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 recapitulated them on a horrendously magnified scale, Tacitus’s readers were inclined to view his account as grossly exaggerated, beyond the possible depths to which human nature could sink.
Tacitus is modest about his aims, though the grave irony of his remarks should not go unnoticed: The matter upon which I am occupied is circumscribed, and unproductive of renown to the author—a state of undisturbed peace, or only interrupted in limited degree, the sad condition of affairs in the city, and a prince indifferent about extending the bounds of the empire. Not unprofitable, however, will it be to investigate matters which, though unimportant in a superficial view, frequently give the first impulse to events of magnitude. . . . I have only to record the mandates of despotism, incessant accusations, faithless friendships, the ruin of innocence; the one unvarying repetition of causes terminating in the same event, and presenting no novelty from their similarity and tiresome repetition. (4, 32-33)
In general, Tacitus presents not a sustained history but a chronological depiction of selected events—some thoroughly detailed over several chapters and others sketched in lightly, continually referred to but not described extensively in any one place. It has been conjectured that the original Annals consisted of three hexads, the pattern employed by Vergil, Statius, Polynus, and Cicero, but there is no concrete evidence that there were two books written after book 16, and the loss of books 7-10 prevents scholars from being absolutely certain that those books fitted with books 11-12 to constitute a middle hexad. At any rate, the Annals, as they now stand, can be conveniently arranged by subject matter—the reign of Tiberius is the concern of the first six books, of Claudius in books 11-12, and of Nero in the final four books.
This is not to say that the focus of attention is concentrated on the three emperors. In dealing with Tiberius, for example, Tacitus devotes the opening forty-nine chapters to the first year (more space than to any other year of the entire history), beginning with the jockeying for power after the death of Augustus. Since Tiberius never led troops in battle after he became emperor, the narrative shifts to Tiberius’s son Drusus (chapters 16-30) quelling the Pannonian mutiny and to Germanicus (most of chapters 31-71) campaigning on the Rhine. These two men, possible heirs to the throne, were the objects of the intrigues of the utterly unscrupulous Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius’s favorite. Jealous of Germanicus’s successes, Tiberius had him recalled and sent east as king in Armenia, where he died in 19 c.e., probably at the hands of Piso under orders from Tiberius. Piso’s trial ended abruptly with his unexplained murder, although Tacitus hints that Tiberius arranged that as well. Drusus, then, dominated the sons of Germanicus as heir apparent, but Tiberius openly preferred Sejanus—“a stranger was called in as coadjutor in the government; nay, how little was wanting to his being declared colleague.” Sejanus, “whose heart insatiably lusted for supreme domination,” then dispatched Drusus with a slow poison that made him appear a victim of disease and set out to marry Livia, his widow and the sister of Germanicus. There remained, however, Agrippina, widow of Germanicus, and her three sons....
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