Histories by Tacitus

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long term) in 97, during the short reign of Nerva (ruled 96 to 98).

It was about this point that he embarked on a career as a writer, producing two historical monographs – a biography of his father-in-law Julius Agricola which, because the latter had served as governor of Britain, contains much interesting information about the tribes and geography of ancient Britain; and the Germania, an ethnographic study of the tribes of Germany, both published in 98.

Tacitus returned to public life during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). In 100 he and his friend, Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile. Pliny wrote in a letter a few days later that Tacitus had spoken ‘with all the majesty which characterises his usual style of oratory’.

Tacitus spent the next decade or so researching his two major works, the Histories and the Annals but in 112 to 113 was back in public service, recorded as holding the highest civilian governorship, of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ i.e. western Turkey. He probably died in the 120s, though the precise date is not known.

The point of recounting all this is to emphasise that Tacitus understood military and political power from the inside. He was a noted public speaker, lawyer and prosecutor, and held senior administrative posts. This profound understanding of all aspects of the Roman political system explains why Tacitus’s histories feel so authoritative and rich. He is speaking from deep experience of how Roman government worked, along with all the scheming, backstabbing and politicking which accompanied it.

The Histories

Together, the Histories and Annals were designed to give a continuous, year-by-year history of Rome under the rule of the first 12 emperors, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian i.e. from 14 to 96 AD, taking in the ten emperors in between (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

Tacitus composed the Annals second but they deal with the earlier period, Augustus to Nero (14 to 68). He composed the Histories first but they deal with the later period, Galba to Domitian (68 to 96).

Both books are missing large sections. The Annals is missing a big chunk in the middle, covering the last two years of Tiberius, the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47). Very frustrating.

But the Histories are even more mutilated. Originally 12 or 14 books in length, all that survive are the first four books and part of the fifth so that, instead of the 30 or so years from 68 to 96, all we have is just the first two years of his intended period, namely a brief summary of 68, all of 69 and some of 70.

The 1964 Penguin Classics paperback translation by British historian Kenneth Wellesley (1911 to 1995) is 260 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for just 2 years, so straightaway you know the Histories are going to cover the period in great detail.

If it’s a shame that we’ve lost most of the Histories and thus Tacitus’s accounts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, looking on the bright side, what we do have is a detailed account of a pivotal moment, the so-called Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, when, following Nero’s suicide in June 68, four successive military leaders contested the imperial throne.

Nero was the last representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled Rome since 27 BC, but it was not only a dynasty that was overthrown; such was the chaos that it looked to contemporaries as if the unified, centralised structure of the Roman Empire itself might come to an end.

Four emperors died violently:

  • Nero in June 68, suicide (1. 4)
  • Galba in January 69, murdered by soldiers (1.41)
  • Otho in April 69, suicide (2.49)
  • Vitellius in December 69, murdered by soldiers (3.85)

Synopsis

Nero overthrown

In summer 68 reports reached Nero that the governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had rebelled against him. In order to gain support Vindex declared he was rebelling in support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. The commander of the Germania Superior army, Lucius Verginius Rufus, remained loyal to Nero and led his army against Vindex and appears to have beaten him at the battle of Vesontio, where Vindex was killed. But in the meantime, momentum had shifted to Galba. Other army leaders swung behind him and the senate declared for him. Abandoned by the legions in Italy, Nero fled to a villa outside Rome and, hearing hostile troops approaching, committed suicide rather than be dragged back to Rome and executed.

Reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba (8 June 68 to 15 January 69)

So the senate declared for Galba and he undertook the long march from Spain to the capital, where he was acclaimed emperor in June 68. However, Galba was:

  • old – he was 70 when he came to power
  • ruled badly and inconsistently, swayed by a cabal of corrupt advisers
  • didn’t pay the army as generously as it was expecting, especially the all-important Praetorian Guard which, as a result, turned against him (1.4)c

More importantly, on 1 January 69, the same day that Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. The following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of their province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

In a bid to secure his position, on 10 January Galba held a ceremony to adopt the 31-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his successor but it didn’t work. Just 5 days later, on 15 January, Galba was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (1.41). His successor, Piso, fled to the Temple of Vesta, but was dragged out and killed (1.43). Their heads were cut off and paraded round on pikes.

Reign of Marcus Otho (15 January to 16 April 69)

Tacitus’s account describes in detail how his successor, Marcus Otho, based in Rome, organised the conspiracy to assassinate Galba. Otho had been close to the centre of power for over a decade. He had initially been a friend and courtier of the young Nero, but Nero had an affair with and eventually married his wife, Poppaea Sabina, so had had Otho was dispatched to be governor the remote province of Lusitania in 58.

According to Tacitus Otho ruled Lusitania moderately for a decade. In the turmoil of summer 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, who was governor of neighbouring, Hispania Tarraconensis, and he accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, not unreasonably expecting a reward for his support. He was, therefore, aggrieved when Galba overlooked him to adopt Piso.

However, all these personal motives were dwarfed when Otho, now appointed emperor, read Galba’s imperial correspondence and for the first time realised the scale of the revolt of the army in Germany. Vitellius was leading his legions on a march on Rome à la Galba. Otho made an effort to negotiate, offering Vitellius a share in ruling the empire. When this was rejected, he assembled a fleet to control the coast and led his legions north where they undertook savage attacks on the civilians in the region.

Tacitus gives a detailed account of the movements of the legions of the various armies, Vitellius’s under the ambitious Aulus Caecina Alienus, Otho’s under Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus defeated Caecina at a battle near Cremona but Caecina was then joined by the other Vitellian army led by Fabius Valens for the key battle of the campaign which took place at Bedriacum on 14 April 69.

It was a disaster for Otho’s forces, with the historian Dio Cassius claiming that 40,000 Roman soldiers were killed on both sides. (Tacitus makes the interesting point that in a civil war there’s less point, in fact it’s illegal, to take prisoners and ransom to their families, as you can in war against foreigners. So you might as well just kill them.) The next day Otho’s forces surrendered and swore allegiance to Vitellius (2.45).

Otho had retained substantial forces at his main base at Brixellum, a few miles from the battlefield and they advised him to fight on but Otho, reluctant to be responsible for more Roman lives lost, chose to commit suicide. Otho was mocked during his life for his debauched lifestyle and flamboyant homosexuality. But his suicide struck the true Roman Stoic note and was remembered and praised. Tacitus treats Otho’s death nobly and gives him a stirring speech to his men (2.46 to 49):

It may be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously.

(A note on the Roman cult of suicide: Tacitus claims that a number of troops committed suicide beside Otho’s funeral pyre, and at the other Othonian camps both high and low committed suicide in order ‘to share his glory.’)

Reign of Aulus Vitellius (19 April to 20 December 69)

With Otho dead, Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate. Tacitus then enjoys himself hugely recounting the multiple instances of Vitellius’s disgraceful debauchery, spending fortunes on games and entertainments, listening to whoever flattered him most, letting the troops he’d brought to the capital run rampant and lose all discipline. Among the numerous executions and appointments, Vitellius failed to defuse the long-running rivalry between the two generals who had won his victory at Bedriacum, Caecina and Valens.

Indeed, as Tacitus repeatedly points out, it proved to be easier to claim the throne than to hold onto it. Vitellius’s claim was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the East (Judaea and Egypt) who proclaimed their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasian, emperor instead.

Vespasian had a formidable reputation as a military commander, having played a key role in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43, and he was involved in suppressing the Jewish rebellion (which had started in 66) when Nero committed suicide.

Leaving his son (and future emperor) Titus, in charge of the siege of the Jews in Jerusalem, Vespasian recruited the governor of Syria, Mucianus, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, to his cause, and sent them to march on Rome, the third such march by Roman legions in 12 months.

Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its vital grain supply when his troops entered Italy from the north-east under Primus’s leadership. With his determination, personal courage and charisma, Primus emerges as the ‘hero’, as Wellesley puts it, of book 3 of the Histories. After a confused series of clashes and manoeuvres, Primus’s legions defeated Vitellius’s army at the second battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69. They then stormed and sacked the nearby town of Cremona in scenes of chaos, rapine and then fire. Tacitus is ashamed of the utter destruction wrought by Roman troops on a venerable Roman city (3.33).

Meanwhile the two generals who had led Vitelius to the throne, Caecina and Valens, both abandoned him in different ways. Caecina led the first Vitellian forces north but betrayed them and his emperor by going over to the Vespasians. Valens was slow to leave Rome and when he learned of the defeat of the Vitellians at Bedriacum he abandoned his legions and took ship to Monaco, with a plan to enter Narbonensian Gaul and raise a general rebellion of the Gaulish and German tribes against Vespasian. As Tacitus comments, this would have been catastrophic if it had succeeded (3.41) but it didn’t. Valens’s ship was overtaken by a flotilla of fast Vespasian galleys. With his capture the wind went out of the Vitellian forces:

With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. (3.44)

Tacitus emphasises that Vitellius still had ample forces around Rome and if he had crossed the Apennines to attack the exhausted Flavian troops before reinforcements had arrived, could quite possibly have won. But he hadn’t a clue about military matters and surrounded himself with flattering courtiers who refused admittance to the centurions and commanders who could have given him sound advice (3.56).

Tacitus describes the confused scenes in Rome when Vitellius came down from the palace dressed in black, made an impassioned speech to the people, but was prevented by them, the Praetorian Guard and the German auxiliaries, from abdicating as he wanted to. (3.67-68) If his wish had been carried out much bloodshed and destruction would have been avoided.

If Vitellius had found it as easy to convert his follower as to give way himself, the army of Vespasian would have entered the capital without bloodshed. (3.66)

But Vitellius’s supporters’ obstinacy meant that the Flavian forces had to fight their way into Rome, destroying property and spreading carnage as they went.

The extraordinary story of Sabinus and Domitian

Vespasian had an older brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, who had had a successful public career. Throughout the year he had remained in Rome as successive rulers rose and fell. Staying with him was his nephew, Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian. Tacitus tell us that Vitellius was well aware of their presence but took no action against them so that his, Vitellius’s, extended family, living in various provinces, would also be unharmed.

But Sabinus wasn’t stupid and had reached out to the anti-Vitellian factions in the nobility and, when news came that Vitellius had abdicated, he mobilised these individuals and cohorts (‘the leading senators, a number of knights and representatives of the urban troops and of the watch’) and they declared for Vespasian as emperor. Then came the news that Vitellius had been forced to remain in power and the position of Sabinus’s little troupe became desperate. Scuffles between the opposing forces turned into fighting and Sabinus led his force up to the Capitoline Hill where they barricaded themselves in, where he was joined by his family and Domitian.

There followed an intense siege of the hill by the pro-Vitellian forces (3.71). Nobody knows whether it was the attackers or defenders who resorted to fire but somehow a fire started and spread to surrounding buildings, above all the venerable Temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest. This ancient building, full of tributes and testimonials from centuries of Roman history and military achievement, was burned to the ground.

This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. (3.72)

Eventually the Vitellians stormed the hill, while panic-stricken Flavians fled or hid or disguised themselves. Sabinus was seized along with his lieutenant, Quintius Atticus, put in chains and dragged before the now-powerless emperor who spoke calmly to them but was unable to stop them being dragged off by the impassioned mob, which stabbed and hacked Sabinus to death, cut off his head and threw his body onto the Gemonian Steps. Thus the end of a great Roman patriot, one among thousands of victims of Vitellius’s inability to rein in his own followers.

The fate of his nephew, Vespasian’s son and the future emperor Domitian, is even more colourful. As the besiegers broke in, Domitian hid in the house of the caretaker of the temple. Helped by a freedman he put on ‘a linen mantle’ and pretended to be a priest in order to get through the lines and then hide at the house of one of the family dependants. Once Vespasian was in power, Domitian demolished the caretaker’s house and built a small temple to Jupiter the Preserver. When he himself became emperor, he had a bigger temple erected to Jupiter the Guardian, with a statue depicting himself ‘under the protecting arm of the god’ (3.74).

So Primus’s legions were forced to fight their way into Rome with much bloodshed and destruction and, seizing the forlorn emperor-in-name-only Vitellius, they dragged him to the same Gemonian Steps where Sabinus’s body had been thrown a few days earlier, and there hacked him to death, on 20 December 69.

Throughout book 3 Tacitus describes how the Flavian side, although generally victorious in battle, was guilty of disagreement and delay, especially how Primus waited for the arrival of Mucianus and his Syrian troops. Other leaders heard of Vitellius’s abdication and thought the war was over. Tacitus finds it hard to apportion blame, but the combined effect was delay which was ‘fatal’ and had ‘tragic’ consequences of ‘unrelieved disaster’ i.e. the siege of the Capitol, the burning of the temple, the execution of Sabinus, and the eventual storming of Rome. The advance guard attacked the city walls on the evening of 19 December 68.

Next day the Flavian armies forced entry to the city at various gates amid scenes of rape and massacre. Tacitus vividly describes how the fighting took place in front of the entire population which watched it like spectators applauding a mock battle in the arena (3.83). Next day Domitian came out of hiding and was awarded the title Caesar but real power rested with the head of the conquering army, Antonius Primus. Within a few days the governor of Syria, Municianus arrived, and power shifted to him as official representative of Vespasian. Tacitus shows how the day-to-day business of politics i.e. speechifying, backstabbing, conspiring, senators prosecuting each other, carried on unchanged.

Reign of Vespasian (July 69 to June 79)

Vespasian ruled for ten years, establishing the Flavian dynasty (which lasted 27 years) which consisted of himself, his eldest son Titus (79 to 81) and second son, Domitian (81 to 96), survivor of the escapades on the Capitoline Hill. In fact Vespasian was the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son; the succession of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty had all been by adoption. Vespasian:

  • reformed Rome’s financial system of Rome
  • brought the campaign against the Jews to a successful conclusion with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 and the mass suicide of Jewish resisters at Masada in 74
  • initiated ambitious construction projects including commissioning the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Civilis’ revolt

But Tacitus doesn’t get round to any of this in what we have of his account. Instead, book 4 of his narrative focuses on developments in Germany. Here, months before the Flavian forces had even triumphed in Italy, a Romanised Batavian prince named Gaius Julius Civilis led a rebellion of German and Gaulish tribes which, at one point, threatened the complete independence of Gaul from Rome.

Tacitus describes the complex sequence of events by which Civilis united the tribes and then their attacks on Roman strongholds (notably the long siege of the Roman camp of Vetera), along with the appalling mismanagement on the Roman side, punctuated by mutinies by dissident soldiers (4.12 to 37).

Back in Rome

Tacitus cuts back to Rome to describe the start of the new year (70 AD) and the nominal consulships of Vespasian and his son Titus. However, as both were still absent in the East, it was Vespasian’s 18-year-old Domitian who found himself titled ‘Caesar’ and officiating at the first meetings of the Senate. Tacitus lists the usual senate business of making speeches, arguing about who was guilty of what crimes and betrayals during the reigns of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, feuds and prosecutions.

Vespasian, still in Egypt supervising Rome’s corn supply, was told bad things about Domitian arrogating too much power to himself, which threatened to turn him against his son, but this is the peg for Titus to make a speech asking clemency for his brother, on the basis that emperor’s needed to keep family close and well as the only true support they had (4.52). Tacitus then describes the reconsecration of the great temple of Jupiter (4.53).

More Civilis’ revolt

The interlude in Rome over, Tacitus returns to Julius Civilis’s rebellion on the Rhine (4.55 to 80). This continues to be very complex, in terms of the continually changing alliance between the tribes and their leaders (Civilis, Classicus, Tutor), the multiple military encounters at different locations, and the fact that one Roman legion is persuaded to defect to the tribals.

Despite setbacks the Romans won a hard-fought battle when the German coalition (the Batavi, Ubii, Lingones, Bructeri and Tencteri) attacked the Roman camp at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The Roman commander was Quintus Petillius Cerealis who rallied his troops to hold the narrow bridge over the Rhine before counter-attacking and destroying the German camp (4.77). But there were other German and Gaulish forces scattered around the Rhineland, not least in Cologne, so the war was far from over.

Book 4 ends with a few short passages describing Vespasian’s ongoing sojourn in Egypt and some anthropology about the origin of the popular god Serapis, but the war on the Rhine far from resolved.

Book 5

The Jews

The fifth book, of which only the first 26 chapters survive, opens by ignoring the situation in Germany and shifting the scene about 2,000 miles East to Jerusalem. The Jews had risen against Roman rule in 66 AD. Tacitus picks up the story at the start of 70 AD as Vespasian dispatches Titus to Judaea to undertake the siege of Jerusalem. This would fall amid general bloodshed in August of that year although Tacitus’s history breaks off before then.

First though Tacitus treats his readers to an extended history of the Jews, review of their religion and traditions which, as Wellesley puts it, is a ‘fascinating farrago of truth and lies’ (introduction, page 14). But Tacitus gets it right about the Jews’ seven-day week, their monotheism, their fierce attachment to discriminatory customs such as circumcision, eschewing pork, not ‘marrying out’ and so on.

All this leads up to a description of Titus, having pacified the rest of Judaea, arriving before the impressive walled city of Jerusalem which itself contains the citadel within a city of the Temple complex. The city is packed with refugees from the other Jewish cities Roman armies had reduced, and Titus sets about mounting a siege in the approved Roman fashion. (5.13)

Back to Civilis’ revolt

At this point the text leaves Titus to return to the war in Germany. Here there are many more battles and skirmishes between Civilis’s tribes and Romans, including a close escape when Cerealis’s camp is invaded. But the Romans survived and attacked the island in the Rhine estuary where the Batavians lived, devastating it.

As summer turned into autumn Cerealis kept up a flow of secret correspondence with the Germans offering them peace and a return to the status quo ante. The chiefs of the German tribes are coming to realise that they cannot defeat the Romans and have been led into a ruinous unwinnable war by Civilis. The narrative breaks off as Civilis calls Cerealis to a conference at either side of a ruined bridge at Nabalia and begins to justify his actions…

In other words we don’t get to see Titus conclude the siege of Jerusalem or Vespasian set sail for, let alone arrive at, Rome.

The Agricola

In 78 Vespasian appointed as governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who aggressively expanded Roman territory far into Scotland. In the same year the young historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter. Twenty years later, in an act of filial duty, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola which survives in its entirety and contains much invaluable information about the first century British, their tribes and customs. This book, the Agricola, was published around 98 AD. It was the first of his historical works.

Tacitus shares his editorial decisions

A very winning habit of Tacitus’s is to share with the reader the balance of the evidence in front of him and his opinions about it, particularly when it is questionable. He steps out of his narrative, as it were, and we get a strong sense of his personality, brisk, logical, hard-headed:

  • Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives’ tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. (2.50)
  • Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as ‘concern for peace’ and ‘patriotism’. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius’s affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. (2.101)
  • I find that some widely read historians vouch for the truth of the following story…(3.51)

Tacitus tells us (3.25) that for the detail of the fighting he follows the account of Lucius Vipstanus Messalla, a Roman of senatorial status, who was directly involved in the war, being temporary commander of the legion VII Claudia stationed in Moesia which entered the civil war on the Flavian side, and who wrote an account of the war once it was over. This history is now lost but young Tacitus befriended the older man and used it as one of the prime sources for this history.

Sententiae

Sententia is the Roman word for the kind of pithy general statement about human life, the universe etc that we call by the names proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims or apophthegms. The plural form is sententiae. 1) A sententia is a general reflection on life which can arise from the previous narrative, acting as a kind of summary, summarising events or someone’s character in a pithy generalisation. So after describing the differing views among the army and its commanders in the East, he summarises:

Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted war. (2.7)

2) A bit more squarely in the definition is this example where Tacitus describes the feverish rumours in Rome as Vitellius marched against Otho and then explains it by using a generalisation that his elite, crowd-despising, aristocratic audience would heartily endorse:

The cheers and cries of the crowd followed the usual pattern of flattery in being overdone and insincere…The passion for self-abasement operated as it does among domestic slaves, for each individual was prompted by selfishness and the decencies of public life now meant nothing. (1.89)

Hear hear, old chap. In fact the emptiness of public acclamation and the crassly craven behaviour of all mobs is a recurring theme and you can hear in Tacitus’s voice the scorn of a republican lamenting the hollow mob rule which the imperial form of government encouraged:

  • This was merely the accepted tradition whereby any emperor, no matter who he was, was acclaimed with extravagant applause and empty demonstration. (1.32)
  • [The defeated Othonian army turn on their leaders, blaming everyone except themselves.] This, of course, is typical of the mob. (2.44)
  • [On the entry of the despicable Vitellius into Rome] The lower classes are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval. (2.90)
  • In moments of fear the voice of wisdom and the gossip of the mob are listened to with equal alacrity. (3.58)

3) Or a sententia can be included in a flow of argument as a kind of proof. An author may cite a sententia summarising a common opinion or experience, with a view to winning the reader over to his point of view or recruiting the reader to his framework, his analysis:

  • Suspicion and hatred must always be the reaction of rulers towards the man talked of as the next in succession. (p.35)
  • Man’s character is such that he will always prefer to believe in mysteries. (1.22)
  • The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other. (2.29)
  • Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness. (4.3)
  • As good men derive their effectiveness from their virtues, so those who are really evil, derive theirs from their vices. (3.77)

This type assert a view of human nature or society which he uses as evidence to bolster his interpretation.

4) Or Tacitus may sometimes be consciously creating new generalisations to express his point of view. This was part of the new, briefer, more pithy style expected of Silver Age authors. (In Latin literature the Golden Age is said to have lasted from 70 BC to 18 AD, especially the long reign of Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD; while the Silver Age is said to be the period from about 18 to 133 AD.)

Cicero write long, flowing, declamatory prose. Tacitus also writes long sentences, but more packed with information than concern for writerly balance. And they are frequently punctuated by shorter, pithy reflections and summaries. With sententia:

  • No one has ever made good use of power evilly gained. (1.30)
  • As is so often the case with brazen falsehoods, certain individuals asserted that they had been present when the deed was done and had witnessed it. (p.40)
  • Once killing starts it is difficult to draw the line. (1.39)
  • Discipline, however inflexible in peace-time, is relaxed in civil conflicts, where agents are ready to discourage disloyalty on either side, and treachery goes unpunished. (1.51)
  • There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor’s displeasure. (2.38)
  • Revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives [or ‘the practice of virtue]. (4.1)

Tacitus frequently made me smile with his droll comments on human nature. On several occasions emperors tried to smother bad news about defeats in the field, but banning rumour only ’caused it to multiply’. (3.54) That Homo sapiens, eh? Those mobs, those crowds, those foolish fickle humans.

Pithy

Sometimes Tacitus is just wonderfully brief and punchy.

  • A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. (3.15)
  • Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting. (3.45)
  • [Of Vitellius] Emperor no longer, he was merely the cause of the fighting. (3.70)

Conclusions

1. Instability of the emperor

Tacitus draws the major conclusion from all these events right at the beginning: the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex and then Galba revealed the secret of the principate which had been concealed throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was that: it was possible for an emperor to be chosen from outside Rome (1.4). More specifically, it set the pattern for centuries to come, of new emperors being acclaimed by provincial armies then marching on Rome to establish their claim.

For some periods of time ‘dynasties’ endured which ordered the succession through biological or adopted relatives. But throughout 400 year history of the Roman Empire from this year onwards, simmering beneath the appearance of stability, was the threat of the violent rise of a provincial leader to overthrow the central imperial power.

2. Instability of the army

The second conclusion, closely related to the first, is that the troops were motivated not by ideology or loyalty but, above all, by the promise of loot. Time after time in the 280 pages of this narrative, commanders, governors and emperors are threatened by their own men, surrounded, mobbed, shouted at, with the soldiers’ goal almost always being the same: loot. Vitellius was unable to control the praetorian guard or German auxiliaries in Rome, and then Antonius Primus was unable to stop the sack and fire and massacre of the triumphant army as it ransacked every house looking for valuables or women to rape.

As the narrative proceeds Tacitus gives evermore examples of the terrible discipline into which all the legions and cohorts, on all sides, seemed to fall.

The troops clamoured for immediate action and threatening their officers had by now become a habit. (4.34)

3. Permanent war

Stepping back a bit, I might be missing the wood for the trees because I suppose the biggest take home from this long text is that Rome was a military empire engaged in almost constant warfare. All of Rome’s politicians and statesmen were expected to take command of armies engaged in real warfare at the drop of a hat (even Cato in North Africa, even Cicero during his year in Asia). It was a militaristic culture in which the activity of war dominated all aspects of politics and culture to an extent I don’t think we moderns can really understand.

Reading experience and translations

Once you bed down into it, Tacitus’s account is gripping. He is, after all, reporting a very dramatic series of events:

The story upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason and even in peace, sinister. (1.2)

The course of events allows him to stage melodramatic scenes and give stirring speeches to key characters at decisive moments. But he is a master of narrative. Possibly because the subject matter itself is gripping and fast-moving, but I found the Histories a much more enjoyable read than the more diffuse and sometimes repetitive Annals (all those informers, all those treason trials, all those forced suicides – even Tacitus himself admitted to getting bored with his own narrative).

Take the couple of chapters describing the abortive rising of Sabinus and the other pro-Flavians when they thought Vitellius had abdicated, which leads into the siege of the Capitoline Hill, the fire destroying the Temple of Jupiter, Sabinus arrest and lynching and the daredevil escape of young Domitian. This is a wonderfully dramatic and exciting story and Tacitus tells it clearly and vividly.

Some of the narrative’s power must be down to Wellesley’s translation which enlivens the bare Latin with colloquial English phrases (‘old wives’ tales’, ‘run for the hills’, ‘discipline went to pieces’ 4.1, ‘he was the last man to make trouble’, 4.38, ‘Marcellus looking daggers, Crispus all smiles’ 4.43) which really bring the narrative to life, giving it a more popular, colourful vibe than I suspect a literal translation would.

Also, it appears that at least some of the pithiness which I so enjoy derives from Wellesley. Here’s Anthony Kline’s translation of the first phrase of book 3 chapter 79. I assume Kline gives a literal translation of the Latin which explains why it is rather flat and factual.

Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief.

And here’s Wellesley’s version:

The night was far advanced before Antonius, marching to the rescue down the Flaminian Way, reached Saxa Rubra. It was too late. (3.79)

You can see that Wellesley has altered it in several ways, two of which stand out. 1) ‘The night was far advanced’ sounds like a boy’s own adventure trope, on a par with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ It introduces a dash of Victorian adventure story flavour. 2) Where Kline has the flat ‘but now too late to bring relief’ Wellesley makes this phrase into a separate, clipped sentence, creating the taut, laconic style of a thriller. He does this throughout the text, sprinkling tough punchy little sentences which convey an enjoyable sense of narrative threat and suspense:

The explosion was not long in coming. (4.32)

In other words, Wellesley’s translation (as far as I can tell) tends to turn Tacitus into a gripping adventure story and ripping yarn, which is part of what makes his version such a compelling read. Along with Rolfe Humphries’ Englishing of Lucretius and Peter Green’s versions of Ovid, it’s one of the most enjoyable translations I’ve read.


Credit

The Histories of Tacitus, translated by Kenneth Wellesley, was published by Penguin Books in 1964. All quotes are from the 1986 revised paperback edition.

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  1. Histories by Tacitus — Books & Boots – Positive Infinity

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