The Annals of Rome

Yes, I occasionally read Roman history, and I occasionally review it as a rank amateur.

Here’s a retro review from December 4, 2008.

Annals of RomeReview: The Annals of Rome, Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant, 1984.

Anyone who has even casually read about Roman imperial history will have encountered Tacitus. He is, according to translator and noted classicist Michael Grant, virtually the only Latin historian we have for the early days of the Roman Empire. This work, generally considered Tacitus’ greatest, covers the period from shortly before Augustus’ death to AD 69, about three years before Nero’s death. Unfortunately, we don’t have the entire work. (The Annals only survived into the Middle Ages through two manuscripts, one for each half of the work.) The section on Caligula is totally missing, and we only have parts of Tiberius’ and Claudius’ reigns.

It’s history with a moral purpose: to punish evil and reward virtue through the judgement of posterity. Grant calls Tacitus’ Latin “unusual and difficult”, possessing a pungent simplicity in the original. Has Grant rendered it accurately? Not knowing Latin, I have no idea. (The problem of translation is further complicated by possible corruption in those two manuscripts.) As it appears here, it’s a stylish history, particularly in its many speeches.

Tacitus himself was a noted orator and wrote about the art. The speeches he gives us range from mutinous Roman soldiers and Agrippina (wife of Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus) reacting to said troops, German barbarians, and some of Nero’s victims before they “opened their veins” after his condemnation. I say Tacitus gives us those speeches because they are all invented. There’s no way Tacitus would have a verbatim record of what was said. However, as Grant makes clear, he’s operating in a tradition of ancient historical writing as well as trying to tell a compelling story.

Grant claims that Tacitus’ account of Tiberius’ reign is usually considered the highest example of his art. There is certainly art there. I didn’t find the condemnation of Tiberius entirely convincing though, and Grant argues that Tacitus is reacting to his experiences as a senator under the tyrannical reign of Domitian rather than Tiberius’ who died before Tacitus was born. There is much on Rome’s intervention in Parthian and Armenian politics. I found the reign of Nero the most interesting with Tacitus noting the craven, cowardly flattery of most of Rome’s nobility along with a few who would not abase themselves. (The amount of people who pliantly committed suicide after facing Nero’s disapproval is explained by their effort to protect surviving family members and to preserve at least a portion of their estate.)

Grant helpfully footnotes some of the allusions to missing parts of the work or earlier episodes of Roman history. Still, I wouldn’t attempt this work without first reading a general history of the period. Grant does put in a nice glossary of Roman political and military terms. Frankly, I didn’t need to look at it, but I did happen to glance at some of the entries. Grant chooses, here, to make some unconventional translations of some terms, particularly the military ones. I’m not sure why. I haven’t seen things like “company-commander” for centurion in his other work including his later The Army of the Caesars.

The several included maps show almost all the referenced places, and there are four very necessary pages covering the complicated genealogies surrounding the Julio-Claudian emperors.


More Roman related material is review at the Roman page.

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