TACITUS: The Annals [Books IV-VI]

Book IV

  • Sejanus becomes a close confidant of Tiberius. He seduces Drusus’ wife, and conspires with her to kill Drusus with poison because Drusus had punched Sejanus during an argument.Sejanus desires to eliminate all heirs in line to the crown, and then use his influence with Tiberius to obtain the throne after Tiberius’ death. Tacitus identifies Sejanus as the cause of Tiberius’ turn to cruelty in the latter years of his reign.
  • Tacfarinus was still ravaging Roman cities in Africa despite three Roman generals receiving triumphs in Rome for their “defeat” of Tacfarinus. However, the general Dolabella was finally able to ambush Tacfarinus’ force. Tacfarnius, instead of allowing himself to be captured and taken to Rome, rushed into the Roman army and effectively committed suicide by attacking an overwhelming force.
  • Sejanus persuaded Tiberius to depart from the capital and live in a rural setting in relative solitude. Sejanus did this so that he would have a greater influence over Tiberius because he would be one of the only people to have access to Tiberius.
  • Tiberius retires to a small island, and does not return to Rome during the last 12 years of his reign. On the island, he indulges his licentiousness and malignant schemes.


“Benefits received are a delight to us as long as we think we can requite them; when that possibility is far exceeded, they are repaid with hatred instead of gratitude.”


“He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.”


Tacitus describes that all of the tribes who resisted Roman authority were motivated by desire for freedom. As I have previously discussed, the theme of freedom has been seen in most of the books that I have recently read. But I wonder what kind of freedom motivated these ancient European tribes. Did they desire freedom from taxes, freedom from Roman culture in general? If they only desired freedom from taxes, then it seems absurd because people will always pay taxes in one form or another to whoever or whatever governs the society. If they wished to escape from Roman culture, then I also think that it is absurd because the Romans seem to be very tolerant of other religions and customs, so long as those belief systems and activities did not threaten the safety and health of the empire. This is why the Christians were persecuted. They were regarded as a threat to the Empire because they encouraged the followers to disregard the material riches and luxuries of the world. Such a doctrine is detrimental to the economy of an empire. Besides the economy, Christian tenets forbid believers from participating in the Roman army. It is clear that such doctrines pose a threat to the safety of the Empire. If citizens do not participate in the economy or the army, then Rome will be undefended and impoverished.


Book V

  • Augusta, the widow of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, dies. Tiberius does not return to Rome to attend her funeral. While still alive, she checked the growing despotism of Tiberius and Sejanus, but when she died, the two men became ever crueler.
  • Part of Book V that describes the execution of Sejanus is lost, but other historians have written that Tiberius regarded Sejanus as a threat, and thus ordered Sejanus and his family to be executed. One of Sejanus’ young daughters had to be raped before she was executed because the Romans forbade the execution of virgins.


Sejanus was an important figure during the reign of Tiberius. It is unfortunate that the part of Book V detailing his execution has been lost. We can make probable conjectures about what might have happened with the aid of other historians and the evidence presented by Tacitus thus far. Sejanus assumed the role of emperor when Tiberius retreated to the island of Capri to spend the remainder of his days on earth indulging his sensuality and cruelty. As acting emperor, he likely made decisions that disappointed Tiberius. He might even have executed certain people who were dear to Tiberius. Perceiving that Sejanus had overstepped his rank as a Roman Knight, and was a threat to his power, Tiberius had him executed. But Sejanus was able to accomplish many things during his life. He effectively removed all heirs to the crown except one of the sons of Germanicus, who would become the next emperor – i.e. Caligula.


Book VI

  • More citizens are tried for treason, and more citizens commit suicide rather than endure the disgrace of a trial and execution.
  • While away from Rome, Tiberius has children brought to him in order to sate his lust. He was not motivated merely by beauty, but also by the modesty of youth and noble ancestry.
  • Tiberius dies at the age of 78. Caligula becomes the new emperor.


“With profound meaning was it often affirmed by the greatest teacher of philosophy that, could the minds of tyrants be laid bare, there would be seen gashes and wounds; for, as the body is lacerated by scourging, so is the spirit by brutality, by lust and by evil thoughts.”


“I suspend my judgment on the question whether it is fate and unchangeable necessity or chance which governs the revolutions of human affairs. Indeed, among the wisest of the ancients and among their disciples you will find conflicting theories, many holding the conviction that heaven does not concern itself with the beginning or the end of our life, or, in short, with mankind at all; and that therefore sorrows are continually the lot of the good, happiness of the wicked; while others, on the contrary, believe that though there is a harmony between fate and events, yet it is not dependent on wandering stars, but on primary elements, and on a combination of natural causes. Still, they leave us the capacity of choosing our life, maintaining that, the choice once made, there is a fixed sequence of events. Good and evil, again, are not what vulgar opinion accounts them; many who seem to be struggling with adversity are happy; many, amid great affluence, are utterly miserable, if only the first bear their hard lot with patience, and the latter make a foolish use of their prosperity. Most men, however, cannot part with the belief that each person’s future is fixed from his very birth, but that some things happen differently from what has been foretold through the impostures of those who describe what they do not know, and that this destroys the credit of a science, clear testimonies to which have been given both by past ages and by our own.”


Book VI records the innumerable trial, executions, and suicides that were prevalent during the reign of Tiberius. Tacitus explains that many people chose suicide because they would still be buried, and their will would be honored if they took their own life rather than submit to trial and execution. Nevertheless the number of suicides during Tiberius’ reign is almost unbelievable. A character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that proclaims: “By your leave Gods – this is a Roman’s part,” immediately before killing himself. Ishmael, of Melville’s Moby Dick, alludes to Cato’s suicide. The Romans certainly seem to have an unshared claim to suicide. It is an act that evokes the memories of ancient Romans.


In this book, Tacitus also discusses the topics of free will and determinism. He chooses to suspend judgment rather than conclude that free will exists, or that everything is determined. Instead he asserts that the wisest of men have not been able to agree upon an answer to this question, but that all men feel as if they have a destiny. Tacitus even allows room for the possibility that some people might be able to accurately predict the future, but the reason why some wise men are skeptical about astrology, augury, and other arts of divination is because there are imposters who fail in their ignorant attempts; and thus taint the entire art.

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