chapter  2
9 Pages

THE SOURCES

Pride of place must be given to TACITUS, who between A.D. 85 and 125 produced works covering the reigns of all the Emperors from Tiberius to Domitian inclusive ; in addition, his Germania and Agricola are valuable accounts of certain frontier districts. Fierce debate has failed to determine exactly what sources he used. The view that his normal practice was to depend almost exclusively on one main source and only occasionally glance at others does not recommend itself to the present writer. There is no need to disbelieve Tacitus' own statement that he consulted the official archives. Besides these he must have used the works of various historians of the first century A.D. whose names have survived without their works. He actually cites Cluvius Rufus, a senatorial who wrote on the period from Augustus to the death of Nero; Fabius Rusticus, a friend of Seneca who described the same period ; and the Elder Pliny, an equestrian who wrote an account of the German wars and also continued the annalistic account of the early Principate left by Aufidius Bassus (another non-senatorial, whose work had broken off abruptly, possibly at A.D. 47). Presumably Tacitus also used the historical writings of M. Servilius Nonianus, a senatorial, and the Elder Seneca, an equestrian, neither of whom, however, went beyond the death of Gaius or possibly even of Tiberius ; and it is improbable that he overlooked the memoirs of Emperors, Empresses and generals, or pamphlets by Stoics, nostalgic republicans and the like. Besides the matter of his sources, there is also the question of his outlook and methods. Tacitus himself was a practical man of affairs, a celebrated advocate and the holder in succession of the various offices in the senatorial career. He was personally and intimately acquainted with the imperial sys~em that he was describing, and presumably he served it loyally in the various official positions which he held. That is not to say, however, that he was enamoured of it. He himself criticizes earlier historians whose habit it was to describe an Emperor's reign under the influence of fear while he lived and under the influence of recent hatreds when he was dead, and he tells us that he himself consciously sought to avoid this practice. Nevertheless his picture of the Principate is

APPENDIX II 835 not altogether free from prejudice. He was convinced that absolute power has a demoralizing effect, and the longer he lived under the Principate, the more he was impressed at the way that autocracy inevitably leads to degeneration. Moreover, although himself probably of provincial birth, he evinces comparatively little interest in the provinces. Hi~a prose style varies. The Dialogus de Oratoribus, now usually agreed to be by him, is relatively Ciceronian; his latest, the Annals, best exhibits his famed variety and epigrammatic terseness. A similar development can be seen in his view of the Principate. In his earlier works he notes how the all-pervading influence of the Princeps had brought about a decline in oratory; in his latest he has formed the conclusion that the Principate has demoralized everything. The high and sensitive idealism of his youth has turned into disillusionment ; he remains a moralist, but a cynically pessimistic one. Nor is this all. His view is that these evils could have been avoided under a senatorial regime. His outlook is not only anti-imperial, but positively pro-senatorial. This is not due, as is sometimes rashly asserted, to his dependence on senatorial sources: he consulted equestrian and imperial writers as well as senatorial. It is due partly to his exposure to the customary rhetorical education with its academic evocation of an idealized Republic, and above all to his membership of the Senate, which despite its continuous recruitment from non-senatorial families remained stubbornly conservative. His senatorial outlook is clearly shown by his choice of subject. Rome itself, the seat of the Senate, occupies his canvas very largely to the exclusion of everything else. It is not that he is uninformed about life in the Empire : his Agricola and Germania prove the opposite. But he is engrossed with the capital since it is there, and not in the provinces, that the degeneration inherent in the Principate is most manifest. Tacitus' painstaking care and anxious avoidance of ira et studium prevented him from stating facts that were false: his accuracy on questions of fact is generally conceded. But obviously a man with his outlook must be reckoned a hostile witness against any Emperor. His manner of presenting facts and his interpretation of them convey an impression of the Empire that cannot be accepted uncritically ; one must always be on one's guard against allowing his innuendoes to pass for statements of fact. But despite h1s shortcomings Tacitus is easily the best authority we have for our period. Unfortunately the extant portions of his work only cover the reign of Tiberi us (except the years 29 to 82), the last half of the reign of Claudius (47-54), the reign of Nero (down to 66), and the events of 68-70: they also include a good deal of scattered information about the Flavians.