Monday, March 19, 2007
Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals of Imperial Rome
This ancient work by Tacitus is a history of one of the most important periods of Imperial Rome, the period between the death of Augustus, the much loved, powerful emperor to the brief civil war that consumed the empire in AD69 and saw at least three emperors come and go in quick succession.
It is also a work that covers the period in Robert Graves’ novels about the rise of the Emperor Claudius, for those of you who base your knowledge of the period on those great works of fiction, though Claudius’ reign doesn’t get as thorough a treatment as some of the emperors described.
Written 50 or 60 years after the events it describes, the book is a historical manuscript of the highest order – covering not just the minutiae of the period but some of the most famous of Roman events – the fire that all but destroyed Rome in AD 64 in particular (the one that Nero is supposed to have fiddled during) and the revolt of the British tribes under Queen Boudicca for instance. Also of passing interest is the only “pagan Latin” reference to Christ’s execution by Pontius Pilate. (Tacitus is describing Nero’s scapegoating of that minority religion for the fire).
Mostly this work will be read by non-scholars for its description of the Emperor Nero’s descent into madness – Penguin have explicitly quoted Tacitus’s words (“Nero was already corrupted by every lust, natural and unnatural”) on the cover to attract these readers, though you’ll find less gossip in these pages than you might in Suetonius (or even Robert Graves). Tacitus’ book has a great deal of interest though beyond Nero’s insanity, at times though I felt bogged down in the detail of Roman individuals, most of whom seem unremarkable a few pages later.
This new Penguin edition also benefits from an excellent introduction by Michael Grant, discussing not just the historical period, but also what Tacitus would have meant by history.
Tacitus - The Histories
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Robert Graves - I, Claudius