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Italian Civilization Through the Ages

Unit 10, topics 1-3: Tacitus, Roman historiography


10.1 Tacitus: his life and career

    • 55 or 56 CE: Tacitus is born (a Roman citizen of Northern Italian or Gallic origin)
    • 88: he is praetor under Emperor Domitian
    • 90-93: he is not in Rome; probably he was serving in some imperial province
    • 93: his father-in-law, the powerful general Agricola, dies
    • 97: Tacitus serves as consul under Emperor Nerva (the consulship was not abolished under the Empire, even though the powers of the consuls were greatly reduced)

The Germania

  • 98: Tacitus writes a biography of Agricola, followed by the Germania, one of the first written documents on the ancient Germans
  • Even though they were considered barbarians, Tacitus manages to find in the Germans traces of the same qualities that had made the first Romans great
    • a deep sense of honor
    • respect for bravery and heroism
    • appreciation of a simpler, frugal life

The last years

  • 109: Tacitus writes the Historiae, a historical work covering Roman history from 68 to 96 CE
  • circa 112: Tacitus is proconsul of the province of Asia (one of the wealthiest regions of the Empire, in modern-day Turkey)
  • circa 114: he writes the Annals, about the history of the Empire between 14 and 68 CE
  • 118 or 119: Tacitus dies

10.2 The rediscovery of Tacitus

  • Like many others, even the texts written by Tacitus were copied and preserved during the Middle Ages, but the few existing copies did not circulate much
  • They were rediscovered during the 14th and 15th century, thanks especially to the efforts of Poggio Bracciolini, a famous Italian humanist
    • “There amid a tremendous quantity of books which it would take too long to describe, we found Quintilian still safe and sound, though filthy with mold and dust. For these books were not in the Library, as befitted their worth, but in a sort of foul and gloomy dungeon at the bottom of one of the towers, where not even men convicted of a capital offense would have been stuck away”

Poggio Bracciolini and Tacitus

  • The following quotes from Bracciolini were found in an article by Roger Pearse
    • “As for the monastery of Corvey, which is in Germany, you have no grounds for hope
    • There are supposed to be a lot of books there; I do not believe the tales of fools but even if what they say were true, the whole country is a den of thieves [1420]
    • You have almost all the news, but I am keeping the honey for the last
    • A friend of mine, who is a monk from a monastery in Germany and who left us lately, sent me a letter which I received three days ago”

Poggio Bracciolini's quest

  • “He writes that he has found several volumes of the kind you and I like, which he wants to exchange for the Novella of Joannes Andreae or for both the Speculum and its supplements, and he sends the names of the books enclosed in the letter
  • Among these volumes are Julius Frontinus and several works of Cornelius Tacitus still unknown to us
  • Dear Nicolaus, write to me as soon as you can what to answer him so that everything may be done according to your judgement
  • Goodbye, I have written this in great haste. Rome, the third day of November [1425]”

The struggle to get Tacitus's texts

  • “I have given up the great hope which I built on his promises
  • This monk is in need of money; I have discussed helping him, provided only that he gives me for this money the Ammianus Marcellinus, the first Decade of Livy, and one volume of the Orations of Cicero, to mention works we both have, and quite a few others, which although we have them are not to be disdained
  • I do not known how it will turn out; however you will find it all out from me in due course
  • Rome, the fifteenth of May [1427]”

Tacitism during the late Renaissance

  • Made popular by the numerous editions produced after the invention of the printing press, translated in Italian, French and English, Tacitus in the past was often read not just as a historian or a literary writer, but as a pure political thinker, an expert of the evil qualities of the political leaders and a connoisseur of their ruthless political strategies
    • This is certainly the case for many of the episodes from the life of Emperor Nero, including those that I have selected
    • Look at the title page and the index of a volume printed in Venice in 1618

Reading Tacitus in Europe

  • After Machiavelli's The Prince stimulated the debate on the art of politics and on the use of all means possible to obtain and maintain power, Tacitus attracted even more attention because of the large number of examples of deceitful politics that he seemed to offer while describing the lives and the deeds of many Roman Emperors
  • Between the 16th and the 18th-century, Tacitus was widely read or rather misread in Europe
    • For some he was the ally of absolutism, teaching tyrants how to master their unruly subjects; for others, he was the rector of republicanism (on this subject, see Howard D. Weinbrot, “Politics, taste, and national identity: some uses of Tacitism in 18th-century Britain” [1993])

10.3 Classical historiography

  • When you read excerpts from Tacitus, about the mutiny of the Roman Legions and the lives and crimes of the members of one of the most famous Roman imperial families, you should not take everything at face value
  • Historiography at the time of Tacitus was mostly a literary genre, preoccupied with the task of entertaining the reader as much as it was with the duty of providing accurate accounts of historical events
  • Historiography was not a scientific discipline in the way it is conceived and organized today

Classical historians

  • Classical historians were different from their modern counterparts because they usually ignored most social and economic phenomena, and other trends that involved the whole society, focusing almost exclusively on the lives of single individuals (heroes or villains), and on the direct consequences of their actions
  • As a result classical historiography constantly emphasizes a moralistic view of history, based on the good/evil actions and behaviors of its agents

Imperial decadence in the Roman sources

  • What you have here is practically literature, from a time in which classical culture showed a particular inclination for an almost Baroque representation of violence, sex, intrigue, simulation and dissimulation
  • The myth or legend of an extraordinarily corrupt Roman Empire, cradle to all kinds of impious and immoral behaviors, especially in reference to the 1st century AD, is an exaggeration, conjured up by an elite of conservative, nostalgic historians who had a virtual monopoly on the field of historiography

Historiography and the Roman Senate

  • When it comes to the Roman sources on the first Emperors, unless you take into consideration the remaining documents pertaining to the administration of the Empire, including the laws passed during that period, you may be easily swayed by the uniformity (at least in spirit) of the accounts of Tacitus and others
  • From the beginning of the Republic (and even earlier, if you consider the activity of the priests who were in charge of writing the official Annals of the Roman state), Rome's government was always very sensitive to the task of recording historical events for future memory
  • It was usually the Senate's conservative elite that produced the official or the most famous historians

Roman historiography and the Emperors

  • When the Republic came to an end and the Empire was established, things changed very slowly, not to upset the delicate stability restored in Roman society
  • For some time the same conservative elite continued to be represented (almost exclusively) in the field of professional historiography
  • Even the great Julius Caesar had been aware of the political inclinations of many Roman historians, and one of the reasons why he wrote his commentaries on Civil War was to provide the public with his own version of the events: there, he stressed the clemency that he had shown towards his enemies, in an attempt to bring back peace and reconciliation under his leadership

Roman historiography and propaganda

  • Later, the negative representation and the rumors spread by conservative historians of Tacitus's age were appropriated even by the official propaganda of some enlightened Emperors: for example, Trajan made a point of showing his subjects that he was not like Caligula or Nero, thus reinforcing the one-sided presentation of those leaders
  • Not that Nero did not do some or many of the things he was accused of by Tacitus: the point is that Tacitus only reports on the crimes and insists on the constant, moralistic display of odd behaviors that are unbecoming of an Emperor

Moralistic portrayal of the Roman Emperors

  • You get the impression that those Emperors (Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, etc.) were so involved in their own private lives and in their own mischievous practices that the administration of the Empire suffered, which is not necessarily true
  • It is true, though, that especially starting with the 3rd century many Emperors were chosen by the praetorian guards (the elite military unit that was in charge of the defense of the Imperial palace and in charge of maintaining the order in the city of Rome), and more than a few were glaringly inadequate for that position, having been chosen because of their popularity with the soldiers, or because they had promised large donations or pay raises


hui216_10/lectures/unit_10.1.txt · Last modified: 2010/04/26 09:18 by afedi
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