Scratching the surface with Tacitus

Tacitus has one message: look beneath the surface. Discuss with reference to Annals 1

It is no secret that the Annals written by Tacitus were at least to some extent a criticism of the new regime that was instituted by Augustus, this is clear from the first chapters of the first book of the Annals. The characterisation of the other books of the Annals, which are not to be covered by this essay, demonstrate this even more, an effect greatly emphasised and achieved through the use of negative characterisation of the emperors and their acts. However, it is clear that one of his main messages is that to look under the surface of the change in government that has occurred with the beginning of the Principate and the rise of the Empire. This may be because the wool was being pulled over the eyes of the people as to the true nature of what the new government was. Nevertheless, it is not possible to consider this his only message within the Annals. Another one is that it is necessary to distrust power and especially people with power. The reasons for this are varied within Tacitus’ Annals and clear to such an extent that it could be considered as the main message in the first book of the Annals. A further possible message that Tacitus could be trying to convey in this first book is that history is a cycle, and that it will repeat itself and that it is necessary to heed history’s advice.

The idea that Tacitus’s writings have a hidden message which takes the form of looking beneath the surface of whatever version of the facts that people were presented with. The first evidence which suggests this is at the very beginning of the first book of the Annals, when he mentions that the histories of other emperors were “ob metum falsae”, or falsified through fear. Immediately he brings it to the readers’ and audience’s attention that whatever is written in history may not ostentatiously be the truth and therefore refers not only to other writings, but also to his own. By doing so, he may be alluding, straight away that in his writings there is a message which permeates throughout that is much deeper and much more significant than that which can be understood from the first reading. Continuing with the theme of how Tacitus aims to add layers to his narrative at the beginning of the Annals by directly telling the audience that Augustus’ rise to power was not as righteous as he attempted to portray. He first states that Augustus bought “militem donis, populum annona, cunctos delcedine otii” and in the chapter that follows declares that the only reason for promoting his relatives to powerful positions within government, for his “subsidia dominationi”. The message here is to look beneath the surface of the version of events that has been around since the death of the Augustus. It is suggesting that the events recalled in the RGDA are only a veil which has been drawn across in order to perceive the ‘republica restituta’ was only a title rather than a reality. This becomes even more evident in the beginning of chapter ten when it seems to be a direct comparison to the RGDA. Furthermore, Tacitus uses a speech and the soldiers react to it in order to further highlight the need to look below the surface, this is most clear with the phrase “sensit miles in tempus conficta”. Therefore, it is clear that while this is a very clear message that Tacitus is trying to convey in the Annals, it is not the only one.

Another message that it is possible to consider that Tacitus is trying to convey is that it is necessary to distrust power and especially people in power which ties in closely with the need to look beneath the surface. Tacitus puts emphasis on the fact that Augustus promoted “sororis filium” to very high office. The subtle message here is that there is a need to distrust the powerful, even an emperor, because of the corruption and favouritism which is rife within the powerful. This theme carries on when he mentions that “higher a man’s rank, more eager his hypocrisy” which again serves the purpose to show how it is necessary not to believe everything that the powerful say and do, because the line between the truth and lies is too blurred to be trusted. There seems to be more power to this argument because he seems to talk about all sorts of different types of power, relating it to both the ultimate power that  was the emperor but also about less powerful people, as just has been mentioned, like the senators and equites who have managed to gain money and influence.  The argument seems to be that power of any sort cannot be trusted straight away. Tacitus reinforces the point that power is to be distrusted because he quotes people as saying “filial duty and State necessity were just assumed as a mask.” While this does link to the fact that it was necessary to look beneath the surface to find the true meaning and purpose behind the actions of others, it more importantly relates to the fact the assumption of power by a single man, is to be distrusted because there is no way of knowing how he will act now that he has so much power, people must be wary of such individuals. Considering the precedent that was set with Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and other dictators or generals beforehand, it makes sense that Tacitus wants to accentuate the importance of the repetition of history. The range of power that Tacitus believes is necessary to distrust is further extened with attacks against the Senate who according to him “stooped to the most abject supplication” and “multa partum et in Augustam adulation”. By emphasising that the Senate could also act in such a sycophantic way, Tacitus demonstrates how even power has checks and can be as easily influenced as a group, just like an individual can. The argument is strengthened by the fact that this should not happen to the Senate, the ultimate sign of legislative power. The argument that Tacitus’ message is that one must distrust power s very strong because t is present throughout the book and takes many different forms, this may look like the strongest argument but there is still one more which has to be looked at.

The final message that Tacitus may be trying to advocate for is that history is a cycle and the events from  the past are the key to understanding events in the present or in the future. This is most clear when talking about succession and the events that immediately follow the ascension of a new emperor. First there are the murders of possible pretenders to the imperial purple, “primum facinus novi principatus fuit Postumi Agrippae caedes”; then came the huge largesses “quadringenties tricies quinquies” to the people of Rome; there was the possibility of military revolt, such as the one in Pannonia which he puts down to “nullis novis causis nisi quod mutatus princeps”. This is a pattern which can be traced from the first emperor to feature chrconologocallly in his writing, right up until the time when Tacitus was writing, with the fall of Trajan and the rise of Hadrian. There were more or less the same events accompanying the ascension of each new emperor. The audience reading this history would have recognised this pattern as being true, and would have subsequently taken any repetitive event as being a sign as to how events would play out in the future. This can be seen when Tacitus writes about the reasons for the hampering of Roman progress which essentially he puts down to problems of not being able to adapt to and deal with the foreign terrain that could be found in Germany. These problems never resolved themselves and constantly in non central Mediterranean climates, the Roman legions were hampered by unfamiliar climates and territories, most evidently in the Near East and on the Danube. By highlighting the shortcomings of the Roman army, he emphasises the repetition of history because he is indirectly accentuating the problems that would be tricky to solve in the present when he was writing and in the future of Rome as a whole. Repetition and precedent is further developed when Tacitus writes about “secuti exemplum veteran”. This is not an isolated use of the word for example, showing that there was always a clear and distinct reason for the way that people acted. However, this argument is weaker than the others that Tacitus is trying to convey because he himself mentions that “diversum omnium quae umquam accidere civilium armorum facies” which seems to suggest that there was something different about this round of massacres of agitators. However, when he goes onto describe them, they have an eerie resemblance to the proscriptions of Sulla, Caesar and Augustus, which gives reason to doubt the sincerity of Tacitus in this case.

Overall, it is clear that Tacitus has various message within the Annals book 1, even above the three that have been discussed. It cannot be said in the slightest that Tacitus only has one message, although inflections of it permeate through the whole work. It is possible to even consider the necessity to distrust power, and more specifically the supremely powerful, as a more important and obvious message that Tacitus is attempting to convey within book 1 of the Annals.

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