Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
By an accident of fate, works of Cornelius Tacitus are the only surviving histories of his day; all the writings of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors are lost. It may be that the fates were guided by standards of literary aesthetics rather than historical accuracy. Tacitus’s facts and interpretations have from time to time been severely criticized, but he has always been admired for his lucid, morally charged narrative style. The Annals are not only a skillful prose account of a half century of Roman history but also a compassionate evaluation of the horrors of imperial despotism. In fact, the earliest extant manuscript is entitled Ab excessu divi Augusti (although in book 4, the writer refers to his work as Annals).
Tacitus saw in Roman history a gradual decline from a primitive golden age when no laws were necessary to times when laws became a necessity and, finally, an abominable evil. As the Annals proceed from the reign of Tiberius to those of Claudius and of Nero (a section dealing with Caligula is lost, as are the last books), the tyranny becomes more cruel, the populace and patricians become more submissive, the opportunists and informers become more despicable, and the dwindling number of virtuous people become more helpless. In these matters, Tacitus is by no means taciturn; in fact, so great are the horrors depicted in the Annals that until the atrocities of modern politics and war...
(The entire section is 1982 words.)
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