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November 23, 2017

Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History – Part I: Why Was it Written?


This is Part 1 of 4 in the “Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History” miniseries on JosephKaminski.org. The question at hand here is “What are Tacitus’ reasons (both explicit and implicit) for writing The Annals?” You can click here for the archive page of this series; and if you liked this series – take a look at 2016’s “Catherine the Great” archives and 2015’s “The Endless Flow of Society“!

History primarily exists to discuss the literal truths of any society, whether said society be an ancient or modern one. Modern historians seem to have a grasp on the concept of understanding the sociological implementations of their subject, with most being able to compare different ‘worlds’ in a way that allows readers to connect the dots from beginning to end. Ancient historians, on the other hand, didn’t have such a luxury. In a sense, modern historians have more material to work with, more sources to explore, and more narrative to describe. However, ‘narrative’ is what connects scholars that are separated by over two millenniums – the concept of what really happened in history is oftentimes told through a narrative form of writing that holds as little subjectivity as possible.

Although the methodology and historiography of composing such narratives of history has drastically changed over the centuries, the overall quality of historical writing and research remains rooted in the same ideological foundation of ‘truth’ based upon facts. Some historians fall into the ‘trap’ of bias, and their work suggests that history be viewed from a single perspective – oftentimes the ‘victors’ or ‘executioners’ of unfolded events. This is the main reason why Tacitus, the famed Roman senator and accredited ancient historian, decided to write his major and final work The Annals. Historians should be able to professionally empathize with the perspectives that make up their writing; and in order to do that, many historians must resist the urge to write out of a biased passion or allow internal (and in some cases societal) factors to encourage their way of writing.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.

Tacitus, like many future modern historians, realized that the distortion of history is a crime against humanity. As he states in the opening paragraphs of Book I, “The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero were distorted because of fear while they reigned, and, when they were gone, were composed with animosities still fresh”[1]. By his words, Tacitus realizes that the period that he wishes to record has been torn apart by both contemporary pieces that overtly praised everything as positive out of fear, and immediate pieces there afterwards that overtly showcased the immediate anger.

Taking this into consideration, Tacitus can be credited as one of the greatest and most remarkable historians of the Roman world. Facing disadvantages from corrupted histories before him and a scarcity of sources that does not plague the modern day, Tacitus managed to write what seems to be the most comprehensive history within the years after the death of Augustus while pursuing the most ‘honest’ revision of a rather important period of the Roman world.

Perhaps Tacitus had more subtle reasons for writing The Annals. Although it seems fairly explicit that his main motivation would be to restore and reinterpret the biased history after Augustus, there may be more to his overall plan. Essentially, The Annals can be described as a narration of the decline of Roman political freedom. As the “prequel” to his other written work The Histories, one major reason Tacitus wrote The Annals would have to be to describe the set-up of the “current” Empire he resided in while also subtly pushing a political platform.

From his writing, one would be able to identify specific similarities between the state of the Roman world during Tacitus’s lifetime and the state of the Roman world during the chaotic dictatorships beforehand. In the opening pages of The Annals, Tacitus depicted the ‘necessity’ of strong yet periodic power in a government, specifically stating that such an authoritative grasp of control should only be necessary to change what is bad and create a new good. Essentially, The Annals exists to portray “the beginning” of authoritarian power existing not to create a good (like with Augustus) but to create an extensive continuation of tyrannical dynasties (starting with Tiberius). This could be why the piece starts its actual history with the death of Augustus and the beginning of the end for Roman political freedom – the thirst of power and control stemming from the reign of Tiberius onward.

In a sense, it is specifically stated that Tacitus wanted to portray this as a history that clings onto emotional judgement, as he has no reason to feel ‘attached’ to that era of Roman history. On a more subtle and implicit level of understanding his motivation, it could be said that this was a way for Tacitus to let his opinions blend through his perspective of the controversial Roman past while residing in a position of ‘power’ of his own. Power remains an overarching plot-point throughout the entire work, from the abuse of dictatorships to the spread of autocratic ideals.

[1] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 3

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