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August 21, 2017

Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History – Part III: Republican Values & Authorship


This is Part 3 of 4 in the “Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History” miniseries on JosephKaminski.org. The question at hand here is “Tacitus is frequently considered by scholars a Republican author.  What do you think scholars mean by this and do you agree with this characterization?” 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“!

The way that Tacitus denounced the characteristics of absolute authority and questioned the values of power when said power was going too far comes from his “Republican” values. While Rome was adopting a more “imperial” form of running the government, it seems as if Tacitus felt a nostalgic twang for republicanism. The principate was nothing more than a cleverly-subtle form of governmental tyranny, and the scholars seem to mostly agree that the style of government that would have been ‘ideal’ for a man like Tacitus would be that of the Republican era of the Empire. Scholars essentially mean that Tacitus is a man that yearns for a government styled very similarly to the “old” ways of the Roman Republic.

On the very opening lines of The Annals, Tacitus makes it known that he stands for liberty and freedom among those who live within the borders of the ‘civilized’ Roman world. I can personally agree with the idea of labeling the credited Roman historian as a Republican author simply through standard definition and his immediate downplay of power in the empire. The overarching theme of ‘absolute power can only be beneficial when it is used only when needed’ is quickly brought to attention in the opening sentences. “Dictatorships were employed to meet crises […] lasted no more than two years […] not of long duration.” [1]

From Roman history, we can see that the last of the Republicans saw the grasp of authoritative power take swift control under the power of Caesar, and such power was passed down – albeit in better terms – to Augustus, who is only briefly, and rather coldly, mentioned in the beginning of Tacitus’ history.

The brief synopsis and blurbs of text on the back cover of the book describes the way Tacitus felt towards the rulers of the era. Describing Tiberius as “atrocious”, Claudius as “cuckolded”, and Nero as “the artist” really stands out as a summarization of how his research and values led to his stance on the three emperors. These rulers were nothing more than autocratic betrayers to the Republican mindset that Tacitus clung onto dearly. Personally, these descriptions rang true throughout the history that Tacitus wished to portray. From what we were able to read, it seems as if those characteristics perhaps remain and underlying features to their inevitable downfalls.

It appears as if Tacitus longs for and supports the upbringing of those values that made Rome a strong and valuable Republic. He writes of a senatorial proposal, “Let those decrees be made, and let the provincials retain their ability to demonstrate their power in such a manner! […] In fact, some virtues – uncompromising strictness and a mind impervious to favoritism, for example – provoke hatred. Thus, our magistrates’ terms of office tend to be better at the start; it is the end that sees a decline, when we seek votes just as candidates do.”[2] Such a proposal seems to have a calling for arrogant provincials in ‘higher up’ positions of power to stand down to the judgement of liberties at hand. It, of course, failed at the hands of those who held onto power.

Tacitus brings a new light to Republicanism – or, in the very least, Republican life – to an Empire that had long abandoned its previous foundation of principles. Beginning with the epic description of the rise of what he considered liberty in the Roman world and slowly losing its symbolic essence, it is almost as if the world as Rome knew it lost its grasp on what the Republic would portray as freedom. Perhaps scholars can attribute this all to the era that Tacitus had decided to write about in The Annals.

All of this yet again combines with the theme of power. An explicit reason Tacitus wrote The Annals was to ensure that a non-biased (or at least as non-biased as one could write) source on the power of the era could be recorded. From power comes the problems with spreading an Empire too thin or too poorly through imperialism, which in the mind of Tacitus is okay as long as the power at hand can keep it under control. Tacitus perceives the stylization of power within the Empire as a threat, or perhaps even the murderer, to life and liberty as the world knew it during the age of the Republic.

[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. Pages 348-349

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