Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review: Complete Works of Tacitus

The edition I got is by The Modern Library, 1942.

The vast majority of the book is the Annals (which covers almost all of the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero) and the History (which covers 69-70AD, a very tumultuous time). At the back there are shorter sections, namely a biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law), a summary of Germanic tribes, and a discussion about oratory.

This is my second reading of the book. I was a little less than enthused by the first. I didn’t dislike it, just felt a bit apathetic.

Upon a second reading, I did enjoy it. That’s not to say it rivals my favourites. Tacitus, a little like Thucydides, is unafraid of an eight clause sentence and sometimes this can lead to the meaning being difficult to grasp at first glance. However, he does his best to be objective, sometimes relating two varying accounts of the same event when he’s heard both and doesn’t know which to be true. The author also often indicates what he believes and if he has a firm reason for believing a certain account to be true.

The period of which Tacitus writes is almost entirely one of bad emperors. The exceptions would be the misled and personally naive Claudius, and Vespasian, whose rise to power came amid much bloodshed in the Year of the Four Emperors (69AD). Accordingly, the Complete Works is brimming with tyranny, treachery and civil war.

It’s also very interesting for watching how the remaining vestiges of republican authority (Tiberius being only the second emperor, after Augustus) faded. Amidst the dark days there are also examples of nobility (one man accused by Tiberius of being a friend of a fallen associate of the emperor replied that he could hardly be expected to be a better judge of character than the emperor himself, an unusual stroke of boldness that saw him go unpunished, a rarity for the time).

The period covered is similar to much of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, but is written in greater depth, and with more accuracy. A broadsheet to the Suetonian tabloid, if you like. Sadly, time has robbed us of certain portions (such as the final years of Nero’s reign) but it is mostly intact.

The Agricola biography is perhaps rather less objective, but nevertheless of interest as it covers campaigning in Britain. I enjoyed the discussion of Germanic tribes, particularly the praise Tacitus had for their monogamy. The final section, on oratory, was my least favourite, it must be said.

For early imperial Rome, this is a good set of works, particularly for the Year of the Four Emperors which is covered in some detail. Perhaps not the best book for an introduction to classical history, but for those who have read a bit already, it’s a worthwhile addition.


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