What does Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina really reveal about Tacitus as a historian?

I shall write without indignation or partisanship; in my case the customary incentives to these are lacking. (Annals, 1.1.)

It seems to me a historians’ foremost duty is to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil words and deeds with the fear of posterity’s denunciations. (Annals, 3.65)

The Annals, by Tacitus

The Annals, by Tacitus

The purpose of this short blog post is not to go over Tacitus’ portrayals of Agrippina.  These can be easily covered by the HSC study notes.  Instead I want to deal with Tacitus’ purpose behind the Annals, thus providing a richer perspective than the usual one-dimensional ‘Tacitus is biased against Agrippina’ argument.

For all the usual complaints against Tacitus, it is important to appreciate that as far as he was concerned, he was writing from a non-partisan perspective.  He claimed to hold no grudges.  However, as the second excerpt clearly illustrates, Tacitus is in fact driven by a strong sense of moral indignation about what he perceived to be the excesses of the imperial system.  He was nostalgic about what he saw as the virtues of republican Rome, and despised how it has fallen to the dictates of the power of an emperor.  He was disgusted with how the Senate had become sycophantic, powerless and corrupt over time.  For Tacitus, dictatorship and moral decline goes hand in hand.  This is how historian Michael Grant explains it,

… when state is unified under an omnipotent ruler, human happiness hangs by a thread.  When the emperor is a bad man, and rules badly, there is misery.  Oppressive rule causes – and is caused by –  moral degeneracy. (Grant, M., Tacitus: The Annals of Rome. Penguin, Harondsworth, 1997.)

It is important to appreciate this point when you examine Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina.  For Tacitus, the deeds of Agrippina are merely one of the symbols of the moral degeneracy of the empire.  So regardless of how ‘biased’ Tacitus might be against powerful women or not, Agrippina’s deeds as a power-driven woman was always going to be judged negatively by Tacitus.  For Tacitus, virtuous women are the bonds that held the old republic together, and Agrippina was anything but that.

This leads me to my next point.  Tacitus was a gifted writer, but he tended to cast characters into stagnate molds whose nature remain unchanged.  For instance, Nero was always a violent and morally depraved man whose vices were only held in check when his mother had some degrees of control over him.  Once he came out of her shadows, Nero’s vices knew no bound.  Agrippina was a power-driven woman who would murder and seduce to gain imperial power.  She made up her mind to kill Claudius even before they married.  Character development was not Tacitus’ strong point.

I hope this short blog post has shown there is more than one way to read Tacitus as commonly taught in many high school classes.  Yes, it is true that like many ancient writers, Tacitus came from a patriarchal world and there is no doubt that feminist historians have done much to deconstruct Tactius’ portrayals of the women of imperial Rome.  However, you should also be able to step away from the usual one-dimensional critique of Tacitus and see it from the perspective of the author’s purpose and style.

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Filed under Ancient History, Teaching of history

One response to “What does Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina really reveal about Tacitus as a historian?

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Roll Call « Here, There Be Gods

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