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Tacitus and Nero: Annals 14 & 15 – A historical introduction

BDM Omrani, Westminster School, April 2011

Tacitus – political career and biographical facts


There is not much we can say with absolute certainty about the life of Tacitus.Even his first name – Publius or Gaius – is in dispute. However, thanks tooccasional references he makes to himself in his historical writing, otherdetails gleaned from a correspondence with his friend Pliny the Younger as wellas evidence from archaeology and inscriptions, we are able to sketch outTacitus’ life with a reasonable hope of accuracy. He was most likely born in AD56 or 57. Like many other writers and poets who gained eminence in the canon ofRoman literature, he was not a native of the capital, but rather hailed from aprovincial family. He was most likely born in Gallia Narbonensis (modern-dayProvence in southern France), though Gallia Transpadana (the region between theRiver Po and the Alps) or Spain have also been suggested. The writer Pliny theElder knew a Cornelius Tacitus who was an equestrian and the governor of GalliaBelgica, and it is plausible that this man was Tacitus’ father, or at least uncle.

Coming from such a background, it is understandable that Tacitus was not onlyambitious of advancement, but also possessed the means to secure it. It isconjectured that he went to Rome in his teenage years to study law and rhetoric.This would have been the normal course of action for any young Roman man whowished to make a career in politics. He might have attached himself as a pupilto an established lawyer to serve out a tirocinium fori (apprenticeship in thecourts). Some scholars even conjecture that he studied under Quintilian, aneminent professor of rhetoric appointed by the emperor who attempted to promoteand preserve the elegant Ciceronian style of oratory (by the latter part of the1st century AD falling somewhat out of fashion). Although he does not mentionthe exact detail of his education, Tacitus depicts himself in his late teenageyears eagerly listening to counsel making speeches in the courts, and that inhis “extreme desire for learning and youthful zeal” he would even follow thebarristers home “to listen diligently to their trivial talk, their more seriousdebates, and their private and esoteric discourse.” [Tacitus, Dialogus deoratoribus, 2]

The details of the beginning of Tacitus’ career are equally unclear, but againcan be pieced together by conjecture. He states that his career was advanced byeach of the three Flavian emperors (Vespasian, 69-79, Titus, 79-81, and Domitian,81-96). Vespasian must have granted him the right to wear the latus clavus onhis tunic – the broad purple stripe that indicated an intention to embark on apolitical career in the senate. It is likely that at this time he served a yearas one of the vigintiviri (minor magistrates who dealt with summary legal mattersand civic duties such as maintenance of the roads), and then at the age of 20 abrief spell as a military tribune. In 77, he married the daughter of JuliusAgricola who had just been elected the governor of Britain, an advantageousconnection which can only have helped to develop his career.

If Tacitus’ statement that his career was advanced by each of the three Flavianemperors is to hold true, then he must have held the quaestorship in 81 in theshort reign of Titus, when Tacitus would have been around 25. The office was thefirst rung on the cursus honorum, the “course of offices” which for the mostsuccessful politicians would culminate in the consulship. There were usually 20quaestors appointed for an annual term, half of whom served abroad under provincialgovernors, and the rest at Rome. Shortly afterwards, perhaps around 85, he wouldalso have served as aedile or tribune of the people, intermediate offices withadministrative duties in the city, whilst also maintaining a legal careerpractising in Rome’s courts.

It can be established for certain that he held the office of praetor in 88, ajudicial office one rung below the consulship. Thanks to a reference in his ownwritings, it is also known that he was by this time installed as a life memberof the quindecimviri, a college of priests entrusted with the care of the SibyllineBooks and the oversight of the Secular Games. This latter appointment was asingular honour, and can be regarded as a mark of Tacitus’ prominence or ability.The number of positions to be had in the priestly colleges was few; moreover, hereceived this appointment in his early thirties, whereas it was more usual forsuch positions to go to older men who were in the latter stages of their politicalcareers.

Tacitus’ career for most of the period of Domitian’s reign is obscure. It isthought that he might have spent a number of years outside Italy as a legionarycommander, a posting which might last for up to four years and which would be ausual for those intending to reach the consulship. Some historians conjecturethat it might have been by design that Tacitus absented himself from Rome in theearly 90s, since this appears to have been an especially repressive and dangeroustime for the Roman upper classes – “Domitian’s terror” – which will be describedin detail later. Whatever the truth of the matter, Tacitus managed to survive theperiod in favour with the emperor. In 96, just before Domitian’s assassination,Tacitus was appointed a suffect consul (a consul who serves only a part of theconsular term in the latter part of the year) for 97.

The duty for which he was most remembered in his consular office was a funeraloration he gave for Verginius Rufus, a general who had served with distinctionin the time of Nero. Pliny the Younger describes Tacitus at this time as “laudatoreloquentissimus”, and it is still in such a capacity, as politician and orator,that Tacitus is known at the end of his consulship. His work as a historian seemsto start only after this moment, but in earnest. The death of Domitian and theaccession of the Antonine Emperors (Nerva, 96-8, Trajan 98-117, Hadrian 117-137)seem to have made free speech easier, and it thought that Tacitus’ firsthistorical works – the Agricola and Germanica – appeared at this time. His onlywork published before that time, the Dialogus de oratoribus, which is believedto have been circulated in 80, is on the subject of the decline of rhetoric inthe Imperial period.

After his consulship, Tacitus appears to have combined a career working at thebar with writing history. In 100 he conducted a major prosecution, in conjunctionwith Pliny, of Marius Priscus, governor of North Africa, for maladministration,and is thought to have taken legal pupils until 107 or 108. As for his historicalwriting, his correspondence with Pliny suggests that he was working on theHistories, which dealt with the period from the death of Nero in 68 to the deathof Domitian in 96, from around 104-109. His final official appointment as proconsulof Asia (c.112-113) might have caused him to interrupt his work for a time, butit appears he embarked on his last work, the Annals, which described Roman historyfrom the death of Augustus (AD 14) to the Fall of Nero, at around this periodand completed it in 117.

The date of Tacitus’ death is not known, but no work of his is known after theAnnals. He may have died at around the same time as Trajan in 117, though somewriters conjecture he lived well into the reign of Hadrian.


The Political Background to Tacitus’ career

Vital to understanding Tacitus’ interests and inclinations as a historian is aknowledge of the political upheavals which troubled Rome over the course of hisrise to the consulship.

Tacitus was born early in the principate of Nero. By this time, the transitionof Rome from a republican to imperial form of government was accepted as anecessity by nearly everyone. The original republican model, where executivepower was vested in two consuls each serving for a year each with the ability toveto each other’s actions, open debate in the senate was the forum for thegeneration of policy, and ambitious aristocrats from a small circle of familiesjockeyed for popular election to magistracies, had served relatively well whenRome was a small city state. However, after the later part of the 2nd century BCwhen the territory under Rome’s control had expanded beyond measure, and varyingagricultural, economic and military interests brought the state to civil war, itincreasingly became clear that a centralised rather than collegiate model ofpower was a necessity in order to preserve the stability of the empire. Thischange of the political order finally came to pass with the rise to power ofAugustus in 27 BC.

Augustus had cloaked his absolute power in the forms of republican government.Ever since the expulsion of the Tarquinian kings in 510 BC, the Romans had beenbitterly opposed to the notion of one person holding such authority, and it waspart of Augustus’ genius to maintain the structure of the republican order, butto take upon himself a combination of the magistracies and titles which, combinedwith his own wealth and network of supporters, would make him a supremeauthority. Although the senate were portrayed as partners in power, in time theybecome little more than a rubber-stamping device to confirm the imperial will.Liberty of speech and the free play of opinion became obsolete. Their role wasnot to decide policy, but to discern the emperor’s inclinations and approve them.

This diminution of the senate’s role and independence led, according to manyaccounts, to a degeneration in the quality and progressive demoralisation of thesenatorial class. Many of the old patrician families had perished in theproscriptions and civil wars in the 1st century BC. About many of them there wasa sense of decadence and corruption, a decline from old Roman standards of virtueand behaviour; yet, in each family’s own ambition and sense of entitlement wouldhave resided a check on the accumulation of power in any one place, and hence asafeguard of liberty. With the disappearance of these old families and the riseof the principate, there was a change in the political culture of Rome. Therewas still a role for a political class, but more as professionalised administratorsdependent on the commands of the emperor. The old patrician families werereplaced in the senate by the newly-wealthy from the middle class who, whilstaspiring to public service in the senate and magistracies which were still seenas an honour, would have had little notion of ambition to attain the sort of realpower wielded by the princeps. The public elections to magistracies had beenabolished on the death of Augustus, and all of the new senatorials were nowcompletely dependent on the emperor for their position. In order to retain theirstation they must acquiesce to his will, no matter whatever his caprice.

With this sea change in Roman political life, the ethos and assumptions of thepolitical class necessarily came under examination. In this field, Tacitus isthe most penetrating commentator of his generation. As the first member of hisfamily to enter the senatorial ranks, a provincial whose morals and upbringingwere likely to have been much closer to the antique Roman traditions than thosethen current in Rome, Tacitus was driven to ponder how a man might best renderservice to the state, when the head of state was immoral or depraved. Should apolitician retire from public life and refuse to engage, attack the iniquitiesof the emperor, fully acquiesce in and profit from his iniquities, or else wasit possible to find some middle way where honest service was made to the state,whilst seeking a way to be detached from the crimes of a tyrannous emperor?Could one be an official of a government and serve the state, but not be tarredby the evil-doing of its leader?

For Tacitus, these questions would have been compounded by his experience of theprincipate of Domitian (81-96). Although Domitian appears to have been acompetent ruler of the wider empire, a relatively efficient commander of thearmy who made appointments to posts in government shrewdly and sensibly, all thesources agree that he suffered from the sorts of paranoia which afflict moderndictators such as Colonel Gaddafi or Kim Jong-Il, and that the Roman upperclasses suffered accordingly. His predecessors (Domitian’s father Vespasian andhis older brother Titus) allowed a certain measure of free speech and tended tomaintain the rule of law. However, Domitian, the younger brother who had not beenexpected to succeed to the principate and who had consequently been denied themore important positions which had fallen to his older brother Titus as apreparation for the emperorship, reversed the position dramatically. Indeed, itis likely that his frustrated ambitions earlier in life contributed to the warpedcharacter that he displayed as emperor. He was obsessively mistrustful,domineering, and unable to take criticism. The corridors of his palace werelined with mirrors so that he could guard against the approach of any assassinfrom the rear. Anyone who cast even the slightest aspersions on him was likelyto be put to death. Even those who praised the stoic figures of earliergenerations who had been critical of previous regimes were executed for treason.His loathing of an intelligent political class led to a decree of the senate thatall philosophers should be expelled from Rome. At the same time, he had a loveof the grandiose and ostentatious public display. He filled Rome with images ofhimself. On the Capitol, no statue in his honour could be erected except in goldand silver of a set minimum weight. Military exploits, even in the case ofdoubtful outcomes, were commemorated with lavish triumphs, although many observersclaimed that the parades of captured soldiers were merely slaves got up in thedress of the enemy nation. Other monuments attested to his desire for glory,including a succession of triumphal arches and a huge golden effigy of himselfguiding chariots yoked with elephants. Temples were also gilded and otherbuildings put up to express his munificence. He held the consulship for 17 times,which had been done by none of his predecessors. He changed the name of October,the month of his birth, to “Domitianus”, and within his own lifetime deified notonly himself, but also his son and daughter. The only form of address he wouldtolerate was Dominus et Deus – “Lord and God”.

Domitian’s profligacy exhausted the Roman treasury, and in order to maintain theflow of spending he resorted to extortion and confiscation. This compounded theagony of the senatorial and equestrian classes. The slightest word out of placewould be leapt on as a pretext for an accusation, with the estates of thecondemned being looted for the benefit of the state. Informers were rife, and asinister privy council of the emperor’s intimates would deliberate on the streamof secret reports and accusations. The anguish of the Roman nobles was intensifiedby the brooding and malign behaviour of the emperor. According to Suetonius, hewould pass many hours of the day alone, pulling the legs off flies. He was subjectto wild superstitions, and was fearful of portents and the declarations ofsoothsayers. He reinstituted the ancient punishment of live inhumation for VestalVirgins who slept with men. He loved to torment the leading men of the state,whether they were to be condemned or not. If he were about to sentence someone toa death by extreme torture, he would start his judgement with a claim he wasabout to exhibit clemency. The day before he crucified one of his stewards, heinvited him into his private quarters, sat beside him on a couch and shared withhim his dinner. Shortly before he was to convict the former consul ArreciniusClemens, a former close associate, he took him for a drive as a purported markof favour, and catching sight of the informer who had spoken against him said“shall we hear this vile slave tomorrow?”

The most extraordinary account of one of Domitian’s attempts to unnerve membersof the Roman upper classes comes from the historian Cassius Dio; it deserves tobe quoted in full:

...on another occasion he entertained the foremost men among the senators andknights in the following fashion. He prepared a room that was pitch black onevery side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of thesame colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests aloneat night without their attendants. And first he set beside each of them a slabshaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest’s name and also a small lamp, suchas hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered likephantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took uptheir stations at their feet. After this all the things that are commonlyoffered at the sacrifices to departed spirits were likewise set before theguests, all of them black and in dishes of a similar colour. Consequently, everysingle one of the guests feared and trembled and was kept in constant expectationof having his throat cut the next moment, the more so as on the part of everybodybut Domitian there was dead silence, as if they were already in the realms ofthe dead, and the emperor himself conversed only upon topics relating to deathand slaughter. Finally he dismissed them; but he had first removed their slaves,who had stood in the vestibule, and now gave his guests in charge of other slaves,whom they did not know, to be conveyed either in carriages or litters, and bythis procedure he filled them with far greater fear. And scarcely had each guestreached his home and was beginning to get his breath again, as one might say,when word was brought him that a messenger from the Augustus had come. Whilethey were accordingly expecting to perish this time in any case, one personbrought in the slab, which was of silver, and then others in turn brought invarious articles, including the dishes that had been set before them at thedinner, which were constructed of very costly material; and last of all camethat particular boy who had been each guest’s familiar spirit, now washed andadorned. Thus, after having passed the entire night in terror, they received thegifts. [Cassius Dio, Epitome of Roman History, 67.9]

It was in this dangerous environment, which is thought to have become especiallydifficult towards the end of Domitian’s reign after the discovery of a realrather than imagined plot, that Tacitus was able to climb the political ladderand attain the highest offices of praetor and consul. Such a career suggests thatTacitus possessed not only genuine ability, but also the tact to avoid the ireand mistrust of Domitian. For all this, Tacitus felt the guilt of someone whohad not only collaborated with a brutal regime, but who had been lucky enoughto survive whilst other bolder and more reckless Romans perished. Tacitus’writing of history, it can be argued, whilst not only being a meditation on howthe just could live under a repressive regime whilst doing service to the state;it can also be seen as an attempt to think upon and even atone for his owninvolvement in the reign of Domitian. At the end of the Agricola (the biographyTacitus wrote of his father-in-law, who was governor of Britain), he complainsbitterly that the senate and even “his own hands” dragged to prison a number ofDomitian’s victims.

It is also likely that Tacitus’ experience of such a deranged and paranoid emperorand an environment where survival was dependent upon seeing past appearances andpublic pronouncements into the private intentions and motivations of a one manand his small coterie of henchmen engendered his deep interest and concern inpsychology. The seat of power had moved from the public sphere in the republicanperiod to the personal and private in the imperial. Hence the decipherment ofeach powerful individual, themselves governed by caprice, paranoia and flaws ofcharacter, was a vital concern if one was to unravel the motivation and emergenceof their public acts and behaviour. Indeed, one of Tacitus’ ultimate messages isthat in such a world of dissimulation and spin the public acts are near tomeaningless; it is the dark impulses and later construction put upon them thatare supremely of moment.

Such a background provides the obvious explanation for Tacitus’ cynical outlookand pessimism about the trend of Roman life. However, the strongest caveat thatshould be placed on the reading of Tacitus is that his point of view is strictlylimited to the heart of Rome and the imperial court. This is such a mark of hishistory that some editors of the Annals and Histories have wished to entitlethem “The Lives of the Roman Emperors”. Granted, he will cover in depth importantprovincial affairs such as Corbulo’s war in Armenia, but his deepest concern isthe seat of power in the capital of the empire and the relationship of the emperorwith the governing class. His assumption is that since the fount of the acts ofgovernment is the person of the emperor, the emperor must be the primary focus ofhis enquiry. It becomes obvious that the real scope of his sight is the effect ofimperial power on the upper classes of Rome, rather than the wider population.The coverage of the life of the lower classes of Rome or Italy, the mercantileworld, the economy, trade, or the settled provincials of any rank is scanty.Apart from serving the useful device of giving voice to critical rumours orunattested gossip which could not proceed from the historian’s own voice, theRoman plebs appear as part of the scenery, almost as a landscape in a patheticfallacy, echoing the degeneracy of the emperors in what he sees as their owndegraded morals and behaviour.

However, since Tacitus allows his pessimistic obsession with the life of the courtto eclipse any real coverage of the social and economic life of the wider empire,it should be remembered that although the life of the average Roman aristocratmight well have been lived in unease and fear and that their many ancestralprerogatives had certainly been lost, the quality of life for the peoples of thewider empire might well have been far higher than during the late republicanperiod. Apart from a brief period of chaos after the assassination of Nero (theso-called “year of the four emperors”) the terrible brutality and civil warwhich had led to thousands of deaths across the empire in the 1st century BC hadbecome a distant memory. The provinces of the empire were at peace. Thanks tothe professionalization of the machinery of government and the evolution of acivil service, the administration of the provinces became more regular andconducted more justly. There were fewer instances in the provinces of theoutrageous extraction of wealth by companies of tax collectors (publicani) orcorrupt governors. The long period of peace allowed also for the development ofgreater trade and local prosperity. More and more people around the Roman worldwere able to obtain the status of Roman citizens, allowing them the access to arange of rights and legal protections to their persons and property. For all themisery of a privileged elite, the increased tranquillity of the wider empiregoes unrecognised by Tacitus.


Tacitus, his sources and the Traditions of Roman Historiography

There are many conflicting strands in the tradition of Roman historical writing.An understanding of the various currents of the tradition is important not onlyfor gaining an insight into the manner and structure of Tacitus’ writing ofhistory, but it also provides a further insight into the influences which wentto mould his political ideas and points of view.

As with many other branches of literature, Roman historical writing was indebtedto Greek models. The earliest historians known to have mentioned Rome, Dioclesof Peparethus and Timaeus of Athens (late 4th – 3rd century BC), wrote not inItaly but Athens, and the first known history of Rome by a native Roman historian,Quintus Fabius Pictor (dating perhaps to 200 BC shortly after the end of theSecond Punic War) is thought to have been written originally in Greek, not Latin,drawing widely on Greek literary models. The principal influences which seem tohave entered from the Greek and Hellenistic tradition (deriving originally fromthe orator Isocrates in the early 4th century BC) was the frequent recourse to ahighly rhetorical treatment, and also (difficult to distinguish from therhetorical) the propensity to imbue the narrative with a dramatic edge. Thistendency, in its more pronounced form, shies away from a forensic analysis ofcause and effect, instead intending – like a drama or tragedy – to createheightened emotions, especially of pity or terror, within the reader.

However, there was a contrary strain also drawn from Greek tradition in theperson of the historian Polybius (c.200-120 BC). Originally from Megalopolis inArcadian Greece where as a young man he served in the city’s government, he waslater resident for many years in Rome where he associated with many of prominentfigures. In particular he was the tutor of younger Scipio, the commander of Romanforces in the Third Punic War; in his company during this conflict, Polybiushimself witnessed the destruction of Carthage. Polybius was deeply influenced bythe historical method of Thucydides. Strongly in contrast to the dramatic andrhetorical traditions springing from Isocrates, he believed in the writing offorensic history. His style was often regarded as difficult and inelegant.Nevertheless, he held it was the task of the historian to be devoted to thesearch for objective truth, and to seek out a procession of cause and effect inthe acts of politicians and peoples. Aside from the use of his own testimony assomeone close to the heart of power, he was devoted to the use of writtensources, citing and even quoting them carefully. Similarly, he would seek outthe original participants in an affair, or else travel to the scenes of eventsto see and survey them with his own eyes. Good evidence, he insisted, was vitalfor the writing of history. The primary purpose of history in his view was notthe entertainment of the masses, but was rather for the use of those involvedin politics and public life, providing something in the fashion of a trainingmanual in the sphere of public affairs.

Aside from these Greek legacies, there was also a variety of early Romantraditions in regard of the recording of history which, as the genre of Romanhistory became more established, were highly influential in the course of itsdevelopment. The first amongst these was the institution of the tabulae pontificum.From the earliest periods in Rome, the Pontifex Maximus (chief priest in Rome)would inscribe on wooden boards for public display lists of magistrates, religiousfestivals, important events and other news which had been brought to the city.Being public notices, these were necessarily short documents, written succinctlyin an unembellished style, and organised strictly by dates and periods of time.From this, Roman historians derived the custom of writing in an annalisticfashion, dividing up the narrative into annual sections and recounting the eventsas they took place year by year.

On top of this, there was the laudatio funebris (funeral oration), which wasgiven at the interment of aristocratic Roman citizens, outlining the story oftheir ancestors and family, their own life, the offices held and their achievements.The laudatio, in itself a sort of mini-biography, is thought to have influencedRoman history writing in a number of ways. Not only were they emotive, but alsomoralising, making appeals to the conventional traditions and mores of theRomans (mos maiorum). The early rhetoric of the Roman senate and courts is alsothought to have made a contribution. The job of such speechmaking was to persuade,and it often had a political purpose or intention. It similarly had a functionof judgement, of passing a moral verdict on the actions of others, especially ina political and public arena. Such notions are likely to have passed from thesesources into the Roman historiographical tradition.

A number of these themes are visible in the earliest extant fragments of Romanhistory in Latin. The Origines of Marcus Porcius Cato (also known as Cato theCensor, 234-149 BC, who served as a military tribune in the Second Punic Warbefore entering a political career, obtaining the highest offices of consul andcensor) which described the history of Rome from its foundation to Cato’s owntime in seven books, eschew the annalistic fashion, holding that it is not adequatefor a satisfactory coverage of history. The fragments that remain show that heused the writing of history as much for self-glorification, quoting his ownspeeches and advancing his political opinions. His writing proclaims the needfor the preservation of the stern codes of Roman morality, and the avoidance ofostentatious display of wealth and extravagance. One of Cato’s consular successors,Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (fl. 120 BC), although writing in annalistic fashionin distinction to Cato, continued the theme of the decline of morality, pointingto the Roman conquest of Greece in the earlier part of the second century BC asthe point at which Roman virtue was undermined.

Other notable trends developed in Roman historiography during the late republicanperiod, some of which would have an impact on Tacitus’ own writing. After 120 BC,a number of aristocratic politicians began to write autobiographies rather thanhistories of the state. This represented a new departure, since the historieswhich had been written up to that date were, as far as can be understood, ab urbecondita (“from the foundation of the city”) rather than dealing with any specificperson or period. Otherwise, different historians followed the various trails,sometimes to extremes, laid down by earlier Greek and Roman precedents. Some,such as Lucius Coelius Antipater and Quintus Claudius Quadrigatus, adhered closelyto the Isocratean ideal. For them, history was meant to be a dramatic entertainmentrather than a piece of political or moral instruction. There is no careful orcritical treatment of sources, or first-hand acquaintance of the author withpolitics or the events concerned. Speeches and portents are freely invented,careful analysis of cause and effect are absent, and the accounts of battles andthe numbers involved are wildly exaggerated.

By contrast Sempronius Asellio, who had served in the Roman Army in Spain atthe Siege of Numantia in 133 BC, in writing a history of his own period heldfast to the canon of Polybius. The real purpose of history, he held, wasinstructive, to make the reader more ready to serve and defend his country.History had to rise above the purely annalistic cataloguing of events, which wasmerely fit to “tell tales to children”. It was only when it explained themotivations of the participants and the causes of events that such writing roseto the level of history.

The former, Isocratean trend seems to have been rather more popular in Romanliterature. Cicero was one of its proponents, and its ultimate culmination wasin the writing of Livy. However, many notions of the latter were also influential,and made more of an impression on Tacitus.

One last author who should be borne in mind when surveying the historiographicalinfluences on Tacitus is Sallust (86-35 BC). It is useful to have a shortknowledge of his biography. He had a short political career before engaging inthe writing of history. A close associate of Julius Caesar, he had a reputationin his earlier life for dissolute behaviour, and throughout his engagement inactive politics this seems to have been maintained. In 50 BC he was expelled fromthe Senate for gross immorality only to be reinstated shortly afterwards thanksto Caesar’s influence. After distinguished military service as a Praetor inAfrica in 46 BC he was appointed governor of Africa Nova. However, his conductwas so oppressive and corrupt that he was only able to escape a charge of extortionagain thanks to Caesar, and he left public life to concentrate on the writing ofhistory and gardening. Hence, like Tacitus he had a close knowledge of theworkings of government, as well as need to expiate a certain guilt for hispolitical conduct.

Sallust was able to reconcile many of the varying traditions of Roman historiographyin a form which dictated the fashion of Tacitus’ writing over a century later.Writing monographs on the Catiline Conspiracy and the Jurgurthine War, he adheredto the Polybian and Thucydidean imperative to seek out objective truths in animpartial fashion, and to unravel the sequence of motivations, causes and events.The delineation of character, he holds, is of vital importance in this work sincethe character of the participants might be part of the motivation or causes ofactions. Nonetheless, there are political and personal motivations for hiswriting. Being a partisan of Caesar, he was a supporter of the popular party,and his sympathies are reflected in the text. He has an interest in the examinationand promotion of virtus in the public sphere, and lambasting the collapse oftraditional morality, an impulse which, as suggested above, was likely driven bya desire for atonement. However, he also draws in strands from the Isocrateanstandpoint. In choosing his subjects, he admits that part of their appeal wastheir dramatic nature. Although he avoids the expansiveness and balance ofCiceronian style, instead favouring brevity and sharpness in his writing, he doesnot scruple to make use of long invented speeches in grand situations. All ofthese traits, aside from the last, find a disciple in Tacitus. Most of all,Tacitus owns the ideals of the Polybian tradition. He proclaims that he willwrite without “indignation or favour” (sine ira et studio, Annals 1.1) andalthough he owns that he suffered repression under Domitian as well as benefittedfrom his political support, he would avoid flattery or slander; “those whoprofess honesty must write without partiality or hatred.” (Histories 1.1) On topof this, he follows the Polybian manifesto by writing that “...the chief task ofthe historian is to rescue virtuous behaviour from oblivion and to threaten badwords and deeds with the fear of being branded with infamy by posterity.” (Annals 3.65)

Sallust’s style is especially important for Tacitus. There is a rejection of thebalance, the syntactical evenness of Cicero. There is a tendency towards brokenand shortened sentences, and a concision that tends almost towards obscurity,even unintelligibility. This perhaps reflects a discontent with public life,suggesting almost that the time is out of joint, and the language must reflectthe disturbance and decay of the settled order. The brevity of the writing standsin opposition to the Ciceronian “copia verborum” of the republican period andpublic rhetoric. The rapidity of the style, the recourse to the omission of verbsand the use of historic infinitives, allows the drama to be intensified. Tacitushimself goes even further than this, introducing echoes and motifs from tragedydespite his Polybian ideals. Antique vocabulary and frequentative verb forms areused to lend an archaic grandeur to the writing. There is a frequent use ofaphorisms to conclude chapters or observations. Many commentators suggest thatthis is a mark of a degenerate, Silver Latin style, demonstrating a greaterinterest in the glib and ostentatious rather than a profundity of insight.However, it would be better to suggest the opposite. The use of aphorisms insuch contexts serves to add an incisive insight into the behaviour and deepermotivations of characters.

The survivals of contemporary historical writing from and about the early imperialperiod are scanty. We can assume that they had little impact on Tacitus in termsof style, and rather their importance consists in their value as documentarysource material. Tacitus promises to name his sources, and he even provides somedetail of his method for treating them: “When the sources are unanimous, I willfollow them; when they provide different versions, I will record them withattribution” (Annals 13.20). Unfortunately he keeps to his promise onlyinfrequently, but for the period of Nero he does so enough to allow us to beaware of most of the source documents. The principal writers for this period areCluvius and Fabius Rusticus. The former, Marcus Cluvius Rufus, was a suffectconsul in AD 45 during the reign of Claudius, and remain in political life forat least another 25 years, being a governor in Spain. Less is known about FabiusRusticus, except that he was a contemporary of Nero. It is not known whether hehad a political career, but it is thought that he had a close association withSeneca, the Stoic philosopher who was also Nero’s tutor. Also available to Tacituswere a number of autobiographies, in particular the memoirs of Agrippina theYounger (Nero’s mother) and the military commander Corbulo, who conductedcampaigns in Armenia and the eastern provinces during Nero’s reign. There areother histories which were extant in Tacitus’ time but whose names have beenlost; the similarities between Tacitus and other later historians of the timesuch as Cassius Dio and Suetonius suggest their existence, although Tacitus’treatment of them must have been rather more critical. Aside from these, Tacitushad access to the evidence of inscriptions, official records such as the ActaSenatus (the Acts of the Senate, a record along the lines of modern-day Hansard)and also the Acta Diurna, a daily gazette originally established by JuliusCaesar for the recording of news and events in the city and wider empire. Ontop of these, being born late in Nero’s reign he had access to the oral testimonyof first-hand witnesses, who in general are not named.

It should be noted that when later discoveries have been made, for examplefragments of other texts or inscriptions, they often act to confirm the factsreported by Tacitus and his general rigour in dealing with sources. A notableexample is the discovery of a bronze plaque in France in the earlier part of the20th century on which was inscribed a speech by the Emperor Claudius on theadmission of Gallic nobles into the Roman senate. The speech is reported byTacitus (Annals 11.24), and the text given by Tacitus was found to be substantiallyin agreement with the bronze plaque, except that Tacitus had made it slightlymore concise and dignified than the original, showing the speech in a betterlight although he had little personal sympathy for Claudius.


The Life of Nero – A Brief summary

Despite the nobility of his birth, Nero passed his earliest years in straitened,capricious and traumatic circumstances. On the side of his mother, Agrippina theyounger, he was an heir of his late uncle, the Emperor Caligula, and also thegreat-great-grandson of Augustus. He was also the grandson of Germanicus, one ofthe popular military heroes of the early empire who, dying young, had assumed anear cult-like status amongst his troops and the wider Roman world. Nevertheless,the presence of legitimate contenders to the throne, especially in a quasi-monarchysuch as Rome where there was no rule of primogeniture, meant that Nero’s childhoodwas fraught with danger. He was born as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in AD 37.His father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, the descendant of a noble family whichhad played an important part in the late republic and early empire, died whilsthe was still a child. The Domitii Ahenobarbi were reputed to be a family with ashort-tempered and impulsive character, and some claim that this was Gnaeus’ mainlegacy to his son. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, who had inherited areputation of ambition and haughtiness from her own mother, Agrippina the Elder,was implicated in a conspiracy against her brother Caligula in AD 39 shortlyafter Nero’s birth. She suffered exile and the confiscation of her wealth, whilsther son was put in the care of an aunt, Domitia Lepida, who in turn passed theyoung child to two childminders, a barber and a dancer, to see to his initialeducation. After the death of Caligula in AD 41, his successor Claudius recalledAgrippina and restored her lost wealth to her, and she promptly augmented herestate by marriage to a nobleman, Passienus Crispus, who died shortly after thewedding leaving her his own fortune. Nero himself was entrusted to new tutors, aGreek freedman named Beryllus, and another freedman named Anicetus who was laterto be one of Nero’s unscrupulous henchmen, content to carry out the dirty workof assassination.

Despite her recall, Agrippina still had to tread a difficult path. Claudius hadhis own son Britannicus by his third wife Messalina, a boy three years youngerthan Nero who, despite being the son of the reigning emperor, did not have sostrong a claim by descent to the throne as Nero. Even if Nero or his mother hadbeen entirely without ambition for winning the principate, they would still havewon the enmity and suspicion of Messalina. Agrippina played a careful game,showing an apparent disinterest in power and an aloofness from the business ofthe court. Although at public occasions, for example the Secular Games in AD 47,the young Nero played a major and indeed greater part than Britannicus, Agrippinawas able to shield him from harm. She was assisted by the folly and lust ofMessalina. Tiring of Claudius and having already conducted many affairs, sheconducted a mock marriage with a Roman nobleman named Caius Silius whilst Claudiuswas absent at the port of Ostia, and began to plan a conspiracy which would seeSilius replacing Claudius on the throne. Claudius’ freedmen, in particular hissecretary Narcissus, seized the opportunity to do away with her, and even thoughClaudius shrank from the task they saw to it she was executed for her treason in48. Claudius, now widowed, lay open as a new conquest for Agrippina, and havingmade an alliance with another of his freedmen, the financial secretary Pallas,she was able to secure him as her new husband, and Nero’s adoption as his own sonin 50, renaming him Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.

With the death of Messalina, it was easy for Agrippina to ensure the successionof her own son. Just before his adoption he had been married to Claudius’ daughter,Octavia, and in 51, although not yet having reached the proper age, he assumedthe toga virilis, and was given a number of titles, magistracies and privileges– princeps iuventutis, proconsular imperium except within the city of Rome, andhe was designated for the consulship in advance for when he reached the age of20. He was given also the opportunity to address the senate, and his appearancein the dress of a Roman magistrate, when Britannicus still appeared in the child’stoga, made it clear to whom power would ultimately devolve. He was also entrustedto two new prominent tutors, the philosopher Seneca, and a successful general,Afranius Burrus. When Claudius died in 54 (according to Tacitus poisoned byAgrippina using a dish of mushrooms, although this account is not universallyaccepted by ancient or modern historians) Nero’s accession was a foregone conclusion.Agrippina had ensured the compliance of the Praetorian Guard by arranging theappointment of Burrus as its sole commander, whom Agrippina had made to feelthat he was obliged to her for his position. Nero confirmed this by announcing agift of money for its soldiers. Having been acclaimed emperor by them in returnfor his largesse, the senate followed suit and confirmed him in the principate.He was two months short of his seventeenth birthday.

With such an upbringing – his immediate family background, the early loss of hisfather, separation from parents, the threat from other jealous contenders to thethrone, a mercilessly ambitious mother, a rapid alteration between wealth andpenury, the knowledge of being sprung from the most famous and noble of ancestors,the interest of the Roman people, the early accession to absolute power – it isnot to be wondered that Nero’s behaviour was to become increasingly unstable.Nonetheless, his reign is generally regarded as having started well. The EmperorTrajan, many years later, described the first five years of his rule as a goldenage, a “quinquennium Neronis”. The senate was given the freedom to resume manyof its powers and acted with a reasonable degree of liberty. No senator suffereddeath at the hands of the emperor until AD 62, in strong contrast to otherrulers. Many of the freedmen who had controlled the increasingly incapableClaudius, in particular the financial secretary Pallas, were dismissed or theirscope of action was curtailed. The senate was also able to pursue corruptofficials for cases of maladministration, particularly in the provinces, as wellas for misgovernment within Rome in Claudius’ reign. Capable candidates wereappointed to military and civil positions, including the highly able Corbulo inthe east, whose immediate successes in the region in 55 provided the beginningof the reign with a useful fillip. Nero himself is thought to have made attemptsto lower taxes, in particular by launching an abortive bid to remove importduties throughout the empire. However, it seems that many of the good things ofthis period of the reign were probably thanks to the careful management ofBurrus and Seneca, who allowed Nero, whose primary interests were pleasure andthe cultivation of his artistic and athletic prowess, to pursue these instead ofinvolving himself too deeply in the minutiae of government.

Despite this apparent tranquillity, a struggle between Nero’s tutors and Agrippinafor control of the reins of government was the underlying note of the early partof his principate. Agrippina was desperate, now her son was emperor, to have areal share in political power. Her face appeared on coins alongside Nero, sheobtained the expulsion from state offices of those who displeased her withoutthe emperor’s knowledge, she was present at meetings of the senate, and she evenattempted to receive foreign ambassadors in the company of Nero, a prerogativesolely of the emperor. She fought with Seneca and Burrus for control of her son.She initially attempted to manipulate him by threatening that Britannicus shouldreplace him as emperor; however, after she made this threat, the unfortunate sonof Claudius dropped dead at a banquet shortly before he came of age in February55. Nero, as he advanced through his teenage years, was himself struggling forliberty from the toils of his mother. Seneca and Burrus, by indulging hisincreasing desires for liberty – drunken brawls in the streets, parties and thepleasures of the flesh, all the things which his mother, for the sake of thedignity of the imperial office wished him to avoid – won him more and more totheir side. He began to grow weary with Octavia, whom his mother for the sake ofhis dynastic claim had forced him to marry, and he began an affair with a Greekfreedwoman Acte, again at the instigation of his tutors. Shortly afterwards,there followed a second and more passionate liaison with Poppaea Sabina, theglamorous wife of his close friend Marcus Salvius Otho, whom he sent out of Romeas a provincial governor in order that he might conduct the affair more freely.Herself unscrupulous and ambitious for a place in the imperial house, she soonrealised that she would not be able to regularise her position and marry Nerowhilst the conflict with Agrippina was unresolved.

It was, according to Tacitus, thanks to Poppaea’s prompting that Nero broughtthe conflict to a head. Agrippina did everything to maintain the fidelity of herson, even as far as committing incest. However, through Poppaea’s incessantdemands that Nero rid himself of his mother’s influence, in 59 he eventuallyarranged her death, first by attempting to stage a boating accident but whenthis failed, by engaging his former tutor Anicetus to lead a hit squad to killher on the grounds that she was plotting against him. At that point, he began togive way to his desires of conventional celebrity, making theatrical and sportingperformances in public. It seems, however, that he was not yet emboldened todivorce Octavia, who seems to have been popular amongst the common Roman people.

Nonetheless, after Agrippina’s death difficulties began to develop. The armysuffered a major crisis in Britain with the uprising of Boadicea in 60-61, andcostly difficulties emerged on the eastern frontier with Armenia, the buffer statewhich protected the Roman possessions in Asia from the Parthian (Persian) Empire.The Roman general Corbulo had attempted to come to a compromise with the Parthiansin settling the kingship of Armenia, allowing Tiridates, the brother of theParthian King, Vologases, to become King of Armenia on the condition that hesought permission from Nero. Tiridates was unwilling to make such a submissionwith the result that Corbulo invaded Armenia, threatened to annex it fully tothe Roman Empire, but eventually withdrew at Nero’s prompting leaving a puppetking, Tigranes V, on the throne with a small Roman garrison. Tigranes V was apoor choice for the Romans, since he belligerently attacked Parthia on his ownaccount, bringing down the full strength of Parthia against him. In the convolutedconflict which followed, where Nero’s policy vacillated between attempts to annexthe country and come to a settlement, the Roman armies suffered a number ofembarrassing military reverses. In the end, a compromise was reached whereTiridates was returned to the Armenian throne, but had to accept his crown fromthe hands of Nero himself in Rome. Although this settlement was popular in theeast, and kept the peace on the Parthian frontier for over 50 years, the poorperformance of the Roman troops in the east, in combination with the reverses inBritain began to engender discontent amongst the military with Nero. In addition,the cost of the campaign, along with Nero’s increasing profligacy, put a severepressure on the Roman treasury, and the debasement of the gold and silver coinagewas a sign of shortness of money in the imperial exchequer and possible economicupset.

Nonetheless, it was the death of his tutor and praetorian prefect Burrus in 62which seemed completely to remove all restraint from Nero. Seneca also attemptedto withdraw from public life, and these steadying influences were replaced bythe new praetorian prefect Tigellinus, and the increasing sway of Poppaea. Hispublic depravity increased, and at the same time intimations of discontent andincreased paranoia led to the execution of Roman aristocrats such as Plautus andSulla, and the effective removal of the powers which the senate had earlier beenable to exercise. Octavia was divorced and, after demonstrations across Rome inher favour, horribly executed. In order to refill the empty coffers, Nero beganto resort to trumped-up charges of treason and the confiscation of estates, therebyalienating the ruling classes.

The great fire of Rome in 64 seriously weakened Nero’s position. Although it isunlikely he was responsible for its occurrence, he was held responsible by popularbelief. His attempts to provide relief for the common people were generallydisregarded by historians (hence Tacitus’ story that Nero sang of the fall ofTroy whilst Rome was burning) and his endeavours to use the growing sect of theChristians as a scapegoat backfired, engendering sympathy for them despite theirinitial unpopularity. Nero’s ill-advised idea of confiscating large swathes ofthe urban area of Rome cleared by the fire to build an opulent new palace forhimself (the Domus Aurea) compounded the discontent felt for him in the city,whilst increased exactions of tax and tribute from abroad to pay for this endeavourled to serious restlessness within the provinces. Most notably of all, thedemand in 66 from Rome to Jerusalem and Judaea of 40 gold talents, and theforcible extraction of 17 gold talents from the Temple treasury in Jerusalemled to the uprising which would eventually lead to the destruction of the cityand Temple.

The discontent within Rome itself became manifest in 65 with the Pisonianconspiracy. In that year Poppaea died without issue (some reports claim hekicked her to death whilst pregnant in a fit of rage, but it might have been thecase that she died due to complications in childbirth), and with the absence ofany heir from the imperial family (many of the other descendants of Augustus hadnow been killed) the conspirators turned to one of their own number as a candidatefor the principate, Gaius Calpurnius Piso. However, the conspirators failed onaccount of a loss of nerve and the secret being disclosed, with a resultingmassacre of those involved, and Nero’s popularity declining even further in Rome.He left the city in 66 to conduct an artistic tour of Greece, performing inmusical and athletic contests, even moving the date of the Olympic Games toallow him to compete. Nonetheless, the killings and paranoia continued; even thesuccessful general Corbulo was compelled to commit suicide on a flimsy suspicionof disloyalty. Nero’s end eventually came thanks to a rising in Gaul. It is notthe place of this introduction to describe the complex machinations of the civilwar which arose at this point in 68 which led to the “year of the four emperors”and the deposition of the Julio-Claudian house. However, having returned to Romeat the beginning of that year, and finding that his supporter Tigellinus haddeserted him, that he was no longer backed by the Praetorian Guard, and that thesenate had proclaimed a rival candidate emperor in his place, he committedsuicide on 9th June 68. His last words were “qualis artifex pereo!” – “what anartist dies with me!”