08
Jul
13

Tacitus – The Annals of Imperial Rome

The Annals of Imperial Rome

An account of the tumultuous years of the early Roman Empire, Tactius’ Annals are compelling, fascinating and important reading for anyone interested in this era of history. Written several years after the decades described, Tacitus’ histories take you inside the troubled senate, the chaotic world of the Emperors and the riotous city of Rome.

While it’s primarily a history of Rome, The Annals covers what was happening in the empire from disastrous battles with natives in Gaul or Germany to the feuding kingdoms on Rome’s borders. It’s primarily a political history, heavy on the declining role of the Senate (which Tacitus is often dismissive of, calling them sycophants) and the increasing powers of freedmen in the Emperor’s court. It’s not uncritical – Tacitus really lays it on Tiberius and Nero – it’s a little more even-handed than Suetonius; it doesn’t delve into gossip or lists of depravities.

Instead, it’s a history about how Rome’s losing itself in success and decadence, slowly changing from what brought it to power into a state of lax morals, oppressive government and posturing among officials, each out to make themselves look good without any care for the state. It reminded me a lot of Thucydides, although it’s not quite as dry.

There’s many parallels to the Greek historians here, from Tacitus’ proclivity to inventing speeches that express the sentiment of the speaker, if not their actual workds

The main drawback is how fragmented the history is: while most of it’s come down to us, it’s still incomplete: the first part cuts off before the reign of Caligula and is also missing the first part of Claudius’ years in power. The second part is a little more complete, but cuts off during Nero’s reign, before revolts in Spain and his flee out of Rome.

The translation by Michael Grant is clear, well annotated with footnotes, maps and other helpful details (the glossary’s a nice addition) and his introduction helps set the scene for this book, although I’m not sure how up to date it is.

Rating: 9/10. Out of all the primary sources from this period of history, Tacitus’ is not only the most influential – he was read and interpreted by everyone from Montaigne to the founding fathers of the U.S. – but he’s a constantly enjoyable read, too. Even on a straight-up read, this is a lurid, colourful history of Rome at the height of it’s powers. Put another way, it’s a version of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius that actually happened. It’s a fascinating look at an important period of history and Penguin’s edition is well-suited for even the causal reader. Recommended for anyone interested in ancient history.

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