and find out, though it is surprising what we can find out from birth records – just not as far back as Ancient Rome), but many of the events he would no doubt have learned about from people who have been around. In fact, being a member of the upper class (or at least the equestrian order) meant that many of the older generation that he would have spoken to would have been first hand witnesses – especially with regards to the madness of Nero.
The Annals of Imperial Rome
Unfortunately the book is incomplete: we are missing a large chunk in the middle which deals with the reign of Calligula (though we can always resort to Suetonius if we want to find out more about his insanity) as well as the beginnings of the reign of Claudius (once again Suetonius can help us with this). Also, the last part of the book is missing, though we are unsure whether this part has been lost or whether Tacitus died before he managed to complete it. In fact the works were discovered in two parts: books 1-6 were discovered in Corvey Abbey and books 11-16 were discovered at Monte Cassino (both during the Renaissance). It wasn’t until later that both sections were brought together to create the book that we have today.
The Annals are written in Latin, which was common for those who lived and were educated in the Western part of the empire (those who grew up in the east, such as Plutarch, tended to write in Greek – despite it being a single empire many Romans were familiar with at least two languages). The book itself chronicles the period between the death of Augustus to the fall of Nero (he didn’t die on the throne but was rather deposed) though unfortunately what we have doesn’t cover that particular event. My translation suggests that it may have also included the beginnings of the Jewish War, but since scholars suggest that it was written after the Histories, Tacitus probably ended the book where the Histories began.
I have been taught in the past that this period, that is for the two hundred odd years after the establishment of empire, was one of the most peaceful periods in human history – the Annals suggest otherwise. No doubt Tacitus, who would have lived through the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, wouldn’t necessarily look back at this time as such. Sure, things would have settled down considerably by the time that he was writing, but the period that the Annals looks at demonstrates a very chaotic period as Rome struggled with the transition from a republic to an authoritarian state.
The Price of Power
After the chaotic period that saw the collapse of the republic and the establishment of the empire under Augustus (who took the title princeps to distance himself as far as possible from a king – Romans didn’t like the idea of a king, particularly since their last king, Tarquinus, was an absolute brute) there was an expectation of stability. Indeed, under Augustus Rome was incredibly stable, but that had a lot to do with Augustus being a strong emperor of very sound mind. There is very little that is written that criticises Augustus, but no doubt that has a lot to do with many of Romans holding him in very high regard. Augustus had learnt from the mistakes of his adopted father Julius Caesar and secured his position by having all of his enemies murdered. Once that had been done the political chaos that had preceded him had settled down.
However that wasn’t to last – Augustus wasn’t immortal, he was human, and like all humans he was going to die sometime, so the question of succession arose. No doubt he had no intention of returning to the chaos of the past, so he appointed his son Tiberius to take over from him (though the term son is very loose because in many cases the appointed son was not necessarily the biological son, but rather somebody who had been adopted into the family with the intent of carrying on the family name – which is why when the Bible talks about being adopted into God’s kingdom we need to have at the back of our mind that the idea of Roman adoption is completely different to our modern concept of adoption).
The problem is that not everybody was as stable as Augustus, and this quickly came to the forefront when we consider Tiberius. Sure, he started off at a strong emperor but this wasn’t going to last. Augustus held supreme power – he knew what he was doing and while he would take advice from people, the final decision was his. This wasn’t the case with the successive emperors as from the later part of Tiberius’ reign we begin to see a decay in the emperor’s grip of reality, and his ability to maintain control of the ruling class.
Roman politics in these times was not pretty – in fact it was incredibly stabby stabby, and I’m not talking about some guy counting the numbers in the back room and then using those numbers to roll a sitting prime minister, I’m talking about getting out a knife and plunging it into your political opponent, or even turning the emperor against your opponent through lies and deceit so that the opponent is either exiled or even executed. In fact people who were close confidants of the emperor would suddenly find themselves in disfavour and the subject of trials and execution.
The problem with being a ruler is that there is no university course about how be rule a country, or how to deal with the multiple challenges that one can face. The other problem, especially with supreme power, is that there are no checks and balances. When one sits at the top there is nobody, at least humanly speaking, to whom one is accountable. This is why we begin to see a degeneration in Tiberius later on in his reign, particularly when he begins to turn on his own friends to attempt to stamp out any conspiracies that might arise.
Under Augustus the Senate and other political positions remained, however they existed in name only. Under Tiberius we begin to see them once again making power grabs, though much of this had to do with begin able to control and influence the emperor. Tacitus suggests that Tiberius already had his successor in mind – a young man name Gaius, who earned the nickname Calligula (or little boots) because as a child he would accompany legions into the field and had custom armour made for him. However just because a successor had been appointed did not necessarily mean that people were not able to influence Tiberius’ decisions.
One of the characters at the beginning of the text is a general named Germanicus (who received the name due to his successful campaigns in Germany). Germanicus was important because he provided a strong tie to the reign of Augustus, however when he died this was a point where one could consider that the golden age of Augustus had finally came to an end and a new age under Tiberius had begun. This is also a point where Tiberius began his descent, though he never became anywhere near as bad as some of the later emperors in this period. In fact Tiberius spent the last years of his reign on a secluded island off the coast of Italy indulging in sensual pleasures and would rule the empire by proxy.
This is another problem with having a successor, especially one chosen so early, and that is that they tend to be influenced by their predecessor, so no doubt Calligula, who would have been close to Tiberius, would have seen the corruption caused by his power as the norm, which is why his reign was even more bloodthirsty. However, there is also a suggestion that the issue of succession was simply too hard for Tiberius, and ended up throwing it open to fate – which is even worse because this can result in even more bloodshed in the form of a civil war.
As a side note I have to say that I love how the Romans carved statues of important people because it means that we have an idea of how they looked. Mind you, these statues tend to be idealistic creations, much in the same way that we photoshop photos to make people look much better than they really are (and this is especially the case in the porn industry). Mind you, many of these emperors began to take on the title of god, and of course we can’t have gods with mortal blemishes.
Anyway, the manuscript unfortunately skips the reign of Caligula and jumps to the middle of the reign of Claudius so unfortunately we don’t get the story of how Calligula was murdered by his Praetorian Guards and when they went to anoint Claudius as emperor they found him hiding in a closet (for that story we need to once again go to Suetonius). However what we do get is how Claudius was a simpleton and that he never actually ruled the empire but rather the empire was ruled through him.
Also during his reign we see the rise of a particularly nasty character – Agrippina. Unlike Ancient Greece, woman actually played a role in the politics of Rome, though in pretty much all cases they would be manipulating the government from behind the scenes. While women never actually held any official titles, they had the ability to sway those men who did hold those titles. It is interesting that Augustus pushed for family values and criminalised adultery (to the point that he had his mother and sister locked up for such) because it suggests that love affairs were more than just pleasurable indulgences, but very political in their own right.
The thing with Aggripina was that she manoeuvred herself to the position of Empress of Rome, first of all by doing away with Claudius’ current wife, and then marrying him and persuading him to select her son Nero as his successor. Once she had achieved that Claudius was no longer of any use and it was time to dispatch him. The problem that Claudius faced was that he was simple. When I say simple I don’t mean he was an idiot – Nero and Calligula were idiots – rather he suffered from a physical disability. As such he simply was not able to play the political games that many of the others were able to play. Rather he was easily manipulated and controlled, and so when Aggripina made her move Claudius really didn’t have any allies to step in and protect him.
At least we have the story of how Claudius was killed by a feather.
Now this guy was an absolute disaster. In fact so much is written about him it is hard to know even where to begin, but I can begin by saying that he was a monster. Okay, he didn’t start off that way – he assumed the throne at the age of 16 – but as I have indicated when you don’t have anybody to be accountable towards then you can pretty much do what you want. For instance, while this isn’t mentioned in Tacitus, one of the things that Nero would do would do was to dress as a vagabond and wander the streets of Rome at night mugging people – simply because he could. The thing was that if anybody fought back then all of the sudden his Praetorian guard would appear and advise the victim that fighting back was not a particularly good idea, especially since they were being mugged by the emperor – some have suggested that taxation is little more than legalised theft, but I guess this take its to a completely new level.
The problem with being a king maker is that the king does not necessarily appreciate you for the entire time they are king, as Aggripina was soon to find out. However, the difference here is that Aggripina had allies, and was also loved by the people of Rome, so dispatching her was going to be no easy task. In many ways Nero was a lot of King Joffrey from A Game of Thrones. He was the emperor and as the emperor he saw himself as having the final say – there was no manipulating him in the way that Aggripina was able to manipulate Claudius. No doubt this was the reason that their relationship began to deteriorate, which ultimately resulted in Aggripina’s death. Of course she may have been in a bit of a bind since by dispatching Nero did not necessarily mean that she would remain the power behind the throne, however for a woman like Aggripina I doubt she would have been sidelined for too long. In the end, Nero got to Aggripina before she got to him (and no doubt saw her as a potential rival to the throne).
As I have said there is a lot that can be said about Nero, and one thing that is rather amusing (at least looking at the event two thousand years later) is that he considered himself to be somewhat of a musician. Sure, we have the story about how Nero fiddled while Rome burned (and this is even mentioned in here) however it goes beyond that – Nero believed that he was a great musician and to say otherwise was very dangerous to your health. There is one instance where we are told that a competition was going to be held in Rome and Nero put himself up as a contestant. The judges decided that they would just give Nero first prize and leave it at that, but Nero insisted on playing and being judged on a level field with the other contestants (as if that was ever going to happen). Anyway, the competition went ahead and sure enough Nero received a standing ovation – not because he was any good, but rather that you weren’t allowed to say otherwise – he would have had no qualms putting the entire audience to the sword.
The book culminates with a failed coup against Nero. His eccentricities reached a point where the ruling class had pretty much had enough and were looking for a replacement. They suggested somebody named Piso, but the problem they saw was that Piso considered himself to be a tragic poet, which meant that by installing Piso as emperor they would simply be replacing a bad musician with a bad poet. They ended up settling on Nero’s tutor and advisor Seneca, however before the plan could get into effect Nero discovered the coup and pretty much had everybody executed. This didn’t stop him being ousted a little further down the track.
It may seem that much of the book deals with the politics of the early Empire but the book actually goes much further than that because we have numerous interludes were we jump to the frontier where wars are being raged against the various empires and tribes. The thing about Rome was that at the time it was massive, but like all empires it simply could not settle on the land that it controlled but had to continue to expand. This is actually an economic idea because the economy of Rome could only grow as the empire grows – in fact many hyper capitalists today see that economic expansion can only continue with opening up new markets, though the question arises as to what happens when there are no more new markets to open up.
The above map shows the extent of the empire during this period and as you can see the empire has two natural boundaries – the Atlantic to the west and the Sahara desert to the south. However to the north we have Germany and to the east we have the Parthian empire. Rome hit a brick wall in this area at the time as when Augustus attempted to conquer Germany he had an incredible set back with the loss of three legions in the battle of Teutoberg forest. After that battle the northern boundary of the empire was literally stuck along the Rhine. Sure, Rome did make some further incursions into the region, particularly by Germanicus who managed to retrieve the bodies and the standards lost at Teutoberg, however they were never able to conquer the region. However, the Germans would regularly make raids into the outer colonies, though it was not until a lot later that they managed to breach the defences and strike at the heart of the empire.
To the east we have the Parthian Empire. This empire was one of Rome’s major competitors – they had control of the region known as the fertile crescent. For the life of the empire wars would be fought over the Kingdom of Armenia with both sides taking control for various periods. Rome would take control of the kingdom after launching an attack, and then the Parthians would counter attack and take the kingdom back. As such Armenia was to become a buffer state between the two empires. Only once was Rome able to conquer Parthia under the Emperor Trajan (the one who also conquered Dacia) however Rome had stretched itself too thin by that stage and simply was not able to hold on to power.
There are a couple of interesting characters who come up in this book, one of them being King Mithrandites, the other being Queen Boadicea. Both were enemies of Rome and caused them significant grief on their fringes. Mithrandites seems to appear every so often during the reign of Tiberias whereas Boadicea makes her appearance during the reign of Nero. Boadicea is like one of those flames that flares up for a short time and then is quickly extinguished, but while she was tearing around the area of England where London now stands she was causing a significant amount of grief to the colony that had been established. The problem was that to launch such raids against Rome Boadicea had to raise an army from her tribes, which meant that while they were attacking Rome their crops were not getting planted. In the end, despite initial successes, her rebellion was quickly put down. However, if you are near the houses of Parliament in London you will see a statue of her opposite Big Ben next to the Westminster Bridge.
This is the problem with having such a large empire and that is that you are forever attempting to stamp out rebellions that flare up on the fringes. However this is why I have suggested that this period was not necessarily peaceful. Okay, for the average punter living in the heart of the empire it was actually quite peaceful and secure and the only thing you had to worry about when travelling across the Mediterranean were the storms that would pop up – all of the pirates had been driven away during the reign of Augustus. Even travelling across the empire was relatively safe as banditry was not a huge concern. However, once you get to the fringes then things begin to change as you have to deal with raids from across the borders as well as intermittent rebellions by the conquered peoples. As for the upperclass in the heart of the empire, that is an entirely different story.
There are a number of interesting things that I picked up as I was reading this book, some of them side discussions while others of them more central to the text. The thing with Tacitus is that he isn’t writing in the same way that modern historians write with an incredibly structured essay that tends to be quite dry and academic. Granted, Tacitus is an historian, but the rules that existed back then aren’t the rules that exist today. In fact you could consider that what the ancient historians were doing, or at least the ones that survived, were setting the standards for what was to follow.
That doesn’t mean that everybody from then on actually followed the standard – Lucian of Samatosa let loose on some of the histories that were being written by the bucket load in his day, many of them being very sloppy in their writing and others of them simply making things up simply because they sounded good. However, Tacitus, as well as being an excellent writer, wrote in a way that was more like a story than a simple historical exposition. In many cases histories back then were written as stories as they tended to be a lot more engaging.
Tacitus is telling us in one part about how Claudius discovered that the alphabet was a gradual development and as such decided to add his own creations to the Latin alphabet. This isn’t something that was restricted to his day as even academics in the modern world have attempted (and failed) to create a better alphabet. However, what was interesting was how Tacitus then takes an aside and starts discussing the evolution of the alphabet as to how it appeared in his time (which has subsequently come down to us – we still use the same alphabet that Tacitus used when he wrote his annals). No doubt this came about through his own research.
Tacitus points out that writing began with Egyptian pictograms (which isn’t entirely correct as the Babylonians also had a written language, however it is more than possible that the Egyptians were writing long before the Babylonians). The Phonecians, who were voracious traders, picked up on the Egyptian invention and used it for their own purposes. Being traders no doubt having a written alphabet was very useful, though it is also possible that they would also use pictograms for their own trade records.
The Greeks, with whom the Phonecians would trade, then borrowed from them and then began to develop their own alphabet which ended up influencing the Romans. Sure, the Romans and the Greeks used their respective alphabets for literary purposes, however in many (if not all) cases the original purpose of the alphabet was purely for record keeping both in trade and commerce and for governmental purposes. I could probably write a lot more about alphabets but instead I will move on to my next topic.
The Fire of Rome
For a rumour spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone to his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.
And so has it come down to us the story about how Nero fiddled while Rome burned, though to be more precise, Nero, whose favourite instrument was the lyre, would have actually been playing that as opposed to a violin (if they were even invented). Anyway, this wasn’t the only time that Rome had problems with fire – any city that was so chaotically constructed with wooden buildings are subject to such (consider the Great Fire of London for example) however it is not just Nero sitting in his palace composing songs that makes this fire famous but rather the extent of damage that it caused. As Tacitus says:
Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were levelled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins. To count the mansions, blocks, and temples destroyed would be difficult. They included shrines of remote antiquity such as Servius Tullius’ temple of the Moon, the Great Altar and holy place dedicated by Evander to Hercules, the temple vowed by Romulus to Jupiter the Stayer, Numa’s sacred residence, and Vesta’s shrine containing Roman household gods.
The interesting thing to note is how we are also told that even back then the government acted to support those who had lost everything by opening up the graineries and providing relief. In fact considering that it is interesting to see how throughout this period the emperor would put in place price controls. Imperial Rome was not a capitalist society where everybody is left on their own. Okay, modern economic theory didn’t exist back then as it does to day but, as Adam Smith demonstrates, one doesn’t need to know the theory to see economics in action (and sometimes I suspect that the theories get in the way of simply letting economics work). No doubt the price controls did have adverse effects upon the farmers, but that is another story for another time.
The rumour about Nero playing his lyre no doubt flourished to develop into the rumour that Nero actually started the fire (despite him being in Actium at the time). Building a massive palace on the ruins of the city no doubt didn’t help either, and when people have lost everything start hearing about how the emperor may have been behind the loss start to get angry (and rumours, like fire, have a nasty habit of spreading quickly and can be impossible to extinguish once they have taken hold). This of course leads to my next point.
To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were properly called).
It is clear from that one passage that Tacitus really didn’t like the Christians, but then again he was writing at a time when sporadic persecutions would break out against them (though much worse was to come in later years). It is also considered to be the earliest secular recording of the existence of Christianity in Rome, and it is interesting to see how we also have mention of Christ’s execution under the reign of Pilate. There other source is, not surprisingly, Suetonius, who also mentions the persecution instigated by Nero.
The are other, more dubious, sources that exist, such as the letters of Pilate that suggest that Pilate travelled to Rome to report to the emperor Tiberius about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, at which point Tiberius put a proposal to the senate that Christ be included in the Roman Pantheon – which was subsequently rejected. Another dubious document involves alleged communications between Paul and Seneca about the nature of Christianity. While these documents may be interesting, I am not willing to stake my reputation by claiming that they are legitimate, however these is a slim possibility that they are.
This is the first mention of the persecution of Christians, however this isn’t the first indication that minorities were persecuted. We are told by Tacitus that the Jews were driven out of Rome twice, once under Tiberius and once under Claudius. We are also told of an incident when all of the soothsayers were expelled from Rome, though I understand this had more to do with soothsayers predicting the death of the Emperor and acting in ways that made Claudius feel threatened.
The other thing that I would mention is that is that it was during this persecution that many scholars believe that Peter and Paul were executed, however it appears that the persecution was limited to Rome. Just to demonstrate Nero’s cruelty (and even Tacitus, despite not liking Christians himself, suggested that Nero did get a little carried away) he would hang them on crucifixes, dowse them in oil, and use them to light his gardens.
Some Social Mores
There are a couple of interesting things about Roman society that come up in this book. The first thing that I want to mention are the number of people that commit suicide. Tacitus actually tells us why this happens (though unlike above I can’t quite remember where the passage is located). Basically if a Roman dignitary was executed then his will would become null and void and all of his property would pass to the state, however if he committed suicide then his property would pass on as according to the will. Thus, if it became clear that a dignitary was facing execution, so as to preserve their wishes as outlined in their will, they would commit suicide (usually by opening their wrists).
Tacitus also talks about Roman citizenship, namely that it was freely given (at least at the beginning) to anybody and everybody. He compares this with Sparta who had very tight citizenship requirements (much like Athens), namely to be a Spartan citizen you had to be born to Spartan parents. This caused a problem because the subjugated people would then sporadically rise up against their imperial overlords. Romulus solved this problem by allowing conquered people to become citizens of Rome, meaning that they had an interest in the preservation of the empire. This didn’t necessarily continue though since gaining citizenship became more difficult. However Roman citizenship wasn’t something that was awarded based to nationality – which is why the Apostle Paul, a nationalised Jew, also held Roman citizenship.
The Romans were also a pretty superstitious lot. Numerous times Tacitus records incidents of events that were considered portents of the future. For instance he talks about a stillborn calf which was a portent that there would be a failed coup against the emperor, and another incident which he indicated the prediction of the death of one emperor and the ascension of a weaker one (he was referring to the transition from Tiberius to Calligula). It is questionable as to whether these were interpreted after the fact or not, but I have always considered that Tacitus was using primary sources when writing the Annals.
Reflections on Today
In many cases we can see that there is little difference between the world of today and the world that Tacitus was writing about. Political manoeuvrings are still being played out in the halls of power and people scramble over each other to either depose a leader or to remove enemies and curry favour with the current leadership. However in those days much of these events were played out in the halls of power – the economy of Rome was one of small business and entrepreneurship. This is much different than today where much of our commerce passes through major corporations. However many of these corporations are much the same as the halls of imperial Rome, being little empires in and of themselves. The difference is that even those sitting at the top of the pyramid are held accountable by outside forces – a CEO of a major corporation ultimately answers to their shareholders, though since many of them are large financial companies that makes this a moot point.
Like in Imperial Rome, life on the street goes on in our modern industrialised world. Many of us may be free but in reality we are no different to the many slaves that supported the empire. Actually, those of us in the industrialised west are no doubt better than the slaves – we are free in many ways that they aren’t and are wealthy in many ways that they weren’t. However, like many of the Roman citizens of the time, we are enslaved to the aristocracy through debt and the need to feed ourselves. However, what didn’t exist in those days are the elaborate economic theories that seem to guide our modern world. In those days the emperor would put price caps on grain to keep it affordable while our modern world believes that an unregulated market will inevitably keep prices down.
The final thing are the border wars. In many cases we still have similar wars being fought today. Historians write about a period of unprecidented peace across the Roman Empire, however wars were still being fought on the fringes. Granted there was no large scale invasions or civil wars, however the army was still mobilised and was still needed. These days we see the reality much more than they did back then. Sure in the heartlands of our industrialised countries we live in a period of unprecedented peace, however we are also very much aware of the wars being fought on the fringes of our empire, and just as Rome worked to cover up their defeats in Parthia, so does our media work to cover up our defeats in the exact same region.
War, Bloodshed, and Political Intrigue – Tacitus’ Annals by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.