Tacitus was a career politician who eventually rose to become governor of Asia.  He married the daughter of the great general Agricola (about whom he wrote a book).  He was in office during the reign of the vicious tyrant Domitian (ad81-96) - an experience which left him hating the Empire.


Tacitus was a brilliant writer - a master of style, using a wide range of techniques within an annalistic narrative to create a dramatic and utterly convincing account.  This is his greatest weakness as well as his greatest strength, because he (ab)uses his brilliant writing technique to 'sell' the reader his own personal prejudice that the Empire was corrupt and corrupting, an ever-growing evil.


Can you believe a word he says?  Wherever it has been possible to cross-check his facts, they have turned out to be accurate.  But it is the interpretation you need to beware of - despite his claim that he wrote 'without anger or bias'.  In our case, particularly problematic is his tendency to stereotype assertive women as evil - especially Agrippina the Younger, who gets a double whammy as a powerful woman who ruled the empire.  Tacitus drew parallel and drew templates from other ancient writers, into which he forced the events and characters he was recording.  His Annals are a personal construct (for some, an historical novel), not an objective analysis.


Everybody goes mad about how great Tacitus is.  US President Thomas Jefferson called him 'the first writer in a world', praising him as 'a compound of history and morality'.  But I think he is a lousy historian, who misrepresents the facts to indoctrinate the read with his own morality and prejudices ... and all the more dangerous because he does this so cleverly and subtly.



1. Strengths of Tacitus
*  used a wide range of sources, including the acta senatus and personal interviews

*  he was factually accurate

*  had personal experience of government and palace politics

*  he was a brilliant writer, using a range of techniques to present a convincing interpretation

*  he claimed that he wrote 'without anger or impartiality'

2. Weaknesses of Tacitus
*  he was only as good as his sources (which were very poor)

*  he was biased - he hated the empire, and presented it as a growing, corrupting evil

*  he (ab)used his brilliant style to indoctrinate the reader with his own negative interpretation

*  he forced the facts to fit his theories/parallels/templates

*  he was prejudiced against women, and particularly hated powerful women.

3. Methods of Tacitus
*  he wrote his Annals as an annalistic/chronological narrative

*  he used a range of sources, which he claimed to treat impartially

*  where sources conflicted, he presented both as named sources

*  he used allusions, parallels and templates, into which he poured the content

*  style was more important than historical method - 'mood prevails over anaylsis'.





The following web pages will help you complete the task:

Before you begin to study Tacitus, you would be wise to read Mr Clare's blog-post on Agrippina and her Sources.

This document contains the relevant sections of the set
OCR Textbook.

Tacitus - Mr Clare's factsheet




Read the following passages from Tacitus, and write answers to the questions which follow:

Annals, Book 1, Chapter 1
While the glories and disasters of the old Roman commonwealth have been chronicled by famous pens and intelligent writers were not lacking to tell the tale of the Augustan age (until the rising tide of sycophancy deterred them), the histories of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, were falsified through cowardice while they flourished, and composed, when they fell, under the influence of still rankling hatreds. 
Hence my design, to treat a small period (the last part) of Augustus' reign, then the principate of Tiberius and its sequel, without anger and without partiality, from the motives of which I stand sufficiently removed.

Annals, Book 3, Chapter 65
It is not my intention to dwell upon any motions in the Senate except those either remarkable for their virtue or of memorable dishonour; in which case they fall within my idea of the first duty of history — to ensure that merit shall not lack its record and to hold before the vicious word and deed the terrors of posterity and infamy.  But so tainted was that age, so mean its sycophancy, that not only the great personages of the state, who had to hide their ability with servility, but all senators of consular rank, vied with one another in rising to move the most repulsive and extravagant resolutions.

Annals, Book 12, Chapter 7
[Vitellius suggests that Claudius should marry Agrippina.]
Some senators were quick to rush out of the Senate-house declaring loudly that if the emperor hesitated, they would force him to act. A mixed crowd gathered, and kept shouting that the Roman people demanded this too. Claudius delayed no more; he went to meet them in the forum to receive their congratulations; he entered the senate house and demanded a decree which declared marriages between uncles and nieces to be legal. No one else was found who wanted this sort of marriage except Alledius Severus, a Roman eques; it was said by many that he was motivated by his wish to win Agrippina’s favour.
From this point on, the state was changed completely, and everything was subject to the control of a woman; however, this was a woman who was not motivated like Messalina; she did not play with the affairs of Rome like some toy for her personal pleasure. Rome was now enslaved by an almost masculine dominance. In public Agrippina showed a serious, often arrogant face; in private, there was no sign of immorality, unless it helped her in her search for power; she had an enormous desire for money which was excused with the reason that money was a means to power .

Annals, Book 13, Chapter 20
Fabius Rusticus writes that the orders were written to Caecina Tuscus, giving him command of the praetorian cohorts but that because of Seneca's influence Burrus kept the post. Pliny the Elder and Cluvius say there was no doubt about the commander’s loyalty. Fabius certainly tends to praise Seneca; Seneca’s friendship was influential in the success of Fabius’ career. Where historians agree, I will follow their views; when they differ, I will name them and record their views.

What do these passages tell us about the way Tacitus wrote his Annals.      [4]

Do you think that Tacitus gives us a reliable account of the emperors?
Refer both to the passages, and to your knowledge of Tacitus as a writer.      [18]