Tacitus and Tyranny

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Liberty and Tyranny in Tacitus' Annals

We learn from Talleyrand's Memoirs that on October 6, 1808, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, then staying in Erfurt, summoned Goethe and Wieland, the two most renowned German poets of the day, to join him to discuss literary and political issues, therein marking Napoleon himself as a worthy man of letters. After a brief period of time, Napoleon turned the conversation from tragedy to Tacitus, and remarked to Goethe that, "I assure you that Tacitus, the historian that you are always quoting, never taught me anything. Could you find a greater and, at times, more unjust detractor of the human race? In the simplest actions he finds criminal motives ; he makes emperors out of the most profound villains.... People are right in saying that his Annals is not a history of the empire, but an abstract of the prison-records of Rome." It was Wieland who stood up and came to Tacitus' defense-first, judiciously noting Racine's judgment that Tacitus was "the greatest portraitist of antiquity," second, circumspectly indicating the justness of Tacitus' impartiality about matters both republican and imperial, and finally, subtly introducing Tacitus' interest in liberty into the conversation. Nevertheless and not surprisingly, Napoleon remained unmoved from his antipathy to Tacitus.

As Napoleon surely understood, Tacitus was no admirer of empire. But more importantly, what Napoleon also seemed to have understood was that in his principal writings, Tacitus aimed at making visible the soul of the tyrant-and a pathological soul at that. Tacitus' Annals is a history of tyranny, and he conducts this history through an exploration of the psychology of various emperors and those power-seeking sycophants, both men and women, who surround them. It is by unmasking the tyrant that Tacitus brings to light the character of moderate republican life, long since lost to Rome. It is perhaps for this reason that Milton claimed Tacitus as "the greatest possible enemy to tyrants," and many of the American founders admired him greatly.

Most Tacitus scholars adjudge the Annals, a work we do not possess in its entirety, to be Tacitus' greatest. It begins with a brief and remarkably terse proem in which Tacitus tells of the rise and fall of liberty and the public realm: little will be said thereafter about liberty, for liberty is no longer seen in Rome. Following an almost equally brief discussion of Augustus, the principal horizon of the book becomes Rome from A.D. 14, and the accession of Tiberius, to A.D. 68, and the suicide of Nero. This horizon is the horizon of tyranny and moral decrepitude.

That the book as a whole is set into motion by Tiberius rather than Augustus, signals Tacitus' intention to show that Tiberius' reign initiates a perversion of the good, the noble, and the just, a perversion that then became exacerbated during the rule of Claudius and Nero. One cause of the change in the Roman regime was Tiberius' reintroduction of the law of treason, which became the scourge and weapon of imperial politics. But even prior to this, Tacitus tells us that immediately upon Tiberius becoming emperor, "there was a rush into servitude from consuls, fathers, and equestrians. The more illustrious each was, the more false and frantic, and with their looks composed to avoid delight at the passing-and too much gloom at the commencement-of a princeps, they blended tears with joy and mourning with sycophancy" (1.7.1). Somehow people knew that Tiberius was a very dangerous man and they needed at least to feign being one of his supporters. Coupled with a growing sycophancy was the birth of a bizarre theatricality, wherein a world of make-believe politics replaced every actual political realm. This theatricality eventuality reached the most bizarre of manifestations with the sexual and political barbarities of Nero. Indeed, erotic perversity is a constant companion of political perversity throughout the course of the Annals, which suggests that Tacitus has some view of human longings generally and how their private perversion manifests itself in the political realm. Perhaps it is for this reason that Tacitus' Annals is replete with stories of the actions of women, especially the wives of emperors and their most powerful supporters. These wives, it turns out, are as tyrannical, if not more so, than those who formally function as tyrants. The astonishingly complicated portrait of tyranny that Tacitus paints is worthy of our study, especially because of the reflection it undoubtedly casts upon our understanding of liberty.

The questions below aim at eliciting a discussion of the important philosophical themes and problems that the Annals calls to our attention. Because Tacitus elicits those themes and problems through the particularity of an historical narrative, most of these questions should match that level of particularity.


Recommended print edition: Tacitus, The Annals, translated, with introduction and notes, by A.J. Woodman (Indianapolis : Hackett Pub., 2004).

Online edition: The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737).

Session 1 : Tiberius and the Rush into Servitude

Questions: How does Tiberius come to rule? Why were the Roman people prepared for servitude? In what did their servitude consist? Why does Tacitus devote so many pages to the diverse ways in which Germanicus and Drusus responded to the revolts of the legions? What is the importance of Tiberius' use of the law of treason ? Reading: Annals, Book I and Book II

Session 2 : The Tyrant and the Law

Questions: Why does law become thematic in Book III? What is the account of the origin of law that Tacitus offers? What is the signific ance of the deaths of Germanicus and Drusus? Why and how does Sejanus come to power? Why does Tacitus emphasize Sej anus' lusts? How does luxury contribute to the corruption of Rome? Why does Tacitus characterize his work as "confined and inglorious" (IV.32.2)? Reading: Annals, Book III and Book IV

Session 3 : Tiberius' Reign of Terror

Questions : What is the significance of Tiberius withdrawal? What is Tacitus' final estimation of Tiberius? What is the condition of Rome at the time of Tiberius' death relative to its condition at the time of his accession? Why does Tacitus tell us the story of the Phoenix in Egypt? What is the effect upon the public realm of the executions ordered by Tiberius? Does Tacitus offer us an account of the meaning of human mortality? Reading: Annals, Book V and Book VI

Session 4: Claudius' Women

Questions: What does the attention that Tacitus bestows upon Claudius' two wives, Messalina and Agrippina, tell us about political affairs in Rome? Why does Claudius expand the citizenry and senatorial class and what effect do these have on political affairs in Rome? Why is Claudius politically inept, as Tacitus seems to judge him to be? Is his political ineptitude related to his moral turpitude? Why does Tacitus emphasize the return of prodigies during Claudius' reign? Reading: Annals, Book XI and Book XII

Session 5: Nero's Tyrannical Debauchery

Questions : Why does incest figure so prominently in Tacitus' initial discussion of Nero? How does Nero acquire the power he does? Why does Nero want to kill his mother? With an eye on Seneca, what is the place of philosophy under Nero's reign? What is the place of religion under Nero's reign? Reading: Annals, Book XIII and Book XIV

Session 6: Nero's Tyrannical Theatricality

Questions : What do we learn about tyranny from Nero's longing to found a new city-Neropolis? What do we learn about tyranny from Nero's longing to turn Roman political affairs into theatrical drama? How does Tacitus judge Nero in comparison to Tiberius and Claudius? What were Nero's principal instruments for corrupting Roman citizens? Reading: Annals, Book XV and Book XVI