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WE read yesterday of the historical figure, Julius Caesar. At his death the Roman Empire was consumed in a battle for supremacy between republicans (led by Brutus and Cassius), high-ranking military men (led by Mark Antony), and supporters of his heir (led by Octavian, who later became Augustus). The first to lose were the republicans; then after a short but uneasy alliance feel through, Antony and Octavian fell to fighting. Antony, deeply in love with his MILF mistress, Cleopatra, deserted his fleet at Actium. (Here he was enjoying sloppy seconds, as Caesar had fathered a kid on her.) Octavian assumed control of Roman affairs, consolidated it with violence at first, then mellowed, and was later named Augustus.
Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome picks up with Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, and tracks Roman history through the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. The narrative isn’t all negative, but much of it presents a darker side to Imperial rule rather than a lighter side. He describes the likely murder of Germanicus by poison in the reign of Tiberius (there were conflicts over prerogatives between the two), the lusts of Caligula and Nero, and the burning of Rome in Nero’s reign. He describes the ascent of the Stoics, the confiscations of property and the attempts of nobles to martyr themselves by committing suicide, a la Cato. He gives a detailed account of Seneca as Nero’s tutor and his subsequent betrayal which admittedly left me in complete admiration of Seneca and disgusted by Nero.
Perhaps equally important to all of these is his mention of early Christians. To Tacitus this was a bizarre if not criminal religion, especially inasmuch as Christos (Jesus) was “a common criminal.” Adding to his distaste for it was that it was initially a subsect of Judaism, which he stated elsewhere (in his Histories, which describes the great Judean War of the later 1st Century) to be abominable. In short, Tacitus sees nothing special in this religion, considering it as a somewhat minor annoyance rather than a force to be reckoned with.
What characterizes Tacitus is his acerbic style. He is the master of the prose narrative. He uses long sentences to describe the actual history, then succinctly sums up his analysis with a short, penetrating, incisive analysis. This style is positively original, owing little or nothing to the great histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, and Sallust. It has been extremely influential in shaping the voices of future historians, most notably that of Edward Gibbon, author of the extraordinary History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As Gibbon’s voice and work influenced Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, it thus is clear that the two behemoths of English history, Gibbon and Churchill, are each beholden unto Tacitus for their own marvelous achievements.
I find Tacitus particularly engaging and because the book is missing some parts–one wonders what they were doing in those monasteries in the Middle Ages!–The Annals is not particularly long. The Penguin Classics edition is, I think, somewhere around 200 pages. It is readable in a few days or, at most, a week. And it is very much worth it.