The Annals, written by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56c-120 CE) is regarded as one of the great literary works of history in the Roman world. Considered by many to be the greatest of Roman historians The Annals is Tacitus’s outstanding achievement. Originally comprising eighteen volumes, books seven to ten and parts of books five, six, eleven and sixteen have been lost but those that remain, read here by Martyn Swain, tell the fascinating tale of the Julio Claudian emperors and their times. Writing many years after their deaths, in the reign of the emperor Trajan, but still within living memory of his subjects, Tacitus describes the corrupting nature of Roman society with an analytical eye and a critical mind, seeking to present an accurate and considered view of the key events and characters of the preceding century. Beyond the scope of any Hollywood epic his canvas is vast and he paints the picture of the incipient decline of Roman values and society following the death of the Divine Augustus. His descriptions of the lives and deaths of the Julio Claudian emperors, (14-68 CE) paint portraits of some of the most monstrous and notorious individuals the world has ever seen: he describes the gradual moral decay and corruption of the hypocritical Tiberius; the weakness of the unfortunate Claudius and his infamous wives Messallina and Agrippina; and the unmitigated malignant evil of the despicable Nero. Tacitus, who was also known as Publius Cornelius Tacitus, chronicles the intrigues and excesses of the rulers of empire, their overpowering pride and vanity within the setting of fabulous wealth, absolute power and a range of pernicious wickedness of unparalleled variety. The Annals are remarkable as a work of literary accomplishment written by a master of rhetoric and have a poetic, tragic quality often focusing on the seemingly implacable nature of fate and the widespread bloodshed, disaster and doom so often unleashed by intransigent human greed and malevolence. John Jackson’s translation of The Annals chronicles a series of events filled with multiple examples of the limitless appetite for power, wealth and glory, the interplay between the rulers of the state, its populace, its institutions and its military. As well as detailing the conflicts, battles and conquests of the empire stretching from North Africa to Persia and from Palestine to Britain, Tacitus recounts fascinating details of insurrection, mutiny and rebellion in the armies of Rome; battles won and lost, storms at sea, shipwrecks, suicides, assassinations, torture, executions, murder by poison, rope and blade, incest and worse, the commonplace of family members scheming, plotting, and killing each other to satisfy their lusts and achieve their ambitions. Yet, despite the horrors and excesses of the times he describes, Tacitus retained a belief in the enduring power of the human spirit, citing numerous examples of stoical resolve, right thinking and honourable behaviour and philosophical acceptance of the human condition. A product of his times, having witnessed first hand the excesses in the reign of the emperor Domitian, Tacitus was perhaps too much of a Roman to be anything but an imperialist, but his mastery of language and acute political insights make his writings stand out among the most fascinating cultural products of the classical world. Translation: John Jackson
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