5. Tacitus’s The Annals

“Renowned as a public orator and high official in Rome’s imperial administration, Tacitus achieved lasting fame with the historical writing of his later years, in which his political experience and literary skill combine to describe the character of 1st century Roman rule. Though soundly based, this work was often adapted, even distorted, to fit his own view of the empire, which he saw as a study in the pathology of tyranny, where power corrupted and impotence had led to degeneration. Tacitus exploited a brilliant style to emphasize, as well as to record, his interpretation.” (“Tacitus, Cornelius,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 17, page 982)

In their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider Books I and XIII-XVI of Tacitus’s The Annals. Book I describes the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, the immediate successor of Augustus, and Books XIII-XVI the reign of Nero. Although I was often confused by Tacitus’s references to people and events which I knew nothing or little about, I understood enough to appreciate his loathing of Nero, who had killed his brother Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, the Stoic philosopher Seneca (once his teacher), and numerous Roman senators, nobles, and officeholders. But contributing even more to Nero’s very bad reputation was the fire which almost destroyed Rome. It was even rumoured that he had started the fire but, as Tacitus indicates, it may have started accidentally.

However the fire started, Nero tried to get rid of the suspicion that he had ordered it by fastening the guilt on someone else. Here is what Tacitus says about his doing so:

“To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite torture s on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the supreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurator, Pontius Pilate, and a mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, and immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (The Annals in volume 15 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 168)

Nero’s having killed so many family members and other important people and his treatment of Christians certainly demonstrate “the pathology of tyranny” which Tacitus viewed the history of Rome to be a study in.

As usual, Adler and Woolf follow their consideration of the reading with the discussion of a few questions about the reading. The last of the questions they pose about The Annals is whether “imperial rule over colonies and dependencies [is] compatible with constitutional government” (The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 67). After quoting the following passage from a later work by Tacitus, “That old passion for power which has been ever innate in man increased and broke out as the Empire grew in greatness. In a state of moderate dimensions equality was easily preserved; but when the world had been subdued, when all rival kings and cities had been destroyed, and men had leisure to covet wealth which they might enjoy in security the early conflicts between the patricians and the people were kindled into flame” (The Histories, in volume 15 of Great Books of the Western World, page 224), they suggest that he is implying that imperial expansion will lead to civil war because all want to share in the new luxuries and that despotic rule is the only way to avoid civil war. They conclude their discussion by saying that sympathy with this thought “may help explain the traditional American fear of entangling alliances or any form of empire building” (The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 68). I found this observation particularly interesting in light of the current discussion in the USA about involvement in alliances.


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