The Histories of Tacitus

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Under Trajan he retained his place in public affairs, and in — he crowned his administrative career with the proconsulate of Asia , the top provincial governorship.

Histories — Tacitus | Harvard University Press

His personal career had revealed to him, at court and in administration, the play of power that lay behind the imperial facade of rule. From what can be reconstructed from his personal career along with the implications of his subsequent historical thought, it is possible to mark an intellectual turning point in his life after which he began to probe deeper into the nature of the Roman Empire.

Although in the Agricola he had lightly promised to continue his writing from the Flavian years into the new regime, he now moved not forward but backward. Only books i—iv, part of book v, most of book vi treating the years 14—29 and 31—37 under Tiberius , and books xi—xvi, incomplete on Claudius from 47 to 51 and Nero from 51 to 66 , are extant. In casting back to the early empire Tacitus did not wish necessarily to supersede his predecessors in the field, whose systematic recording he seemed to respect, judging from the use he made of their subject matter.

In effect, the Annals represents a diagnosis in narrative form of the decline of Roman political freedom, written to explain the condition of the empire he had already described in the Histories. Tacitus viewed the first imperial century as an entity.

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There was in his eyes a comparison to be made, for example, between the personal conduct of Tiberius and that of Domitian, not that they were the same kind of men but that they were corrupted by similar conditions of dynastic power. Yet he did not begin with Augustus, except by cold reference to his memory. The modern world tends to think of Augustus as the founder of the empire.

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The Romans—one may cite Appian of Alexandria and Publius Annius Florus alongside Tacitus—regarded him, at least during the first part of his career, as the last of the warlords who had dominated the republic. He had a successful political course, becoming a senator , consul , and eventually governor of the Roman province of Asia. He probably lived and wrote into Hadrian 's reign and may have died in A.

Despite a political situation that had provided for his personal success, Tacitus was unhappy with the status quo. He lamented the previous century's reduction of aristocratic power, which was the price of having a princeps 'emperor'. Tacitus poses an even greater challenge than volume to the Latin student because his prose is difficult to translate.

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Michael Grant acknowledges this when he says, "the more prudent translators have prefaced their efforts by apologetic reminders that 'Tacitus has never been translated and probably never will be' Tacitus comes from the Greco-Roman tradition of history writers whose purpose is as much to promote a rhetorical flourish-filled moral agenda as it is to record facts. Annales isn't the only source for the period, either.


The modern world tends to think of Augustus as the founder of the empire. The Romans—one may cite Appian of Alexandria and Publius Annius Florus alongside Tacitus—regarded him, at least during the first part of his career, as the last of the warlords who had dominated the republic. In opening the Annals , Tacitus accepts the necessity of strong, periodic power in Roman government, providing it allowed the rise of fresh talent to take over control. That was the aristocratic attitude toward political freedom, but to secure the continuity of personal authority by dynastic convention, regardless of the qualifications for rule, was to subvert the Roman tradition and corrupt public morality.

One may, indeed, believe that Tiberius was prompted to assume imperial power because he was anxious about the military situation on the Roman frontier; but Tacitus had no doubts about the security of the Roman position, and he considered the hesitation that Tiberius displayed on taking power to be hypocritical; hence, the historical irony, in interpretation and style, of his first six books.

Here, perhaps, Tacitus had some support for his interpretation.

Annals and Histories

A strong, dour soldier and a suspicious man, Tiberius had little to say in his court circle about public affairs. On his death he was blamed for never saying what he thought nor meaning what he said, and Tacitus elaborated this impression. His criticism of dynastic power also stressed the effect of personality: if Tiberius was false, Claudius was weak, Nero was not only unstable but evil, and the imperial wives were dangerous.

With regard to provincial administration, he knew that he could take its regular character for granted, in the earlier period as well as his own.

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