Tacitus: Annals

February 14, 2021

 

Annals
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.120]
416 p.

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, or whenever they turned by preference to home affairs, they related, with a free scope for digression, the strifes of consuls with tribunes, land and corn-laws, and the struggles between the commons and the aristocracy. My labours 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.
(4.32)

Such is Tacitus’ modest appraisal of his achievement in this great history of the first-century Roman empire. The period in question, covering the years from the death of Augustus in 14 AD to the death of Nero in 68 AD, was a good deal more dramatic than he lets on here, replete with power struggles, wars, murders, and a cast of characters that has fascinated the world ever since. It was for Tacitus still relatively recent history, being no further from him than the First World War is from us, but he assures us early on that he has distance enough to be frank:

The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts about Augustus—more particularly his last acts, then the reign of Tiberius, and all which follows, without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives to which I am far removed.
(1.1)

His professed purpose in writing, which I have little reason to doubt, was, like Livy’s before him, a principally moral one:

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.
(3.65)

Both – the worthy actions, and the evil deeds – are readily supplied by the history he unfolds for us, though rather more of the latter. Without going into too much detail, let me sketch a basic outline of the sixteen books of the Annals.

*

When Augustus died, the empire had been relatively peaceful, and free from acute succession controversies, for decades. Tiberius was nobody’s first choice – maybe not even Tiberius’ — to become emperor upon Augustus’ passing, but all of the other leading candidates had died during their grooming, and so to Tiberius it fell. The early years of his reign were complicated by rebellions in outlying provinces, but the real danger was close to home. Tacitus relates, for instance, how Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, turned his outfit, which was supposed to supply protection to the emperor, into a quiet threat, controlling not only access to the emperor, but also the emperor’s access to others. Sejanus eventually convinced Tiberius to move to the isle of Capri, where he largely, if tacitly, surrendered the power of governance to his keeper, whereupon “he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations” (6.51). Tacitus accuses Sejanus of poisoning Tiberius’ son, Drusus, and then of doing the same to others likely to succeed to the throne. But when he, a mere equestrian, proposed to marry Tiberius’ daughter-in-law, and so place himself in the line of succession, the game was up. Although the pages of Tacitus’ history narrating the fall of Sejanus are lost, we know from other sources that it was swift and brutal.

But it didn’t solve much. Sejanus’ successor, Macro, assumed a very similar role, and is actually credited by Tacitus with murdering Tiberius in 37 AD during a period of confusion about whether he was alive or not:

On the 15th of March, his breath failing, he was believed to have expired, and Caius Caesar was going forth with a numerous throng of congratulating followers to take the first possession of the empire, when suddenly news came that Tiberius was recovering his voice and sight, and calling for persons to bring him food to revive him from his faintness. Then ensued a universal panic, and while the rest fled hither and thither, every one feigning grief or ignorance, Caius Caesar, in silent stupor, passed from the highest hopes to the extremity of apprehension. Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes, and all to quit the entrance-hall.
(6.50)

*

The “Caius Caesar” mentioned in this passage is known to us by his nickname, Caligula, a man with a reasonable claim to being the worst of the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, history has drilled a large hole in Tacitus’ account at this stage, with four full Books, covering the years 37-48 AD, lost. We are told only that he was “thoroughly ignorant and bred under the vilest training” (6.48).  We know from other sources that his short reign, of just four years, was one of scandal and depravity. He is, by reputation, the model of the mad tyrant. So bad did things become that in 41 AD a conspiracy formed and Caligula, just 28 years old, was stabbed to death.

*

During Caligula’s reign there had been fierce jockeying for the succession, with numerous candidates meeting untimely ends in the process. One man survived the process, largely because nobody thought he was capable of ruling; a man who had difficulty speaking, had no evident political ambitions, and seemed content to write scholarly works in retirement from public life. That man was Claudius, and he surprised everyone by becoming, in time, the best and most capable emperor since Augustus, and, in the judgment of some, one of the best and most capable of all. He quelled revolts, held a census (there were then 6 million Roman citizens), made legal reforms, and generally upheld order in public life. His private life, however, was another matter. His first wife, Agrippina, attempted a coup by publicly marrying another man and plotting to kill Claudius; she was executed. Claudius then decided to make a strategic marriage to re-unite the Julian and Claudian sides of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which involved marrying his own niece, also called Agrippina, a decision that required “reform” of Rome’s incest laws and was extremely unpopular with the Roman people. Agrippina came to the marriage with two sons of her own, and did not conceal her wish that one of them succeed as emperor. In the year 54, she poisoned Claudius and got her wish.

*

The man who came to the throne, just 16 years old, was, sadly, Nero, a ruler not quite so bad as Caligula, but getting there. Tacitus describes him as vain, intemperate, effeminate, and, as he became older and realized the power he commanded, cruel and debauched:

It was commonly reported that snakes had been seen by his cradle, which they seemed to guard, a fabulous tale invented to match the marvels of other lands. Nero, never a disparager of himself, was wont to say that but one snake, at most, had been seen in his chamber.
(11.11)

One of his first acts as emperor was to kill his step-brother, Brittanicus, who was Claudius’ natural son and therefore a threat to Nero’s power. Not long after, he ordered the execution of his own mother, Agrippina, on trumped up charges – Tacitus speculates that he objected to her attempts to prevent an unsuitable marriage. In the course of time he would also be popularly attributed with the murder of his wife and unborn child. Meanwhile, he loved to sing – a particularly degrading pastime for Roman nobility – and embarrassed the senatorial class by his ventures onto the stage. He had, in his tutor and advisor, Seneca, one of the greatest Romans of the age, but it seemed to do him little good, and he “polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, […] not omitting a single abomination which could heighten his depravity” (15.37).

But the principal scandal of Nero’s reign centered on the Great Fire of Rome. It happened in 64 AD, and damaged or destroyed much of Rome, including a large swathe of the city centre. Tacitus tells us that Nero was away from the city at the time, and that upon his return he dispensed funds to those who had suffered damages. But rumours circulated that when he had learned that the city was aflame he had taken the opportunity to sing of the destruction of Troy, and this hardened the hearts of the Romans. Adding insult to injury, Nero seized upon Rome’s blasted centre to realize one of his grandiose architectural dreams: an immense palace for himself, the Domus Aurea, built on the ruins of the fire.

Rumours then went from bad to worse, and stories circulated that Nero had himself ordered the fire. At this point, Nero himself, says Tacitus, commissioned a counter-rumour in which he tried to pin the fire on a group widely despised in the city: the Christians.

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
(15.44)

This is one of the earliest non-Christian sources to mention Christianity, and it already tells us quite a bit: there were enough Christians in Rome for them to have been recognized as a distinct group, and they were roundly disliked. It also provides independent confirmation of details of the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion, such as it having taken place under the watch of Pontius Pilate. Both St Peter and St Paul were in Rome at the time of the fire, and both were martyred in the bloody aftermath of Nero’s slander, in which many Christians lost their lives – so many, and so brutally, Tacitus tells us, that the Roman people were moved to pity:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
(15.44)

It wasn’t enough to save Nero, either. He survived a few more years, discovered an extensive conspiracy against his life, continued to fall in the public’s estimation, and, finally, awoke one night in his Domus Aurea to find his guard had abandoned him. The game was up, and he committed suicide. He had no heir, and his death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun a little over a century earlier with Julius Caesar. It was not obvious who would next wear the laurels, and the next year of Roman life – 69 AD – is known to history as “the year of four emperors”, as a violent, high-stakes battle for power in Rome played out. But that is the story of Tacitus’ Histories, and that is a story for another time.

*

We don’t actually learn of Nero’s suicide from Tacitus, because the pages covering the final two years of his reign are lost. This problem has come up a few times above; altogether, roughly one-quarter of the work has been lost, which is a pity. It is sobering to consider that portions of The Annals that we do have survived into the present in a single manuscript! Books 11-16 were preserved in Monte Cassino Abbey, and Books 1-6 at Corvey Abbey. The work has a remarkable history.

*

Tacitus appears to be writing self-consciously in the tradition of Livy. Like Livy, his history is annalistic – hence its name, of course – covering events on a year-by-year basis. Like Livy, he has a particular interest in military affairs, but, given that his period offered relatively little on that front, he dwells mostly on the politics of the imperial court. He also takes time each year to recount local gossip: notorious crimes, scandalous affairs, important trials, ominous portents, and notable deaths. His consistency in this regard gives his work a comforting rhythm.

*

I cited above his wish, as historian, “to let no worthy action be uncommemorated”, and sadly his subject matter provided few occasions. But there was one man whose story satisfied the need: Germanicus. Born in about 15 BC, he was the nephew of Tiberius. When Tiberius came to power Germanicus was about 30 years old, and he was sent to Germany to handle the Germanic tribes who were giving trouble to the Romans. A few years previously the Romans had suffered as their hands one of the worst defeats in their history at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, in which three Roman legions had been ambushed and slaughtered by forces led by one Arminius, a Germanic prince raised in Rome, who had attained Roman citizenship and even achieved equestrian status, before betraying Rome and handing her a humiliating defeat.

Tactius describes movingly the arrival of Germanicus at Teutoberg Forest, now 5 or 6 years after the defeat, and the grisly discoveries he made:

In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
(1.61)

The Romans gathered the remains of their countrymen to give them honourable rites, and then prepared to fight the Germans again. On the night before the attack, Tacitus gives us this marvellous account of Germanicus’ doings:

At nightfall, leaving his tent of augury by a secret exit, unknown to the sentries, with one companion, his shoulders covered with a wild beast’s skin, he visited the camp streets, stood by the tents, and enjoyed the men’s talk about himself, as one extolled his noble rank, another, his handsome person, nearly all of them, his endurance, his gracious manner and the evenness of his temper, whether he was jesting or was serious, while they acknowledged that they ought to repay him with their gratitude in battle, and at the same time sacrifice to a glorious vengeance the perfidious violators of peace.
(2.13)

If that doesn’t send a thrill down your spine, I don’t know what to say. It’s Henry V at Agincourt! There can’t be any doubt about it.

Germanicus was an able general – a quality always beloved by the Roman people – and Tacitus has nothing but good to say of him, painting him as brave and eloquent and capable and good-natured: “He was indeed a young man of unaspiring temper, and of wonderful kindliness” (1.33).

Returning in triumph from Germany, he was sent to manage complicated diplomatic and military matters in the east, and then to Egypt. His popularity grew greatly – too much, in fact – and in 19 AD he died suddenly, a suspected poisoning. Tacitus blames Tiberius and his circle for ordering the murder in an attempt to ward off a challenge from a too-beloved rival to power. Disgusted by this turn of events, Tacitus gives Germanicus this final encomium, comparing him to none other than Alexander the Great:

Germanicus was gracious to his friends, temperate in his pleasures, the husband of one wife, with only legitimate children. He was too no less a warrior, though rashness he had none, and, though after having cowed Germany by his many victories, he was hindered from crushing it into subjection. Had he had the sole control of affairs, had he possessed the power and title of a king, he would have attained military glory as much more easily as he had excelled Alexander in clemency, in self-restraint, and in all other virtues.
(2.73)

He is the hero of this tale.

*

There are other aspects of this great work that I could mention – the potted history of Roman law (3.26-29), the difficulties the Romans had with the tribes in far-off Brittania (Book 14), the farcical attempt to drain the malaria-ridden Fucine Lake (12.56-57), for example. But I grow weary in my toils, and this seems a not inappropriate time to draw to a close.

After more than a year of loitering with the Roman poets of the Golden Age, it has been good to resume the historical narrative, and Tacitus has been a splendid guide. I’ll be turning next to his Histories, which cover the years immediately after the death of Nero.

***

[Laws and virtue]
Laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt. (3.27)

[Changes, for good and ill]
Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons. Nor was everything better in the past, but our own age too has produced many specimens of excellence and culture for posterity to imitate. May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honourable! (3.55)

[Can a gift be given?]
For benefits received are a delight to us as long as we think we can requite them; when that possibility is far exceeded, they are repaid with hatred instead of gratitude. (4.18)

[Point of no return]
Harmless measures were for the innocent. Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity. (11.26)

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