Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.
Saturday, April 5, 2008


Tacitus—Annals

Book I—This covers the period from 14–15 AD. It opens with the death of Augustus, and describes some of the infighting over the succession. If you’re familiar with I, Claudius, one of the last good programs on Masterpiece Theater, you’ll be delighted to know that Livia appears, and is presented as a wicked witch.

At Chapter 16 we have a revolt at Pannonia, roughly modern day Hungary and parts of the former Czechoslovakia and northern Italy. See here for the Wikipedia entry on Pannonia. We then have most of the first book devoted to the various mutinies in the provinces. Part of the cause was the length of service required of the soldiers. Enlistment was 20 years, and unlike a modern soldier the legionnaires were not allowed to marry. They were also beaten by the centurions. So service was not like the modern military. There were no substantial benefits to service. Unlike the post-WW II benefits that accrued to veterans, such as low cost mortgages, and the GI Bill for study at colleges and universities, there were no regular benefits. Julius Caesar proposed to give the soldiers lands in the provinces. I don’t know if this idea was present in Caesar’s mind, but I would think that soldiers, who owed their status as landowners to Rome, in the provinces would serve as a ready reserve in the event of a military crisis, and would be a source of citizens dedicated to spreading the Roman way. Dealing with veterans was evidently a problem during much of the empire. The soldiers who mutinied at the time of Augustus’ death also wanted to be released after 16 years of service. This they did not get. They did get some of the centurions punished, and kicked out.

Round about Chapter 54 we get Arminius, aka Hermann the German. He leads some Germanic tribes to victory in the Teutoburg forest, some years before the opening of The Annals. The Romans lost 3 legions there, and the loss disturbed the final years of Augustus. Germanicus leads a campaign that recovers the standards, but is not notably successful otherwise.

Note: There’s a passage in Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (aka The Windy Bore) in which Leslie Slote gives one of the characters a bit of a lecture on Germany and the battle of Teutoburg Forest.

Book II—This covers the period from 16–19 AD. The initial portion starts of with the Parthians acting up. It then segues back to Arminius. In Chapter 32 we learn that the Senate passed decrees against astrologers and magicians. One was executed by being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, and poor Publius Marcius was executed by ancient custom outside the Esquiline Gate. At Chapter 55 we get the conflict between Cneius (Gnaeus) Piso. Piso was suspected of poisoning Germanicus, and was ultimately forced to commit suicide in 19.

At Chapter 85 we learn “There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with these supertsitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia to quell the brigandage of the place, a small sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate.” I’ll give Tacitus a pass on Egyptian religion as being a superstition, but as a monotheist it is a bit hard to see how he could have considered Judaism a superstition. Particularly since army commanders appear to have traveled with sacred chickens who had to be consulted before waging battle.

Update—I’ve been listening to Isabelle Pafford (U. Cal., Berkeley) lecture on the Roman Empire. Apparently I think of superstition as a Christian, not as a Roman. Pafford says, in a nutshell, that religio is the right way of doing things, while superstitio is the wrong way. Consulting the sacred chickens is religio; worshipping one God is a bit strange, so it’s superstitio. As a Christian I’m used to the idea that superstition is a something false. It can’t be demonstrated that walking under ladders causes bad things to happen, so we regard that as superstition. This does not necessarily apply to the Romans. (April 9, 2008 8:58 PM)

April 8, 2008 Book III—Agrippina arrives at Corcyra. There is more detail about the aftermath of Germanicus’ death. At Chapter 9 there is a mention of Narnia. This is a region of Italy, currently called Narni, located at 42°31’ N 12°31’ E. I have no idea if C. S. Lewis, who knew his classics, and presumably Tacitus, had this passage in mind when he wrote his stories.

It is about 9 that we get some more on Piso, who was mentioned above in discussing Book II. We get the speech of Tiberius, which may or may not be a transcription drawn from the records of the Senate. He apparently commits suicide. Readers who remember I, Claudius may remember his cowardice, and that his wife assisted him in driving the sword, or dagger, into his body. Tacitus doesn’t go into that. He does mention, in 16, that Piso kept a document with him that was supposed to contain instructions from Tiberius about Germanicus.

At 25 we find Tacitus mentions the Lex Papia Poppaea. This was a law that regulated marriage, and attempted to promote procreation. Tacitus then devotes several chapters to a discussion of the origin of Roman law.

Lets leave Tacitus discussion of Roman law alone for a bit, and consider the ramifications of trying to promote procreation. First off, we can deduce that the Roman birth rate, or at least the birth rate of its most desirable, i.e., richest, members was declining. The Romans could limit population by several means. They could expose babies they didn’t like, so that they would die. They could risk abortions. The mother could nurse the children rather than using a wet-nurse. Fertility could also be affected by the presence of lead, which was in plumbing, and in pottery. (The glazes in pottery were frequently, if not invariably, lead-based.) There was also a high infant mortality rate. In order to offset a high mortality rate it would be necessary to have a high fertility rate. If the patrician rate fell, while the plebeians, who lacked any intellectual pursuits snuggled up in their hovels, the plebeians would gain power over the the patricians. The patricians had motives for keeping families small that poorer people lacked. Children were a burden. They had to be educated, and if they were girls dowries had to be provided for them. Property would be split up among the heirs, presumably the children. A large estate split up among many children becomes many small estates. The poorer citizen, however, if he was a farmer, for instance, had the motivation to have children to assist him on the farm. Daughters, if worst came to worst, could always be put to work in the local brothel.

I thought that Augustus was primarily concerned about the fertility of the patricians. If the article in Wikipedia about the Lex mentioned above is accurate, it does seem to have been aimed primarily at the patrician class. It is also important to note that slave population was increasing relative to that of citizens. The slaves constituted a potentially rebellious group, and the Romans were haunted by the memory of Spartacus, and his rebellion.

Augustus faced a situation in which the most desirable portion of the population, the rich, prosperous, equestrian and senatorial classes were losing ground to less desirable groups. He used laws in an effort to promote fertility, but apparently was unable to construct institutions that would promote the high fertility rate.

Keep in mind that when you read medieval and renaissance history, most of the famous families do not seem to have had numerous children. While this may have conserved estates, it also tended to lead to familial extinction. (The Stuarts, extinct with the death of the Archbishop of York in the early 1800s; the Medici, extinct 1743; the Plantagenets, extinct in the male line 1300; Valois, extinct by 1600.) A couple of centuries later we may hear of large families, but they are in more or less frontier areas, such as Boston of 1706, when Ben Franklin was born into a family that had seen 14 previous births, and would see two more.

A similar problem is facing Europe today. The overall birth rate is declining. Where there has been an uptick in births it has been the result of Islamic immigrants with a relatively higher reproductive rate being counted with the non-immigrant population. This does not bode well for the political and cultural future of Europe. The immigrants are apparently strongly influenced by the most repellent form of Islam, Wahhabism, and do not hold any political or cultural loyalty to their host countries. So they have not bought into concepts such as toleration, democracy, and respect for others. Enablers, such as the man occupying the see of Canterbury, encourage them by preaching the inevitability of sharia law.

Europe has the pleasant task of spending more time in the bedroom, or more time without contraceptives, in order to get its birth rate up, and the less pleasant task of assimilating its Muslim immigrants, and getting them to buy into Western values.

Lets return to Tacitus, and his discussion of the reign of Tiberius.

At 32 we have an incursion into Africa by Tacfarinas. In the midst of the discussion of the Senate’s debate we get a motion by Severus Caecina that a magistrate should not be accompanied by his wife when going to his province. His comments are decidedly not in accord with Women’s lib: "With good reason," he said, "had it been formerly decided that women were not to be taken among our allies or into foreign countries. A train of women involves delays through luxury in peace and through panic in war, and converts a Roman army on the march into the likeness of a barbarian progress. Not only is the sex feeble and unequal to hardship, but, when it has liberty, it is spiteful, intriguing and greedy of power. They show themselves off among the soldiers and have the centurions at their beck. Lately a woman had presided at the drill of the cohorts and the evolutions of the legions. You should yourselves bear in mind that, whenever men are accused of extortion, most of the charges are directed against the wives. It is to these that the vilest of the provincials instantly attach themselves; it is they who undertake and settle business; two persons receive homage when they appear; there are two centres of government, and the women's orders are the more despotic and intemperate. Formerly they were restrained by the Oppian and other laws; now, loosed from every bond, they rule our houses, our tribunals, even our armies." Caecina’s motion was defeated. Score 1 for the libbers.

Book IV—The covers the period from 23-28 AD. We start getting information about Aelius Sejanus, one of the primo bad guys of I, Claudius. The first three sections give his birth, and a bit of his career. In 8 Tacitus accuses Sejanus of poisoning Drusus. There are then several passages devoted to various crimes. In 34 we come to the case of Cremutius Cordus, arraigned for writing a history that praised Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius (the assassins of Julius Caesar). Cordus pays for his writing by starving himself to death. Tacitus comments on this, “And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.”

Book IV continues the story of Sejanus. The story concludes in the fragmentary Book V with the death of Sejanus and his children. His daughter, a young virgin, is raped by the executioner. Tacitus describes it thusly, "…the little girl, who was so unconscious that she continually asked what was her offence, and whither she was being dragged, saying that she would do so no more, and a childish chastisement was enough for her correction. Historians of the time tell us that, as there was no precedent for the capital punishment of a virgin, she was violated by the executioner, with the rope on her neck. Then they were strangled and their bodies, mere children as they were, were flung down the Gemoniae."

Book VI has some thing interesting. At Chapter 17 there is a dexcription of a monetary crisis, which Tacitus describes as. "a scarcity of money, a great shock being given to all credit, the current coin too, in consequence of the conviction of so many persons and the sale of their property, being locked up in the imperial treasury or the public exchequer." I suppose that in modern, central banker terms, this would be a contraction in M-1. The crisis is met by mandating that creditors secure capital on estates in Italy. "Creditors however were suing for payment in full, and it was not respectable for persons when sued to break faith. So, at first, there were clamorous meetings and importunate entreaties; then noisy applications to the praetor's court. And the very device intended as a remedy, the sale and purchase of estates, proved the contrary, as the usurers had hoarded up all their money for buying land. The facilities for selling were followed by a fall of prices, and the deeper a man was in debt, the more reluctantly did he part with his property, and many were utterly ruined. The destruction of private wealth precipitated the fall of rank and reputation, till at last the emperor interposed his aid by distributing throughout the banks a hundred million sesterces, and allowing freedom to borrow without interest for three years, provided the borrower gave security to the State in land to double the amount. Credit was thus restored, and gradually private lenders were found. The purchase too of estates was not carried out according to the letter of the Senate's decree, rigour at the outset, as usual with such matters, becoming negligence in the end." There was no central bank, of course, but Tiberius acted in the role of a central bank and loaned money out, much as the Fed, or Bank of England might do today.

At VI, 28, there is a passage about a phoenix that is seen in Egypt. Tacitus then describes the habits of the bird. If the authors of this article are correct, the phoenix is inspired by the purple heron. The phoenix appears in one of Clements epistles, but I believe it’s supposed to be a natural phenomenon, and not a Christian symbol.

Books VII–X and the opening of XI are lost. When we reach XI we are in the 7th year of the reign of Claudius, and Messalina is being a very naughty girl. At Chapters 13 and 14 we get some information about Claudius' attempt to reform the Latin alphabet and a brief history of the origin, as the Romans knew it, of the alphabet. Needless to say Claudius proved as successful as George Bernard Shaw in his attempts to reform the alphabet. (Shaw succeeded, post-mortem, in getting Pygmalion published in a phonetic alphabet. No other book or pamphlet, as far as I know, has been published in that alphabet. If you can find the Penguin edition, you may have a very rare and valuable book.) At 37 we get the death of Messalina. "Then for the first time she understood her fate and put her hand to a dagger. In her terror she was applying it ineffectually to her throat and breast, when a blow from the tribune drove it through her. Her body was given up to her mother. Claudius was still at the banquet when they told him that Messalina was dead, without mentioning whether it was by her own or another's hand. Nor did he ask the question, but called for the cup and finished his repast as usual. During the days which followed he showed no sign of hatred or joy or anger or sadness, in a word, of any human emotion, either when he looked on her triumphant accusers or on her weeping children. The Senate assisted his forgetfulness by decreeing that her name and her statues should be removed from all places, public or private." Readers who remember I, Claudius may remember the scene a little differently. In that scene her head is cut off by the centurion.

Book XII takes us up to the death of Claudius. This is done by poison administered by Agrippina. When it is not immediately fatal Xenophon, a Greek physician, not the memoirist of the Anabasis, administers additional poison, supposedly by both openings of the gastrointestinal tract.

Book XIII deals with the early years of the reign of Nero. Tacitus says that Nero was the first emperor to need a speech writer (Seneca), "Elderly men who amuse their leisure with comparing the past and the present, observed that Nero was the first emperor who needed another man's eloquence. The dictator Caesar rivalled the greatest orators, and Augustus had an easy and fluent way of speaking, such as became a sovereign. Tiberius too thoroughly understood the art of balancing words, and was sometimes forcible in the expression of his thoughts, or else intentionally obscure. Even Caius Caesar's disordered intellect did not wholly mar his faculty of speech. Nor did Claudius, when he spoke with preparation, lack elegance. Nero from early boyhood turned his lively genius in other directions; he carved, painted, sang, or practised the management of horses, occasionally composing verses which showed that he had the rudiments of learning." The Romans has a highly developed rhetorical tradition, one which continued into the Medieval period, and while the earliest training under pedagogus was in grammar and literature, the study of rhetoric was part of higher education. At 12 we meet Acte. Acte is a freedwoman, and her name may be familiar to readers who have read or seen any of the film versions of Quo Vadis. She is not the last person that we will meet either who appears in the novel. Acte, unlike her fictional counterparts, is not described as a Christian. Indeed Christus isn't mentioned until several books later. At 32 we meet another character from Quo Vadis, "Pomponia Graecina, a distinguished lady, wife of the Plautius who returned from Britain with an ovation, was accused of some foreign superstition and handed over to her husband's judicial decision. Following ancient precedent, he heard his wife's cause in the presence of kinsfolk, involving, as it did, her legal status and character, and he reported that she was innocent. This Pomponia lived a long life of unbroken melancholy." Her fictional self is identified as a Christian. Is this plausible? Consider that Tacitus classed Egyptian religion (polytheistic) and Judaism (monotheistic) as superstitions, and that if what Isabelle Pafford said is right, that superstition is simply that which is not done, not truly Roman, then it is possible that Pomponia was a Christian. She may have abjured her faith, or her husband may have covered it up. There's no evidence in Tacitus for either conclusion.

April 22, 2008—At chapter 35 we have this about Corbulo, a general, and his problems at the front, “Many of the men had their limbs frost-bitten through the intensity of the cold, and some perished on guard. A soldier was observed whose hands mortified as he was carrying a bundle of wood, so that sticking to their burden they dropped off from his arms, now mere stumps. The general, lightly clad, with head uncovered, was continually with his men on the march, amid their labours; he had praise for the brave, comfort for the feeble, and was a good example to all. And then as many shrank from the rigour of the climate and of the service, and deserted, he sought a remedy in strictness of discipline. Not, as in other armies, was a first or second offense condoned, but the soldier, who had quitted his colours, instantly paid the penalty with his life. This was shown by experience to be a wholesome measure, better than mercy; for there were fewer desertions in that camp than in those in which leniency was habitual.” Here we have a problem that has plagued armies since warfare began. Corbulo solves it by having a few exemplary executions. In a more recent era, such as the American Civil War, there were desertions throughout the conflict. As the anaconda around the South tightened there were numerous desertions from the Confederacy. Mark Perry, in Partners in Command, which has a political ax to grind, states that desertion at the end of the European Conflict during WWII increase. This increase in desertions played a role in the execution of Eddie Slovik for desertion. The execution is portrayed in a rather heavy handed fashion in Carl Foreman’s movie The Victors. The film uses a soundtrack composed of Christmas songs during the execution scene to underscore the irony of executing someone during a season of peace. One of the characters, played by George Peppard, turns down an invitation to stay with Melina Mercouri because he witnessed the execution. So, at least in the movie, it had a deterrent effect.

At 43 we have someone banished to the Balearic isles. This sounds pretty bad till you remember that this is the location of Majorca. Of course, Majorca then was probably not like Majorca now.

Book XIV brings us the death of Agrippina, Nero’s mother. The poor thing was supposed to drown, but she was too good a swimmer, and was dispatched by a soldier. “The assassins closed in round her couch, and the captain of the trireme first struck her head violently with a club. Then, as the centurion bared his sword for the fatal deed, presenting her person, she exclaimed, "Smite my womb," and with many wounds she was slain.”

Chapter 64 also brings us the rather gruesome description of Nero’s former wife, Octavia. “And now the girl, in her twentieth year, with centurions and soldiers around her, already removed from among the living by the forecast of doom, still could not reconcile herself to death. After an interval of a few days, she received an order that she was to die, although she protested that she was now a widow and only a sister, and appealed to their common ancestors, the Germanici, and finally to the name of Agrippina, during whose life she had endured a marriage, which was miserable enough indeed, but not fatal. She was then tightly bound with cords, and the veins of every limb were opened; but as her blood was congealed by terror and flowed too slowly, she was killed outright by the steam of an intensely hot bath. To this was added the yet more appalling horror of Poppæa beholding the severed head which was conveyed to Rome.”

Book XV takes us up to the fire at Rome, and its consequences for the Christians. The fire begins in Chapter 38, and Tacitus expresses uncertainty as to whether it was the work of Nero or an accident. At Chapter 44 we get the famous comment on Christus,”Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

I understand that there is some speculation that this passage might be spurious. This is apparently the only place where Tacitus mentions Christians directly, though there may be references when he comments on superstition or makes a negative comment on a religion.

Book XVI contains this comment at Chapter 8, “Nero then procured persons, under the name of informers, to invent against Lepida, the wife of Cassius and aunt of Silanus, a charge of incest with her brother's son, and of some ghastly religious ceremonial. Volcatius Tullinus, and Marcellus Cornelius, senators, and Fabatus, a Roman knight, were drawn in as accomplices. By an appeal to the emperor these men eluded an impending doom and subsequently, as being too insignificant, escaped from Nero, who was busy with crimes on a far greater scale.” Could the charge of incest, and the ghastly religious ceremonial be related to Christianity? If I remember Justin Martyr’s defense of Christianity correctly, he attacks the notion that Christians are incestuous, which may have been widespread even at the time of Nero, and the ghastly religious ceremonial could have been the Eucharistic feast, with its implied cannibalism. On the other hand, it could have been any religion that Tacitus disliked.

Chapter 18 brings us the death of Caius Petronius. Petronius seems to have been a rather charming rogue based on the description here. He is also supposed to have been the author of The Satyricon. I read this in my adolescence, over 40 years ago, and whether it was the translation or my naivete I didn’t understand that many of the activities described were homosexual. Maybe I just didn’t read it closely.

The annals break off a few pages later.

Next up is Plotinus. I’ll be doing selections from the Enneads. Following that is Anselm, and then I plan to break for Ken Follet’s book on the cathedral, and maybe some John Ringo. Then I’ll resume with Thomas Aquinas.

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