Tacitus is certainly the most influential ancient writer on Tiberius. Our understanding of Tiberius is shaped by his hostile account. Although there are other writers, Suetonius (Tiberius), was a biographer, does not provide us with a narrative: he concentrates on character traits. Cassius Dio was writing a century after Tiberius and was certainly influenced by his account. It is, though, notable that the portraits of Tiberius in the three authors are not notably different.
It is on Tacitus that we need to focus.
There is no reason to take Tacitus at face value. We cannot assume that he is telling us the absolute truth. Every historian relied on the evidence that comes to them. Every historian needs to decide what is important. Those decisions are shaped by ideology, by an understanding of how the world works. We have no reason to accept Tacitus’ interpretation of Roman history.
I’d like to say that every historian aims at truth. But that’s probably too much to claim. What we can say is that historians should, and mostly do, aim to tell the truth to the best of their ability.
But there is a difference between trying to tell the truth and being objective. One could aim to write a history which contains just the objectively established facts. But for the Roman world, such histories would be quite short. They would also not help us understand. The historian’s task, as Tacitus makes clear, is to make people understand. To do that, we need to exercise a critical imagination so as to interpret the past.
Tacitus clearly does that. He clearly employs his historical imagination. He tells us things that it seems unreasonable for him to have known. For example, he knows what was said in the discussions in the imperial house after the murder of Agrippa Postumus. He knows the last private words between the dying Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina. he slots what appears to have been inventions into the narrative in ways which a modern historian would never do [but look at how many modern people writing historical accounts will casually tell you what Augustus or Germanicus or Agrippina thought. How could they know?]. That means that the account is not objectively true, in that it is not obviously factual, but is it still telling the truth of the situation?
To tell the truth, we need to imagine, as he needed to imagine. But we need not accept that his interpretation was right. We also need to understand what factors shaped his understanding and his imagination.
- What were the origins of his portrayal?
- What critical skills can we bring to get beyond Tacitus’ account?
- Can we write an alternative history of Tiberius?
Methodologies: Reading with or against the Grain
To understand what we are reading and to make history from it, we cannot just go through the text. We have to develop a strategy of reading.
There are possible dangers. If we read with Tacitus and do not engaging critically with his account, we risk simply repeating his prejudices and his values. The danger becomes most obvious when Tacitus writes about women. If we look at his account of some imperial women, such as Messalina or Agrippina wife of Claudius, we see that his accounts of women are deeply unsympathetic and laced with a misogynistic attitudes that are relatively common in Roman literature and society. Hostile attitudes towards women underpin some of his judgements about their political actions. If we accept his judgements on the politics, then we risk accepting attitudes towards women that we would normally, in contemporary society, regard as disgraceful.
We might, of course, compare his account with that of other writers. But many other writers also share his values. We do not get an external perspective.
But if we just reject Tacitean social attitudes and prejudices, we run another risk. The Romans were not like us. They thought differently. Consequently, they behaved differently. One of the benefits of studying Roman history is to think about a society which thinks differently. This comes down to fundamentals. The Romans did not believe that all humans were equal. They did not share our prejudices. They regarded the value of human life in a different way. They thought slavery was normal, for instance. We cannot just imagine what we would do and how we would behave in a certain situation. We cannot import our value system into antiquity.
One other approach is read ‘against the grain’. This means that we employ our critical skills to resist the interpretation that is offered by Tacitus: we simply refuse to believe him.
For the reign of Tiberius, the traditional way of doing this is to make some basic assumptions:
- Tacitus is hostile to the imperial regime and desperate to show its corruption. He will then present us with the most hostile interpretation possible.
- Tacitus is hostile in particular to Tiberius and perverts the history of the period to present Tiberius in the worst possible light.
- If we ignore Tacitus, we can write history making the assumption that Tiberius was a reasonable and sensible ruler and that there must have been good reason for his actions.
Lurking behind this debate are a number of issues:
- A historian’s propensity, perhaps even a critical duty, to be argumentative.
- Tacitus has from the sixteenth century been seen as an enemy for tyrants. But anyone who favours more authoritarian styles of government is likely to object to what appears to be Tacitus’ fundamental narrative that power corrupts.
- Those who are ideologically committed to the thinking that the Roman empire and, indeed, empires as a whole, were ‘a good thing’ and brought ‘rational’ government is likely to be hostile to Tacitus.
Most twentieth-century historians followed revisionist approaches. But they were not necessarily right. There are dangers:
- Do we risk simply reverse the prejudices of the accounts?
- What if Tacitus was right?
- How can we reasonably unpick the account and reverse the prejudices of accounts in which there is universal condemnation of the emperor?
- Do we risk minimising or ignoring the ethically wrong things that Tiberius did simply because contemporaries did not like him?
- If we think the histories of the time should be about other matters (administration or the spread of ‘civilization’) can we ignore the political narratives of loss of liberty with which that other story is linked?
We should, of course, have a healthy distrust of the ancient accounts. But we also need to read modern accounts critically. There is no rule here by which we can tell the truth. We need to be aware and alive to the way in which our understanding is being shaped by the way in which the narrative is presented, and also wondering whether it is true.
One way of being more aware is to think more carefully about the prejudices and ideologies with which historians approach their material. What might contribute to someone’s understanding? If we read an early twentieth-century historian, for instance, their understanding of issues such as race, gender and empire will affect the way they write history. What of Tacitus? When people ask that question, they are drawn to his experience under the reign of Domitian