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.