Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Annals - Tacitus

Tacitus is an interesting historian.  He apparently decided that he would simply record things on a year by year basis.  Most years divide into two large elements, what wars are happening on the frontiers and what the political situation was back in Rome.  At the end of each year, he goes through the notable deaths.  Well, the deaths that occurred outside of the wars or (more frequently) the politics.
It was easier for me to follow the wars in Gaul, Germany and against the Parthians than it was to follow the news of Rome.  A few years back I spent considerable time playing a game called Total War Rome.  The game is mostly simulations of battles between Roman forces and various others of the period.  Suffice it to say, the Roman soldiers completely outclassed the various tribes of northern Europe.
There was more drama in Rome but from this viewpoint it was much harder to follow.  The Annals start off with the reign of Tiberius in 14 AD.  He followed up Julius and Augustus Caesar, two of the most famous men in history.  There was considerable trouble in Rome figuring out which faction would provide the next emperor and it caused near constant conflict.  This means lots of 'so and so killed so and so' and it was hard to figure out without some kind of family tree.
At first this confusion bothered me, but I relaxed and simply let some of it wash over me.  After a while, the names took on some meaning and I could follow along.  Well, follow to some extent.  Just as you'd get to know someone, they'd be knocked off.  It was an unbelievably nasty era of politics.
Coming off a few months of reading Greek history, the difference was striking.  I don't recall any assassination in Herodotus or Thucydides.  There, the conflict was between empires and city states.  Here, the biggest conflicts were internal.  It's a testament to the other structures of Rome that the constant fighting at the capitol didn't destabilize the empire.


  1. Yes, the Greeks preferred a much crueler punishment than assassination - ostracism. Though Alcibiades seemed to fare well as an exile, if only for a short while :)

    Which historian's style do you like most - Herodotus', Thucydides', Gibbon's, or Tacitus'?

    1. That's a great question and I'm not sure what the answer is. Herodotus is easily the most readable. His history is pure story and sometimes the story is too good to let considerations like truth get in the way. I can see people reading (and rereading) Herodotus much more than I can the other two.
      Thucydides and Tacitus are somewhat similar. They employ what I think of as journalistic history in that they want to provide the most honest history they can. Each has an eye on posterity. Also, both of them are hard to read without some kind of companion work to help you figure out the players.
      Gibbon, of course, is writing long after events so he has an advantage. His work is much more concerned with the larger narrative than with the day to day events. Very useful, but utterly dependent on the earlier writers. If they were journalists, he was an op-ed writer. (In this comparison, Herodotus would be someone like Paul Harvey.)
      I think I enjoyed Herodotus the most, but all four were very important in their own ways.