Source Issues

There are three key literary accounts of the reigns of Tiberius. These are SuetoniusLife of Tiberius, books 57 and 58 of Cassius Dio‘s Roman History, and Tacitus‘ Annales 1-6. Of these, Tacitus’ account is the most detailed and has exerted the most influence over later historians.

All three accounts are from a much later period. Suetonius and Tacitus wrote almost eighty years after the death of Tiberius. They are all hostile to Tiberius.

Key Questions

  • Why are the sources so hostile to Tiberius?
  • What influence might a hostile tradition have had over the accounts in our three main sources?
  • What influence did the experience of having lived under later emperors have over understandings of the reign of Tiberius?

Hostility to Tiberius

Anyone reading through the main accounts, or even just parts of them, will see that Tiberius gets a very bad press. Much attention focuses on his personal relationships and issues such as sexual behaviour. He is seen as someone who at a personal level is not to be trusted. His words are seen as different from his inner feelings and his inner feelings are distrusted. That inevitably creates problems.

  • Is it right for a historical evaluation of a political leader to focus on personality issues?
  • Why does the personality of a leader matter?
  • Is to focus on the personality of an individual to convert political issues into psychological problems?
  • Given that Tiberius was not prone to posting his innermost feelings on noticeboards, how can historians confidently know what he felt and if was different from what he said?

Writing History

The way we understand Tiberius is inevitably shaped by what our sources write and how they write it. Tacitus,  Dio, and Suetonius pay much attention to Tiberius’ personality in interaction with the imperial family and members of the senatorial order.  Tacitus wrote in a very conservative style, providing an account of events on a year by year basis (which is why his history his described as annalistic). But he also claims that the type of history he wrote was unusual.

I am not unaware that very many of the events I have described, and shall describe, may perhaps seem little things, trifles too slight for record; but no parallel can be drawn between these chronicles of mine and the work of the men who composed the ancient history of the Roman people. Gigantic wars, cities stormed, routed and captive kings, or, when they turned by choice to domestic affairs, the feuds of consul and tribune, land-laws and corn-laws, the duel of nobles and commons — such were the themes on which they dwelt, or digressed, at will. Mine is an inglorious labour in a narrow field: for this was an age of peace unbroken or half-heartedly challenged, of tragedy in the capital, of a prince careless to extend the empire. Yet it may be not unprofitable to look beneath the surface of those incidents, trivial at the first inspection, which so often set in motion the great events of history.

Tacitus, Annales 4.32

For Tacitus, the history that he can write is different because of the nature of the age which he is writing about. He is drawing a contrast with the history of the Republic. In the Republic, the great issues were those of wars, struggles between the rich and powerful and the poor, the conflicts over laws. But in the imperial age, the topics were so much less glorious.

It doesn’t feel like a great way to advertise a book, and we may note that he explains this in the fourth book of the Annales. But he goes on to explain why we should still read history.

For every nation or city is governed by the people, or by the nobility, or by individuals: a constitution selected and blended from these types is easier to commend than to create; or, if created, its tenure of life is brief. Accordingly, as in the period of alternate plebeian dominance and patrician ascendancy it was imperative, in one case, to study the character of the masses and the methods of controlling them; while, in the other, those who had acquired the most exact knowledge of the temper of the senate and the aristocracy were accounted shrewd in their generation and wise; so to‑day, when the situation has been transformed and the Roman world is little else than a monarchy, the collection and the chronicling of these details may yet serve an end: for few men distinguish right and wrong, the expedient and the disastrous, by native intelligence; the majority are schooled by the experience of others. But while my themes have their utility, they offer the minimum of pleasure. Descriptions of countries, the vicissitudes of battles, commanders dying on the field of honour, such are the episodes that arrest and renew the interest of the reader: for myself, I present a series of savage mandates, of perpetual accusations, of traitorous friendships, of ruined innocents, of various causes and identical results — everywhere monotony of subject, and satiety. Again, the ancient author has few detractors, and it matters to none whether you praise the Carthaginian or the Roman arms with the livelier enthusiasm. But of many, who underwent either the legal penalty or a form of degradation in the principate of Tiberius, the descendants remain; and, assuming the actual families to be now extinct, you will still find those who, from a likeness of character, read the ill deeds of others as an innuendo against themselves.

Tacitus, Annales 4.33

This is a difficult passage.

  1. One can divide states into three basic types: democracy, oligarchy or aristocracy, and monarchy. Such ideas were derived from Greek political philosophy. Two millennia after these ideas were invented, they still underpin much modern political thinking.
  2. The consequence of such a division is that it is necessary to study the operation of power and the workings of politics under each system. Those who do this (historians) are thought wise.
  3. Now the Roman world is a monarchy, we need to study the history of the monarchic age.
  4. That history can tell us what is right and wrong and what it is useful to do.
  5. Writing other sorts of history might bring pleasure, but his history remains politically controversial and, therefore, meaningful.

There are controversial claims here.

  • Rome was a historical culture that looked back to its foundation and saw a cultural and behavioural continuity from the earliest times to the present: the moral traditions of Rome were more made Rome. But Tacitus claims that there was a distinct cultural and historical break between the Republic and the Empire, which meant that the history of the Republic did not matter so much.
  • It suggests that we can only understand right from wrong and useful behaviour (are these the same?) from historical study. These are difficult distinctions to make. What is right and what is wrong changes due to the political context. Is this right? Why do we need history to decide on moral questions?
  • For us, this last question seems the most radical. Our moral philosophies tend to start from fundamental rights or religious values, not from historical contexts.

Tacitus represents the writing of history as having an educational and moral purpose. It is certainly not entertaining nor is it meant to be entertaining. From history, his readers learn about political power in the state and how to behave in the circumstances of that political regime.

The Topics of History

It follows from Tacitus’ account that the topics with which he will deal are those which relate to what we might call ‘high politics’.

To understand, we may think of the other ways in which one might write history and through which modern historian do approach the ancient world. We might write about the provinces and cultural change; the army and how imperial order was maintained; administrative and legal process by which the Empire was governed; intellectual changes by which the Romans understood the world; gender and family by which the Romans lived in their domestic and most intimate worlds; the economy which supplied the everyday needs of Rome; slaves; the poor; the foreign.

Many of these issues appear in the historical texts, but they are subordinated to two basic problems:

  • the relationships within the imperial family by which power was negotiated
  • the relationship between the aristocracy and the imperial family.

For Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius, these relationships were central to political life.

Tiberius                                   Tiberius and the Senate                      Germanicus                Accession and the Accession Debate                        Tiberius and Tacitus



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