Book Review: The Annals Of Imperial Rome

The Annals Of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

It is little to be wondered that the Annals of Tacitus are among the most notable history books, in that the book manages to strike a tone of deep irony while providing an immense about of gossipy accounts of the first Roman Emperors.  The book is itself in fragmentary condition, missing all of Caligula’s reign and most of the reign of Claudius, for example, as well as the last two years of Nero’s reign, but enough of the book remains that it is clear that Tacitus was writing with the mission of bringing a great deal of sordid business to light about the decadent and corrupt course of early imperial Rome.  The large number of names mentioned here, and the complications of family trees and various immoral connections makes this book a difficult one to grasp in terms of the people involved, especially when so many of them meet the same ends by poison or being induced to slit their veins open in suicide to appease the wrath of an emperor.  This sense of sameness makes the book a bit difficult to read at times when one is trying to make sense of the larger narrative of which the various stories are only a part.  This translation has a few odd spellings for words like pickets, and few frills, but it is a solid translation nevertheless.

For the most part, the contents of the book are chronologically organized, although there is a fair hint of foreshadowing at various points where a given action has larger ramifications later on, and there is plenty of looking back on the past, not least in the speeches recorded by Tacitus as being given by various people of importance, whether Senators or imperial freedmen or generals, for example.  This particular volume covers the period from 14AD to 66AD in sixteen chapters of unequal length.  The first chapter covers the years 14-15, the second 16-19, the third 20-22, the fourth 23-28, the fifth 29-31, the sixth 32-37, the seventh through tenth books are missing, the eleventh 47-48, the twelfth 48-54, the thirteenth 54-58, the fourteenth 59-62, the fifteenth 62-65, and the sixteenth 65-66.  The contents that are included could range from gossiping about the immorality of a given emperor, the behavior of Senators, the events going on in intermittent warfare in Armenia and Parthia, the misfortunes of children of the Imperial blood who were continually being thought of as the subjects of various coup attempts and were often dispatched in various cruel ways, and occasionally matters of cultural significance.

There are at least a few reasons why someone would want to read this book even though it is not complete and even though it is not an easy or always an enjoyable task.  For one, reading this history gives a reader a detailed understanding of the corruption and decadence of the early Roman Empire [1], so that we are not nostalgic for the times of ancient Rome and that we appreciate the moral condemnation that falls on Rome and its ways.  In addition to this, Tacitus’ history provides an example of the intersection between power gained through flattering evil authorities and that authority that is gained through loyal and conspicuous service and demonstrates the instability of many regimes because of matters of personal politics.  In addition to these aims, the book is worthwhile as the sort of history that is often turned into historical drama with lots of sex and violence, given that this book has a great deal of both.  One may not necessarily be able to relate to its material, but given that we live in a corrupt age ourselves, this book is in many ways a strange mirror that we can look at and see times not too unlike our own.  We can make of that what we will, including the fact that the age of Tacitus, like our own, was not one that was sympathetic to Christianity and that viewed Christians as enemies of mankind, despite or because of its own wickedness.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Biblical History, Christianity, History, Military History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Annals Of Imperial Rome

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Book Of Political Lists | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Collapse And Recovery Of The Roman Empire | Edge Induced Cohesion

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