The Annals of Imperial Rome

The Annals of Imperial Rome - Tacitus, Alfred J. Church, William Jackson Brodribb A friend of mine who teaches Latin for a living says it was this book (and Suetonius' The Twelves Caesars) that led to her fascination with things Roman and a change in her concentration. I wasn't hugely enamored at first. As our initial conversation went: Me: Well, so far this isn't five star love it, but not first star hate. Her: Keep going. It's good for you. Me: Like broccoli? Well, in the end it was more like a feast. This does have its dry patches--I considered dropping it a star because of that but decided it just had too much that was awesome. This is a year by year narrative of Imperial Roman history from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, from 14 to 66 AD. Tacitus at times gives accounts of trials of people who aren't exactly famous. It's as if 2,000 years later one is reading bulletins of trials of John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich. Military battles and mutinies are related in sometimes (for me) eye-glazing detail. But though the events described here happened largely before Tacitus was born, being high up in the state himself, he had access to first hand Senate records--and of course he must have known people who could give him first hand accounts. Ancient Rome came vividly to life here. Reading, for instance, of all the suicides committed to anticipate arrest and execution or the real life instance of the origin of the word "decimate." Or even this little bit where an accused man "offered his slaves to the torture." (Testimony of slaves extracted without torture wasn't valid.) But the narrative really came alive when it dealt with the doings of the emperors, their entourage and family: incest, murder, betrayal. The doings of the emperors seemed an illustration of Acton's aphorism that "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." Honestly, often what came through was Roman barbarism rather than Roman civilization--maybe all the more when Tacitus was recounting events he seemingly took for granted or approved of--for instance freedmen being treated like second class citizens. I read--and did love--Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War, which has good claim to be the first real history--dealing with forces and people without attributing it to Gods. At first I thought Tacitus didn't compare well. But my goodness, I don't remember the Greeks being this colorful or Thucydides this gossipy. Note this passage about the Empress Messalina, Claudius' wife: Messalina meanwhile, more wildly profligate than ever, was celebrating in mid-autumn a representation of the vintage in her new home. The presses were being trodden; the vats were overflowing; women girt with skins were dancing, as Bacchanals dance in their worship or their frenzy. Messalina with flowing hair shook the thyrsus, and Silius at her side, crowned with ivy and wearing the buskin, moved his head to some lascivious chorus. Something else was markably absent from Thucydides by the way very present in that quote--women. I can't recall and from googling online can't find that Thucydides so much as mentions an individual woman in his acount of the Peloponnesian War. About the most famous passage even regarding women in Thucydides' history is in Pericles' Funeral Oration where he purportedly said the best women pass anonymously through history. Women on the other hand, are very present in the Annals. I'm not saying Tacitus was some proto-feminist. There are plenty of misogynist remarks--but women are a vital part of this history: Livia, Agrippina, Messalina, Pompeia--and not just those married to or the mother of Emperors--but figures such as Boudicca, the Warrior Queen of Britain, make quite the impression. I felt reading this one could write many a novel just based on single paragraphs in the history. I've read (some) of Gibbon's famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I've read historical fiction about Rome by Robert Graves and Colleen McCullough among others, and I've dipped into contemporary popular histories of Rome. None really substitute for sustained reading of the real thing--from inside the head of a real Roman. So yes, whatever its faults, this was amazing.