Tacitus' "Annals of Imperial Rome" in sixteen books covered the years 14-69 A.D. For information about Tacitus, the main facts of his life and works, and his qualities as a historian, you are referred to the introduction to Sabidius' translation of his "Agricola" published on this blog on 20th April 2010. Published here are some selected passages from the "Annals"; the first concern the controversial death of Germanicus Caesar, nephew of the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D.), and the second group are about the downfall of Messalina, the promiscuous and sanguinary wife of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.).
The text for these extracts is taken from the 'Cambridge Latin Anthology', edited by Ashley Carter and Phillip Parr, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
1. Germanicus et Piso.
Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, was born in 15 B.C. as the elder son of Tiberius' younger brother Drusus and Antonia minor, and he was therefore the step-grandson and great-nephew of the Emperor Augustus, who saw him as a possible heir if anything happened to Tiberius. He took the surname 'Germanicus' from his father Drusus, who had received the title following his successful campaigns in Germany in 12-9 B.C. When Augustus adopted Tiberius in 4 A.D., he made Tiberius simultaneously adopt Germanicus, who was known thereafter as Germanicus Julius Caesar. Germanicus was also married to Augustus' granddaughter Vipsania Agrippina, by whom he had nine children. From 12-17 A.D. Germanicus commanded the Roman forces on the German frontier, and was very popular with both his legions and the Roman people. In 14 he quelled a mutiny which broke out among the Rhine army and then campaigned successfully against German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe. Recalled by Tiberius in 17, he was awarded a triumph and the consulship in 18. According to Tacitus, Tiberius, on becoming emperor, had come to hate Germanicus and recalled him to Rome through jealousy of his popularity. In 18 Tiberius sent him to the East, as commander-in-chief of the Roman army and with 'maius imperium', to settle various problems on the borders of the Roman empire. But Tacitus believed that Tiberius also secretly ordered Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, to block all Germanicus' orders and to arrange his death.
The following extract begins with the arrival of Germanicus and Piso in the East in 18 A.D.
The following extract begins with the arrival of Germanicus and Piso in the East in 18 A.D.
a. Piso in Syria (adapted from 'Annales', Book II, chapter 55).
But Gnaeus Piso, in order to enter upon his designs more quickly, when he reached Syria and the legions, encoraged the lowest ranks among the soldiers by generous gifts and bribery. When he had removed the senior centurions (and) the strict tribunes and had assigned their places to his clients, he allowed idleness in the camp and hooliganism in the towns, (and) the soldiers rampaging through the countryside. Nor did Plancins, the wife of Piso, conduct herself as befitted a woman but attended exercises of the cavalry, and hurled insults at Agrippina and Germanicus. These things (were) known to Germanicus but his more pressing concern was to attend first to the Armenians.
b. The death of Germanicus (adapted from 'Annales', Book II, chapters 69-73).
His belief in poison administered by Piso intensified the savage intensity of his illness, and there were found, hidden in the floor in and the walls, the remains of human bodies, spells and curses and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, ashes half-burned and smeared with rotten flesh, and other horrors, by which it is believed that souls are dedicated to the infernal deities. At the same time (men) sent by Piso were suspected because they waited for signs of ill-health. These things were heard by Germanicus with anger no less than with fear. he composed a letter in which he renounced his friendship with him.
For a short time Germanicus believed that he was recovering; then his body became weary. When the end was near, he spoke thus to his friends standing by: 'You will have (lit. to you there will be) the opportunity of complaining before the Senate and of invoking the laws. it befits friend not to follow a corpse with futile lamentations, but to remember what he wanted, (and) to carry out what he had ordered. You will avenge (me), if you loved me rather than my rank.' His friends, clasping the right (hand) of the dying man, swore that they would forgo life rather than revenge.
Not long afterwards, he died, to the great grief of the provinces and of the surrounding peoples. Foreign countries and kings mourned (him): his friendliness towards allies, his forgiveness to enemies had been so great; he had obtained the respect of all on account of his countenance and his eloquence. And there were (those) who equated him with the great Alexander on account of his appearance, his age, his noble birth and his place of death; for they declared that both of them had been endowed with a handsome body, were descended from a noble family, (and) had died (when) scarcely thirty years old.
c. Mourning (adapted from 'Annales', Book II, chapters 75, 82).
Meanwhile Agrippina, although exhausted by grief and a sick body, was yet impatient of anything which might delay revenge. She climbed aboard a ship with the ashes of Germanicus and her children, with everyone pitying (her) because a woman of the highest nobility and from a splendid marriage, who was deserving of the respect of all, was then bearing in her bosom the remains of a dead man, (and was) uncertain of revenge. Meanwhile, the news reaches Piso at the island of Cos that Germanicus was dead. Rejoicing at this (news), he kills victims, he visits temples. Not only Piso himself conducts himself with immoderate joy, but Plancina becomes even more arrogant, and she then first exchanged her mourning clothes for her dead sister for festive attire.
Meanwhile, at Rome, when the news of Germanicus' illness spread, and, as (usually happens) from a distance, all things were reported exaggerated for the worse, grief, anger and complaints broke out; (it was said) that (it was) doubtless for this reason Germanicus had been banished to faraway countries, (and) that the province had been entrusted to Piso. the death of Germanicus, when it was announced, inflamed the conversations of the mob to such an extent that, before (there was) an edict of the magistrates, before (there was ) an edict of the Senate, a cessation of legal business having been taken, the law-courts were deserted and houses were closed. Everywhere there was silence and groaning. And, although they did not refrain from the outward signs of mourning, (yet) they were sorrowing more deeply in their hearts.
d. Revenge (adapted from 'Annales', Book III, chapters 12-15).
On the day of the Senate, Tiberius made a restrained speech. 'Piso,' he said, 'was my father's representative and friend. I myself sent him, with the approval of the Senate, (as) assistant to Germanicus in the affairs needing to be administered in the East. It is necessary for it to be judged by impartial minds whether Piso provoked the young man by obstinacy and rivalry, and rejoiced at his death or wickedly killed him. At the same time, consider whether he incited the legions to sedition.'
Then two days are decreed for the charges to be presented and (it is decreed) that after an interval of six days the accused should be defended for three days. Three friends of Germanicus alleged with similar vigour that Piso, through hatred of Germanicus and through eagerness for new arrangements had corrupted the soldiers by disorder and oppression of the allies; (and) lastly that he himself had killed Germanicus by curses and by poison. Then (they alleged) that, after they had performed rites and wicked sacrifices, Piso and Plancina had attacked the state with arms.
The defence faltered with regard to the rest of the charges; for neither bribery of the troops nor oppression against the province, not even insolence towards his commander could be denied; Piso could only refute the charge of poisoning. Meanwhile, at the same time the voices of the people were heard in front of the Senate-house: (they said) that they would not be restrained from violence (lit. with their hands) if Piso escaped the verdict of the senators
There was the same ill-feeling towards Plancina. And she herself, while Piso had a hope (lit. there was a hope to Piso) of acquittal, promised that she would be his ally in whatever misfortune (befell him), and, if it were necessary, his companion in death: but, gradually, she began to distance herself from her husband. When Piso understood that this was fatal to him, he hesitated as to whether he should plead his cause further. And so, as if he were thinking about his defence for the next day, he writes a few (words) and seals (the note) and hands (it) to a freedman; then he carried out the usual things for his body to be attended to. Then, long after nightfall, his wife having left his chamber, he ordered the door to be closed; and at dawn (lit. first light) he was found, his throat having been cut, with a sword lying on the ground.
Valeria Messalina was the third wife of the Emperor Claudius, the younger brother of Germanicus Caesar. Both her parents were Claudius' first cousins: her father, the patrician Marcus Valerius Messala Barbatus, being the son of Marcella minor, and her mother Domitia Lepida, being the daughter of Antonia major, both of these women being sisters of Claudius' mother Antonia minor, and all three of them daughters of Augustus' sister Octavia. Messalina married Claudius, her first cousin once removed, at a very young age, before his unexpected accession in 41 A.D. When this narrative starts, she and Claudius have two children, Octavia and Britannicus, aged about six and five respectively. Apparently Messalina had already been involved in a number of crimes and scandals before she began her affair with Silius. Indeed, she was alleged to have arranged the death of the consular Gaius Appius Junius Silanus , who was betrothed to her mother, because he had rejected her advances.
a. Adultery (Adapted from 'Annales', Book XI, chapters 12-13; 26).
Messalina was inflamed by a new and, as it were, insane love-affair. She had become so infatuated with love for Gaius Silius, the handsomest of the Roman youth, that she drove out of his marriage Junia Silana, a noble-woman, and possessed (him) unencumbered (as) her adulterous (lover). Nor was Silus unaware of the scandal and his peril: but he understood that his destruction would be certain if he were to refuse, and, if he were to consent, there was some hope of his wickedness being concealed, and at the same time he would receive great rewards. Therefore it pleased (him) to disregard the future and to enjoy the present. She visited his house repeatedly, not secretlt but with many attedants, she stuck (to him) when he went out (lit. going out), (and) she gave (him) wealth and honours; finally, the slaves, the freedmen, the furnishings of the emperor were often to be seen at the home of the adulterer. But Claudius (was) unaware of (the state of) his marriage.
Now Messalina turned to new vices on account of the ease of her adulteries. Silius, whether through a fatal madness or thinking amid the dangers threatening (him) that danger itself (was) a remedy, urged that concealment was thrown off: for obviously it was not necessary to wait until the emperor grew old. (He said that) he (was) unmarried, childless, (and) prepared for marriage and for Britannicus to be adopted. The power of Messalina would remain the same, with the added security,if they were to forestall Claudius, who was unsuspicious of intrigue but quick in respect of anger. Messalina hesitated for a long time, not through love of her husband but fearing lest Silius, having obtained supreme (power) (lit.the highest things), should spurn her; but at last she was persuaded (lit. it was persuaded [to her]). For she coveted the title of marriage on account of the sheer scale of the outrageousness. Having delayed only (lit. no further than) until Claudius set out for Ostia for the purpose of a sacrifice, she celebrates all the solemnities of marriage.
b. Messalina is denounced (adapted from 'Annales', Book XI, chapter 28-29, 32,34).
Therefore the emperor's household shuddered, and especially those who had power feared lest things were overturned: yet they had hope that if they could persuade Claudius of the enormity of the crime, Messalina could be crushed, having been condemned without trial; but there was a danger that he might hear her defence, and that his ears might not be closed even (to her) confessing. Looking for an opportunity when Caesar lingered for some time at Ostia, Narcissus induced, by bribery and promises, two of his concubines to undertake the denunciation. Then Calpurnia [this (was) the name (given) to one of the concubines], when a private interview was given, having fallen down at Caesar's knees, cried out that Messalina had married Silius; another concubine confirming this, Calpurnia begged that Narcissus be summoned. He said, 'Do you know of your divorce? For the people, and the Senate and the soldiers saw the marriage, and, unless you act quickly, the husband possesses the city.'
Meanwhile, not only rumour but messengers from everywhere hurry to Messalina, to report that Claudius knew everything and was coming prepared for revenge. Therefore, they went in different directions, Messalina to the gardens of Lucullus, his alarm being concealed, to the forum. But she, although adverse circumstances took away her ability to plan, at once decided to go to meet, and to be seen by, her husband, (something) which had often been a means of salvation for her; and she sent (orders) that Britannicus and Octavia were to go to (seek) the embraces of their father. And, meanwhile, with three companions only - so sudden was her solitude - after she had gone through the city on foot, she started on the road to Ostia in a cart by which the refuse of the gardens is removed. She aroused no pity in the citizens because the appalling nature of her crimes carried most weight.
And now she was in the sight of Claudius and loudly demanded that he listened to the mother of Octavia and Britannicus. However, Narcissus shouted (her) down, referring to Silius and her marriage, and at the same time he handed (him) a note-book (with) proof of her debaucheries, by which he distracted Caesar's gaze. Not long afterwards his children were offered (to him) as he entered (lit. entering) the city, but Narcissus ordered them to be removed.
c. The death of Messalina (adapted from Book XI, chapters 35, 37, 38).
Amongst these (events) the silence of Claudius was strange; he obeyed his freedman in all things; he prepared an assembly of the soldiers in the camp. Narcissus advising (him) beforehand, the emperor delivered a few words: thereafter (there was) a continuous shout from the soldiers demanding the names of the guilty persons and their punishment. Brought to the platform, Silius attempted no defence, no delays, but prayed that his death might be hastened.
Meanwhile, in the gardens of Lucullus, Messalina was composing prayers to prolong her life with some hope and in rage: even then she displayed very great arrogance. And, if Narcissus had not hastened her death, ruin would have rebounded on her accuser. For Claudius, having returned home, when he had grown warm with dinner and wine, ordered that the poor woman (for they say that Claudius used this word) should be present on the next day to plead her cause. When Narcissus heard this, and saw that his anger was subsiding (and) his passion (for her) was returning, he feared, if he delayed, the approaching night and the memory of the conjugal bedroom; therefore he rushed out and ordered the centurions and a tribune, who was there, to carry out her execution: (he said) that the emperor had so ordered (it). One of the freedmen (was) also sent: he, going on ahead rapidly, found Messalina stretched on the ground, her mother, Lepida, who had not been on good terms with her daughter, while she was prospering (lit. prospering), was sitting beside (her), but having been turned towards pity by her extreme crisis, was urging (her) not to await the executioner. (She argued) that her life was over, nor was there anything else to look for (other) than an honourable death. But there was nothing decent in the heart of Messalina, having been corrupted by vice; tears and futile lamentations were poured out, when the gates were broken down by the onset of newcomers, and the tribune was standing there. Then, for the first time Messalina understood her position, and took up a dagger; putting it vainly to her throat or her breast through fear, she was run through by a thrust from the tribune. Her body (was) given up to her mother.