TACITUS: The Annals [Books I-III]

The Annals by Tacitus

Book I

  • Tacitus states that his purpose in writing the Annals is to dispassionately record the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.He writes that the accounts of previous historians regarding these emperors were influenced either by fear or enmity. Tacitus is sufficiently removed from the reigns of these emperors to give an unbiased account of them.
  • First, Tacitus briefly relates Augustus’ reign. Augustus avenged his adopted father’s death by defeating Cassius and Brutus, and then he subdued Lepidus and Marc Antony, the other two parts of the triumvirate with Augustus. Augustus styled himself Prince of Rome, or First Citizen. He gave the impression that the senate and magistrates still possessed power, but he actually held supreme power over the nation. No one opposed his rule; the bold and spirited men had died during the civil war, and the rest of the nobility willingly submitted to ‘slavery,’ – in other words, submission to an emperor. They preferred the peace and prosperity that they enjoyed under Augustus’ rule, rather than the freedom and danger of the civil war era.
  • Augustus married Livia, who had two sons from a previous marriage – Tiberius Nero and Claudius Drusus. Drusus died young, but he had a son of his own named Germanicus whom Augustus commanded Tiberius to adopt. Augustus also adopted two sons of Marcus Agrippa, a man who had helped Augustus win the civil war against Marc Antony. When Agrippa died, his two sons immediately followed him – Tacitus believes that Livia likely was responsible for the young men’s deaths. Livia also convinced Augustus to banish one of his grandsons named Agrippa Postumus, the son of one of Agrippa’s sons. Thus, Tiberius was naturally the heir apparent to the throne.
  • There were no wars during Augustus’ reign except one in Germany to avenge a previous defeat.
  • No trace of the ancient Roman virtues remained. Everyone looked to the mandate of the sovereign rather than to the ideals of liberty. But when Augustus’ health began to decline in old age, many grew apprehensive about the future. Some dreaded a civil war; some dreaded the accession of Tiberius while others dreaded the accession of Agrippa Postumus.
  • Foul play on the part of Livia was suspected in Augustus’ death; for immediately before the emperor’s death, she had received word that Augustus had visited his exiled grandson and had shown signs of affection and designs to restore him to his house. Upon the death of Augustus, a simultaneous announcement that Tiberius was master of the empire was made.
  • The first crime of the new regime was the murder of Agrippa Postumus. Tiberius explained the murder was a death-bed request of Augustus to relieve the possibility of a civil strife for the vacant sovereignty, but when the centurion that murdered Agrippa reported to the new emperor, Tiberius denied giving the command. Furthermore, Tacitus does not believe that Augustus would have killed his grandson to relieve the anxieties of his stepson.
  • Tiberius commanded soldiers to escort him everywhere. He feared that his adopted son Germanicus would make an attempt to seize the throne.
  • Tacitus gives an account of Augustus’ funeral and subsequent deification. Augustus was already honored in holy temples while he was still living, but now he was publicly recognized as a god, and games were to be held in his honor every year.
  • Tacitus writes that some believe Augustus named Tiberius to be his heir because he was aware of Tiberius’ pride and cruelty, and thought that the contrast would only serve to heighten Augustus’ glory.
  • Tiberius feigned an inability to govern the entire empire, but really desired that the responsibility should seem to be forced upon him.
  • Tiberius prohibited the senate to bestow honorable titles to his mother. He “regarded the elevation of a woman as a degradation of himself.”
  • Tiberius transferred the power of electing praetors from the people to himself.
  • When the Roman troops stationed in Pannonia heard the news of Augustus’ death, a mutiny broke out. They began to crave luxury and idleness rather than discipline and toil. A man that had been a leader of a theatrical faction named Percennius stirred up some of the troops to rebellion.
  • Percennius alluded to the hard life of a soldier – specifically the low pay, the dangers, the insolence of commanders and centurions, and the interminable length of enlistment.
  • The legions’ commander convinced the rebels that they ought not to use violence to get what they demand. Instead, he offered to send his own son to the capital with the soldiers’ demands. The soldiers sent the son with only one demand – to release soldiers from service after 16 years.
  • One mutineer named Vibulenus pretended that his brother had been slain by Blaesus, the army’s commander, in order to incite more anger and resentment.
  • They killed a cruel centurion who had been given the nickname “bring another” because he would always call for another vine-stick when he had broken one while scourging one of the disobedient troops.
  • Wishing to conceal this mutiny, Tiberius quickly sent his son Drusus to quash it. Drusus took a considerable number of praetorian guards with him. Sejanus, who was a close confidant of Tiberius, also accompanied Drusus.
  • Drusus arrived at the camp and told the soldiers that Tiberius was deeply grieved at the rebellion, especially because he had undergone several expeditions with the troops; also that Tiberius had sent him to concede to them anything that could immediately be granted, and to carry their other demands to the Senate for approval or censure. The troops were indignant that Drusus came instead of Tiberius, and also at the involvement of the Senate.
  • That night, clouds covered the moon. The soldiers interpreted this as a portent and censure of their recent revolt. They grew fearful. Drusus availed himself of their fear and convinced many of the troops that they ought to repent their past deeds, and promised them that they would not be punished, but rather the leaders of the mutiny. Obedience returned to the troops, and the leaders of the mutiny were executed.
  • The legions in Germany then began to revolt. Germanicus was sent to quash this rebellion. The soldiers entreated Germanicus to become the emperors, assuring him that he would receive their loyalty. Germanicus remained loyal to Tiberius and even offered to commit suicide in order to preserve his allegiance to the new emperor.
  • The soldiers remained rebellious until they saw Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina, and son, Caligula, leaving the camp. The soldiers became ashamed of what they were forcing Germanicus to do, and resolved to punish the leaders of the mutiny, and swear allegiance to Tiberius.
  • In order to atone for their past transgressions, the soldiers were eager to destroy some of the German tribes. Accordingly, Germanicus led his legions into Germany and slaughtered many German tribes during a night of festivities. The Germans were drunk and unable to adequately defend themselves against the eager Romans.
  • The news of Germanicus’ success was a source of relief and of anxiety for Tiberius. He was relieved that the mutiny had been suppressed, but was fearful that Germanicus has gained too much affection from the soldiers and from the populace of Rome.
  • Tiberius reinstituted capital punishment for treason, though he did not use the measure to punish mere words – such as the actors and satirists of the age.


“So firmly had she riveted her chains upon the aged Augustus that he banished to the isle of Planasia his one remaining grandson, Agrippa Postumus, who though guiltless of a virtue, and confident brute-like in his physical strength, had been convicted of no open scandal.”


“When clouds arose and obstructed their sight, and it was thought she was buried in the gloom, with that proneness to superstition which steals over minds once thoroughly cowed, they lamented that this was a portent of neverending hardship, and that heaven frowned on their deeds.”


“It was not in battle, it was not from opposing camps, it was from those same dwellings where day saw them at their common meals, night resting from labour, that they divided themselves into two factions, and showered on each other their missiles.”


The early days of the Roman Empire were full of assassinations, political intrigues, and vice. Tacitus illustrates a nation that has become corrupted by luxury. At this moment in the history of Rome, the nation is the most powerful in the world. It is also the richest. With wealth came luxury, and with luxury came all the vices that are engrafted to it – greed, avarice, envy, and sloth.


The motivations of men during this time according to Tacitus were mainly self-interested. For example, Augustus appoints Tiberius as his heir because he knew that Tiberius’ cruelty and arrogance would make Augustus’ reign seem better, not because Tiberius was the best choice for the interests of the Empire. However, there are some men that adhere to ancient Roman virtues of honor, courage, and patriotism. Germanicus, Tiberius’ adopted son, refuses to accept the soldiers’ proposal to lead an army against Tiberius and seize the sway of the Empire. Indeed, the more power Germanicus gained, the more ardently he sought to secure Tiberius’ reign.


The structure of the Julio-Claudian family is unusual. Men adopt their nephews as sons, and then marry their daughters to their nephews/sons/uncles. In short, the family is utterly incestuous. Tacitus alludes to the family’s inbred arrogance. I suppose that the family considered their blood to be sacred, and therefore they ought not to mix their blood with the unworthy others. This likely is not so singular a sentiment in royalties throughout history, but it is striking nevertheless whenever one reads or hears a story in which this is the case.


Book II

  • Germanicus leads more successful expeditions in Germany. Tiberius recalls Germanicus to Rome in order to be present in the triumph decreed for his conquests. Germanicus realizes that Tiberius is fearful that he is gaining too much renown. Germanicus also visits his troops in disguise to learn what they truly think of him (this is similar to what Henry V does in Shakespeare’s play). The troops genuinely admire and respect Germanicus.
  • While the Greek leaders often encouraged their troops to fight by making speeches that extol the virtues of their city-state, the Roman generals allude to the Roman army’s superiority in war.
  • The German leaders appeal to notions of freedom in order to inspire their troops. They exhort their armies to cast off the chains that the Romans have placed upon them.
  • After returning by sea from the conquests in Germany, a storm assailed the Romans. Almost the entire fleet was lost. Some troops became castaways who subsisted on the carcasses of horses that washed on shore.
  • A man named Libo Drusus consulted astrologers about the potential success of a revolutionary attempt against Tiberius’ reign. Libo was betrayed by a senator who prompted him to consult the prophets. Libo committed suicide.
  • A man named Lucius Piso exclaimed against the corruption of the courts, and stated that he would leave the capital for some distant and obscure rural retreat. Tiberius pacified him though, and he remained in Rome.
  • Clemens, a slave of Postumus Agrippa, assumed the personage of Agrippa after his assassination with revolutionary designs. Clemens resembled Agrippa, so the lie was believed by some of the more credulous people. However, Tiberius secretly executed Clemens.
  • There was an earthquake in Asia that utterly ruined twelve cities. Tiberius lifted the burden of tributes from these cities and also sent aid.
  • A former auxiliary of the Roman army named Tacfarnias led an attack against Rome in Africa. The Roman legion was commanded by Camilius, who only desired that Tacfarnias’ force would not flee in fear; and therefore Camilius only took one legion with him to oppose the overwhelming numbers of Tacfarnias’ army. Nevertheless, Camilius routed Tacfarnias.
  • Germanicus visited several cities in Greece, Asia, and Egypt.
  • Piso also visits Syria with intentions of obtaining rule over the region. Germanicus dies under suspicions that Piso had him poisoned. Germanicus exhorts his friends and family to avenge his death on Piso. The Roman people grieved over Germanicus’ death, and had several monuments erected in his honor.
  • Arminius, the German chief, was killed by pretenders to his crown.


“Every one, as he returned from some far-distant region, told of wonders, of violent hurricanes, and unknown birds, of monsters of the sea, of forms half-human, half beast-like, things they had really seen or in their terror believed.”


“The Romans, they declared, were invincible, rising superior to all calamities; for having thrown away a fleet, having lost their arms, after strewing the shores with the carcases of horses and of men, they had rushed to the attack with the same courage, with equal spirit, and, seemingly, with augmented numbers.”


In Book II, Tacitus finally bestows some praise on his Roman ancestors. He relates the success of Germanicus in quashing a dangerous rebellion within his own legions, and then leading his troops to an utter rout of German forces. After the first victory, Tacitus was retiring with his troops to their winter quarters when a fierce storm destroyed their ships. Many men were lost; some were marooned on uninhabited islands. They subsisted on the carcasses of horses that washed ashore, or they died from starvation. The Romans that survived tell tales of strange beasts and other unusual phenomena. This anecdote reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, in particular the travel stories that Swift so expertly satirizes.


Despite the utter ruin of his fleet, Tacitus returns to Germany the next year, and again secures several significant victories. Tacitus reports that the Germans considered the Romans to be invincible because they had recovered after the disaster in such a swift and singular manner. This display of Roman superiority in war is far different than the corrupt dealings of the Roman politicians. Tacitus clearly illustrates Germanicus as a Roman hero, which makes his death symbolic of the corruption of Rome conquering the last vestiges of the ancient Roman virtues.


Book III

  • Piso was accused of Germanicus’ murder. When the outcome of the trial appeared adverse to Piso, he killed himself. His wife escaped punishment by the protection of Augusta.
  • Tacfarinus led more attacks on Roman troops in Africa. A Roman commander valiantly fought and died while his legionary troops deserted him. The legions were “decimated” – i.e. every tenth men chosen by lot were flogged to death – by the new commander. This inspired courage in the troops. They subsequently routed the army of Tacfarinus.
  • Tacitus discusses the origin of laws. He describes a state of nature very similar to the one described by Rousseau. In the beginning, men had no need for laws because they were not corrupt. However, with the introduction of property and ambition, men became violent, and required the authority of laws to check their destructive impulses.
  • Tiberius requested the Senate to bestow favor upon Nero, Germanicus’ son, and allow him to be a candidate for quaestorship five years earlier than the law allowed. Nero married Julia, Drusus’ daughter.
  • There were two revolts in Gaul that were quickly repressed by Roman legions.
  • The Senate considered passing laws that would restrict private spending on luxuries. Tiberius asserted that he could not proffer any such law, but hoped that the vice might be combated by individuals rather than the State. The Romans gradually relinquished their profligate tendency by emulating the austere emperor Vespasian according to Tacitus.
  • Tiberius identifies Drusus as his successor by requesting the Senate to bestow the title of Tribune on Drusus.
  • Silanus is exiled from Rome.
  • Tacfarinas continues to harass the Roman forces in Africa.


“Princes were mortal; the State was everlasting.”


“Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons. Nor was everything better in the past, but our own age too has produced many specimens of excellence and culture for posterity to imitate. May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honourable!”


“So corrupted indeed and debased was that age by sycophancy that not only the foremost citizens who were forced to save their grandeur by servility, but every exconsul, most of the ex-praetors and a host of inferior senators would rise in eager rivalry to propose shameful and preposterous motions. Tradition says that Tiberius as often as he left the Senate-House used to exclaim in Greek, ‘How ready these men are to be slaves.’”


“Brutidius who was rich in excellent accomplishments, and was sure, had he pursued a path of virtue, to reach the most brilliant distinction, was goaded on by an eager impatience, while he strove to outstrip his equals, then his superiors, and at last even his own aspirations. Many have thus perished, even good men, despising slow and safe success and hurrying on even at the cost of ruin to premature greatness.”


Tacitus makes an interesting observation about the tendency of people to be nostalgic, or to idealize the past. The tired phrase: “Things were better in the old days,” is a typical sentiment expressed by those who are disgruntled about the present. However, these people have selective memory. They only remember the good, not the bad. One must suppose that good and bad exist at all times. So, why are nostalgia and a preference for antiquity so prevalent? I suppose that people are discontent with their present condition. They seek to alleviate their discomfort by reflecting on things that will make them happy. This is why they idealize the past. They find solace in deluding themselves that there was a time when unadulterated happiness and virtue existed. Tacitus reminds us that antiquity does not possess an entire claim on excellence. There are excellent poets, authors, actors, soldiers, politicians, etc. in modern society.


A major theme in the readings of the third year of the reading plan is slavery/freedom. Tacitus describes how common people and senators alike clamber for the chains of servitude. Tiberius remarks how eager men are to be slaves. Where does this perverse desire originate? I believe that there is a sense of security and purpose found in servitude. As Rousseau asserts, slaves grow to love their chains. Considering this ubiquitous sentiment among the Romans, only revolution in the form of foreign assaults could destroy the Empire. The people did not possess that same supreme preference for freedom like the ancient Greeks and Prometheus.

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