Classic Works

Tacitus, The Annales (early Second Century AD)

Cornelius Tacitus (56-c117 AD) was a senator, historian, and ethnographer of the Roman Empire and its times. The extant remains of his two most known works, Annales and Historiae, are invaluable sources for our understanding of the beginnings of the principate up to the time of Trajan. Like many of the great historians and thinkers of antiquity, he was renowned as a rhetorician and capable in the use of language, a skill that no doubt aided him as a writer of political history during the reign of the tyrannical Domitian. Indeed, his cognomen, meaning “the silent” is both ironical and true. For while Tacitus was known for speaking, in the Annales we see a deft use of omission and quietness in discussing the banal brutality of a Tiberius or a Nero, as well as double-meaning and discreet satire. Tacitus’ project is the problem of tyranny, and the possibility of virtue under tyranny.

Although much of it has been lost, the Annales is an invaluable source of information about the early days of the Roman Empire, dealing with the reign of Tiberius to the reign of Nero. The name stems from its yearly structure, but it is unclear what Tacitus meant his work to be called. It is also unclear who actually read Tacitus’ work, although it is from St. Jerome (347-420 AD) that we know Tacitus wrote a total of 30 books of history, 16 in the Annales and 14 in the Historiae.  Out of the 16 books that have been attributed to the Annales, we are missing the entirety of books 7-10 and parts of books 5, 6, 11, and 16. What has survived is due to medieval manuscripts kept in abbey libraries, as is often the case with ancient authors. No original manuscript has survived. It is also unclear who began to make Tacitus popular again. We do know that Machiavelli and Montaigne were deeply impressed, so much so that some Venetian scholars blamed Tacitus for Machiavelli’s revolution in political thought, although this is not fair to either Tacitus or Machiavelli.

The Annales is the most widely-read of Tacitus’ works, perhaps because it is about the problem of tyranny. Tacitus’ mode of writing history is very much in line with his predecessors in both Greece and Rome—he clearly owes much to Herodotus, Xenophon, and Livy. One can see this in his insistence that history is not merely a recounting of events, but rather an education in virtue and the political life. History is not for its own sake, but for the sake of learning prudence and acting well. Thus the Roman history that Tacitus deals with is the history of tyrants. If Tacitus shares a moral vision with earlier historians, his work is unique in his choice to focus on the imperial court and the sycophantic imperial attendees that make up the entourages of the emperors. While Livy and Polybius wrote about the expansion of the empire and the place of republican life in that expansion, Tacitus writes on the reality of universal empire and universal history. This raises a question about the Annales when we think about it in relation to diplomatic-strategic conduct: What does it have to tell us? The Historiae is full of war and its conduct and seems a more fertile ground for those who wish to understand the nature of political life among nations. The depressing litany of executions and suicides that litter the pages of the Annales seems like a nasty sideshow to international politics.

But it is precisely the centrality of the imperial court that makes Tacitus’ work important and why the poet Racine called him le plus grand peintre de l’antiquite, or why John Quincy Adams said that Tacitus, along with Cicero, was as his arm. The significance of the Annales lies in its discussion of the place of soldiers and statesmen in a world of near universal rule. If one wished to escape the imperial court, one had to go to Parthia, but even in Parthia Rome made its presence felt. Although there were Germanic tribes and eastern kingdom not under Roman control de jure, Rome controlled the world for all intents and purposes.

Tyranny in the ancient sense of the term is not much talked about in our current political milieu, but for Tacitus it is the perpetual trajectory of human desire and only stern discipline restrains it. The nature of imperial Rome and its administration of the world is worth pondering when we face the possibility of bureaucratic control of the international economy and the attendant centralization of international institutions. The question of the place of the statesman and the soldier in such a world is of pressing importance. Tacitus gives a provisional, disturbing, answer—there is no place for traditional political activity or statecraft in a world of universal rule, for the virtues required by that political activity are necessarily rival claims to authority to rule.


Political Theory and Tacitus

Distillations of a work like Annales and an author like Tacitus will necessarily be fraught and provisional. The Annales is a work of political history, and an incomplete work of political history at that. The work must be read in its entirety and digested, especially to avoid the heresy of paraphrase. And Tacitus is especially adept at making his view resilient against reduction and distillation, so much so that there has been no consensus about what Tacitus’ political views were, whether he is a defender of republicanism, tyranny, or something else; whether he was a cold-hearted pragmatist or a lionizer of the free life; whether his vision is amoral or moral.

Indeed, when Tacitus was rediscovered in the Renaissance he seems to have been used as a cipher for Machiavelli once the Florentine was put on the Index. Renaissance thinkers saw Tacitus as a man who could tell the right sort of reader how to live prudently under a tyrant, or how to found a long-lasting tyranny. This is a disservice to both Machiavelli and Tacitus—to the former because it ignores his fundamental break with classical political thought, to the latter because Tacitus has a fundamentally different concern from Machiavelli and modern political thought. Indeed, if there is such a thing as “the modern project,” then Tacitus’ Annales provides an inoculation against the belief that man’s conquest of the world will lead to human well-being.

One example of Tacitus’ confusing and ambiguous statements of “political theory” is his description of the origin of law. He wished to describe the causes of the overly-complicated Roman civil law. He tells us that “primitive man had no evil desires” and that his life was “free of force and punishment, for he was naturally good.” After the introduction of “inequality,” “domination” and “violence” to human life, despotism resulted. Some communities “preferred rule of law.” One such community was Rome. But the rule of law is no long-term protection against injustice, for Tacitus claims that the last just Roman law was passed nearly six hundred years before he was writing. All subsequent laws were instruments of class warfare. This class warfare came to a head with the struggle between Sulla and Marius, along with the attempt to reform public life by Pompey. The rise of Augustus was tied to a preference for peace over violence, regardless of the justice of that peace.

But peace required many more laws, and stricter laws since the presumption was not in favor of republican freedom. The decay of moral and public-spiritedness that attended the class warfare of the Republic gave rise to something new in Rome—Caesar Augustus as “the parent over all the people.” Tacitus’ description of the fall of original humanity, the introduction of force into human life due to inequality, and the failure of politics to alleviate these evils reminds one of a thinker more akin to Rousseau than a Machiavelli.  Tacitus, however, offers a different response to life under the universal parent. He suggests that perhaps history and the progress of civilization are cyclical. This understanding allows one to admit the superiority of some aspects of more “primitive” humanity while also insisting on achievements of modern life that rival ancient achievements. Tacitus tells us that “keeping up with our ancestors in this decisive contest is noble.” Tacitus draws a veil over the ugly truths of Roman politics (including the deflation of the supposedly grand Republic) by suggesting that his readers take a longer view and measure themselves against great figures of the past rather than Caesar Augustus. Tacitus is not specific about how his age is the honorable rival of the past.

There is something apolitical in Tacitus’ description of the origin of the law, in the sense that he sees domination of others as the norm, although not a praiseworthy norm. For that matter, he does not think that human beings are political by nature, but only because of the accident of inequality. Tacitus is akin to “tragic realists” who believe that human beings are naturally unable to achieve the best regime or act truly according to reason. But while the realists of the modern world doubt the possibility of world government, world peace, and the rule of law over all men, Tacitus in fact saw these things, or at least near enough approximations of these things. He knew that the task of world government was not impossible, nor was effectual world peace impossible, for he lived in the time of the Pax Romana. He saw the realizations of utopian philosophers as something hideous, and this where the true tragedy lies. For mankind achieved peace and world order, and it was nothing other than a brutal tyranny.

When we consider diplomatic-strategic conduct in the Annales, it is the conduct of a worldwide tyrant or those attempting to act in the face of a worldwide tyrant. The questions is how do soldiers and statesmen conduct themselves in this context?



The most famous general-statesman that Tacitus discusses is Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 B.C.-A.D. 19). The grandnephew of Augustus and the adopted son of Tiberius, he was the natural son of Nero Claudius Drusus who received the agnomen “Germanicus” for his series of triumphs in Germania, something his son was to emulate.

More than one commentator on the Annales has pointed out the near perfunctory manner in which Tacitus writes about battles and the stratagems of generals. Whereas earlier historians placed a great deal of emphasis on particular battles since it was there that the fates of empires and nations were decided, Tacitus by his brief summations of military events indicates that these military events did not really matter very much. Thus, Germanicus is something of an anomaly in the Annales. Tacitus depicts most of the Romans as having made their peace with servility in a number of ways, from outright flattery to discreet withdrawal from public life. Germanicus did not withdraw from public life—indeed he seems the exemplar of the public-spirited man, “a young man with the innate capacity for citizenship.” Tacitus portrays him as, arguably, the last of the republican Romans. Piety, devotion to the common good, and modest ambitions set Germanicus apart from the main run of characters in Annales. Tacitus attends to the campaigns of Germanicus with far more detail than any other general or statesman.

Germanicus’ introduction in the Annales is appropriately heroic, and, as we shall see, ambiguous. Tiberius sent Germanicus to deal with the army revolt on the German frontier, partly because Germanicus’ father was so popular with the soldiers there. The mutiny itself is worth considering for what it tells about the state of Rome. The soldiers had thought that the accession of Tiberius to the imperial throne meant that they would be payed, or bribed, for their loyalty. When this did not happen, they refused to obey orders and even killed superior officers. The German legions in particular were hopeful that Germanicus would use them for his own purposes. If they invaded Gaul or Italy as part of a civil war they could become wealthy from spoils. But Tacitus also notes that there was a kind of justice in the demands of the soldiers for higher pay and reduced duties. The greatness of the Empire depended in part on the ordinary legionary.  Through a mixture of intrigue and effective oratory, Germanicus persuaded the soldiers that they were heaping dishonor on themselves and Rome as a whole by making the Gallic and German allies appear more loyal and reliable than the legions.

While this effectively brought the legionaries with Germanicus to their senses, in other legions the mutineers were still at large. Germanicus decided to march on the rebellious legions, while threatening them with indiscriminate violence if they did not put themselves in order. Tacitus then relates a pathetic scene of two legions tearing themselves apart in order to assuage Germanicus and Tiberius. The violence the legions inflicted upon themselves was far worse than a civil war—men who had appeared to be friends the night before began butchering each other. Tacitus strongly implies that the legionnaires killed each other more often out of personal animosity or desire for gain than for any serious attempt to rectify their injustice. When Germanicus arrived at the camp, he wept, realizing that his ambiguous request had caused a disaster and “was no medicine.”

This sordid episode should cause us to reflect upon Germanicus, namely his role as the servant of Tiberius. Rather than destroying the enemies of Rome, Germanicus took a large part in the legions’ self-destruction. To rectify that situation Germanicus invaded Germany, ostensibly to avenge the destruction of Varus’ legions at the Teutoberg Forest. In reality, it was to make the legions forget their dishonor and shame and replace it with glory. Germanicus proved his worth by traversing the same territory as the unfortunate Varus, and defeating the same foe, Arminius, king of the Germanic Cherusci. Tacitus shows Germanicus to have the traditional virtues that we expect in a Roman commander: industry, courage, moderation, solicitude for his men, and a canny knowledge of the terrain. Tacitus also emphasizes the havoc he wreaked on his German opponents. But Tacitus points out as well that many Romans were killed under Germanicus’ command, either due to his demand that the legionaries dispense justice themselves or, more often, due to natural events such as a stormy sea. Furthermore, no permanent change with regard to the Rhine as the Roman frontier occurred.

Although Tacitus does indeed lavish attention on Germanicus’ efforts in Germany, we must recognize that Germanicus was unable to overcome the real victor, Arminius, for Arminius had effectively made the Rhine the permanent border between Rome and Germany. Tacitus briefly explains that although Germanicus asked for the authority to make the war in Germany meaningful by establishing Roman imperium there, Tiberius refused out of jealousy and fear of what Germanicus would do. The violence that follows a man like Germanicus, a man of traditional Roman virtue, is made meaningless in the time of the principate. Germanicus’ death in Asia Minor due to a petty squabble with an otherwise unknown Roman aristocrat is the appropriate, if sad, end of a man who had no real place in the principate. And when Tacitus observes that those attending his funeral compared him to Alexander the Great, we must ask ourselves: Is this not wishful thinking on the part of the Romans? The existence of the principate and the near universal Roman Empire made a man like Germanicus not only unnecessary, but dangerous. If Tacitus admires Germanicus’ nature, he also shows that the scope for great men is greatly reduced in the world of Pax Romana.



After Germanicus, the Roman General who receives the most attention from Tacitus is Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo (7-67 AD). Tacitus introduces Corbulo as a man of old-fashioned strictness and severity. Like Germanicus before him, Corbulo makes his strong personality felt by dispatching the truculent Germans with relative ease, and invading Germany. But the emperor Claudius, like Tiberius, would not allow for expansion into German territory. Corbulo observed that pervious Roman generals were fortunate men, and made his soldiers dig a canal to keep them occupied.

Later in his narrative, Tacitus relates how Parthia invaded Armenia and set its own nobility, named Tiridates, on the Armenian throne, a pawn in the game of high politics between Rome and Parthia. Nero, the emperor at the time, gave Corbulo the task of “retaining Armenia” although Rome had never possessed Armenia in the first place. Tacitus reports that the appointment of Corbulo was significant in the eyes of Roman aristocrats, who thought that it was a sign that “a way had been opened up for virtue.” Nero’s surprisingly aggressive foreign policy after the fairly status quo policies of Tiberius and Claudius gave Corbulo the opportunity to live up to his reputation. As in Germany, he began by reintroducing severity to legionary life—Tacitus observes that the legions had become soft by peace. It took some time to come to grips with the Parthian and Armenian forces, as they were more interested in prolonging the war rather than deciding it in one battle. Corbulo did meet with some success in storming Armenian forts, but after seizing Artaxata, the capital of Armenia, he burned it to the ground because holding it would provide “neither glory nor benefit.” Tacitus then observes that it was popularly thought that Corbulo was acting as an instrument of divine providence, and that the gods were angry with Artaxata. Tacitus then immediately tells the reader that Nero (not Corbulo) was hailed as a victor. Tacitus shows the reader that Corbulo’s actions were consistently not attributed to Corbulo himself—he gained little to no glory by his campaign.

After destroying Artaxata, Corbulo moved further into Armenia terrorizing those who resisted and treating kindly those who welcomed him. He avoided conflict wherever possible in order to take advantage of the fickle Armenians who wavered between Parthia and Rome. As Corbulo was selectively ravaging those areas known to be intractably unfriendly toward Rome, Nero’s puppet king Tigranes arrived on the scene and put a halt to Corbulo’s military activities. Corbulo took on the imperial governorship of Syria.

The king of Parthia, Vologases, objected to Nero’s interfering in Armenia. When Tigranes attacked a Parthian client kingdom, Vologases had cause for war. Corbulo was called upon again to defend Tigranes from Parthia, but he requested someone else to do it, and so the incompetent Lucius Caesennius Paetus was sent to relieve Tigranes. Vologases easily and decisively defeated Paetus, partly because Corbulo was slow in coming to his aid, since he desired the honor of effecting a last-minute rescue. As Paetus’ routed troops came toward him, Corbulo exclaimed “my work is wasted!” Although Paetus wished to reform and invade Armenia again, Corbulo refused to act without explicit orders from the emperor. Tacitus notes that in Rome the Senate pretended as though the empire had won the war against Parthia. In imperial Rome, the Corbulo’s career was empty of lasting effects.

A year later Corbulo did indeed invade Armenia on Nero’s orders. But Vologases and Tiridates both sent peace envoys, and asked Corbulo to come to terms. Corbulo met with Tiridates at the very place that Paetus had come to grief, Tacitus says, in order to increase his own glory. Tiridates placed his diadem at the feet of an effigy of Nero, and would resume wearing it only when he received it from Nero’s own hand. After this episode, Corbulo is not mentioned again in the surviving work of Tacitus.

While some commentators argue that Corbulo is clearly some sort of hero to Tacitus, the above summary of Tacitus’ presentation of Corbulo does not bear out this interpretation. Like Germanicus, Corbulo is a man who seems impressive, but has very little to show for his efforts. Armenia, although outwardly paying homage to Nero, was in fact a Parthian outpost. Rome had lost the war and then been outmaneuvered by the superior diplomacy of Vologeses and Tiridates. Unlike the case with Germanicus, Tacitus implies that Corbulo was content with this state of affairs, because he was concerned with his prestige and name, rather than real accomplishment. For Corbulo, success could be measured in how the emperor thought of him, rather than what he actually accomplished for the good of Rome. This is not to say that the diplomatic settlement of the Parthian War was not to Rome’s benefit—but Tacitus ironically reveals that Corbulo was utterly unware of how he was being used by the Parthian nobility. Nero had become quite unpopular at this point, and needed something that looked like a great victory. But the reality is that all Corbulo had accomplished in the name of the emperor was carnage—again resembling Germanicus. The only appreciable change in Parthian-Roman relations had been a slight shift in Parthia’s favor.


The International System, and the Pax Romana

The picture of the international system presented in Annales is quite different from what other historians show us. The world of Annales is relatively peaceful as compared with the world of a Polybius or a Thucydides. Indeed, Tacitus frequently mentions the emperors’ pacific foreign policy, being reluctant to use Rome’s massive military for much of anything other than keeping order within the empire. Although military conflict occurs with outside powers such as German tribes or Parthia, it is usually nothing more than a glorified raid.

Tacitus’ opinion about the policy of peace is somewhat unclear. One is reminded of Polybius’ paean to peace, and cannot help but think that Tacitus probably agreed in most respects about the desirability of a “just and fitting peace.” But whether the Pax Romana actually was a just and fitting peace is another question. And whether the Pax Romana was pursued for laudable reasons is yet another question. Tiberius’ fear of Germanicus supports the opinion that he declined to expand the Empire because he feared rivals.

One way of getting at Tacitus’ view of the Pax Romana is how he viewed the political alternatives to Rome. Unlike Polybius, who could offer the Achaean League as a viable alternative to Roman imperium, we see little offered by Tacitus. During his long and depressing accounts of the imperial court, there are two foreign locales offered by way of respite from imperial debauchery, Germany and Parthia, and each of the these two alternatives also offers examples of political leadership in the face of overwhelming Roman power.

Arminius, the nemesis of Varus and a symbol of Germanic resistance to Roman expansion, stands as one example of alternatives to mere submission to greater power. Although the disaster of Teutonberg occurred long before Tacitus begins his history, the three annihilated legions were very much a part of public imagination, especially with regard to any Roman policy regarding Germania. Arminius is thus a foe worthy of Germanicus. Arminius fails to prevent Germanicus from ravaging Germania and massacring entire towns, but Tacitus claims that part of the reason for that failure was the lack of unified command on the German side. When the Romans withdrew across the Rhine in accordance with Tiberius’ will, Arminius proved himself to be an able leader of the Cherusci. Tacitus relates that his downfall was not Roman in origin, but rather due to his own allies when he pursued kingship. With his death Tacitus offers this remarkable meditation: “He was unmistakably the liberator of Germany. Challenger of Rome—not in its infancy, like kings and commanders before him, but at the height of its power—he had fought undecided battles, and never lost a war. He had ruled for twelve of his thirty-seven years. To this day the tribes sing of him. Yet Greek historians ignore him, reserving their admiration for Greece. We Romans, too, underestimate him, since in our devotion to antiquity we neglect modern history.”

But Tacitus offers little by way of analyzing Arminius’ character so that we might know precisely how he was able to defy Rome. What the Greeks are supposed to learn from the Germans is unclear.

Another, perhaps more enlightening example is Parthia. Parthia most clearly demonstrates the limits of the Roman imperium. This is not to say that the Parthian Empire was a decent political alternative to the Roman Empire—if anything, Tacitus implies that it was even more chaotic and despotic than Rome. But Tacitus does imply that due to the characters of Vologases and Tiridates, the Parthians were able to achieve their ends by diplomacy and very selective use of force, rather than the sheer weight of legions.

Tacitus intersperses his discussion of the imperial court with reports regarding Roman-Parthian relations throughout the Annales. But it is with regard to the degenerate Nero that Tacitus most clearly shows superior Parthian statesmanship. When Nero insists on having his own man on the Armenian throne rather than the Parthian candidate, Vologases waits to do anything until he is given cause. When speaking to his men before battle, Vologases observes that Parthian soldiers possess virtue, but more importantly modestia.[1] Tacitus tells us that Vologases had consistently avoided war with Rome, especially because he was also putting down a domestic revolt at the same time. This was true in the case of trying to restore Tiridates to the throne as well, for he did not begin major military operations until Nero rebuffed his initial attempts to find a diplomatic solution. In the conflict between Vologases and Paetus, Tacitus contrasts the hubristic confidence of Paetus against a wary reluctance of the Parthian to face Roman heavy infantry. But Vologases quickly routed the Romans as soon as Paetus divided his forces, allowing himself to be defeated in detail. Tacitus then reports that Vologases refused to watch the legions flee, “for being filled with pride, he sought glory for moderation (moderatio).”[2] Tacitus does not say that Vologases was in fact moderate, but that he wished to seem so, especially with regard to Roman-Parthian relations. He then sent a letter to Nero to make clear what the facts of the situation were: Parthia had humiliated Rome, and had proved that it was too powerful for Roman half-measures. The gist of the letter is clear Parthian superiority, but also a sense of restraint lacking in Nero’s court and in Nero’s foreign policy.  We see this instantiated when Tiridates meets with Corbulo at the site of Paetus’ disaster to discuss terms. “Tiridates was the first to dismount” and after Corbulo thanked him for adopting a mutually beneficial course (although Nero had commanded Corbulo to pursue war and not peace) Tiridates, after insisting on the nobility of his family, “appended temperately (temperanter)” that he would go to Rome and offer homage to the Roman emperor, despite the record of Parthian successes. Corbulo accepted.

As noted above, Parthia had managed successively to eject a Roman puppet, install its own puppet, and defeat the Roman response quickly, all with little loss to itself. It then used this victory, along with throwing a bone at Nero’s overweening sense of self-importance to secure its position with regard to Armenia. Tacitus reports the scene of the peacemaking—both armies paraded, Parthian cavalry and Roman infantry, with all their insignias. Tacitus compares it to a “temple,” with the figure of Nero in the middle. Tiridates placed his diadem at the foot of the effigy.

After this event, Vologases was solicitous about Tiridates’ well-being when he went to Rome to pay homage to Nero. Tacitus mocks Vologases’ concerns about status—whether Tiridates should keep his sword, whether he could embrace governors, whether he would be kept waiting at the door, and so on. Tacitus ridicules this “ostentatiousness” and confidently states that “Romans desire real power and avoid its emptiness.” He then blandly reports that the same year Roman equites were allowed to sit in front of the plebeians during the circus. If the Parthians are overly concerned about the appearances of power rather than its reality, then we must wonder what that means about the Romans who are so concerned about who sits where at the circus. For the image of the two most powerful nations worshipping in the temple of Nero is ambiguous and intensifies the question about the Romans’ relationship with power.

On one hand, it is Tiridates and Vologases who have truly demonstrated their power, for they have persuaded Rome to agree to Parthia’s will. As long as they appear to worship at the temple of Nero, then the Romans are satisfied. This does not speak well for Romans ignoring the appearances of power, and Tacitus reinforces this point by revealing the desire of the equites to sit in front of others at the circus. On the other hand, the image of the two great powers dividing the world and making their own temple, and the Parthian prince who rules the petty state of Armenia paying homage to the image of Nero is both poignant and repulsive. The ostentation and the image in fact reveal what has become of the world in the Pax Romana: a world of rival tyrants, in which warfare is little else than minor settling of the frontiers.

While the Parthians and their moderation may provide a model of statecraft against a power like Rome, the image of worshipping the disgusting Nero leaves the reader wondering if there is another way, perhaps something that combined the fierce spirit of the Germans and the self-effacing moderation of the Parthians. Tacitus does not provide a viable alternative for those who do not wish to see the world overtaken by tyranny, whether it by “unipolar” or “bipolar” powers. This is, however, only one of the problems that the Annales forces us to consider.



The dark vision of Tacitus does not stem from a belief that the world is doomed to fragmentation and anarchy. It stems from seeing that the world is all too susceptible to the uniformity and peace promised by an institution like the principate. Indeed, one could say that Tacitus shows us a world in which there is a minimum of international relations as traditionally understood. There are border clashes with the Germans, and arguments with the distant Parthians about the status of smaller states (in which the smaller states have no say, nor, according to Tacitus, do they desire their own say). In this world diplomatic-strategic conduct no longer has great objects. Peace has been attained, and what more could we want? With this narrowing of the horizons for diplomatic-strategic conduct comes a concomitant frustration of the human soul itself. One sees this clearly in a man like Germanicus, but even in the less impressive Corbulo one detects that there is no clear means proving virtue. When Tacitus turns his attentions to Galba, Otho, and Vitellius in the Historiae, he points out one of the consequences of this frustration—Romans visited ferocity upon themselves that used to be reserved for foreign enemies.[3]

A consideration for those of us in the liberal democracies is whether the universalization of liberal forms of government is in fact a worthwhile goal. Tacitus’ point about the tyranny of universal government may not be easily translated into the preponderant power of the liberal democracies. And yet one wonders if the possibility of nobility, so snuffed out by Rome, will be sustained or likewise banished in a world of liberalism. What are statesmen to do in a world that has no use for war, because it believes in little other than avoiding pain and violent death? Excellence is difficult to cultivate without adversity, and at times it seems that contemporary international politics, at least on the Western side of things, is the denial of all adversity and confrontation in the name universal fraternity. There may be a rude awakening when one realizes that brothers can be the fiercest of foes.

In the meantime, Tacitus suggests the moderation of the Parthians will be a more sustainable way of satisfying the human desire to be truly excellent. This point of view is buttressed by the greater success the Parthians enjoyed against Rome than vice versa. But the moderation of the Parthians included satisfying the Roman need to be worshipped as divine. In this sense, Parthia’s moderate foreign policy was just another expression of Rome’s shrinking the scope of human action. The world of Rome does not allow for anything other than the moderation that comes from the absence of alternatives, let alone the coming of another Alexander.


[1] Modestia seems to be a combination of temperance and humility. It conveys a sense of moderation not only regarding tangible goods but also honor. Return to Text.

[2] Although with characteristic witty ambiguity, Tacitus then tells us how Vologases crossed a river on an elephant because a rumor had started that the Roman bridge had been built to collapse, when it was in fact reliable. It is not clear whether this is the action of a moderate man. Return to Text.

[3] It is worth recalling that when Tacitus points out nobility in Historiae, he first mentions mothers and wives, then sons, and then slaves. The manly virtus praised by Caesar or Polybius seems to have been supplanted by alternative forms of virtue. Return to Text.


For Further Reading

Tacitus, Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. (London: Penguin) 1956. This translation makes Tacitus quite approachable without trying to “update” the ancient author too much. A Loeb edition nearby will help get the true meaning of Tacitus, however.

Alain, Michel. Tacite et le destin de l’Europe. (Paris: Arthaud) 1966.

Kajanto, I. “Tacitus on Slaves: An Interpretation of the Annales XIV.42-45.” Arctos (1970): 43-60.

Leake, James Chart. “Tacitus’ Teaching and the Decline of Liberty at Rome” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy Vol. 15 No. 1-3) (January, May, September 1987): 55-96, 195-308.

Levene, D.S. “Warfare in the Annals” in The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus edited by A.J. Woodman (New York: Cambridge University Press) 2009.

Syme, Ronald. Tacitus. 2 volumes. (Oxford: Clarendon) 1958.

Wellesley, T.A. “Tacitus as a Military Historian” in Tacitus edited by T.A. Dorey (London) 1969.