The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 1

The more I think about history, ancient or modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem.
(Annals of ancient Rome by Tacitus, page 127)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians. He held high official positions, being consul in 97 and governor of Anatolia in 113.

His two major works – the Annals and the Histories – cover the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus (14 AD) to the death of Domitian (96 AD), although there are substantial gaps in the surviving texts.

Saint Jerome stated that The Histories and Annals together amounted to 30 books. Scholars traditionally assign 16 books to the Annals and 14 books to the Histories. Of the 30 books mentioned by Jerome only about half have survived.

Three other, lesser works by Tacitus survive in their entirety:

  • a dialogue about oratory, in which two lawyers and two literary men discuss the claims of oratory against literature (published 102)
  • a study of Germany and the German tribes (the Germania, published about 98)
  • a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola (the Agricola, published about 98)


The Annals were Tacitus’s final work. The Histories, although published earlier, cover the later part of his period, from 68 to 96 AD. The Annals, though published later, cover the earlier period, from the end of the reign of Augustus, through those of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero, covering the years 14 to 68 AD, the year when Nero committed suicide.

But the absolutely key thing about the Annals is that half of them are missing. There are dirty great gaps in the narrative, big holes in the story.

We have the first part, a good continuous narrative from the end of Augustus’s reign (14) through most of Tiberius’s rule (14 to 37) in detail. But the text breaks off after the death of Tiberius and the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47) are missing. The narrative then resumes for the last seven or so years of Claudius (47 to 54) and the entire reign of Nero (54 to 68), at which point the narrative of the Annals connects with that of the Histories.

The best

Tacitus’s is the earliest and best account we have of this crucial period in western history. We do also possess the biographies of the first 12 emperors by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122), Tacitus’s younger contemporary, which cover the exact same period and were published around 120 AD; and it’s true that Suetonius was an imperial secretary (to Hadrian) and so had access to imperial archives and was able to amass much curious and colourful material in his biographies. But Suetonius followed the conventions of his time in thinking ‘biography’ a much less serious genre than ‘history’ and so didn’t attempt the deeper analysis and wider scope which Tacitus achieves.

The other main source for this period is the Greek historian Lucius Cassius Dio (155 to 235) who wrote a vast history of Rome from its foundation up to his own time in no fewer than 80 volumes. But Michael Grant, the translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, considers Dio ‘pedestrian’ and lacking ‘the imagination to grasp the affairs of the early empire’.

So although there are these two other sources, nonetheless Tacitus:

is the best literary source for the events of the early principate that we possess.

The purpose of history

Like everyone in the ancient world, Tacitus thought writing had a moral purpose. Grant’s introduction spends some time untangling the complicated relationship in Tacitus’s time between history, rhetoric and philosophy.

For a start all these genres – poetry, history, tragedy and comedy, eulogy and lyric poetry – were pioneered by the ancient Greeks. The Romans only began to copy these genres hundreds of years after the Greeks had brought them to a first perfection. (The first Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote his Histories about 430 BC, whereas the first Roman historian, Cato the Elder, wrote his Origines 250 years later, about 180 BC.)

Grant tells us that history, as a genre, grew out of poetry. First came Homer and Hesiod (700 BC?) and only centuries later, the first of the Greek historians – Thucydides b.460 and Herodotus b.430. For a very long time ‘history’ was regarded as a subsidiary form of literature.

This explains the elements of the dramatic found in Tacitus, for example the extended speeches he gives characters at various points which, scholars think, were almost all entirely invented by Tacitus. He attributed to leading characters in the narrative beautifully structured speeches which expressed the kinds of things they ought to have said at the most dramatic or pivotal moments.

And from the tradition of Greek tragedy comes an urge to make events seem tragic and terrible. You can feel this at moments in the narrative where, after trundling through a list of law cases and official appointments, Tacitus returns to the year’s activities of Tiberius or Nero and, suddenly, the narrative takes on a more colourful, sometimes stricken, tone, as he talks up the appalling reign of terror which Tiberius assembled or the terrible acts of the sadist and murderer Nero. You can almost hear him cranking up the horror. Which is why some scholars question whether things really were as bad under Tiberius and Nero as Tacitus claimed or whether some, at least, of the horror is included for dramatic effect.

Alongside drama went didacticism, the urge to teach and instruct, which grew, according to Grant, in popularity in the Greek world from the 4th century BC onwards. Tacitus takes a deeply moral line. He is concerned not only with recording everything which happened in a specific year, but giving his opinion about it.

Tacitus’s history is a succession of issues by which I mean a record of each year’s military campaigns, appointments of officials, promulgating of laws, prosecuting of officials or criminals, the character of particular officials (governors, generals, the emperors themselves) and so on – all of which Tacitus gives his opinion about. It is a very opinionated history.

Tacitus is in no doubt that the fundamental purpose of his writing is didactic. The aim of history is to teach men to know themselves better and behave better by showing them great examples – of good and terrible behaviour – from the past.

It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.
(p.150; book 3, 64)

Which brings us to another massive topic, which is rhetoric, the art of persuasion, in writing and speaking. Rhetoric was the central element of the educational syllabus of the well-educated in the ancient world, and was explained in a stream of famous and complex manuals.

Thus a writer like Cicero, in his De legibus, says that history’s first concern may be recording the truth, but very close afterwards comes the need to a) persuade his audience and b) to sound well. This brings us back in a circle to history’s origins as a child of poetry. By Tacitus’s time it had travelled a long way from its parent but hadn’t shaken off the expectation that the historian would, as well as being a good researcher of facts, be an artist of prose.

Hence (to repeat a bit) the importance of the set-piece speeches Tacitus invented for his historical personages. The speeches are not only appropriate for the personage and the situation, they exploit the personage and the situation to put on a good show – in order to demonstrate the author’s skill at making a case, and to tickle the taste buds of the educated Roman audience who enjoyed savouring and judging well-made rhetoric and oratory.

Many of the set-piece passages in Tacitus were almost certainly written to be declaimed i.e. read aloud to an audience trained to its fingertips in the art of rhetoric, who would spot and appreciate the author’s various tricks and skills.

Conceived as accurate depictions of what actually happened, written in order to promote good behaviour and deprecate bad behaviour, Tacitus’s writings also had an interest in bringing out dramatic moments and presenting successive cases and arguments with all the skills of an orator. (For example, the passage in book 1, sections 7 to 10, where Tacitus puts the case for, and then the case against, Augustus’s achievements.) It’s a colourful, rich and often highly artistic combination.


Alongside and accompanying this overtly didactic aim, Tacitus from time to time throws in sententiae or pithy comments on history, society and human nature. these were a well-known part of his style and were quoted and excerpted for a millennium and a half afterwards. However, the modern reader may feel that, beneath their air of profundity, they are often strangely anodyne.

So the avenging of Germanicus ended. Contradictory rumours have raged around it among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of errors are magnified by time. (p.128, book 3, section 18)

It would be easy to enjoy and dismiss the sententiae without realising their true significance. Tacitus is trying to understand human nature by stepping back and commenting on aspects of what he sees, which arise naturally from his subject matter (the origins of tyranny) or his researches (how very prone people are to believe all kinds of rumours and lies).

He is investigating the nature of what is remembered, and why, and how fictions so quickly arise to fulfil people’s expectations.

Sejanus, too much loved by Tiberius and hated by everyone else, passed for the author of every crime; and rumours always proliferate around the downfalls of the great. For such reasons even the most monstrous myths found believers…My own motive in mentioning and refuting the rumour has been to illustrate by one conspicuous instance the falsity of hearsay gossip, and to urge those who read this book not to prefer incredible tales – however widely current and readily accepted – to the truth unblemished by marvels.
(p.162, book 4, section 9)

Fairly obvious though they seem to us, these kinds of reflection on human nature and the psychology of society was much rarer in ancient times. Although they were to some extent expected in history as a genre, it is always fascinating to read these occasional insights, not into society as such, but into how ancient authors thought about their society and about social change.

No chapter markers

I read the Annals in the translation by Michael Grant published by Penguin in 1956. It is a clear, forceful translation making for an enjoyable read (if you like Roman and military history) but with one massive flaw. Most Roman texts were divided by the author into numbered sections which modern editors, not entirely accurately, often call ‘chapters’.

The Annals and Histories are divided into these numbered sections, which are themselves gathered into ‘books’. But Grant or his editor took the decision not to include these chapter numbers in the text, which is inconvenient. It would have been useful to know which book and which section various events occur in.

Robert Graves’s translation of Suetonius and Kenneth Wellesley’s translation of Tacitus’s Histories, both for Penguin, do keep the section numbers in –so that every other paragraph or so starts with a number – and this allows you to compare their texts with other translations available online by referring to these numbers. You can go straight to the precise section of the other translations and make comparisons very easily. And, when I quote a sentence or two in my blog, I can cite the precise section it occurs in, for everyone’s convenience.

You simply can’t do that with the Grant translation. The book number and chapter number are given in the header at the top of each page, but this covers all the contents of both pages and so is very imprecise, and leaves you having to guess which chapter number applies to a particular paragraph. Very irritating.


What is an annal, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines an annal as ‘a record of the events of one year’ and annals in the plural as a record of events arranged in a year-by-year sequence. Thus Tacitus proceeds, rather pedantically, a year at a time. This means he doesn’t describe long-running themes which ran over successive years, as a whole. Instead he tells you everything which happened in 14 AD. Then everything which happened in 15 AD. And so on.


1. Apparently, the initial scaffolding of the work was based on annual notices called the ‘Records of the Priests’. These were primarily religious in nature but since the Roman year was packed with celebrations and festivals a lot of the other business of the state (elections, wars, trials) began to be mentioned and then actively recorded in the Records. By the second century BC historians who used these sources had become known generally as the Annalists. They provide an obvious precedent for Tacitus’s work.

2. Tacitus also mentions searching ‘histories and official journals as part of his researches (p.120), a note from Grant telling us this latter refers to the acta diurna which began to be kept in the year of Julius Caesar’s first consulship (59 BC).

3. He also, like Suetonius, at some points refers to stories he himself heard from those alive at the time, and so gives a version of Piso’s eventual death ‘given by people who were alive when I was young’ (p.126).

4. And he balances the written record with hearsay, the oral tradition which is so often lost and so is valuable that Tacitus recorded:

In describing Drusus’ death I have followed the most numerous and reputable authorities. But I should also record a contemporary rumour, strong enough to remain current today…’ (p.163, book 4 section 10)

(This rumour was that Sejanus not only seduced Drusus’s wife, Livilla, into becoming his lover and helping him poison her husband, Drusus – but also seduced Drusus’ eunuch, Lygdus, to help in the conspiracy.)


Grant sees the key figure in the Roman tradition before Tacitus as being Sallust, author of a lost history as well as studies of the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy, which have survived. Sallust was popular because of the drama and energy of his narratives, spliced with exciting speeches, most notably the long speeches he attributes to Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger in the Catiline conspiracy – combining artistry and rhetoric.


This explains why one of the key words in Grant’s translation is ‘next’. Tiberius did this. ‘Next’ x and y were installed as consuls for the year. ‘Next’ the Senate debated a motion to prosecute this or that governor. ‘Next’ there were rebellions by the following tribes on the following borders of the empire. ‘Next’ Tiberius announced a new policy to enforce z.

The summary of each year opens by naming the consuls for that year:

  • In the next year the consuls were Servius Cornelius Cetegus and Lucius Visellius Varro… (p.165)
  • In the following year the consuls were Cossus Cornelius Lentulus and Marcus Asinius Agrippa… (p.173)

And ends with a brief list of notable figures who died during it:

  • At the end of the year two notable Romans died… (p.134)
  • Two eminent men died this year…’ (p.155)

And so on. On one level it is a record of events which really is just ‘one damn thing after another’. As I got into the text I realised that, although broad chapter titles Grant assigns to big blocks of narrative (see below) are zippy and dramatic, it would make a lot more sense to layout the narrative by year, starting a new ‘chapter’ with each year to really bring out the year-by-year annalistic nature of the text.

By ‘everything’ I mean a fairly narrow, limited range of concerns. Tacitus frequently refers to his own researches in state records. The point being that his narrative appears to be based on the brief records which Roman officials had been keeping for centuries of a) appointments to the key magistracies; b) debates and decisions of the Senate, regarding new laws or the prosecution of leading figures for breaching various laws; c) military campaigns; d) important court cases, often the prosecution of provincial governors for corruption.

Tacitus lays out a list of these kinds of events for each year and then expands on them, giving further background where required, especially about the individuals concerned, their family and character, and explaining what happened in each instance. These kinds of things form what you could call the background hum of the narrative.

No social or economic history

There is very little about a subject which has become central to modern history, which is economics. The ancients had little or no understanding of economics. Like his peers, Tacitus will say ‘in this year there was a shortage of wheat or grain’ and that food prices went up or there was scarcity leading to riots, prompting the emperor to intervene and buy up huge amounts to be distributed cheaply to the population of Rome. But that’s about it.

And there’s nothing at all about the lives or experiences of the common people, except for occasional references to the mob or riots. It is very much a personal history of the very top echelons of society, the senatorial class and the so-called ‘knights’. And it is a moral history of their personal attitudes and behaviour.

The emperors

But laid over the top of the background hum of the year-to-year events is what you could call the juiciest element of the Annals, which is the cumulative portrait of the emperors being (since we lack Caligula altogether) Tiberius, Claudius and Nero.

The most famous biographer of this period, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122) has left us, among copious other writings, a famous set of biographies of the first 12 emperors (Lives of the Caesars) which covers the exact same period as Tacitus’s Annals and Histories. The two works can be read side by side.

Suetonius’s biographies are relatively brief (40 or so pages in the Penguin translation). After a shortish chronological section detailing the objective historical events of their reigns, Suetonius moves onto personal aspects of his subjects, arranged like a PowerPoint presentation under specific headings (personal attributes, appearance, wives and offspring and so on) under which he groups facts or events to illustrate each of his topics. These often contain juicy gossip and quirky facts (such as Augustus’s distinctive birthmarks or his habit of wearing a big floppy hat when he went out to protect him from the sun) which make them pithy and memorable.

Tacitus, by contrast, presents us with one long continuous narrative. This means there is a great deal more content, especially in two particular areas: domestic policy and military campaigns.

Suetonius lists the aspects of the emperors and then illustrates them by anecdotes, jumping around place and time to provide evidence. Tacitus, by contrast, proceeds, in a slightly plodding way, through the key events of each year, as he’s derived them from studying the official records of the senate, the elections, the law courts etc. And out of this list of events grows his analysis of the emperor. The prosecution of this or that official brings out this side of the emperor. The handling of a military campaign highlights that side of his personality. And so on. Far more historical information.

Books and titles

As I’ve mentioned Grant doesn’t structure his narrative by the books and sections of the original text. Instead he creates his own ‘chapters’, giving them titles (which I’m pretty sure aren’t in the original). The aim is to add drama and give his narrative the feel of a novel. They are:

Part one: Tiberius

  1. From Augustus to Tiberius (book 1, sections 1 to 15)
  2. Mutiny on the Frontiers (book 1, sections 16 to 49)
  3. War with the Germans (book 1 section 49 to book 2 section 26)
  4. The First Treason Trials (book 2 sections 27 to 52)
  5. The Death of Germanicus (book 2 section 53 to book 3 section 19)
  6. Tiberius and the Senate (book 3 sections 19 to 76)
  7. ‘Partner of my labours’ (p.158) [about Sejanus] (books 4 and 5)
  8. The reign of terror (book 6)

Part two: Claudius and Nero:

  1. The fall of Messalina (book 11)
  2. The Mother of Nero (book 12)
  3. The fall of Agrippina (book 13 to book 14 section 13)
  4. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  5. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  6. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  7. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  8. Innocent victims (book 16)


Unlike sociable Augustus, Tiberius comes over as ‘profoundly secretive’ (p.140), ‘cryptic’ (p.143) ambiguous and unpredictable. In his introduction Grant points out that Tacitus attributes to Tiberius all the qualities of a villain of melodrama, the stock tyrant of ancient literature: he is portrayed as unjust, sensual, cruel and, above all, suspicious and cunning.


His mother, Augustus’s widow, Livia – who was given the ominous title ‘the Augusta’ – is, if anything, worse, a monster of malicious manipulation. It’s often difficult to spot the moment at which the transition takes place, but quite often, when reading about these two, you realise the text has turned into a pantomime and the audience is meant to be booing and hissing the baddies.


Every panto needs a hero and this deep tendency – to cast things into dramatic shape – explains the tremendous shininess with which the young prince, Germanicus, is depicted, Tacitus emphasising his graciousness, openness, honesty, his ability to get on with people and his great military victories in Germany, in order to contrast all of this with Tiberius’s negative versions of the same virtues, with Tiberius’s surliness, suspicion, duplicity, holing up in Rome (and then retirement to Capri).

Germanicus in Germany

In his notes Grant brings out something I had sensed or felt in the narrative but wasn’t sure about, which is that Germanicus’s campaigns in Germany (against the Cherusci, led by Arminius, the Chatti, the Marsi and other rebel tribes), dramatic and extended through they were, were ultimately an expensive waste of time resulting in no permanent conquests or treaties.

The most memorable part of these early books is Tacitus’s descriptions of the very hard-fought battles in the mud and undergrowth of the endless German forest and then, above all else, the terrific description of the huge storm in the North Sea which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet, which destroyed many ships and drowned many soldiers. Tacitus’s account has a Hollywood blockbuster feel to it (pages 87 to 88).

 The North Sea is the roughest in the world and the German climate the worst. The disaster was proportionately terrible – indeed, it was unprecedented. (p.87)

All the more horrifying that Tacitus presents the evidence for and against the widely held suspicion that Germanicus was poisoned by the governor of Syria, Cnaius Calpurnius Piso, where Germanicus had been sent to lead the military campaign in Armenia. (Germanicus dies on page 113, book 2 section 69, warning his wife against Tiberius’s malevolence.)

Tiberius’s decline

The headline story of Tiberius’s reign (14 to 37) is that it was in two parts. While he was finding his feet Tiberius was cautious and stuck to the letter of the law, abiding by all of Augustus’s decisions. But slowly, slowly, in a score of ways – through the way he managed and cowed the Senate, made appointments to the army, in his spiky relations with his biological son (Drusus) and adopted son (Germanicus), in his revival of the treason law (p.73) and encouragement of informers and spies (‘It was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic’, p.203), and especially on his growing reliance on the creepy figure of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard – Tiberius became slowly more tyrannical.

Although the treason trials (for ‘crimes’ as trivial as swearing in the vicinity of a statue of Augustus) began as early as 16 (p.90), Tacitus cites 23 AD as the year when Tiberius’s rule began to deteriorate (p.159, book 4, section 3) and he is quite brutal in describing the total compliance which Tiberius created:

The impressiveness of the Republican facade only meant that the slave-state, which was to grow out of them, would be all the more loathsome. (p.77, 1.77)

Tiberius is so important to Tacitus because it was under him that the weakness and corruption of one-man rule became clear. Tiberius set the pattern that later autocrats and tyrants copied.

It was under Tiberius that freedom suffered its most fatal losses. (Grant, Introduction, p.21)

Augustus had spent half his life in the Republic and had the immense skill to retain a tactful facade of republicanism even as he took more and more control of things. And he was canny with people.

He seduced the army with bonuses and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. He attracted everybody’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials and even the law. (p.32, book 1 section 1)

Tiberius was high-minded and principled in many ways but lacked Augustus’s social and interpersonal skills. Cold and distant, he alienated people.

What Tiberius said, even when he did not aim at concealment, was – by habit or nature – always hesitant, always cryptic. (p.39, 1.10)

And had never known the republic. All he knew was his own wishes, which slowly became an unreliable guide to rule by and the result was a slow descent into a reign of terror. As he has a character say:

‘In spite of all his experience of public affairs, Tiberius was transformed and deranged by absolute power.’ (book 6, section 48)

As witnessed by the fact that it was widely believed that he conspired in the deaths of his adopted (and too popular) son, Germanicus (widely held to have commissioned Piso to poison him out in the Middle East) and then of his own son, Drusus, who Tacitus frankly claims was poisoned by Tiberius’s creature, Sejanus (p.161, book 4, section 6).

The first couple of books focus, memorably and vividly, on Germanicus’s campaigns in god-forsaken mud and forest of tribal Germany. But the institution Tacitus most analyses is the Senate, recording event after event, debates, and decisions, and consular elections, which step by step mark its descent into grovelling sycophancy towards the increasingly terrifying emperor. It is from Tacitus that we learn that Tiberius frequently left the Senate muttering, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ (p.150)

Tiberius retires to Capri, 28 AD

Finally Tiberius quit the Italian mainland and, in 28 AD, retired to the island of Capri where he stayed holed up for the last 11 years of his life (he died in 37 AD, aged 77). He no longer attended the senate, as he had done assiduously, or the law courts, as he had done, inspiring fear and intimidation. Now all government business was conducted by letter.

Access to him was harder now. It was only procurable by intrigue and complicity. (p.194)

Tacitus thinks he did it partly to get away from his nagging mother, Livia, partly because he genuinely found the daily task of attending the senate or the law courts and so on gruelling. And partly to indulge the sensual lusts and perversions which became harder to control as he aged.

For his criminal lusts shamed him. Their uncontrolled activity was worthy of an oriental tyrant. Free-born children were his victims. He was fascinated by beauty, youthful innocence, and aristocratic birth. New names for types of perversions were invented. (p.200 cf p.202)

And so on. More details are given in Suetonius’s deliberately scandalous Life of Tiberius.

Death of Livia, 29 AD

She was a compliant wife to Augustus but an overbearing mother to Tiberius. Tacitus thinks part of his motivation in retiring to Capri was to be free of her endless nagging. (That and his wish to indulge his disreputable personal behaviour.) With her death Tiberius’s restraint was thrown to the wind.

Now began a time of sheer crushing tyranny. (p.196)

Tiberius and Sejanus began to persecute Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina (the Elder). He sent a letter to Rome denouncing her and her son, Nero Caesar, Tiberius’s daughter-in-law and grandson.

Here there is a gap in the text covering two years. During those key years, first Agrippina (Germanicus’s widow), Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar (her young sons) were exiled, and Nero Caesar died. More seismically, Tiberius began to suspect his right-hand man, Sejanus, instrumental in so many plots against his enemies, to be conspiring against Tiberius himself. So Tiberius had him arrested in the senate and executed. At which point Sejanus’s divorced wife revealed to Tiberius that it was Sejanus and his lover Livilla (Drusus’s own wife) who had conspired to poison Drusus (Tiberius’s son). After this was revealed Livilla died, either killing herself or executed.

The fall of Sejanus was brutal but so was the aftermath. Previously consuls and senators and aristocrats had vied with each other to fall in with the emperor’s henchman to curry favour. Now all that arse-licking came to be regarded in a diametrically opposite light and many who had associated with Sejanus were now accused of being part of his plot to overthrow the emperor.

Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity with Sejanus. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age, eminence or obscurity, there they lay, strewn about – or in heaps. (p.209)

With great brutality Sejanus’s two young children were executed. Tacitus reports that, since capital punishment for a virgin was forbidden, she was first raped by the public executioner, then garotted. Both their bodies were then thrown onto the Gemonian steps (where the bodies of criminals and the disgraced were thrown in ignominy; p.199).

The deaths Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina the Elder (p.212) and then of two of her children: Nero Julius Caesar was accused of treason, declared by the senate an enemy of the state, banished to the island of Pontia where he was either killed or encouraged to kill himself in 31.

His brother, Drusus Caesar, Tiberius’s grandson was accused by Cassius Severus of plotting against Tiberius. He was imprisoned and confined to a dungeon on the Palatine in 30. He starved to death in prison in 33 after, according to Tacitus, being reduced to chewing the stuffing of his mattress.

This left young Gaius as their only surviving brother and at an early age he was sent to be Tiberius’s companion on Capri. Here he learned thorough-going debauchery from the old man and how to recognise and manage his moods. He was to succeed Tiberius on the latter’s death in 37 and is known to history by his nickname, Caligula.

The long description of Tiberius ends with ever-increasing terror, with scores of senators and knights accused of all kinds of crimes and queuing up to commit suicide. Tacitus describes Rome as awash with blood and piled with bodies which must have been an exaggeration. But it felt like that to those who lived through it.

Gaius Vibius Marsius is accused of adultery and decides to starve himself to death. Tacitus gives him a grim speech explaining to his friends that he doesn’t want to hang on the last few weeks until the obviously ill emperor dies, because he prophesies that the reign of Tiberius’s successor will be even worse (p.225).

The deaths of Nero Julius Caesar and his brother, Drusus Caesar left Tiberius Gemellus, the son of Drusus and Livilla, the grandson of the Emperor Tiberius, as hair. In 35 Gemellus, along with his cousin Gaius, were named joint-heirs by Tiberius. Upon Tiberius’s death in March 37, Gaius assumed the throne and had Gemellus killed (or forced to kill himself) in late 37 or early 38.

Degenerate times

Tacitus shares the universal belief among all ancient writers that the world was going to the dogs and that the age they were living in was witness to unprecedented degeneracy. Decline and fall. Sallust complained about the degenerate times he was describing in the 50s BC and Tacitus expresses exactly the same feeling 150 years later.

I am aware that much of what I have described, and shall describe, may seem unimportant and trivial. But my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome. Their subjects were great wars, cities stormed, kings routed and captured. Or, if home affairs were their choice, they could turn freely to conflicts of consuls with tribunes, to land- and corn-laws, feuds of conservatives and commons. Mine, on the other hand, is a circumscribed, inglorious field. Peace was scarcely broken – if at all. Rome was plunged in gloom, the ruler uninterested in expanding the empire. (p.173, book 4, section 31)

The futility of tyranny

As part of the general reign of terror and intimidation of every form of free speech and opinion, in 25 the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus was charged with, in his Histories, praising Brutus and describing Cassius as ‘the last of the Romans’. Cremutius put up a stirring defence in the senate (probably another speech invented by Tacitus), went home and starved himself to death. Which prompts Tacitus to reflect:

The senate ordered his books to be burned by the aediles. But they survived, first hidden and later republished. This makes one deride the stupidity of people who believe that today’s authority can destroy tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, repressions of genius increase its prestige. All that tyrannical conquerors, and imitators of their brutalities, achieve is their own disrepute and their victims’ renown.
(p.175, book 4, section 35)



Michael Grant’s fluent, energetic translation of Tacitus’s Annals was published by Penguin Books in 1956. References are to the revised 1971 edition, as reprinted in 1988.

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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)


The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)


The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)


Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.


The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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