Category Archives: Teaching of history

Sample introduction to an essay response (Tiberius Gracchus)

Essay question: Assess the methods of Tiberius Gracchus as Tribune of the Plebs.  

Introduction:

Tiberius Gracchus’ tribunate has been commonly associated with the beginning of the downfall of the Roman republic.  Cicero charged him with acting out of invidia towards the senate and destroying the harmony of the republic.  This judgment has been echoed by subsequent modern historians like RE Smith who argued that Rome might have had a happier outcome if Tiberius Gracchus had chosen different methods to achieve his goals, Mommsen, who saw in Tiberius Gracchus a tribune driven by altruistic ideals but whose methods were radical and dangerous.  However, the case against Tiberius Gracchus’ methods rest upon ignoring the contributions by those who opposed Tiberius Gracchus towards the crisis that faced Rome, leading to unfair accusation of Tiberius Gracchus’ methods being the cause of the downfall of the republic.   This paper will set out to assess Tiberius Gracchus’ methods used in passing, implementing and defending his land reform bill in the light of the opposition that confronts Tiberius Gracchus.

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A Questionnaire about History … without ends

study historyI have come up with a list of questionnaire style questions for my students to ponder upon. I will post some of my responses in the next few posts, but the important thing to keep in mind is develop your own opinions.

 

  1. What is History?
  2. What should be the role(s) of a historian?
  3. Do historian always represent the past in the image of the present?
  4. Hayden White once suggests that historians are ultimately doing nothing more than writing fictions based on traces of evidence from the past. Would you agree with that?
  5. How have approaches towards the presentation of history changed over time?
  6. Do you thin ancient historians face different set of challenges in comparison with modern historians?
  7. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of these kind of ‘history’?
    1. Films
    2. Theatre and plays
    3. Documentary
    4. Historical fictions
    5. Games based on historical scenarios
    6. Biographies
    7. Autobiographies
    8. Annals
    9. Analytical histories
    10. Paintings
    11. Oral history
  8. What is meant by the ‘democratisation of history’? (Marnie-Hughes Warrington)
  9. Is the ‘noble dream’ ever possible?
  10. Do historians have ethical and social responsibilities?
  11. How are historians influenced by their backgrounds? Can this be a positive thing?
  12. Do academic historians have a more authoritative voice over the past than, say, non-academic historians?
  13. Why do historians see to disagree all the time?
  14. ‘History is like science.’ (J Bury)  What might Bury mean by this statement?  What do you think are the problems with this kind of approach to history?
  15. What makes a good historian?
  16. ‘The past is a foreign country.’  Explain this statement.  What ethical dilemma might this present to historians?

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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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