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
* 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'
* 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.
* 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'.
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
Tacitus - Mr Clare's factsheet
Read the following passages from Tacitus, and write answers to the questions which follow:
Annals, Book 1, Chapter 1
Annals, Book 3, Chapter 65
Annals, Book 12, Chapter 7
Annals, Book 13, Chapter 20