Friday, December 31, 2010

Tacitus: The Annals

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (55 – 117 AD) was a Roman senator who wrote about the early history of the Roman Empire. He is best known for the "Annals", a series of books focused on the time between the emperors Augustus (14 AD) to Nero (68 AD) and the "Histories" which continues to the death of Domitian (96 AD).  In the Annals, Tacitus describes the domestic and foreign affairs of the Empire.  He reviews the wars in Germany, Armenia and Britain, engineering projects of the Empire and the politics of the times. Tacitus seems to have some longing for the Republic, even though all he knew in his life was rule under an Emperor. The most interesting reading is when Tacitus discusses the personal lives of emperors and the plots and intrigue which occurred behind the scenes.

For the GBWW program I am reading the Annals, which picks up during the reign of Tiberius.  I recently finished watching the BBC TV series "I, Claudius" based on the book by Peter Graves.  The book covered the reigns of Augustus through Claudius, so it was quite revealing and fun to be reading the original source material and comparing it with the BBC program.

Annals focus on Tiberius to Nero
I always find it fascinating to see how politics, politicians and governments have changed over the last 2000 years. Here are a couple of examples from Tacitus:

Loopholes Tiberius wanted to have the slaves of Libo Drussus questioned regarding Libo's supposed "revolutionary schemes".  However, the law clearly says that slaves are not allowed to testify against their masters.  Therefore, Tiberius had Libo's slaves sold to a State-Agent and they were immediately interrogated. 

Greedy Trial Lawyers  In Rome, attorneys (prosecutors) worked for free - the respect and admiration for their oratory skills was payment enough.  This restriction on payment, called the Cincian Law, was changed so that lawyers could start collecting money from the defendant if they won. As you could imagine this resulted in many, many more cases being tried. Prosecutors could gain as much as one-quarter of the defendant's property from their cases. (Can we go back to the old system?)

Talking heads During the reign of Tiberius, Senator Lucius Piso threatened to leave Rome because he was growing tired of paid orators insulting him. Today we call these people pundits. 

Natural disaster relief was common in the Roman Empire.  During several earthquakes taxes were remitted for the province in need, a senate representative would visit and access damage, and aid was sent. 

Marriage tax = the Lex Papia Poppaea: a law from 9 AD, the sponsors were known as Papia and Poppaea.  The law put penalties on people who did not have children (women 20-50; men 25-60) and on people who were not married.  It was designed to promote family values.  People subverted the law by getting married but still having lovers and by "adopting" children.  

Banking Crisis  Usury (loaning money at interest) was common in Rome, however, interest rates above 10% were banned by the "Twelve Tables".  Tiberius decided to cut interest rates in half and gave everyone 18 months to settle their debts before conforming to the new rates.  This decree resulted in an enormous loss of private wealth as lenders tried to get their money back. Eventually there was too little currency in circulation and banks stopped lending money.  The emperor had to release 100 million sesterces to the banks so they would lend money again and allow people to borrow without interest for 3 years.  (Why can't our banks do that!)

Equal representation of aliens  "What was the fall of Sparta and Athens, but this, that mighty as they were in war, they spurned from them as aliens those whom they had conquered?"  With this question, Tiberius explained his reason for wanting representation in the Senate of people who were living in the Roman Empire but were not Roman.  A similar argument is made today for people living in the US, who are not US citizens, but who work in our homes, prepare our food, and fight our wars. 

Tacitus also talks at length about the depravity of Emperor Nero who murdered his mother, brother and wife, not to mention hundreds of others.

Seneca tutoring Nero

Of particular interest is the relationship between Nero and his mentor, Seneca.  Seneca was a brilliant orator, a stoic philosopher and was charged with directing the education of young Nero.  Eventually, with  "special joy", Nero turned on his mentor and Seneca committed suicide.  In trying to make a great philosopher-king, Seneca produced one of Rome's most notorious tyrants.  It may be that sometimes not even the best teacher can help some students.

I found that Tacitus's writing was frank, unembellished and approachable; it reminded me of having a candid conversation with a friend. Even when he was describing the gory details of dozens and dozens of suicides and murders during Nero's reign, it felt very matter-of-fact. During the Annals, Tacitus lists many historical figures (politicians, orators, consuls, quaestors, wives and mistresses, etc) and I sometimes had difficulty keeping track of all the characters.  However the depth and detail of his descriptions helped fill out these individuals and I enjoyed getting to experience these historical events through his words. 

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