Tacitus: Histories

April 11, 2021

The Histories
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]
250 p.

Though written first, Tacitus’ Histories begins where his Annals ended: 69 AD. Originally consisting of more than a dozen Books and covering the years up to the death of Domitian in 96, we unfortunately have only the first third or so, which treats just two years: 69-70. They were, however, years rich in incident, stuffed to bursting with short-lived emperors, a time, says Tacitus, “rich in disasters, frightened in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.” (1.2)

*

Nero’s death in 68 had brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled Rome since the time of Julius Caesar more than a century earlier. It was unclear who would rise to the imperial throne, and, as is common enough in such circumstances, there were multiple claimants, and a threat of civil war. In four parts of the empire, four men gathered support: on the Iberian peninsula, Galba, a governor with a fairly distinguished track record of civil service; in modern Portugal, Otho, an ambitious governor; in the north, patrolling the Rhine, Vitellius, a popular general; and in the east, Vespasian, a general currently preoccupied with putting down a rebellion in Judaea. The history of these first Books of Tacitus’ Histories is the history of how these four men contended for power.

It was Galba who occupied the throne first. He came to power in the middle of 68 with the support of the Praetorian Guard. He had gained their support because his assistant had bribed the soldiers with the promise of a big payout in return – a bribe Galba knew nothing about, and which, when once he had been named emperor, he felt no need to honour. For this reason, by January 69, when Tacitus’ history begins, Galba was strongly disliked by the Praetorian Guard, a perilous position for any emperor since Tiberius. He was also increasingly hated for his evident cruelty – toward Rome’s soldiers for his revival of the practice of decimation, and by the senatorial and equestrian classes in Rome for his policy of purging not only his enemies, but their families as well.

The camel’s back, in other words, was already quite heavily loaded when Galba made an important announcement on 10 January 69. To ensure a smooth transition in power at the end of his reign, he said, he was adopting as his son, and successor, one Lucius Calpurnius Piso. This news greatly offended and angered Otho, who had had a long relationship with Galba and had expected that he would be named heir. Otho moved quickly, and on 15 January Galba was murdered in the Roman Forum:

“About the actual murderer nothing is clearly known. Some have recorded the name of Terentius, an enrolled pensioner, others that of Lecanius; but it is the current report that one Camurius, a soldier of the 15th legion, completely severed his throat by treading his sword down upon it. The rest of the soldiers foully mutilated his arms and legs, for his breast was protected, and in their savage ferocity inflicted many wounds even on the headless trunk.” (1.41)

Piso, the heir-apparent, was also targeted for assassination. He took refuge in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, but the soldiers were not pious: they dragged him out and killed him on the steps. The grisly scene was the stage for Otho’s triumphant arrival:

“The Forum yet streamed with blood, when he was borne in a litter over heaps of dead to the Capitol” (1.47)

Of Galba’s character and success as emperor Tacitus makes this judicious appraisal:

“His character was of an average kind, rather free from vices, than distinguished by virtues… He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.” (1.49)

**

Otho, however, fared no better than Galba. Already the legions in Germany had rallied behind Vitellius and were marching on Rome. That the emperor was now Otho and not Galba mattered little to them; the sticking point was that the emperor ought to be Vitellius. A confrontation was inevitable, and Otho directed the legions around Rome to prepare and march north. Outright civil war had arrived.

The armies clashed in northern Italy, near modern Genoa. There were skirmishes and sieges, but the decisive battle occurred at Bedriacum on 14 April. Vitellius’ forces were victorious. When the news arrived in Rome, Otho was philosophical. Though he was urged to continue the fight, he decided to cede power to Vitellius rather than sacrifice more lives to his personal ambition:

“By this let posterity judge of Otho. Vitellius is welcome to his brother, his wife, his children. I need neither revenge nor consolation. Others may have held the throne for a longer time, but no one can have left it with such fortitude. Shall I suffer so large a portion of the youth of Rome and so many noble armies to be again laid low and to be lost to the State? Let this thought go with me, that you were willing to die for me. But live, and let us no longer delay, lest I interfere with your safety, you with my firmness. To say too much about one’s end is a mark of cowardice. Take as the strongest proof of my determination the fact that I complain of no one. To accuse either gods or men is only for him who wishes to live.” (1.47)

On 16 April he committed suicide, having been emperor for just three months. Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor.

*

Vitellius arrived in Rome, accompanied by his rough and wild soldiers from the German frontier, many of whom had never seen Rome before. He was a man, Tacitus tells us, of “shamelessness, indolence, and profligacy,” and under his leadership the city quickly descended into decadence:

“The sole road to power was to glut the insatiable appetites of Vitellius by prodigal entertainments, extravagance, and riot. The Emperor himself, thinking it enough to enjoy the present, and without a thought for the future, is believed to have squandered nine hundred million sesterces in a very few months.” (2.95)

Rumours began to reach Rome that far off, in Judaea, support was rising for Vespasian as a rival to imperial power, but Vitellius seems to have preferred to enjoy, rather than defend, himself:

“Buried in the shades of his gardens, like those sluggish animals which, if you supply them with food, lie motionless and torpid, he had dismissed with the same forgetfulness the past, the present, and the future.” (3.36)

Urged by his advisors, he did finally order an army to march north to protect Italy against Vespasian. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s brother, who lived in Rome, tried to begin negotiations with Vitellius. But he was attacked and took refuge on the Capitoline Hill. Vitellius’ men continued their assault and, in the process, burned the Temple of Jupiter to the ground — a great sacrilege, for the temple was one of the oldest and most sacred sites for Romans:

“This was the most deplorable and disgraceful event that had happened to the Commonwealth of Rome since the foundation of the city; for now, assailed by no foreign enemy, with Heaven ready to be propitious, had our vices only allowed, the seat of Jupiter Supremely Good and Great, founded by our ancestors with solemn auspices to be the pledge of Empire, the seat, which neither Porsenna, when the city was surrendered, nor the Gauls, when it was captured, had been able to violate, was destroyed by the madness of our Emperors” (3.72)

Vespasian’s brother was captured and executed, which effectively cut off all hope of negotiation with Vespasian. Although Vespasian himself was still in Egypt, generals loyal to him arrived in northern Italy and encountered Vitellius’ armies. The city of Cremona, which had been established as a defensive bulwark against Hannibal during the days of the Punic wars, centuries earlier, was destroyed. The emperor’s forces were failing, but Vitellius was indolent:

“The Emperor’s ears were so formed, that all profitable counsels were offensive to him, and that he would hear nothing but what would please and ruin.” (3.56)

To the astonishment of the Roman people, on 18 December 69 Vitellius abdicated the throne in an official announcement, but then, instead of retiring to private life, returned to live in the imperial palace. With little taste for ambiguity, Vespasian’s forces arrived in Rome a few days later, seized Vitellius, and executed him in the Roman Forum. Vespasian, though absent, was declared emperor, the fourth in less than 12 months. There followed a frenzy of violence in the city that surpassed anything the Romans had seen in many years:

“When Vitellius was dead, the war had indeed come to an end, but peace had yet to begin. Sword in hand, throughout the capital, the conquerors hunted down the conquered with merciless hatred. The streets were choked with carnage, the squares and temples reeked with blood, for men were massacred everywhere as chance threw them in the way. Soon, as their license increased, they began to search for and drag forth hidden foes. Whenever they saw a man tall and young they cut him down, making no distinction between soldiers and civilians. But the ferocity, which in the first impulse of hatred could be gratified only by blood, soon passed into the greed of gain. They let nothing be kept secret, nothing be closed; Vitellianists, they pretended, might be thus concealed. Here was the first step to breaking open private houses; here, if resistance were made, a pretext for slaughter. The most needy of the populace and the most worthless of the slaves did not fail to come forward and betray their wealthy masters; others were denounced by friends. Everywhere were lamentations, and wailings, and all the miseries of a captured city, till the license of the Vitellianist and Othonianist soldiery, once so odious, was remembered with regret. The leaders of the party, so energetic in kindling civil strife, were incapable of checking the abuse of victory. In stirring up tumult and strife the worst men can do the most, but peace and quiet cannot be established without virtue.” (4.1)

When Vespasian did finally arrive in the city, he re-established law and order. Tacitus describes him in this way:

“Vespasian was an energetic soldier; he could march at the head of his army, choose the place for his camp, and bring by night and day his skill, or, if the occasion required, his personal courage to oppose the foe. His food was such as chance offered; his dress and appearance hardly distinguished him from the common soldier; in short, but for his avarice, he was equal to the generals of old.” (2.5)

The Romans always loved a ruler with a distinguished military record, and Vespasian fit the bill. He was comparatively moderate in his governance. Purges of enemies were common in Roman history following transfers of power, and Vespasian, too, “cleaned house,” but he did so more on the basis of character than of political allegiance. Those whom he considered to have acted faithfully and honestly, regardless of which side they had taken in the civil war, he elevated; those whom he deemed unreliable or malicious were exiled or executed. He undertook major building projects in the city, rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter, and, down the road, beginning construction on an amphitheatre that would become one of the most famous buildings in the world. And his policies seem to have been largely successful, for he remained in power for a decade, and, through his two sons, Titus and Domitian, established a new imperial dynasty that was to rule Rome until 96 AD.

**

A year before he became emperor, Vespasian had been in Judaea attempting to put an end to a rebellion among the Jews. When he departed for Rome, he left his son Titus in charge of the operation. Tacitus gives us some background on the conflict, and, in a fascinating section (5.2-5), provides a brief anthropological introduction to the Jewish people. This must be taken with some reservations, for it is obvious that he dislikes them intensely, but it is still interesting. He notes their Sabbath observance, use of unleavened bread, circumcision, and, of course, monotheism, which was a continual source of friction between the Jews and Rome. He sees their unwillingness to pay worship to the emperor as an impiety, a determination “to despise all gods, to disown their country”, and he finds their conception of God peculiar:

“The Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors.”

Early in Book 5 he describes how Titus drew up his forces and began a siege of Jerusalem, but unfortunately that is where it ends, for the rest of the Histories is lost. We know what happened, of course: the city was taken, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world, an event of incalculable importance to world history.

**

So ends my voyage through the principal historical works of Tacitus. He is a fine historian, with a blunt and manly style, a commitment to sifting truth from fiction, and a talent for forthright moral judgment. It is true that the most important events that occurred in the Empire during the period he covered – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of the Christian religion – were almost entirely missed, and he certainly did not appreciate their importance for Rome and for the world. Nonetheless, as an imperial historian of the first century, though he has rivals, he has no betters, and I have greatly enjoyed reading him.

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