Read The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus Free Online
Book Title: The Annals of Imperial Rome|
The author of the book: Tacitus
Edition: Dorset Press
Date of issue: January 1st 1985
ISBN 13: 9780880290241
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Reader ratings: 7.5
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 4.20 MB
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This is less accessible than Tacitus' Histories 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 The Annals 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 The Annals, he is certainly at a greater remove from the events and 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.
He 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 (Dear Diary, to distract myself from my malevolent thoughts I'm going to have an orgy, just a secret little one, me, three hundred ballet dancers and half the sailors of the Imperial fleet). 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 "The country had been transformed, and there was nothing left of the fine old Roman character."
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 Agricola.
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 The Art of Love 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 (view spoiler)[ at that point an heir to Imperial power, later he was dead, some suspect the relationship between those two data points is not coincidental (hide spoiler)] 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 (view spoiler)[though to be fair that cake was going to go to waste, what with the general lack of teeth (hide spoiler)] (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 The Annals 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 (view spoiler)[ though he, perhaps even to his own surprise, has managed to retain ownership of his own ears (hide spoiler)]. 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 (view spoiler)[ although one of the Roman innovations in colonialism was the introduction of a standard of not completely looting the newly acquired bit of empire (hide spoiler)].
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 The Conquest of Gaul 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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Read information about the authorPublius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 56 – ca. AD 117) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to (presumably) the death of emperor Domitian in AD 96. There are enormous lacunae in the surviving texts, including one four books long in the Annals.
Other works by Tacitus discuss oratory (in dialogue format, see Dialogus de oratoribus), Germania (in De origine et situ Germanorum), and biographical notes about his father-in-law Agricola, primarily during his campaign in Britannia (see De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae).
Tacitus was an author writing in the latter part of the Silver Age of Latin literature. His work is distinguished by a boldness and sharpness of wit, and a compact and sometimes unconventional use of Latin.
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