By Steven Knorr
The Bias of Tacitus
The Annals by Tacitus is a written account of Roman history covering the period from the death of Augustus in 14 A.D to the reign of Nero (r. 54-68). Tacitus states that his purpose is to write without bitterness or partiality, but much of his account of the Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37) seems biased given what we know about his reign. For the large majority of the Roman public, the rule of Tiberius was relatively peaceful. A person would not be in danger of violence unless they were a member of the imperial family or a member of the aristocracy. Tacitus demonstrates his inability to be impartial by stating that historians during the reigns of Augustus through Nero were unable to write the truth out of fear. He writes:
“Fine intellects were not wanting to describe the times of Augustus, till growing sycophancy scared them away. The histories of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred.” The Annals, I
Rome during the imperial age had lost its “fine Roman character” that it had during the republican period and the harsh criticisms of Tacitus come from holding up the empire to the standard of the republic. The personal bias of Tacitus towards Roman Republican virtue seeps into his writing. He is often very critical of the imperial system and the Emperors themselves in the context of Republican virtue.
The Murder of Agrippa Postumus (14 AD)
According to Tacitus, the corruption of Rome began with Augustus, who with money and cheap food was able to concentrate on the functions of the senate . With all rivals dead, Augustus ruled unopposed and (according to Tacitus) the remaining nobility were more than willing to accept slavery for the sake of wealth and titles. Tiberius wasn’t originally interested in donning the purple but out of sheer luck (or Livia’s intervention) he became emperor after the death of Augustus. The opening act of his reign was a crime committed in the securing the throne. Agrippa Postumus, another one of Augustus’ adopted children, was murdered by his guards. Tacitus called this a crime, ignoring Tiberius’ claims that he was acting out on Augustus’s orders. Since Tiberius mentioned the death of Postumus to the senate one has to wonder how Tacitus would have known what was said on the matter outside of court records. The historian Walter Allen Jr. claims that historians accept the claim of assassination is because of the opportune time in which it came. Allen states:
“while stories about the death of Agrippa Postumus very likely arose out of similar gossip, Tacitus feels at liberty to treat them as fact because he has a reputable source upon which he depends; since the gossip had somehow crept into history, Tacitus had no qualms about repeating it.”
The liberal usage of gossip as fact is just one of many instances of Tacitus trying to blacken Tiberius’s character.
The Succession of Tiberius
Tiberius wanted to maintain the not-so-open tyranny of Augustus. When he was before the senate he told them that he is not up for the job, to which Tacitus makes the quip:
“The Senators, however, whose only fear was lest they might seem to understand him, burst into complaints, tears, and prayers.” XI
This is supposed to be a bit of irony as Tiberius, wanted to present himself as the successor to Augustus. When asked which government office he would like to hold Tiberius taken off-guard, replied:
“ …the question had not been asked with the intention of dividing what could not be separated, but to convince him by his own admission that the body of the State was one, and must be directed by a single mind.” XII
Tiberius was saying that he does not wish to dissolve the monarchy because it is inseparable, but he is humbly accepting the task of monarch.
The Death of Germanicus
The picture of Tiberius presented by Tacitus in the Annals is that of a grim, dark, resentful and cruel man. This is never more evident than with his rivalry with Germanicus. Germanicus was the young, charming, charismatic great-nephew of Augustus who was popular among the army and the people. He had legions at his disposal and he posed a threat to the emperor should he decide he wanted supreme power. Tiberius reassigned Germanicus to Asia to campaign and to weaken his influence. It is there that Germanicus would be struck with a sudden illness and die of what is suspected to be poisoning (19 AD). The prime suspect in Germanicus death was the proconsul of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. He was found with his throat cut in his chamber while facing trial. Tacitus strongly suggest that Tiberius had a role in the murder of both Germanicus and Piso; he states:
“I remember to have heard old men say that a document was often seen in Piso’s hands, the substance of which he never himself divulged, but which his friends repeatedly declared contained a letter from Tiberius with instructions referring to Germanicus.” XVI
Again Tacitus resorts to using rumors rather than historical fact.
Sejanus and the Purge of the Senate
Sejanus, who was the praetorian prefect and Tiberius special favorite , as a result of a long feud, poisoned the emperor’s son Drusus. While Sejanus is mentioned in the Books 1-3 of The Annals, it is not until book four that Tacitus begins to explain his wickedness and influence on the emperor. It is when Tiberius found out about the deeds of Sejanus and his plots against the senate that he has him executed. After the death Sejanus, Tacitus paints Tiberius as a tyrant, trying and executing anyone who is associated with Sejanus. Sejanus gained an incredible amount of power within Rome and Tacitus seems to be quite critical of Tiberius for not being able to see how Sejanus brutally abused his power.
Tacitus depicts the emperor’s return to Rome in Book 6 as a scene of bloodshed; anyone who had any association with Sejanus or his cronies was put to death. Men and women who were thought of grasping for political power were put to death. Tacitus makes a jest when Luciso Piso dies of a natural death given his high rank at the time. During this period Tiberius has become paranoid and shameful. Tacitus writes:
“Though three years had elapsed since the destruction of Sejanus, neither time, in treaties, nor sated gratification, all which have a soothing effect on others, softened Tiberius, or kept him from punishing doubtful or forgotten offenses as most flagrant and recent crimes.” XXXVIII
Tiberius as the result of the death of his son had become hard, distant and paranoid.
The accusations of Tacitus against the emperor or criticism against the emperor are not based on fact rather than on hearsay or court gossip. Such as the cases with Germanicus, Agrippa Postumus, and Piso. None of these murders can be based on factual evidence that links the emperor to these crimes. Through ones reading of The Annals, at the very surface Tacitus presents a very hostile view of Tiberius. There is no doubt Tacitus wished to leave a poor impression upon the Emperor. Not all of what Tacitus has to say on Tiberius is negative; such as during the earthquake in Asia, Tacitus mentions the generosity of Tiberius and how he was able to settle disputes between private citizens in law courts. But the Tiberius of Tacitus is a man who starts out noble in character and dies, ultimately, as a tyrant.
Allen, Walter. 1947. The Death of Agrippa Postumus. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 78. [Johns Hopkins University Press, American Philological Association]: 131–39. doi:10.2307/283489.
Tacitus, Cornelius (2009-12-07). The Annals of Imperial Rome. Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.