Books 1 and 2 of Tacitus' Annals were edited and annotated in two earlier volumes of this series (1972 and 1981) by the late F. R. D. Goodyear. Now A. J. Woodman and R. H. Martin have added a third volume: Book 3 of the Annals. This book covers the years AD 20-22, including the aftermath of Germanicus' death and the trial of his alleged murderer Calpurnius Piso and contains some of Tacitus' most well known and important programmatic and reflective passages. In their commentary the editors are the first to attempt a systematic comparison of the documentary record provided by a recently discovered senatus consultum relating to Piso's trial with Tacitus' narrative of the same episode. More attention is given to literary matters than by Goodyear but textual, linguistic and historical issues are treated fully and new interpretations frequently offered.
A few years ago, I tried reading the classic Victorian translation of Church and Brodribb. I thought it was fine, but I struggled to get through the work. In the older translation, it was hard to discern reported speech from Tacitus's narrative. Damon's translation sets off the reported speech in italics, an innovation which makes the text easier to follow while not cluttering the prose with verbal markers of speech. That and an updated syntax and less dated vocabulary make this new version preferable.
It's history with a moral purpose: to punish evil and reward virtue through the judgement of posterity. Grant calls Tacitus' Latin "unusual and difficult", possessing a pungent simplicity in the original. Has Grant rendered it accurately? Not knowing Latin, I have no idea. (The problem of translation is further complicated by possible corruption in those two manuscripts.) As it appears here, it's a stylish history, particularly in its many speeches.
Tacitus himself was a noted orator and wrote about the art. The speeches he gives us range from mutinous Roman soldiers and Agrippina (wife of Tiberius' nephew Germanicus) reacting to said troops, German barbarians, and some of Nero's victims before they "opened their veins" after his condemnation. I say Tacitus gives us those speeches because they are all invented. There's no way Tactitus would have a verbatim record of what was said. However, as Grant makes clear, he's operating in a tradition of ancient historical writing as well as trying to tell a compelling story.
Grant claims that Tacitus' account of Tiberius' reign is usually considered the highest example of his art. There is certainly art there. I didn't find the condemnation of Tiberius entirely convincing though, and Grant argues that Tacitus is reacting to his experiences as a senator under the tyrannical reign of Domitian rather than Tiberius' who died before Tacitus was born. There is much on Rome's intervention in Parthian and Armenian politics. I found the reign of Nero the most interesting with Tacitus noting the craven, cowardly flattery of most of Rome's nobility along with a few who would not abase themselves. (The amount of people who pliantly committed suicide after facing Nero's disapproval is explained by their effort to protect surviving family members and to preserve at least a portion of their estate.)
Grant helpfully footnotes some of the allusions to missing parts of the work or earlier episodes of Roman history. Still, I wouldn't attempt this work without first reading a general history of the period. Grant does put in a nice glossary of Roman political and military terms. Frankly, I didn't need to look at it, but I did happen to glance at some of the entries. Grant chooses, here, to make some unconventional translations of some terms, particularly the military ones. I'm not sure why. I haven't seen things like "company-commander" for centurion in his other work including his later _The Army of the Caesars_.
The several included maps show almost all the referenced places, and there are four very necessary pages covering the complicated genealogies surrounding the Julio-Claudian emperors.
I say that I ploughed through it, but that’s not strictly true. The initial chapters were a bit of a slog, but once I got used to the style and how events were described, it became thoroughly enjoyable. There’s detail where you want detail, but equally Tacitus seemed to know a slow year when he saw one, and barely gave it more than a couple of pages.
Tacitus seemed to take great pleasure in detailing how the imperial family were basically corrupt and despicable, for the most part, and were heavily influenced by advisers who were only interested in their own ends. Maybe this was because of the time when he wrote, with Rome firmly in decline, and transposing his contemporary views onto history. But I can see why someone like Nero drew contempt from Tacitus: he basically gorged and copulated his way through his time as Emperor, to the detriment of the Empire.
I don’t know Roman history particularly well, and I’ve no idea why I picked this book off of the shelves. My knowledge of Roman culture and history comes from one of those Horrible Histories books back when I was in school, and even then it’s concentrated around things like the army, its conquests and the many odd gods they worshipped.
[Sidenote: weren’t Horrible Histories the best series of books? I swear that my entire interest in history, especially British monarchs, stemmed from those books. They knew exactly how to make history interesting and how to make it appeal to children/young teens. I believe there was even a TV show developed at one point.]
So to go into this book a little blind was a bit daunting. Thankfully, the appendices were multiple and explanatory, and the introduction from its translator also gave the setting for the rest of the text. Usually I skip introductions when I read classics, and just go straight into the novel/text itself, but in this case it was almost necessary to read it.
It’s not an easy read, and it’s not exactly light, but I think it’s worth picking up if you’ve got a vague interest in the gradual downfall of the Roman Empire, and particularly the personalities which brought it to its knees. Whether I go so far as to pick up The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is another matter whatsoever.
An account which is missing large gaps, but still portrays the Empire through some of its most tumultuous times. A state which tears itself apart.
One of the best accounts of that era that we have - but it is still to be analyzed and read carefully, with an eye for bias, as with any history.
Me: Well, so far this isn't five star love it, but not first star hate.
Her: Keep going. It's good for you.
Me: Like broccoli?
Well, in the end it was more like a feast. This does have its dry patches--I considered dropping it a star because of that but decided it just had too much that was awesome. This is a year by year narrative of Imperial Roman history from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, from 14 to 66 AD. Tacitus at times gives accounts of trials of people who aren't exactly famous. It's as if 2,000 years later one is reading bulletins of trials of John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich. Military battles and mutinies are related in sometimes (for me) eye-glazing detail. But though the events described here happened largely before Tacitus was born, being high up in the state himself, he had access to first hand Senate records--and of course he must have known people who could give him first hand accounts. Ancient Rome came vividly to life here. Reading, for instance, of all the suicides committed to anticipate arrest and execution or the real life instance of the origin of the word "decimate." Or even this little bit where an accused man "offered his slaves to the torture." (Testimony of slaves extracted without torture wasn't valid.) But the narrative really came alive when it dealt with the doings of the emperors, their entourage and family: incest, murder, betrayal. The doings of the emperors seemed an illustration of Acton's aphorism that "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." Honestly, often what came through was Roman barbarism rather than Roman civilization--maybe all the more when Tacitus was recounting events he seemingly took for granted or approved of--for instance freedmen being treated like second class citizens. I read--and did love--Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War, which has good claim to be the first real history--dealing with forces and people without attributing it to Gods. At first I thought Tacitus didn't compare well. But my goodness, I don't remember the Greeks being this colorful or Thucydides this gossipy. Note this passage about the Empress Messalina, Claudius' wife:
Messalina meanwhile, more wildly profligate than ever, was celebrating in mid-autumn a representation of the vintage in her new home. The presses were being trodden; the vats were overflowing; women girt with skins were dancing, as Bacchanals dance in their worship or their frenzy. Messalina with flowing hair shook the thyrsus, and Silius at her side, crowned with ivy and wearing the buskin, moved his head to some lascivious chorus.
Something else was markably absent from Thucydides by the way very present in that quote--women. I can't recall and from googling online can't find that Thucydides so much as mentions an individual woman in his acount of the Peloponnesian War. About the most famous passage even regarding women in Thucydides' history is in Pericles' Funeral Oration where he purportedly said the best women pass anonymously through history. Women on the other hand, are very present in the Annals. I'm not saying Tacitus was some proto-feminist. There are plenty of misogynist remarks--but women are a vital part of this history: Livia, Agrippina, Messalina, Pompeia--and not just those married to or the mother of Emperors--but figures such as Boudicca, the Warrior Queen of Britain, make quite the impression. I felt reading this one could write many a novel just based on single paragraphs in the history. I've read (some) of Gibbon's famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I've read historical fiction about Rome by Robert Graves and Colleen McCullough among others, and I've dipped into contemporary popular histories of Rome. None really substitute for sustained reading of the real thing--from inside the head of a real Roman. So yes, whatever its faults, this was amazing.
Tacitus himself apologizes for the monotony of some of the stories in 16.16, which is obviously a bit mischievous, since the continuous deaths, sexual escapades and military idiocies are, in their own way, pretty entertaining. He's great at telling small scale tales, particularly of Nero (his discussion of Tiberius is a little dull, unfortunately). But it's hard to see the overall arc here. That might be because I didn't read it in Latin and give it my undivided attention, it might be because we're missing big chunks of the text, it might be because the annalistic organization doesn't really allow for overarching arc. Or might be because there is no arc: it's just descent from one repulsive, disgusting emperor to the next.
Otherwise, I had to skim hefty portions of the text because I couldn't really be bothered to look up notes on every 'barbarian' tribesman, or every obscure Roman advocate. And I imagine that will go for anyone who's reading this but isn't a classics student or professor or obsessive. But the high (i.e., low) points make it very much worth while, and anyone who thinks Hollywood and Television and Modern Art are destroying the olde time morals should take note that there's more bloodletting, sexual misconduct and greed in Tacitus than in anything that would make it to your local cinema.
Tacitus tells the story of Rome under the Caesars, from shortly before the death of Augustus until the end of Nero's reign, although various parts of his book are lost, including the whole of Gaius(Caligula)'s reign. Tacitus was writing long enough afterwards to be able to speak frankly about the emperors' many faults. He seems to be fairly even-handed though, as although he quite obviously hates Tiberius, he comments more than once that Tiberius hated flattery, and did not not accept money left to him in people's wills unless they were personal friends of his. Tacitus is rather sharp tongued comments at times; the translator included a footnote saying that the quotation above is a catty reference to Pliny the Elder.
I think it's a pity that the translator decided to use the less picturesque division (when the auxiliaries are included) or brigade instead of legion, and company commander instead of centurion.
As for Tacitus himself, he is the subtlest ancient historian I have read, topping Herodotus and even Thucydides (and certainly, a fortiori, Livy). A close study of his depiction of Tiberius will bear fruit.
The work begins with Tacitus reviewing the reign of Augustus and how Tiberius became his successor, over his more popular nephew Germanicus whose side of the family would eventual rule. Tiberius shrewdly attempts to be modest in claiming the Imperial title, but this hides his dark nature that he developed during his self-imposed exile before becoming Augustus’ heir. Under Tiberius is when the show trials and political persecutions of leading men that would begin that would become notorious under later Emperors. The middle and the very end of Tiberius’ reign, all of Gaius (Caligula)’s reign, and the first half of Claudius’ reign have been lost. Tacitus’ work picks up with how Claudius’ wife Messalina was brought down and his niece Agrippina shrewdly manipulating her way into marriage with her uncle so as to get her son, the future Nero, to become Emperor. Though the show trials and political persecutions continue, Claudius doesn’t instigate them and attempts to be lenient for those being wrongly convicted. Yet once Nero becomes an adult and Claudius’ son Britannicus still a child, Claudius’ days are numbered. Once his great-uncle and adoptive father is dead, Nero assumes the leadership and begins consolidating power including poisoning Britannicus at dinner one night. Though his mother Agrippina attempts to influence him, Nero humors her while attempting to get rid of her and finally succeeding. Though taught and tutored by the renowned Seneca, Nero has learned to rule in the guise of Tiberius yet with the ruthlessness of Gaius and soon anyone that offended him or could have been a threat to him or perceived to be by his hangers on. Though the end of Nero’s reign is missing, the trials and murders of senators were increasing in number to the point that later as mentioned in The Histories they decided to turn on Nero and proclaim Galba.
The unfortunate incompleteness of Tacitus’ work does not diminish the great historical account that it presents of early Imperial history as well as his critique of the Roman aristocracy during the reigns of Augustus’ Julio-Claudian successors. Though we know his opinions of Tiberius and Nero the best since their reigns survived the best, Tacitus critiques of those family members that did not rule were highly invaluable especially all those who in the writer’s opinion might have been more fitting successors to Augustus if not for political intrigue or bad luck. If there is a complaint with this book it is with a decision by translator Michael Grant decision to use modern military terminology in reference to Roman’s military was it, but his decision to use Roman numerals to help identify different historical actors who had the same name—a very common Roman practice—without a doubt help keep things straight. The biggest complaint that I had with Tacitus’ other works, which I had from Oxford World Classics, were non-existent with Penguin Classics and thus I encourage others towards that particular publisher.
The Annals of Imperial Rome is Tacitus’ finest work, showing the corruption of absolute power and how many choose to allow it overcome them instead of standing up to it. Although probably (at least) one-third of the work is missing, the portions we have covers how a politically stable Rome begins to slowly unravel through ever increasing fear of the most powerful man in the Empire. The end result of this is chronicles in Tacitus’ previous work.