Tacitus' Annals

Tacitus' Annals

Tacitus' Annals

Tacitus' Annals


Tacitus' Annals is the central historical source for first-century C.E. Rome. It is prized by historians since it provides the best narrative material for the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero, as well as a probing analysis of the imperial system of government. But the Annals should be seen as far more than an historical source, a mere mine for the reconstruction of the facts of Roman history. While the Annals is a superb work of history, it has also become acentral text in the western literary, political, and even philosophical traditions - from the Renaissance to the French and American revolutions, and beyond. This volume attempts to enhance the reader's understanding of how this book of history could have such a profound effect. Chapters will address the purpose, form, and method of Roman historical writing, the ethnic biases of Tacitus, and his use of sources. Since Tacitus has been regarded as one of the first analysts of the psychopathology of political life, the book will examine the emperors, the women of the court, and the ambitious entourage of freedmen and intellectuals who surround every Roman ruler. The final chapter will examine the impact of Tacitus' Annals since their rediscovery by Boccaccio in the 14thcentury.


“Your histories will be immortal.”

—Pliny the Younger

Cornelius Tacitus was the greatest historian that the Roman world produced. Almost two millennia ago he drew on his rhetorical and literary training, his career in the law courts, and his experience in politics to create in his book, the Annals, the most penetrating indictment of the Roman Empire and its rulers. He believed that history should be important—for both moral and political reasons—and so he set himself up as judge:

It will be apposite for these matters to have been assembled
and transmitted, because few men have the proficiency to
distinguish the honorable from the baser, or the useful from
the harmful, whereas the majority are taught by what hap
pens to others. (4, 33, 2)

But he was hardly a dispassionate judge. He joined to his private training and public experience a burning passion driven by an intimate knowledge of imperial tyranny. He was determined not only to avenge himself on what he saw as political monsters but to . . .

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