TACITUS: The Annals [Books XI-XVI]

Book XI

  • While he was Emperor of Rome, Claudius added three letters to the alphabet. The usage of these letters was discontinued after his death, but evidence of them is still seen on columns where statutes were inscribed.
  • Claudius extends Senatorial rights to citizens from the provinces.
  • Claudius’ wife, Messalina, infamous for her promiscuity, marries one of her paramours while Claudius is away from Rome. Claudius returns to Rome, and orders the executions of her paramour and all others who were involved in the affair. Messalina is killed by a freedman at the command of Narcissus.


“What was the ruin of Sparta and Athens, but this, that mighty as they were in war, they spurned from them as aliens those whom they had conquered? Our founder Romulus, on the other hand, was so wise that he fought as enemies and then hailed as fellow-citizens several nations on the very same day.”


“What audacity! what wickedness!”


The highlight of Book XI is certainly the story of Claudius’ promiscuous wife, Messalina. She was infamous for having innumerable paramours. After researching more about her life from other sources, I discovered that she once held a competition with a prostitute to have sex with as much men as possible in one night. Messalina won the competition, sleeping with 25 men. she was also audacious, choosing to marry one of her paramours while Claudius was away from Rome.


From when Claudius hears the news of the marriage to the point of Messalina’s execution, Tacitus’ account reminds me of a very entertaining drama. Messalina plots how she might manipulate Claudius to have mercy on her because she has always been able to inveigle him in the past by using her feminine charms. Even at the very last moment before her execution, Claudius displays intentions of pardoning her. I am delighted that Tacitus includes this anecdote in his Annals. Until now, interesting anecdotes have been noticeably lacking. Tacitus is certainly no Herodotus.
Book XII

  • Claudius marries his niece, Agrippina. Previously in Rome, the marriage of an uncle to his niece was considered profane and incestuous, but arguments were proffered that there was no law against it, and that the act was not objectively profane.
  • Her son Nero is named heir to the throne; and thus Claudius’ biological son Britannicus was pitied by the people.
  • The Roman General Ostorius defeats a Britain chieftain named Caractacus, and leads him to Rome in triumph. Caractacus does not bow in supplication to the Emperor, but asserts that he will be a symbol of Roman virtue and mercy if he is allowed to live. Claudius pardons Caractacus.
  • Agrippina encouraged Claudius’ suspicion of Britannicus. She stated that Britannicus had called Nero ‘Domitius; thus denying Nero’s claim to the Julian-Claudian dynasty. Agrippina warned Claudius that Britannicus, if he was not reproved and checked, would become a threat to the peace of the Empire.
  • Claudius hosted a staged naval battle on Lake Fucinus.
  • Nero, when he was 16 years old, married Claudius’ daughter Octavia, 13 years old.
  • Agrippina poisons Claudius. Nero ascends to the throne at the age of 17.


“If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous.”


“The greatest crimes are perilous in their inception, but well rewarded after their consummation.”


Agrippina is an immoral and ambitious woman, even by ancient Roman standards. She overturns traditional Roman sentiment against the marriage of uncles and nieces, she orders the executions of those women who competed with her for Claudius, she has a paramour, she inspires suspicions in Claudius against his biological son Britannicus, and she poisons Claudius. I am sure that there are other instances of her corrupt behavior, but I have simply forgotten them in the multitude of examples. I know that Nero ordered his mother to be killed, but I don’t yet know the reason why. I suppose that he realized the threat posed by such an unrestrained and ambitious person.



  • Nero gives the panegyric at Claudius’ funeral, but the speech was written by Seneca. According to Tacitus, Nero was the first emperor who was not a gifted speaker. Nero preferred sculpting, painting, singing, and the management of horses.
  • The influence of Nero’s mother gradually decreased as Nero became enamored with a freedwoman named Acte. The more Agrippina discouraged the relationship, the more Nero loved the girl.
  • As Agrippina sensed the loss of her power, she railed against Nero. She made insinuations that Britannicus had come of age and was the rightful emperor, not Nero. These criticisms caused Nero to poison Britannicus, lest he attempt to seize the throne.
  • Agrippina discouraged a man from marrying one of her friends named Silana. Silana suborned some of her slaves to accuse Agrippina of plotting revolutionary schemes against Nero. Agrippina successfully defended herself against the accusations, but the seed of suspicion towards his mother had been planted in Nero.
  • Nero would disguise himself as a slave and frequent brothels and taverns. He would assault passersby, steal from vendors, and rape noble women. He bore the scars of wounds that he received from people who fought back, not knowing that he was the emperor.


“Vice is overpoweringly attractive.”


“Nero, who in a slave’s disguise, so as to be unrecognized, would wander through the streets of Rome, to brothels and taverns, with comrades, would seize on goods exposed for sale and inflicted wounds on any whom they encountered, some of these last knowing him so little that he even received blows himself, and showed the marks of them in his face. When it was notorious that the emperor was the assailant, and the insults on men and women of distinction were multiplied, other persons too on the strength of a licence once granted under Nero’s name, ventured with impunity on the same practices, and had gangs of their own, till night presented the scenes of a captured city.”


“When she spurned him, he asked the solace of one night, with which to soothe his passion, that he might set bounds to it for the future. A night was fixed, and Pontia intrusted the charge of her chamber to a female slave acquainted with her secret. Octavius attended by one freedman entered with a dagger concealed under his dress. Then, as usual in lovers’ quarrels, there were chidings, entreaties, reproaches, excuses, and some period of the darkness was given up to passion; then, when seemingly about to go, and she was fearing nothing, he stabbed her with the steel.”


Nero was a cruel person, but also a very fascinating one. Nero was attracted to vice itself. His sentiment is similar to the one expressed by St. Augustine in his Confessions, when he reflected upon the motivation that compelled him to steal an apple when he was a boy – i.e. he stole because it was a sin. Nero becomes enamored with a former slave, and when he discovers that it is contrary to his mother’s wishes, he falls even more in love with her, as if the very fact that the relationship was forbidden heightened the desire to engage in it. Nero would also disguise himself as a slave, and terrorize the streets of Rome. I think that he disguised himself so that he would feel as if he were transgressing the law; for if he committed the very same acts in the role of emperor, the acts would be condoned. I do not think that he disguised himself for fear that the people would revolt from him because Tacitus writes that the people discovered Nero’s perverse hobby, and there was no consequential discontent. Indeed, other youths began to form gangs and emulate Nero, realizing that they would be able to act with impunity because the people would fear striking them lest they struck Nero by mistake.


Book XIV

  • To retain her influence, Agrippina would offer herself sexually to Nero while he was intoxicated.
  • Nero resolved to kill his mother on a ship. He ordered a ship to be built with a canopy that would collapse and kill his mother.
  • Agrippina was saved by the couch that she was lying on. The canopy of iron that collapsed was supported by the arms of the couch. Agrippina and her slave woman swam to shore, but her slave woman was killed by men with oars when she falsely claimed that she was Agrippina. Thus, Agrippina knew that the shipwreck had been an attempt on her life.
  • Nero sent Anicetus to kill his mother. When he arrived, Agrippina told him to smite her womb.
  • It is rumored that Agrippina had received many oracles portending her death at the hands of Nero. She would say: “Let Nero kill me, so long as he is emperor.”
  • Boudicea, Queen of a Briton tribe, was defeated by the Roman general Suetonius.
  • Seneca began to lose influence with Nero as flatterers told Nero that Seneca criticized his love for chariot racing and singing.
  • Seneca sought permission to retire to the country, but Nero denied his request, intending instead that Seneca be near to him if he decided Nero ought to be killed.
  • Tigellinus became Nero closest counselor. He encouraged Nero’s debaucheries and cruelty. He persuaded Nero to kill Sulla and Plautus, two men whom Tigellius claimed were a threat to Nero’s power.
  • Octavia was banished under false charges of adultery, manufactured by Nero. Nero then procured Anicetus, the same man who had killed his mother, to claim that he had slept with Octavia. Nero would reward him in banishment with tremendous wealth. Anicetus fulfilled Nero’s orders, and lived a life of luxury in banishment until his natural death. Octavia was killed by centurions and soldiers. They opened her veins, but her blood would not flow because she was frightened, so the soldiers placed her in a very hot bath which killed her. She was 20 years old.


“Agrippina in her eagerness to retain her influence went so far that more than once at midday, when Nero, even at that hour, was flushed with wine and feasting, she presented herself attractively attired to her half intoxicated son and offered him her person.”


“Nero prolonged the banquet with various conversation, passing from a youth’s playful familiarity to an air of constraint, which seemed to indicate serious thought, and then, after protracted festivity, escorted her on her departure, clinging with kisses to her eyes and bosom, either to crown his hypocrisy or because the last sight of a mother on the even of destruction caused a lingering even in that brutal heart.”


“Smite my womb.”


“Even among many legions, it is a few who really decide the battle, and it will enhance their glory that a small force should earn the renown of an entire army. When once the victory has been won, everything will be in your power.”


“Is it your pleasure to search for arguments in a matter already weighed in the deliberations of wiser men than ourselves?”


“But, it will be said, the innocent will perish. Well, even in a beaten army when every tenth man is felled by the club, the lot falls also on the brave. There is some injustice in every great precedent, which, though injurious to individuals, has its compensation in the public advantage.”


Nero kills both his mother and his wife. He kills his mother because she posed a threat to his power. He knew that she possessed intentions to support rebellion. Tacitus’ account of how Nero hugged and kissed his mother goodbye before her impending death evokes some ambivalent thought. I do not know whether Nero was truly grieved that he was placed in a position where he was compelled to kill his mother against his own will for the safety of the empire, or whether he was purely concerned with his own power and well-being, and thus pretended to love his mother so that blame for her death would not fall on him.


According to Tacitus, Nero kills Octavia because he wants to marry another woman named Poppaea. Therefore, he bribes the man that he hired to kill Agrippina to falsely claim that he had slept with Octavia. Using this charge of adultery, Nero diverts blame away from himself for Octavia’s death. There is no doubt in this case, as there was in Agrippina’s, that Nero utterly loathed Octavia.


Book XV

  • Nero begins to publicly perform as a singer and actor. To the Romans, this would be akin to the Queen of England performing as a stripper. But Nero considered himself to be an artist, and therefore disregarded cultural norms.
  • A great fire destroyed most of Rome. While Rome was burning, Nero played his lyre and sang an ode that lamented the burning of Troy.
  • Nero blamed a new sect called Christians for starting the conflagration. He executed many of them by crucifixion, as well as allowing hounds to tear them to death. He also burned them at night, using the light as a torch by which to see.
  • A conspiracy to assassinate Nero, which was later known as the ‘Piso Conspiracy,’ was discovered, and the schemers were banished, executed, or forced to commit suicide. There is some doubt about whether Seneca was a part of the conspiracy, but he ultimately was forced to commit suicide.
  • A woman displayed tremendous fortitude while being interrogated after the plot was discovered. After every limb was broken while being tortured on the rack, she was able to strangle herself to death. She did not divulge the identities of any other conspirators. Her example is more admirable considering the cowardliness displayed by the men who were tortured and consequently divulged their fellow conspirators, sometimes even their own kinsfolk.
  • Nero’s wife Poppaea gave birth to a daughter. Nero was excessively joyful because of the birth of his daughter and excessively mournful when the baby died four months later.


“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”


“They once more eagerly discussed the time and place of the fatal deed. It was said that Subrius Flavus had formed a sudden resolution to attack Nero when singing on the stage, or when his house was in flames and he was running hither and thither, unattended, in the darkness. In the one case was the opportunity of solitude; in the other, the very crowd which would witness so glorious a deed, had roused a singularly noble soul; it was only the desire of escape, that foe to all great enterprises, which held him back.”


“On the morrow, as she was being dragged back on a chair to the same torments (for with her limbs all dislocated she could not stand), she tied a band, which she had stript off her bosom, in a sort of noose to the arched back of the chair, put her neck in it, and then straining with the whole weight of her body, wrung out of her frame its little remaining breath. All the nobler was the example set by a freedwoman at such a crisis in screening strangers and those whom she hardly knew, when freeborn men, Roman knights, and senators, yet unscathed by torture, betrayed, every one, his dearest kinsfolk.”


Nero was a man who desired the gaze of others. He is the epitome of Rousseau’s modern man, a creature that has developed vanity to an excessive extent. Vanity, like most things in life, can be a virtue if it is moderate. For example, vanity inspires people to do great things. However, when vanity is aggrandized rather than checked in a person, he makes decisions that are destructive to others and to him.


The story of Nero ‘fiddling while Rome burned’ is infamous. Some believe that Nero’s act displayed his indifference to the health of Rome, and his callous disregard of human life. However, I think that he was deeply mourning the fall of Rome. Tacitus says that he was singing an ode about the fall of Troy. Nero was trying to immortalize his city by associating it with the immortal city of Troy. As an artist, Nero’s act is authentic. If he had made a declaration that he deeply grieved for the burning of Rome, then I think that we would need to read the declaration with suspicion, but singing an ode and playing the lyre are the most intimate activities of Nero as an artist.


Book XVI

  • A man claimed to have had a dream in which he discovered vast reserves of gold in a cave. Nero sent men to dig up the earth in search for the gold, but found nothing. The expectation of discovering gold caused Nero and others to foolishly squander the money they had, leaving many bankrupt and impoverished.
  • Nero forces many illustrious men to commit suicide. He regards some as a political threat, desires the gold of others, and simply hates the rest.
  • This book ends in the middle of a sentence that describes the suicide of Thrasea.


“As his veins, though severed, allowed but a scanty flow of blood, he used the help of a slave, simply to hold up a dagger firmly, and then pressing the man’s hand towards him, he met the point with his throat.”


“Even if I had to relate foreign wars and deaths encountered in the service of the State with such a monotony of disaster, I should myself have been overcome by disgust, while I should look for weariness in my readers, sickened as they would be by the melancholy and continuous destruction of our citizens, however glorious to themselves. But now a servile submissiveness and so much wanton bloodshed at home fatigue the mind and paralyze it with grief. The only indulgence I would ask from those who will acquaint themselves with these horrors is that I be not thought to hate men who perished so tamely. Such was the wrath of heaven against the Roman State that one may not pass over it with a single mention, as one might the defeat of armies and the capture of cities. Let us grant this privilege to the posterity of illustrious men, that just as in their funeral obsequies such men are not confounded in a common burial, so in the record of their end they may receive and retain a special memorial.”


“Petronius did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince’s shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero.”


“Thrasea had had a crowded gathering of distinguished men and women, giving special attention to Demetrius, a professor of the Cynic philosophy. With him, as might be inferred from his earnest expression of face and from words heard when they raised their voices, he was speculating on the nature of the soul and on the separation of the spirit from the body, till Domitius Caecilianus, one of his intimate friends, came to him and told him in detail what the Senate had decided.”


“We pour out a libation to Jupiter the Deliverer. Behold, young man, and may the gods avert the omen, but you have been born into times in which it is well to fortify the spirit with examples of courage.” Then as the slowness of his end brought with it grievous anguish, turning his eyes on Demetrius… [the rest has been lost in history].”


Tacitus relates the forced suicides of many more illustrious men of Rome in this book. The Annals abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence that describes, quite typical of the work as a whole, the suicide of a prominent Roman. Though the other books have been lost in history, I am glad that humanity still possesses the extant writings. After reading The Annals, I have a better understanding of the corrupting influences of power and luxury. All the emperors described by Tacitus were debauched and immoral men that committed atrocities without the least remorse. Marcus Aurelius’ virtuous life is much more remarkable after considering the fact that he possessed the same power as these vicious men.

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