Annals (Tacitus)

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The Annals, or, in Latin, Annales, is a history book by Tacitus covering the reign of the four Roman Emperors succeeding to Caesar Augustus. The parts of the work that survived from antiquity cover (most of) the reigns of Tiberius and Nero.

The title Annals was probably not given by Tacitus, but derives from the fact that he treated this history in a year-by-year form. The (probably) original title was Ab excessu divi Augusti, "Following the death of the divine Augustus".

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The Annals was Tacitus' final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in the year 14. He wrote at least 16 books, but books 7-10 and parts of books 5, 6, 11 and 16 are missing. Book 6 ends with the death of Tiberius and books 7-12 presumably covered the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. The remaining books cover the reign of Nero, perhaps until his death in June 68 or until the end of that year, to connect with the Histories. The second half of book 16 is missing (ending with the events of the year 66). We do not know whether Tacitus completed the work or whether he finished the other works that he had planned to write; he died before he could complete his planned histories of Nerva and Trajan, and no record survives of the work on Augustus Caesar and the beginnings of the Empire with which he had planned to complete his work as an historian.

As in the Histories, Tacitus maintains his thesis of the necessity of the principate. He says again that Augustus gave and warranted peace to the state after years of civil war, but on the other hand he shows us the dark side of life under the Caesars. The history of the Empire is also the history of the sunset of the political freedom of the senatorial aristocracy, which he saw as morally decadent, corrupt, and servile towards the prince. During Nero's age there had been a wide diffusion of literary works in favour of this suicidal exitus illustrium virorum ("end of the illustrious men"). Again, as in Agricola, Tacitus is opposed to those who chose useless martyrdom through vain suicides. In describing the suicide of Petronius, he deliberately insists on the ironic overturn of that man's philosophical models.

Against this generally bleak background, though, a healthy part of the political class continued honest involvement in the governments of the provinces and in the leading of the armies. Tragic historiography, full of dramatic events, has a great role in the Annales. Tacitus shows us the tragedy of the people. The aim is not to raise strong emotions. Tacitus uses the tragic components of his history to dive into the spirits of the characters, aiming to bring to light their passions and ambiguities. The dominant passions of the characters (partially excepting the sometimes pathological Nero) are the political passions. All the social classes, with no exception for any persons, have these defects: ambition, desire for power, desire for social status, and often envy, hypocrisy, and presumption. All the other passions, apart from ambition, vanity, and cupidity, play a minor role.

In the Annales, Tacitus further improved the style of portraiture that he had used so well in the Historiae. Perhaps the best portrait is that of Tiberius, portrayed in an indirect way, painted progressively during the course of a narrative, with observations and commentary along the way filling in details. The moral portrait takes precedence over the physical; there are also a few paradoxical portraits. The most important example of these is that of Petronius, the charm of whose character is in his contradictory appearances. The weakness of his life is in opposition to the energy and competence he demonstrated in public office. Petronius faced death as a last pleasure, giving contemporary proof of self-control, bravery, and firmness. He opposed the tradition of theatrical suicide among the Stoics and he spoke with friends on light subjects. Tacitus does not make him a model, but implicitly suggests that his greatness of soul is firmer than that displayed by the martyred Stoics.

[edit] Style

Although a simplification, it is nevertheless useful to recognize that Tacitus' overall style in the Annales departs markedly from the grammatical and compositional norms of Late Republican authors as epitomized in works of M. Tullius Cicero. At various times described as peregrine, archaic, solemn, and vitalized, Tacitus achieves a great deal of his unique stylistic imprint via rare and otherwise unique grammatical forms, frequent ellipsis (especially of auxiliary forms of 'esse'), inventive circumlocution, and diction which extends to the known limits of the Latin lexicon. In comparison to the Historiae, the Annales are rather less fluid. They are also more concise and severe. There is even more predilection for incongruity. The unharmonious verbal forms reflect the discordant events and the ambiguity of the characters' behaviour. There are many violent metaphors and audacious uses of personification. Poetic styles, especially that of Virgil, are often used. For example, the description of Germanicus's foray onto the field of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in search of the destroyed legions of Varus follows the style of Virgil's description of Aeneas's descent into the underworld.

The style shifts throughout the work. From the 13th book on, Tacitus uses a more traditional method, closer to the fundamentals of the classic style. The writing becomes richer, more elevated, less concise, less sharp, and less insinuating. In choosing between synonyms, Tacitus changes from the use of selected and decorative expressions to the use of more normal and more moderate expressions. Perhaps the kingdom of Nero is treated with less solemnity because it is closer to the time of writing, while the age of Tiberius was considered closer to the old Republic. The occasional carelessness in the 15th and 16th books has led some to the opinion that the available editions of these books were not the final revision, but an earlier draft.

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Annals (Tacitus)

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