Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332
Annals is Tacitus's attempt to tell the complete history of Imperial Rome. He didn't quite get there—or if he did, we don't know about it, because much of his work has been lost. He wrote sixteen volumes or "books" of Annals, but four of these, and parts of four others, are missing. This work was meant to precede his other masterpiece, Histories, and together these would be a complete chronicle of the Roman Empire from the rise of Augustus to Tacitus's present day. You should read as much of it as you have time for; it's very good. You should also check out the excellent study guide available on this website.
Annals isn't just a collection of the biographies of emperors and other famous people, after Plutarch's Lives. Emperors and generals, gods and goddesses figure in the story, but the narrative follows "what happened" more than it focuses on "so-and-so great person did this." In that way, it's a fascinating look into first-century Rome by someone who witnessed most of it. Later histories like Gibbon are excellent, but they aren't as immediate as Tacitus's.
Just because Tacitus sticks to a narrative, though, doesn't mean Annals is without its flaws. It's quite an apology for the principate, the imperial system of government in the early empire. The Senate of the late Republic had become corrupt, says Tacitus, and its overthrow and subjugation by Julius Caesar and then Augustus restored honor to Roman government and turned out better for the public. That's quite a claim, but it's understandable from the perspective of the first century, and it was shrewd at a time when mercurial emperors like Caligula imprisoned, exiled, or executed people for less controversial opinions.
On the whole, Annals is a good overall history of the early Roman Empire. It should be read in context and not taken as the final word on anything. If you read it as one source among many, you will greatly increase your understanding of the empire.
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