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September 20, 2019

Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History – Part II: Roman Imperialism

This is Part 2 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 is Tacitus’s attitude regarding the empire and Roman imperialism?” 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“!

Throughout his written work, Tacitus appears to be on the fence when it comes to empirical imperialism. One must remember that history was essentially a pastime or secondary source of monetary value for the Roman writer, and he served a rather enlightening public life through a career in politics. Though he had a great central focus on creating a history that, when compared to the histories written prior, it would be impossible to outwardly claim imperialism is the source of all problems in his position. As a Roman senator, it could be presented that Tacitus couldn’t necessarily pursue an anti-imperialist stance among his peers. In writing, it could be another story.

As discussed, life in the Roman Empire wasn’t necessarily the easiest to portray the freedoms of speech that Western Democracy would know of today. As historians during the ages of Tiberius and Nero were forced to “doctor” perspectives to spare the trouble (at least, this is how Tacitus refers to the stories that came from those eras as stated earlier), one could claim that Tacitus had to make a vaguely-ambivalent stance on the topic of imperialism; although, it is very obvious through his written works that he held the term “imperialism” to different standards depending on who was in charge. Despite wanting to keep his records as unbiased as possible, there remains an unprovable thought that perhaps Tacitus, in thought, was perhaps more anti-imperial than he led on in his written works.

Essentially, imperialism could be witnessed as spreading Roman culture to “barbarians” of the uncivilized world if the Roman Emperor held an authority that benefited the people and held up the positive strengths of the Empire itself. That seems to be the classic thought of imperialism through an Empire’s perspective on their quest for more land.

In the hands of a long-lasting dictatorship or a tyrannical authoritarian, the spread of “imperialism” could be seen as just a way to increase personal power and widen the shackles on Roman life. Throughout several Roman histories, it seems as if the people in power oftentimes fled from their public responsibilities in favor of corruption. Absolute power has proven itself to corrupt absolutely throughout the tests of time, and it can be said without question that the Ancient world witnessed such chaotic grasps for power. With most of European history – both modern and ancient – falling into this characteristic of “thirst for authority”, it can go without questioning that the age that Tacitus researched was full of such abusive tales.

It can be assumed through The Annals that imperialism, through proper expansion with rulers that do not lose track of their authority over the public, keeps the empire strong. Tacitus only appears to have a problem with the ‘spread’ of the empire when the government possesses oppressive ways of power in cruel dictatorships that outstay their welcome. Power is a relative term that is a necessity to a strong government, yet it can go too far. Like the people who had access to it, the amount of power that an Emperor holds can become cancerous the longer it is held over the people. There are countless examples of each of the described Emperors abusing their power, and it is usually considered favorable if it was either deemed necessary or unavoidable.

Thus, the aforementioned central theme of preventing the absolute worst range of authoritarian power can be brought back into focus. “Dictatorships were employed to meet crises. The rule of the decemvirs lasted no more than two years, and the consular authority of the military tribunes was also short-lived.” [1] These opening lines of The Annals essentially portray how Tacitus saw Roman authority: as short-lived necessities, rather than dynastic tyranny. This very theme of “power is okay as long as the power doesn’t cross a line” is present throughout The Annals.

The Emperor Nero

The Emperor Nero

He continues this train of thought throughout his historical writing, with one great quote stating, “Nothing in the world is as flimsy and fleeting as a reputation gained for power than has no strength of its own.”[2] Power is something that must affirm itself through not only a ‘social contract’ that exists in most faux-democracies, but also through a stylization of popularity that encourages people to support said power. Assassination is a clear staple in Roman political life during the century or so after Augustus. Even in the period immediately following the work, the rulers that would take the reins of control during the Year of the Four Emperors after the death of Nero (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian) would face demise through such problems, with the majority of them dying at the hands of those partaking in rebellion. It is unfortunate that Tacitus ended the book where he did (or where we assume he did, as the ending is lost), as the rulers afterwards seem to be filled with the same problems that plagued the worlds of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero.

In summarization on Tacitus and his stances on Roman power and its grasp on the so-called ‘civilized’ power, he described a supposed tendency of Tiberius to declare “Ah, men ready to be slaves!” [3] towards those that he “objected to the freedom of” [4]; from there, it seems as if the style of authoritative power dredged “from degradation to savagery.” [5] Perhaps this is an enlightening outlook into how one with power views not only captives but of his own men, and that in turn describes the peak nature of Roman imperialism. Nothing more than a way to turn the world into what a true authoritarian would want: theirs.

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

[2] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 279

[3] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 129

[4] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 129

[5] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 129

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