Annals of Imperial Rome

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Annals of Imperial Rome

by Tacitus


A historical narrative set in the Roman Empire from 14 CE to 68 CE; written in Latin c. 105-120 CE


Tacitus tells the story of the first dynasty of Roman emperors, the Julio-Claudians, from the death of Augustus (14 CE) to the death of Nero (68 CE).

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Narrative in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

For More Information

Publius Cornelius Tacitus has been referred to as the greatest of the Roman historians, followed by Livy and Sallust. His life story is a sketchy one. Tacitus was probably born about 55 CE in northern Italy or across the Alps to the northwest in the province of Gaul (modern France), more exactly in Narbonese Gaul (Provence). Scholars suspect that he was related to a financial officer of the same name and so originally came from the equestrian order in Roman society. Equestrians tended to be those wealthy citizens who chose to pursue careers in big business rather than politics and so occupied second place in the Roman hierarchy, below the members of the Senate and their families. This situation changed after Rome became an empire, however: equestrians were recruited as government officials and assigned financial, military, or judicial responsibilities in the provinces. Such equestrians could rise through the ranks of the imperial administration to become senators, which apparently happened to Tacitus’s family. He became a senator of Rome.

Our knowledge of Tacitus’s life is mostly gleaned from his works, especially from the Dialogue on Orators (written c. 101/102 CE) and the Agricola (written c. 98 CE). Tacitus tells us that he came to Rome in his teenage years. As was the custom, he apprenticed himself to adult men of society to train for a future career. Tacitus trained for the law, following some prominent lawyers of the day to learn their work. We also learn that he married the daughter of Agricola (a Roman general and the governor of Britain) in 77 ce and that he had personal connections with the emperor’s son, Titus, who would become emperor himself two years later. Under Titus, Tacitus served as a financial official (quaestor) and under Titus’s successor, Domitian, as a judicial official (praetor) and religious commissioner (quindecimvir sacris faciundis). From 89-93 CE, Tacitus served as a military commander in the provinces. He subsequently returned to Rome, where he witnessed (and may have aided and abetted) Domitian’s growing savagery toward the Roman upper classes. The experience appears to have scarred Tacitus, leaving him with a sense of shame and guilt that is apparent in his writings, including the Agricola and the Annals of Imperial Rome, But, despite the shame, Tacitus was both a political survivor and a social climber (he has also been described as snobbish and as someone with little respect for the political opposition). In his view, traditional valor was gone and moderation in politics was the key. Tacitus had an opportunity to put his belief into practice; he served as one of two consuls in 97 CE, filling a post that was the most important in the old Roman Republic and still carried prestige under the emperors. Tacitus would later (in 112) serve as governor of the province of Asia, an office of the highest distinction. Most scholars place his death about 117, the same year as the emperor Trajan’s, though some have suggested that he lived to see Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, and incorporated some of that experience in his Annals as well. What we know about the first century of Roman emperors comes largely from Tacitus; his facts and interpretations of them have influenced our understanding of this period for the past 2,000 years.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

From Republic to empire

The Roman Republic, a system of aristocratic government grounded in the authority and the powers of the Roman Senate, existed and flourished for almost 500 years (509-27 bce). It was under the direction of this Republican government that the Roman people forged an empire in the Mediterranean basin. But the empire brought undreamed of wealth and power into the hands of the senators, which resulted in corrupt policies and reckless decisions. In the last century of the Republic, particular senators competed with one another for dominance in the Republic; they used bribery, rigged elections, and even pitted gangs and armed forces against their rivals. By 44 bce, one of these ambitious senators, Julius Caesar, had made his way to the top of the heap. Fearing that he would transform the Republic into a monarchy, a number of fellow senators assassinated Caesar to prevent the possibility. Supporters of Caesar at this point stepped into action. His political lieutenant (Mark Antony) and the heir to his private estate (Octavian) each saw his assassination as their opportunity to rise to the top. For the next 13 years, they waged a war of political propaganda against each other, dividing the Roman world into two camps. Finally, this war of words exploded into open conflict on land and sea, developing into a civil war. Octavian emerged the victor, the most successful warlord and senator of Rome by 30 bce. Thanks to political maneuvering and military victory, he gained complete control of the Roman world. But Octavian strove not to end up like his great-uncle Caesar. He saw the merits of keeping elements of the Republican system intact (continuing to have a Senate, to hold elections for political officials, to delegate responsibilities to them rather than to overburden himself with the tasks of governing); he recognized that the Republic was a way of life, a treasured tradition, not just a political apparatus. Within three years, Octavian had “trimmed the fat” off the old Republic—that is, he had eliminated any “unnecessary” institutions and offices—and manipulated what remained. He dressed and conducted himself like an average senator, but he had far more wealth than any one of them. Although he consulted senators frequently on all of the important issues, they knew that his was the final decision. He commanded Roman armies on campaign like other generals, but only he had the allegiance of all Roman forces everywhere in the Empire. He held official posts like other magistrates, but he often held multiple offices at once; he combined in his position of princess or “first citizen,” duties that used to be handled separately by separate senators. Technically the Senate was in charge, and it formally recognized Octavian’s extraordinary powers. It even conferred a new name on him—Augustus, the revered one. The Republic seemed still to exist in certain particulars, but there was little doubt that Augustus was making all the decisions.

Augustus’s immediate successors, the Julio-Claudian emperors who are the focus of Tacitus’s Annals, would struggle to follow his example and maintain this strange hybrid of military dictator-ship and free government. But they would not always be up to the challenge of such a careful balancing act, primarily because their personalities or preparation were not suited to the task. Some would feel uncomfortable working with a subservient Senate, while others wished to discard the Senate altogether and rule as monarchs. Some would understand how to lead Rome’s military, while others lacked the experience to do so. In the end, the new system of government would only be as good as its emperor.

The Narrative in Focus

Contents overview

It was during the reigns of the emperors Nerva (96-98 CE) and Trajan (98-117 CE) that Tacitus, already known for his skill at oratory and the law, composed his great works of history, the Annals, which covers much of the initial half of the first century (14-68 CE) and the Histories, which treats most of the latter half (69-96 CE). Together they would become humanity’s primary source for Roman history in this period. What we know of events at the time of the narrative comes most directly from Tacitus. His Annals tells the story of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, the first dynasty of Roman emperors, which was founded by Caesar Augustus, grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Tacitus’s history, however, does not begin with Augustus’s rise after defeating Antony and Cleopatra in 31 bce. Rather, it starts with Augustus’s death in 14 CE and the rise to power of his stepson and successor, Tiberius. Tacitus explains: “Others have memorialized the good times and the bad times of the Roman People and the age of Augustus, but the affairs of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero were falsely recorded when they were still alive, because of fear, and after they died, because of still fresh hatred. Thus, my conception is to relate … the reigns of Tiberius and the rest, without anger or partisanship (sine ira et studio)” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, book 1, chapter 1; all quotations from the Annals are translated by M. Lovano).

Tacitus’s original account would have traced the events of 54 years, through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, ending with Nero’s suicide in 68 CE. Unfortunately, the surviving text of the Annals is missing the entire section on Caligula, the first half of Claudius’s reign, and the fall of Nero (most of book 5 and all of books 7 through 10 and books 17 and 18). We cannot even be certain that Tacitus lived long enough to complete all 18 books. From the text that does exist, we can, however, see that Tacitus focuses on political affairs at Rome, particularly the personal relationships of influential individuals at the imperial court. Occasionally he glances at the rest of the empire, especially at developments in the provinces that affected or were affected by the court in Rome.

Contents summary—book 1

Tacitus begins his history in 14 CE with a brief account of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the subsequent dawn of the participat (a term the Romans preferred to empire) under Augustus. The historian speaks of the rising tide of flattery and the fictions that people came to believe about the emperors, even Augustus, whose reign is greeted with a long list of criticisms by Tacitus. These criticisms are especially interesting because Nerva and Trajan, the rulers in power as Tacitus was writing, modeled themselves on Augustus, and Tacitus knew it. Still, Tacitus boldly questions the rule of one man and notes how Augustus, with his unprecedented degree of authority, used gifts of food to the people, bonuses to the army, and the promise of everlasting peace to justify and cloak his assumption of total political power under the facade of a continuing Republic; the weary survivors of almost 100 years of civil war eagerly accepted his rule to avoid more conflict.

Augustus proceeded to set up a dynasty of one-man rule, first designating one son-in-law as successor, then another, and finally his grand-sons. As Tacitus notes, “Nothing opposed him.... The most spirited men had fallen in the battle lines” or had otherwise been eliminated (Annals, 1.3). Augustus’s plans went awry, how-ever, when he lost all these heirs to untimely deaths; circumstances forced him to promote his dour stepson Tiberius as successor. Augustus did so, but on the condition that Tiberius adopt as his next-in-line his brother’s son, Germanicus, not his own son, Drusus. So, although less than happy about the choice, on his deathbed, Augustus could feel secure that he was leaving Rome a dynasty of rulers for at least the next two generations.

Tacitus begins his account of these successors on a condemning note. Tiberius’s character contained the seeds of immense cruelty and arrogance, and he did not rule alone: behind the throne was a force to be reckoned with, his mother, Livia. She was an arch-intriguer—duplicitous, cunning, and suspicious. Tacitus, like other Romans, suspected that she had actually paved the way for her son’s rise to power as the designated emperor by having the more favored candidates—Augustus’s two sons-in-law and his grandsons—eliminated one by one.

The historian’s judgment of Tiberius’s reign can be seen from the very first sentence devoted to it: “The first crime of the new participates was the death of Agrippa Postumus,” Augustus’s last surviving grandson, who was then living in exile (Annals, 1.6). Tacitus goes on to fill out the portrait of Tiberius, painting him as sneaky, hesitant, in need of a bodyguard to feel secure, and dishonest with the Senate. When it offered Tiberius the same powers Augustus had earned by “saving” the government of Rome from years of internal friction and war, Tiberius pretended not to want these powers but accepted them anyway, says the Annals (Annals, 1.7-11). He created the illusion that the Republican form of government still existed, but in fact controlled elections to high office, something Augustus had never dared to do openly. As these initial moves suggested, Tiberius would prove to be “cunning, suspicious, unjust, and ruthless” (Grant, p. 105).

Tiberius was greeted at the outset of his reign by a military mutiny: the Roman garrisons protecting the Danube frontier along the province of Pannonia (modern Hungary) had been serving longer than their proper terms, had not been appropriately paid, and had not received other benefits promised by Augustus. Now under Tiberius, they made their demands known, turning violently against their commanding officers; a similar mutiny took place among the forces guarding the province of Lower Germany (modern Holland and Belgium). Tiberius sent his son, Drusus, to settle the first mutiny, and his nephew/stepson, Germanicus, to quell the disturbance in Lower Germany; the former took a hard-line approach with the mutineers, brow-beating them into eliminating their own ring-leaders while the latter shamed the mutineers into surrendering. Germanicus ordered his wife, Agrippina, and their little son Gaius (whom the troops nicknamed Caligula because he wore little military boots) to leave camp, creating the shameful impression that life among the Germanic “barbarians” was safer than among the Roman soldiers.

The resolution of the mutiny on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, where Tiberius had sent Germanicus, was followed by fresh campaigns under the young general into hostile German territory on the other side of the Rhine and Danube rivers. According to Tacitus, Tiberius was displeased with the popularity that Germanicus had begun garnering with the troops and did not want the young general to be too successful at penetrating the German wilderness either.

Meanwhile, back at Rome, Tiberius had revived and revised the law against treason, using it to punish and grab the wealth of senators who refused to agree with him. Under the old treason law, explains Tacitus, “Deeds were denounced, words had impunity” (Annals, 1.72). Now any-thing one said or even thought might make the person guilty of treason on penalty of death, since treason was a capital offense. There began a number of treason trials based on trumped-up charges, framing innocent men. Rome would suffer such trials for the next 50 years.

Book 2

After briefly reviewing some of Tiberius’s minor projects, the second book relates the end of Germanicus’s wars in Germany and his transfer to the Eastern frontier to deal with fresh troubles between Rome and the Parthian Empire. Since the days of Augustus, the Romans had tried to maintain at least the semblance of peace with the Parthians, the Iranian rulers of much of the Middle East, who for years were bent on conquering Rome’s eastern provinces (modern-day Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt). Tiberius, interested in having his own son, Drusus, negotiate with the Germans to secure the northern frontier, ordered the recall of Germanicus for the more complicated service against the Parthians. But Germanicus stalled by pressing deeper into Germany in his campaign against Arminius, Rome’s archenemy among the German chieftains, who had earlier arranged for the massacre of three Roman legions. Germanicus avenged the massacre, securing the assassination of Arminius by his own followers and the destruction of many of Rome’s other German enemies as well before turning the command over to Drusus and heading east.

Once there, he found that not only did he have to confront Parthian aggression and rebellious buffer states in the region that were sup-posed to be allies of Rome, but he also had to confront the jealous, insubordinate Roman commander in charge, Piso. Piso was encouraged by his wife, Plancina, to murder Germanicus in order to retain personal power in the east. When Germanicus, after many altercations with Piso, fell ill at Antioch in 19 CE, recovered fully, and then suddenly relapsed and died, many believed Piso had a hand in the matter. The Roman people’s sorrow at Germanicus’s passing was deep and heartfelt.

Book 3

The third book relates a wide range of information. First comes Germanicus’s funeral and Rome in the throes of mourning. Piso, accused and tried for murder, committed suicide, while his wife, similarly accused and tried, was rescued through the good graces of Empress Livia, who thereby attracted even more ill will from the Roman populace. Next Tacitus provides details of several trials for immoral behavior and extortion in the provinces. Other details concern guerilla warfare in the North African deserts and the hills of Thrace, rebellion in Gaul against high taxes and debts, and an account of the death of Vipsania, Tiberius’s first wife.

With Drusus rising in reputation and authority and the empire more or less stable, Tacitus takes a few moments to reflect on the cyclical nature of history and to observe, “That [Tiberius’s] age was so corrupt and tainted with servility,” that even the leading citizens had to hide their distinction by subservience,” and Tiberius him-self characterized Rome’s Senators as “men ready to be slaves” (Annals, 3.65). Those who tried too quickly to rise above the slavish crowd fared poorly: “hastiness … has ruined many good men, who[,] despising the slow but secure way, rush to their end too quickly” (Annals, 3.66). In such an environment, gradual progress, implies Tacitus, was the key.

Book 4

While Tacitus begins the fourth book with a happy reference to the “ninth year of stability for the state and prosperity at home” (Annals, 4.1), this statement is only apparently positive. The promising beginning sets the reader up for a tragic irony—the rise of Sejanus, Tiberius’s lieutenant in governing the Empire. Sejanus wielded authority over the Praetorian Guard (the 9,000 troops who protected the emperor and the Italian peninsula) and influenced the paranoid, mistrustful Tiberius. Sejanus maneuvered other members of the imperial family out of power and even eliminated them. According to Tacitus, Sejanus seduced Drusus’s wife, poisoned Drusus to death, and encouraged a distraught Tiberius to isolate himself from his duties and from reality by retiring from Rome, eventually to the isle of Capri, which became his haven of debauchery and decadence. Heaven’s anger (”ira deum,” Annals, 4.1), says Tacitus, brought Sejanus to wreak catastrophe upon Rome! Amid disturbances in Germany and North Africa, debates over temples being dedicated to Tiberius in Spain and the East, and natural disasters in Italy, Sejanus acquired unlimited power, which allowed him to orchestrate the exile or trial and condemnation of possible foes.

Book 6

“Now there was sheer, oppressive despotism,” remarks Tacitus near the start of his fifth book (Annals, 5.3). A two-year gap in the surviving text follows. When the narrative resumes, Sejanus’s reign of terror has been stopped by Tiberius and the lieutenant’s co-conspirators find themselves on the receiving end of harsh punishments. Tacitus reports that Tiberius, still governing from outside Rome, unleashed a savage series of treason trials, and many tried to avoid the axe of execution by pointing the finger at others: “The fear of violence had severed the binding ties of human relations, and just as much as cruelty grew, so much did compassion shrink” (Annals, 6.19). Amid all this turmoil, the emperor, ever suspicious and fearful of threats to his power, failed to rescue his family members from exile: he allowed Agrippina and her sons (except Gaius) to die of starvation or suicide in confinement. And for the next six years, the judicial executions did not stop: “At Rome, continuous was the slaughter” (Annals, 6.29).

When Tiberius fell ill at his villa in Campania in 37 CE, his new lieutenant, Macro, conspired with Caligula, the emperor’s grandnephew, to smother the emperor in his own bed. Caligula wanted power for himself, and Macro wanted to be the power behind the throne. Tacitus sums up Tiberius like this:

His character had its separate phases of development. While he was a private citizen or serving in command under Augustus, his life and reputation were outstanding; while Germanicus and Drusus were around, he was crafty and hid behind fake virtues; while his mother lived, he was still a mixture of good and evil. As long as he either respected or feared Sejanus, he was hated for his savagery but concealed his lusts. In the end, when shame and fear were gone, and he could do as he pleased, he plunged himself into crime and disgrace.

(Annals, 6.51)

Book 11

There is at this point in the manuscript a gap of the ten years that comprise the entire reign of Caligula and the first half of Claudius’s reign. Tacitus had already commented on Claudius several times in previous books, especially in book 3 where he remarked: “The more I think back about recent or past events, the more ludicrous all the affairs of mortals appear to be. For in reputation, expectation, and esteem, anyone else seemed more destined for the throne than that future emperor [Claudius] whom fortune kept waiting in the wings” (Annals, 3.18). Now, in book 11, Tacitus reveals to us a bumbling, drunken Emperor Claudius in the midst of scheming women (his wife Messalina and his niece Agrippina the Younger) and intriguing freedmen (Callistus, Narcisssus, and Pallas).

Again, there are brief descriptions of diplomatic and military problems in Armenia and Ger-mania, and even a proud account of Claudius’s decision to enroll leading citizens of Gaul in the Roman Senate. But mostly, the focus of the narrative is on Messalina’s abuse of power and her attempt to seize her husband’s throne for her lover, a young senator named Silius. Claudius, the wronged husband, was the last one to know, because his freedmen tried to cover up the affair and then turned on Messalina, eliminating the traitorous wife. When Claudius was told she had died, he grieved not, reports Tacitus. “Nor did he inquire” about the method of her death. “He simply called for his wine-cup and celebrated the party as usual” (Annals, 11.38).

Book 12

Competition now commenced among the elite women to become Claudius’s fourth wife; each of them had her own “agent” making her case before the emperor. In the end, the most persuasive argument was made by his financial minister Pallas on behalf of Claudius’s own niece, Agrippina the Younger; the Senate in 49 CE granted them a dispensation from Roman marriage law, which otherwise forbade such an incestuous union.

According to Tacitus, Agrippina proceeded to control the empire with a “masculine tyranny” (Annals, 12.7). Austere and arrogant, she was also greedy for wealth. Agrippina ruthlessly dominated the scene, maneuvering against Claudius’s children, Octavia and Britannicus, so that her own son from a previous marriage, Nero, would rise to become emperor instead.

New troubles erupted between Rome and first the Parthians, then the Armenians, and finally the Jews in Palestine. In the midst of these problems and Claudius’s conquest of Britain with a Roman force of perhaps 40,000 (43 CE), Nero married his stepsister Octavia, and was adopted officially by Claudius. Supporters of Britannicus in the Senate, bureaucracy, and Guard were killed by the agents of Agrippina. Finally, according to Tacitus, Agrippina eliminated Claudius himself, poisoning him at dinner and then delaying the announcement of his death until her earmarked successor, Nero, could emerge from the palace and be transported safely to the camp of the protective Praetorians. Claudius received a grand funeral like that of Augustus and was similarly deified, but his official will was never read. Agrippina had achieved her goal.

Books 13-16

In the concluding books, Tacitus chronicles the sheer horror that was the reign of Nero. He starts book 13 with: “The first death of the new principate was that of Marcus Junius Silanus, governor of Asia” (Annals, 13.1). Purely private reasons motivated this execution, and similar jealousies, fears, hatreds, and resentments caused the deaths of many other men and women over the next decade.

Agrippina’s and Nero’s advisors, Burrus and Seneca, managed to steer the emperor in his actions for the first few years, but the young Nero refused to focus on the war with Parthia (as Tacitus saw it, a true test of his leadership), instead whiling away the time with his freedmen friends and his mistress, the actress Acte. In this early part of the reign, Nero’s mother wanted to rule in place of Nero. Gradually, however, Agrippina felt her influence over her son waning, and ultimately she turned against Nero and sided with her stepson, Britannicus, as the legitimate ruler; Britannicus soon died from a poisoned drink prepared by Nero’s henchmen. Agrippina now turned to support Nero’s wife Octavia against the adulterous emperor and apparently also began to foment plots against his power. The result was the prosecution of her closest confidants on various charges.

Nero had broken free of his mother’s or anyone else’s control. “Disguised in the outfit of a slave, he roamed the streets, brothels, and motels, with a gang who stole goods from shops and assaulted people on the way” (Annals, 13.25). By 59 CE, Nero had decided to eliminate his own mother, who was still attempting to check his power from behind the scenes. The most famous episode in this whole affair was a boating accident in the bay of Naples. Nero invited his mother to dine with him at his sea-side villa and then offered her a ride home by boat along the coast; he had ordered one of his cronies to sabotage the boat so that it would collapse and sink with Agrippina on board. The scheme worked just right, except that Agrippina managed to swim ashore safely. When Nero responded to her survival by sending guards to assassinate her, his mother simply directed their blades toward her womb and accepted death. The whole business was covered up with the believable story that Agrippina had plotted to eliminate Nero and seize power herself.

The reign of Nero amounted, says Tacitus, to the plummeting of Roman society into an immoral abyss. “It was hard to maintain decency in honest walks of life, much less chastity or modesty or any bit of morality in that contest of vices” (Annals, 14.15). Nero proceeded through judicial trials, exiles, and executions to steal the wealth and possessions of the elite and to re-move all obstacles to his exercising a free hand in public affairs. Burrus died; Seneca fell from grace and retired. Falling in love with Poppaea, the wife of one of his commanders, Nero forced the couple to divorce so that he could marry her; of course, he divorced Octavia, Claudius’s daughter, to make this work and so appeared even less the legitimate heir of Claudius. Octavia suffered further, from charges that she had committed adultery. Exiled, she was abandoned; no one came to her rescue. Around the same time, the captured Armenian king Tiridates was brought to Rome, and sizing up the situation, he observed, “Great empires are not preserved by idle cowardice; they are made by the contest of men and arms” (Annals, 15.1). In Tacitus’s mind, the Senate revealed its cowardice and weakness when it abandoned the innocent Octavia. Rome was no longer a great empire under a ruler like Nero.

Nero’s most despicable moment came in 64 CE when a fire broke out near the Circus Maximus in Rome and then devastated 10 of the 14 wards of the city. According to some, Nero celebrated the disaster and perhaps even started it in order to gobble up a huge section of downtown real estate and convert it into his Domus Aurea, his huge private pleasure palace (Nero’s efforts to organize fire brigades during the outbreak, how-ever, and the relief that he afterward extended to victims suggest otherwise). Attempting to suppress the rumor that he was behind the catastrophe, Nero rounded up and executed Christians as scapegoats, but the strategy did not have the intended effect. Blaming the Christians only excited pity from the people and did not stop the rumors. Although Tacitus himself was not particularly kind to the early Christians, whom he viewed as “haters of mankind,” his text neither blames them for nor excuses them from responsibility for the Great Fire (Annals, 15.44).

The next year some senators took action. Led by Seneca and C. Calpurnius Piso, they formed a plot against Nero for the sake of their own survival. But the plot was discovered, and, one by one, conspirators confessed to save their own skins and pointed the finger at other victims: “Free men, Roman knights and senators, untouched by any tortures, were betraying each one his nearest and dearest” (Annals, 15.57). Piso and Seneca were forced to commit suicide. Tacitus apologizes for the tedious list of trials and deaths, including those of the poet Lucan and the satirist Petronius, again asserting that the cause of all of this was heaven’s anger with Rome (Annals, 16.16). “After the slaughter of so many distinguished men, Nero in the end desired to extinguish virtue herself through the murder of Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus,” two exemplary men who were leading opposition Senators (Annals, 16.21). They were charged simply with espousing Republican values, were tried by other senators, not by Nero himself, and despite vigorous speeches in their own defense, were both convicted and sentenced to suicide.

Unfortunately, the surviving text of Tacitus’s account breaks off just as Thrasea Paetus is dying; we do not see his last moments nor those of the other leading men and women whom Nero condemned to death. The remaining two years of his reign must be pieced together using other sources, primarily the biography by Suetonius and the much later history in Greek by Dio Cassius.

The Roman army

Much of the Annals is caught up with the military, which was reformed under imperial rule. After Augustus’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 bce, all surviving Roman troops from both sides of the civil war swore an oath of personal allegiance to Augustus. In 23 bce, the Senate declared his authority to command and govern greater than that of all other military commanders. This position of imperator (commander-in-chief of all Roman armies) was passed down to his successors by approval of the Senate.

After making some only moderately successful attempts at expanding the empire, Augustus decided to deploy Roman forces (about 28 legions plus auxiliary troops and naval contingents) along its perimeter as a permanent, standing defensive barrier. It would defend the empire especially against the Parthians to the east and the German tribes to the north. Service in the military was voluntary: a male citizen of Rome volunteered for a 20-year period of service, plus 5 years as a reserve soldier. During that time, he had to be totally committed to the emperor and the empire, which meant he was not permitted to legally marry or have children. In return for such devoted service, the Roman legionary or sailor received an annual salary, occasional bonuses on holidays or upon the accession of a new emperor (Claudius started this latter tradition), awards (often in the form of precious metal) for distinguished conduct, and a sizable retirement pension in land or money. Scholars, however, estimate that only about 10 percent of the enlisted lived to retirement.

Not only Roman citizens became soldiers and sailors. The empire also relied on auxiliary forces made up of inhabitants of the provinces, the territories outside Italy that were subject to Rome. Provincial soldiers served five to ten years longer than citizens and earned one-third less pay. On retirement, they received Roman citizenship for themselves and their relatives, gaining legal and political rights and privileges unavailable to other provincials. By Tacitus’s day, there were at least as many auxiliaries defending the empire as Roman citizen soldiers.

Tacitus’s account indicates that Roman forces in the provinces were both the basis of the Emperor’s power and, when not properly treated, the source of much trouble. Tiberius faced mutinies along the Rhine and Danube Rivers almost as soon as he came to the throne; the soldiers had been abused by their officers and had not received pay or been discharged on time. If Augustus’s new military arrangements were going to work, the emperor in power could not neglect the frontier armies. Even Claudius, who had no military background, realized that he had to maintain discipline and order among the troops, and needed to keep them occupied with new frontiers, like the conquest of Britain. He himself appeared in Britain for part of its capture. But his successor, Nero, neglected Rome’s armies during much of his reign, failing to ever visit them and threatening some of the units and their commanders with elimination. Consequently his last days as emperor were greeted by multiple mutinies along the frontiers and Rome was once again plunged into civil war. The soldiers, it seems, had rediscovered the “secret of empire,” as Tacitus calls it—that the armies make the emperors wherever they please (Tacitus, Histories, 1.4).

No doubt with this in mind, the emperors built up their military backing at home in Italy. Augustus guaranteed the security of Italy by expanding the old camp guard of campaigning generals, called praetorians after the general’s headquarters (praetorium). His new Praetorian Guard consisted of 9,000 men selected from among Roman citizen soldiers; they were divided into nine units, three stationed near Rome, the rest at key sites throughout Italy. Praetorians only had to serve 16 years, unlike the 20 years typical of rank-and-file infantry, and were paid about one-and-a-half times as much as the ordinary foot soldier. Their commanders (or prefects) exercised much authority in Italy, especially in Rome.

Tiberius put Sejanus in control of the guard. Under his direction, all of its units were concentrated in a massive fortress on the outskirts of Rome, where he could use them to terrorize Rome’s senators and populace. We can clearly see how central the Praetorians were to control of the empire when we consider Sejanus’s virtual takeover of the government for a while and his reign of terror against rivals in the imperial family. Without such backing, the history of Rome under the early emperors would have been much different, perhaps less bloody. Especially after Tiberius, the Julio-Claudian emperors relied ever more heavily on this military force and its leader, not only to gain and maintain power but to function, or at least appear to function, as commander-in-chief, for none of these emperors had true military experience. Later emperors, after the Julio-Claudians, generally had stronger military credentials and enough power to closely control the Praetorian Guards.

Augustus revamped the military system, and it was modified by his successors in ways that in hindsight had several desirable effects. First, emperors promoted loyalty among the troops by being their central paymaster and on occasion commander-in chief in the field. Second, the revamped system centralized and streamlined the chain of command and opportunities for pro-motion, making the military a more efficient institution. Third, the new army provided a permanent defense of Rome’s 6,000 mile long frontier, thereby encouraging peace within the empire. Fourth, the army helped Romanize the provincial peoples. And last, it constituted a skilled workforce that could be and often was diverted to vast engineering projects like roads, aqueducts, baths, temples, fortifications, even whole towns. As a result, the new Roman military was an essential support of the Pax Romcma, the “Roman Peace.”

Sources and literary context

Roman authors had experimented with various forms of history writing before Tacitus turned to composing his own. Later, in the sixteenth century, scholars gave his work the name Annals; they recognized how Tacitus followed the same sort of strict chronological sequencing of events typical of earlier historians in the Roman Republic and how he similarly focused on political and military de-tails. But Tacitus went beyond simply chronicling events. Like the Republican historian Sallust, whose rapid, staccato style of writing he consciously imitated, Tacitus blended the traditions of biography, ethnology, psychology, rhetoric, theatricality, and philosophy into a seamless whole. He saw the recording of history as an art form, but certainly not as fiction. He seems to have regarded himself as superior to preceding historians, such as Livy, who, in Tacitus’s view, had been first and foremost a teller of tales (see Livy’s From the Founding of the City, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Yet modern views vary on the degree of accuracy that Tacitus attained in his history: some have characterized him as irresponsible and careless; others as resentful, too sensitive, and/or brooding. Most scholars concur that Tacitus was generally careful, reliable, and factually sound in his account, even using a speech confirmed by a real archaeological source from Gaul.

The similarities in detail and arrangement between Tacitus’s account and those of the biographer Suetonius and the historian Cassius Dio suggest that they all relied on one common source for large chunks of material (see Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). We must also consider that Tacitus would have been influenced by his reading in Greek and Roman literature; scholars have noted the parallels between his portrait of Se-janus and Sallust’s portrait of Catiline and between some of Tacitus’s battle scenes and those recorded by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (also in Classical Literature and Its Times).

There are several sources that Tacitus himself identifies. He consulted the diurna acta senatus, the daily records of Senate meetings, and the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger (”who recorded for posterity her life and the events that befell her own family” [Annals, 4.53]). Also he refers to four prominent historians: the Elder Pliny, Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus, and Aufidius Bassus. Pliny the Elder had composed not only an exceptional Natural History, but also a 20-book study of Rome’s wars against the Ger-mans; Cluvius Rufus devoted his historical work to the period 37-69 CE, with special focus on Nero. The politician Fabius Rusticus composed a history quite hostile to Nero. Tacitus probably also used Aufidius Bassus’s works on Roman history and German history; Tacitus points to Aufidius’s eloquence with admiration in the Dialogue on Orators. Probably he also had access to the memoirs of general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo for his campaigns in the East.

Though he availed himself of all these more learned sources, Tacitus was also seduced by sensational, suggestive rumors and allegations, which he interfused with his accurate facts. He is also suspected to have relied heavily on partisan, anti Julio-Claudian political pamphlets for some of his material.

Like a portrait painter, Tacitus depicted individuals briefly but vividly, giving us studies in character and personality, and he made frequent use of the aside, as though to demonstrate his ability to see beyond the apparent facts to a deeper reality. He believed that historians possess the gift to penetrate appearances and discern fundamental truths, as he attempts to do, for example, in his portrait of Tiberius.

Tacitus was something of a prophet of history and politics, becoming didactic in his messages in the process. Though claiming to be impartial, he set out to show his readers how Roman society had declined from the virtues of the Old Re-public (with which he was almost obsessed) to the vices of the emperors, and to show the Ro-mans of the “happiest age” (his own) how to avoid another such slide into an immoral abyss: “I consider it the prime duty of history to make sure that virtuous deeds are not kept silent and that wicked words and deeds fear posterity and infamy” (Annals, 3.65). The Annals can be regarded as a series of chronological episodes that fulfills this purpose. The historian and his work become agents for potential change. Vice takes center stage in the history. Tacitus apologized for this strategy in his work, yet he insisted that it was useful and necessary: “few men discern through their own wisdom the good from the bad, the useful from the harmful—most men learn such from the experience of others” (Annals, 4.33). For Tacitus, the practice of history could never be anything less than a supreme study in morality. He was no doubt influenced in his approach by the dominance of satire in early Roman society; with its biting edge of social and moral criticism, satire was the most popular literary form of his day.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

A world of difference—ruling justly

Scholars place Tacitus’s Annals as his last work, dating its composition to sometime between 105 and 117 CE. Curiously it deals with the earliest period of interest to Tacitus in all of his writings. The composition of the Annals fell entirely within the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), considered by Tacitus’s generation to be the “optimus princeps,” the “best of emperors.” In his Histories, Tacitus himself referred to the time of Trajan and his predecessor, Nerva, as the “beatissimum saeculum” the “happiest age” yet in the Mediterranean (Tacitus, Histories, 1.1). Not fully known to Tacitus, Nerva had inaugurated a pattern of smooth successions from one adoptive “good” emperor to another that would last for nearly a century; Tacitus’s writings suggest that he knew Nerva and Trajan had ushered in a remarkable period of peace and prosperity for the empire, something to be grateful for after the convulsive politics under the preceding Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties.

Certainly Tacitus felt free enough under Trajan to critically appraise the latter’s predecessors on the throne and indeed to drag their memories through the muck in his search for the truth about their reigns. The era during which he wrote the Annals, or more precisely the emperor under whom he wrote the Annals, allowed Tacitus the freedom to express repressed feelings, to vent his political and moral frustrations and anger especially with the terror he had suffered under Domitian’s rule. Tacitus places in the mouth of a historian of the previous century, Cremutius Cordus (who wrote during the time of Tiberius about the collapse of the Roman Republic), words that probably reflected Tacitus’s own sentiments: “But what above all was customary and unrestricted [during the Republic] was writing about those whom death had removed from hatred or favoritism” (Annals, 4.35). Under Tiberius, such freedom of expression did not exist (Cremutius Cordus was driven to suicide for something he said). Nor did it exist under any Julio-Claudian or Flavian emperor, and Tacitus knew it. But it existed under Trajan, whom Tacitus happily linked to the earlier Republican freedom of speech.

Before becoming emperor, Trajan, a native of Italica in Spain, had enjoyed a distinguished military career under the Flavians. He served in Asia Minor, Syria, and on the borders of Germany. As emperor, he ruled with the support of all the armies of Rome and received full powers as Princeps from the Senate. Through his wife Plotina, he won over the faction of philosophers and other Roman intellectuals who had objected strenuously to one-man rule under the Flavian dynasty. Indeed, we should mention how contemporary authors took special note of the model Roman woman, like Plotina, or his sister Marciana, or his niece Matidia, with whom Trajan surrounded himself (compare Tacitus’s portraits of the Julio-Claudian women).

Trajan reestablished a standard of excellence for the position of emperor: people remembered him as honest and flexible, generous and merciful, dutiful and brave, equitable and respectful of the law. He guided the leaders of the empire by example. His policies appear to have been liberal and well-ordered; his relations with all influential groups in Roman society, careful and practical. Trajan appointed qualified legal, financial, and military experts to key posts in the government and always made decisions in consultation with these experts and other representatives of the Senate. Making it more representative, the emperor introduced into the Senate additional aristocrats from the provinces, especially from Asia Minor, Spain, North Africa, and Gaul. He insisted, however, that all senators own a substantial amount of their property in Italy so they would have a vested interest in the heart of the empire.

Trajan dispatched traveling commissioners, correctores, throughout the empire to promote agricultural growth and provide solutions for local economic problems. He provided for army veterans by establishing for them new colonies that grew into cities along the Rhine River, in the ancient European country of Dacia (modern Romania), and in North Africa. He was well known for his public works projects, especially the new port at Ostia, Rome’s harbor, as well as new aqueducts, baths, and markets.

Trajan demanded and received from the armed forces greater discipline, order, and hard work; his foreign policy was one of strong frontiers and expansion. In foreign affairs, he waged major campaigns against the Dacians (in 101-102 CE and 105-106 CE) in central Europe and against the Parthians (in 113-117 CE) in the Middle East. As a consequence of these wars, Trajan added sizeable territory to the Empire, famously extending its reach to the Persian Gulf, original heartland of Western civilization. Certainly these events dominated the imagination of those who lived during Trajan’s reign, not least because of the monuments he erected to honor his victories—for example, the famous Column of Trajan, which commemorates his military campaigns and still stands in Rome today. Trajan’s campaigns likely inspired Tacitus to devote considerable attention in his Annals to previous Roman wars against the Parthians and others beyond the Danube River instead of just to politics and intrigues at Rome.

Trajan’s expansionism beyond Rome’s natural frontiers over-extended the military resources of the empire, however, and not long after his death (from a stroke in the summer of 117), his successor, Hadrian, pulled Roman forces out of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and established client-kingdoms in that region while holding on to the new Dacian provinces and strengthening border defenses generally. Trajan’s passing was greeted with a huge public funeral in Rome and honors from the Senate, including his transformation into a god, or deification.

Even a cursory reading of Tacitus’s Annals will demonstrate how much previous emperors like Tiberius and Nero, whom the historian loathed, were polar opposites of Trajan. Trajan’s approach to politics and warfare, his personality and character traits, and his choice of advisors reminded


Our evidence about women of the imperial family comes entirety from biased male authors who provide us with anecdotes illustrating the activities and character of these women. Tacitus is no exception. It has long been recognized among scholars that his portraits of imperial women, though complex, are largely rooted in his moralistic approach to human nature and Roman society. Tacitus’s history provides some reliable indication of the activities of powerful women in the first two centuries CE. But, with a few notable exceptions, his portrayals suggest that he resented the rising power and influence of elite women in Roman politics. To him, this development signified a decline in Roman society from the days of Republican propriety.

In the Roman Empire, as in the days of the Republic, both elite and lower-class women were married off at young ages in matches arranged by their fathers. Especially among the elite, a woman was always supposed to be under some male’s supervision. Tacitus vividly illustrates what men believed could happen if even married women were left unsupervised, when he describes the sexual escapades of Claudius’s wife, Messalina. His eleventh book characterizes her as greedy, jealous, and lustful, and describes her adulterous love affair with Gaius Silius as well as her notorious drinking parties in the palace. On the other hand, her daughter, Octavia, is portrayed as chaste and modest, a perfect wife cast aside by Hero and framed for adultery. Messalina and Octavia are opposite stereotypes of the Roman wife.

Traditional Roman men, Tacitus among them, favored women in the roles of dutiful daughter, then mature, nurturing wife and mother. In the Annals, we see Augustus’s granddaughter, Agrippina the Elder, fulfilling both these roles exceptionally well: she is devoted to her natal family (especially her father, Agrippa, and grandfather, Augustus) and to her husband, Germanicus, and their children. She furthermore dedicates herself to what these famous men of her family supposedly stood for: the Roman Republic and its virtues of good government, law, equity, honesty, and bravery. While she aims to achieve the morally good, she also lets nothing stand in the way of exacting revenge from those who threaten her family, an unwomanly pursuit, as Tacitus sees it. She is a mixture of ideal female and male traits. Livia, by contrast, appears to be a perversion of the ideal: she is a compliant wife to Augustus and the power behind her son Tiberius, but never allows him to forget it. Unlike a good Roman mother, she probably causes the deaths of Augustus’s grandsons and perhaps even of her own popular son Drusus, whom she regards as a threat to her first-born, Tiberius. Livia, says Tacitus, was driven by hunger for power, not motherly love. But, in light of the fact that no evidence exists beyond his innuendoes, scholars argue that his image of Livia relies on untrue and malicious rumors. Agripptna the Younger is also fiercely critiqued by Tacitus. He paints her as a woman who used sexual allurements to get what she reafly wanted—power and wealth, Agrippina tried to rule alongside her husband Claudius while he lived, then killed him to seize his throne for her son, Nero, When that son broke from her control, she switched her support to his step-siblings and tried to overthrow him. Certainly there was no love lost here, despite reports of her attempts to seduce Nero into obedience (Annals, 13.13, 14,2).

Tacitus of the great men from the Republic who had built Rome and the Empire, the men of virtue and tradition whom he so greatly admired. Trajan was a “new, old Roman” and his era perhaps reminiscent of the good old days of the Roman Republic for which Tacitus so longed.

Reception and impact

Versions of Tacitus’s work have barely come down to us. The only manuscript containing Annals 1-6, the First Medicean (now in Florence), was probably produced in the mid-ninth century in Germany. Annals 11-16 survive through both the Second Medicean (also in Florence), produced perhaps in southern Italy in the eleventh century, and from later manuscripts derived from this Second Medicean.

Tacitus’s writings were meant to be read privately, not to be recited publicly. They were in a style that many ancient orators would have regarded as inelegant, and students in Roman schools or monks in medieval monasteries would not have considered his unusual, atypical Latin prose worth imitating. This may explain why his works were not much appreciated in ancient times and through much of the Middle Ages.

We know that the late medieval and early Renaissance writers Giovanni Boccaccio and Poggio Bracciolini read Tacitus firsthand. His works, including the Annals, are known to have been highly regarded in the later Renaissance and during the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thinkers like Italy’s Francesco Guicciardini, England’s Francis Bacon, France’s Montesquieu and Michel de Montaigne, and America’s Thomas Jefferson and John Adams saw in his history the struggle between individual conscience and corrupt society, between freedom and tyranny that so resonated in their own time. They, and their opponents, avidly pored over his anti-tyrannical analysis and borrowed slogans from Tacitus for their respective political causes. Guicciardini in his Ricordi (C-18) remarked that Tacitus teaches us all good and all bad of which humans are capable, while Montaigne in his Essays (2.10 and 3.8) called Tacitus the master of both truth and exaggeration. Rulers like Napoleon disliked Tacitus precisely because he condemned one-man rule so effectively. In the later nineteenth century, when a growing number of Europeans subscribed to the notion of in-finite human progress, Tacitus’s pessimism about human nature—that it stays the same and is al-ways corruptible and basically sinister—fell out of step with a more modern, positive outlook. But the disastrous wars of the twentieth century revived his reputation among the educated as they embraced more negative views of history and man’s future. Our modern concepts of tyranny, of political freedom, and of martyrdom for a great political cause derive largely from Tacitus’s work. Tacitus’s influence today can be seen even in the way sinister political forces and imperial government are depicted in popular culture. The recent Star Wars trilogy, which chronicles the fall of a virtuous Republic and the rise of a diabolical one-man rule through the manipulation and machinations of an ambitious senator and his cronies, owes its characterization and the very essence of its message to the Annals of Tacitus.

—Michael Lovano

For More Information

Africa, Thomas W. Rome of the Caesars. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1965.

Gardner, Jane. Women in Roman Law and Society.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Grant, Michael. Roman Literature. New York: Penguin, 1954.

Keppie, L. The Making of the Roman Army. London: Barnes and Noble, 1984.

Mellor, Ronald. From Augustus to Nero: The First Dynasty of Imperial Rome. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1990.

_____. The Roman Historians. London: Routledge, 1999.

_____. Tacitus: The Classical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Syme, Ronald. Tacitus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. Trans. Clifford H. Moore. The Annals. Trans. John Jackson. [Latin with English translations.] Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937.

_____. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1977.

Watson, Graham. The Roman Soldier. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.

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