In the troubled history of Europe the Roman Empire seems an era of comparative order, peace and legality. It can hardly fail to exert a certain fascination amid the turmoil of the present century. If the average man is content to view the Romans through the eyes of the novelist and film-director, the curious observer will have questions to ask. He will wish to get a little nearer to the sources of our knowledge. He will turn in the first instance to The Annals of the senator Cornelius Tacitus. Now mutilated, the Annals originally comprised sixteen or eighteen short 'books', spanning the fifty-four years from the accession of the second emperor, Tiberius, to the death of the fifth, Nero (A.D. 14-68). Not less instructive, however, is an earlier work of Tacitus, the Histories. These deal with the three short-lived emperors of A.D. 69, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, and with the three emperors of the succeeding Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, 69-79; Titus, 79-81; and Domitian, 81-96). Originally twelve or fourteen books in length, the Histories survive to the extent of the first four and a portion of the fifth, covering the 'Year of the Four Emperors' A.D. 69, and some nine months of A.D. 70. Tacitus seems to have been planning the work as early as A.D. 98, and it may have been published, perhaps in instalments, between A.D. 105 and 108.
It follows that the scale of treatment was more generous in the Histories than in the Annals, and is most generous of all in the surviving portion of the former translated in the present volume. The reason for this abundance is not hard to guess. The year 69, 'that long but single year' as Tacitus had earlier called it, offers a wealth of dramatic incident. After the solid and prosperous security of the first or Julio-Claudian dynasty, the ground opens. The vast edifice of the world empire is shaken. Pretender rises against pretender. The frontier armies move on Rome from Spain, Germany, the Balkans and the East. The frontiers themselves are breached by the barbarian. There are palace conspiracies, sudden assassinations, desperate battles, deeds of heroism and perfidy. The scene shifts continually from one end of the empire to the other, from Britain to Palestine, from Morocco to the Caucasus. Three emperors — Galba, Otho and Vitellius — meet their end. The fourth, Vespasian, survives by fate or chance or merit, and founds his dynasty for good or ill. Here, in the clash of Roman with Roman, the civilized world seemed for the moment about to perish. Ancient or modern, the reader who delights in history as story could scarcely find the narrative dull, however inexpert the narrator. And the narrator is Tacitus. He rises to his theme, and as stylist, statesman and critic of human nature has the skill and knowledge to make words live.
In all the records of Rome there can scarcely be another year that is so full of calamity, or that displays so clearly the strength and weakness of the Romans. In the Histories we can follow events from month to month, from day to day, sometimes even from hour to hour. We stand close to the picture. The canvas is restricted but the details fascinate. Nor are broader masses and more distant perspectives lacking.
At first names crowd upon us Tacitus must set the scene. The actors are numerous, the plot already thick He starts at 1 January 69, the year of destiny, with backward glances at the six months or so that have elapsed since Nero's death we too must look back, and a little further.
Since the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., the Roman world has been ruled by Augustus and his family, the Julio-Claudians. The ruler is called imperator ('commander') or princeps ('leader'). The principate is an autocracy with some republican trappings. As in the days of the republic a hierarchy of elected officials ('magistrates') continues to hold office in Rome and act as army commanders or provincial governors for longer or shorter periods thereafter. The senate, a chamber composed of these officials and numbering some 500 members, continues to handle a considerable mass of public business. Many rich and important provinces, with Italy itself, still lie under its superintendence. But the armed forces are now controlled by the emperor, and with them the provinces in which these forces are stationed, mostly on the periphery of the empire. Such are Britain, the Rhineland, the Danubian countries, Egypt and the East. In a state where an official career alternates between civil and military appointments, the emperor's patronage is essential to advancement. In the association of princeps and senate, the former is inevitably the dominant partner. As brake or spur, the effectiveness of the senate depends upon its own cohesion and public spirit. As for the 'people of Rome', the full citizens living in Italy or scattered throughout the empire, their political power has shrunk almost to nothing, and that of non-Romans has never existed except at the level of local politics. The positions of eminence are occupied by senators, who in private life are rich landed gentry, and by knights (the 'equestrian order'), who possess a less exalted birth and are delimited by a lower property qualification. Both these orders have open to them official careers in which merit may rise in regular but flexible patterns of promotion. We must add to them a class hardly less important, that of the imperial freedmen, ex-slaves often of Eastern origin, men of talent acting as imperial civil-servants under the immediate control of the emperor.
Augustus and Tiberius were cautious and intelligent rulers, under whom Rome and her dominions prospered. The calm of a benevolent autocracy had succeeded the fever and anguish of the last century of the free republic. But Gaius, Claudius and Nero were less successful. Eccentric or megalomaniac in their various ways, these men, and particularly Nero, brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty — and to a certain degree the principate itself — into disrepute. The execution in A.D. 67 of a distinguished commander in the East, Domitius Corbulo, was an indication of the sort of gratitude that prominent Romans could expect of a suspicious and unbalanced tyrant. There were conspiracies. In March 68came the rebellion of the governor of Central Gaul, Julius Vindex, himself of Gallic origin. But there was a more important malcontent. In early April, the governor of Nearer Spain, Sulpicius Galba, member of an ancient aristocratic family, was hailed as emperor by his troops. Vindex, who had only a local militia at his disposal, was soon crushed by the governor of Upper Germany, Verginius Rufus. But on 9 June, Nero, feeling his position desperate, committed suicide Thereupon, Galba was recognised as princeps by the senate.
The credentials of a historian who is our main source for this period must be scrutinized. In writing the Histories, Tacitus enjoyed many advantages. He was himself a senator whose official career had begun and developed under the Flavians. He must necessarily have known much of the political history of the time at first hand. In the Year of the Four Emperors, he was only a boy of fourteen. But of course sources were plentiful. The events of A.D. 69 evoked a rich literature in both Greek and Latin, much of it tendentious and propagandist. There is no reason to doubt that Tacitus faithfully consulted these written sources, noting agreements and discrepancies. Two writers only are mentioned by name; others can be guessed. But in A.D. 98-105, when Tacitus was planning and writing his work, oral testimony was available from many survivors. Such was Vestricius Spurinna, a soldier with a long and distinguished career whose beginning Tacitus gracefully notices. Like many other possible informants, Spurinna was on friendly terms with the younger Pliny, and hence probably with his friend Tacitus. Pliny speaks warmly of the old man's character and love of reminiscence. Much of the detailed information in Books Two and Three concerning events in Liguria Tacitus may have retained from recollections of talk with his father-in-law Agricola, who was there at the time. Some state papers were certainly available to one who was a senator, particularly the Roman Hansard, the Transactions of the Senate — obviously put to good use in Book Four. These he seems to have supplemented by the evidence of surviving participants.
How conscientious and unbiased is he? Can we rely upon the facts, if not the interpretations that he provides? Any answer to this question must face the basic difficulty that the historian's sources, both primary and secondary, are lost to us. We have neither the Transactions of the Senate nor the historical works of the elder Pliny or Messalla. Independent evidence — a coin, an inscription, an archaeological find — is too slight to provide an effective criterion. Comparisons with parallel authorities are favourable to Tacitus. By and large, we must judge by internal evidence.
No reader of the Histories can be in doubt that the writer's emotions are involved in his account of the recent and controversial past, written, it may be, with an eye to the present and to the inscrutable and perhaps ominous future. There are King Charles's heads, themes that recur with suspicious and predictable frequency: the irresponsibility and corruption of the metropolis, the excessive influence of imperial freedmen, the selfish ambitions of competing courtiers, a senate riven and helpless, an emperor suspicious and uncertain. Some small slips in matters of fact may be detected, but they are few. The love of speed and brevity, or an assumption of knowledge in the reader, leads to omissions. There are sentences of Delphic ambiguity and antitheses more striking than clear. Epigram is not likely to be the best vehicle of truth. We may lament, while we enjoy, a sly innuendo. But these defects, if defects they are, lie on the surface. The more we study Tacitus, the more he rises in our esteem.
It would, however, be optimistic to suppose that his historical research was more than superficial. It is true that he consulted his friend the younger Pliny concerning the circumstances of the death of the latter's uncle in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79: the source was excellent and close at hand. In areas of dispute, however, he more than once tells us that inquiries would be difficult or impracticable. His task, it seemed to him, was to denounce implicitly or explicitly the grosser lies of partisan historians. When conflicting versions baffled solution, it was fairest and certainly easiest to state the alternatives, perhaps with a hint of what the writer himself considered most credible in the light of general probability. This preference is often, though not always, given to the less flattering version.
Since Tacitus cannot fall back upon his own research, many small and some vital issues remain in doubt. Was the acclamation of Vespasian engineered or spontaneous? Who was responsible for the sack of Cremona? Who for the firing of the amphitheatre at Placentia or of the Capitol at Rome? Did Vespasian connive at the incitement of Civilis to rebel? Was Antonius Primus the victim of Mucianus' jealousy, or was his fall from favour richly deserved? This and much else remain obscure. But the reason is not only the difficulty of establishing the truth. It is also a conviction that truth is not simple. Motives are complex, chance unpredictable, fate or the gods supreme. Will it not be better, where so much is dark, to leave the reader to ponder?
Sometimes Tacitus' accuracy can be submitted to objective tests. How far is the narrative consistent with itself? Prolonged and peevish criticism has revealed very little amiss. Even when Tacitus does not state a thing, it may sometimes be deduced that he knows it, and that his knowledge is sound. The chronology of Book Three, whose events form a closely interwoven and integrated whole, can be worked out in detail, though few dates are given by the historian. The sequence of events is found to be feasible in itself, and consistent with the data of topography, astronomy, speed of march and so on. Or we may appeal to witnesses who are still with us: rivers, mountains, tracks, gradients, towns. The story of the minor engagement described in Book Four, 71, is a case in point. By good fortune, Tacitus happens to specify the locality: Rigodulum (Riol) near Trier. This gives us our opportunity. The battle reads at first like a hundred other skirmishes in Roman historians, and is dismissed accordingly. But it has detailed features and clear phases. We need the River Mosel, a mountain, a road to Trier, a road-block, a quarry for stones, sloping ground, a steep point of vantage for the enemy, and contours which permit the Roman cavalry to approach Riol from the east without being seen. It gives the student of Tacitus peculiar satisfaction to follow the Mosel to the Kammerwald east of Riol, trace the course of the Roman road, identify the obvious site of the road-block, climb the sloping ground and then the steeper mountain-side, pass the stone-quarry, and follow the cavalry's route to the road junction where one party rode right and uphill to bundle the Gauls from their perch, while the other followed the lower contours and approached by a track, still used, to within 1,000 yards of Riol unobserved. Thus what seemed merely an imaginative reconstruction by a rhetorical historian fits exactly and convincingly into the modern landscape. It may be doubted whether Tacitus himself had ever seen Riol; but he has faithfully preserved the information of a good source (probably the elder Pliny), abbreviating it almost to the point of obscurity. The same concision and the same reliability can be demonstrated in his accounts of the two battles of Cremona (or Bedriacum), and the Battle of Trier. The presumption must be that Tacitus is careful, though brief, in his reproduction of his source material. Where this is good, he will give it shapeliness and polish. Where it is not, his narrative is unlikely to find support in personal research. The account of the Jews is a fascinating farrago of truth and lies.
Indeed, the academic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake appeared to Tacitus, as to many of his countrymen, a dangerous form of dilettantism. Philosophy is particularly suspect if it fails to result in good works. Men often devote their gifts to it, he says, in describing the character of Helvidius Priscus, in order to disguise ease and idleness under a pretentious name. Those who claim to teach the art of living may be wolves in sheep's clothing, like Publius Celer, or out of touch with the hard realities of life, like Musonius Rufus, who preached peace to men who carried arms. So with learning in general. When the world needs leaders, study cannot be disinterested. Historians must not be antiquaries. They must teach by examples, denouncing evil and honouring virtue. One or other of the seven deadly sins — pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth, to which we may add an eighth, cowardice — confronts us on almost every page of the Histories. But the vices of the early empire are known to us chiefly through the Roman delight in self-criticism. In a moment of gloom Tacitus suggests that the moral climate of A.D. 69 was such as to render any possibility of a peaceful settlement between the Othonian and Vitellian forces quite chimerical. This is special pleading, belied by the context. In any case such generalisations are practically meaningless. They belong to the tradition of Roman puritanism and the doctrine of progressive and galloping decline from an idealized past. It is in accordance with this moralizing attitude that the civil war is represented less as a political hazard than as evidence of the corruption of the age.
The desire to preach sometimes comes close to malice. Tacitus finds some good things to say even of Vitellius: he was generous, and a good family man, however poor an emperor. But the historian presses home the charge of gluttony in season and out. Along the roads of Italy clatter the wheels of his commissariat. This keynote is struck early, at the very beginning of the reign. News of the revolt of the legions of Upper Germany from Galba reaches Vitellius in the governor's palace at Cologne after dark on 1 January 69: the messenger has ridden hard all day to cover the 105 miles from Mainz. But Tacitus cannot resist the temptation to add that Vitellius is at the dinner table. The information is gratuitous, the insult studied. Before entering Rome the Vitellian troops receive an issue of rations. Nothing, one would think, could be more normal, nor better designed to forestall hunger or looting. But this will not do for our moralist. Vitellius, he writes, 'was engaged in issuing haversack rations as if he were fattening up a lot of gladiators'. Some of these absurdities may be plausibly attributed to Flavian pamphleteers anxious to stress the enormities of an emperor against whom Vespasian rebelled. Tacitus realizes that much contemporary history is propagandist, but does not always succeed in freeing himself of its influence. Some of the mud sticks.
Nor, as Tacitus himself admits, is the picture one of unrelieved gloom. The world is naughty, but good deeds shine out. The reader is duly reminded of examples of patriotism, loyalty, friendship, independence of spirit, modesty, courage. The names of those faithful unto death are carefully recorded, or regret expressed if the names have perished. The lower the station of the hero, the greater the gratification of his historian. Senators are expected to set an example; they often fail to do so. How much the more must we admire the sacrificial devotion of a governor's slave or the courage of a defenceless woman of Liguria!
The story of A.D. 69-70 is a complex web of contemporary events widely separated in space, yet possessing a causal or chronological relationship to one another. Their interaction must be made clear. Selection, grouping, arrangement and emphasis present the historian with manifold difficulties and opportunities. Tacitus dominates the chaos with an unfaltering hand. The annalistic tradition of Roman historiography made it natural that each year should be introduced by the mention of its consuls, that is, its date. Within the year, it was necessary to find some compromise between two conflicting ideals — strict chronological sequence and the grouping of events into episodes. Tacitus' method is to present us with a succession of longer or shorter 'chapters': the murder of Galba, the march on Rome, the Jews, and so on. Matter which coheres he is reluctant to break up without strong reasons. Neighbouring chapters precede, succeed or overlap each other in time. Transitions are often ably managed; the reader moves in imagination from place to place in the company of imperial couriers. There are surprisingly few explicit dates, and we are not even told, though we can deduce, when the battles of Cremona were fought, and this too, despite the stern reproof administered to Vitellius for forgetting a fatal anniversary —that of the Battles of the Allia and Cremera. Yet the historian is always conscious of his time-scale, and examination shows that he is faithful to it and that it is substantially correct. Literary critics are sometimes puzzled by the sudden and brief intrusion of Titus at the beginning of Book Two. Should this not have been relegated to a later point — the description of the rise of Vespasian? The truth is that the journey of Titus took place in the early months of A.D. 69 : it cannot be postponed to midsummer.
Once the arrangement of his material had been planned, it remained to render it in words harmoniously, pointedly and with variety. The leading characters — the emperors and their chief supporters — are kept well to the foreground. Their salient attitudes are repeatedly stressed. Behind them stand a host of lesser figures, sketched in rapidly but incisively. Particular attention is paid to the psychology of hope and fear. The atmosphere is highly charged with emotion. At times, the imaginative reconstruction borders upon the technique of the historical novelist. No conceivable source except his own imagination can have told Tacitus the thoughts that passed through the mind of Vespasian as he hesitated before the fateful decision to rebel. But this is what brings history to life, and no Roman critic could have taken exception to it. In the same way, and in accordance with a convention of high ancestry, eloquent and impressive speeches are invented with the greatest freedom. They serve to clarify issues, relieve the monotony of factual narration, and allow the orator Tacitus to speak at once in the person of his hero and of himself. There are other devices to secure variety. Certain scenes of terror and pathos lend themselves to highlighting. Striking or casual phrases disclose the visual imagination of the artist and the poet. Nor does Tacitus deny himself the wilful digression: Paphos, Veleda, Serapis, the Jews. Indeed the Year of the Four Emperors offered infinite possibilities. Later, when Tacitus came to write the history of the Julio-Claudians, the long catalogue of the Tiberian treason-trials seemed tedious even to their narrator. He looked back regretfully to the colourful scenes of the Histories:
'Descriptions of foreign parts, the fluctuating tide of battle, great men dying in glory — these are the themes that hold and refresh the reader's interest.'
A well-constructed book conceals the art of its construction. The reader of Tacitus' Latin is much more immediately aware of his verbal dexterity and of a style almost without parallel in the literature of his nation. The formal patterns and figures which the concise and unambiguous inflexions of the Latin language permit and encourage are employed by Tacitus with consummate skill. In a modern English setting these adornments parallelism, variation, alliteration, chiasmus and a dozen more — are inevitably sacrificed or retain only a ghostly existence. How far they are to be allowed to survive is a question of taste or prejudice where scarcely two critics will agree. I have tried to keep as close as possible to the brevity, point and speed of the original.
My occasional departures from the standard texts of Fisher (1910), Giarratano (1939) and Koestermann (1961) have not been noted: they are obvious to those familiar with the Latin, and of little interest to others.
No translator of Tacitus can view his labours without some feeling of guilt and remorse. He may prove to have butchered his victim. He has inevitably robbed the original of its peculiar virtue, the living word.
'A language is expressive and beautiful in the country that produced it,' wrote George Moore in his Epistle to the Cymry. 'As soon as a language passes beyond its natural frontier it weakens, disintegrates, decays; Asiatics cannot express themselves in English, and what we say in French is not worth saying. The thought that sustains a book is but a small part of the book; a thought is common property, but the words belong to the writer ... An idea is mine today, it is yours tomorrow, the day after tomorrow it belongs to the whole world, but a beautiful sentence is always the property of him who made it.'