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Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Annals of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus, Reviewed.

There have been many translations of this classic; the one I read was the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Michael Grant. I came across the book, which I’d heard of but not previously read, whilst perusing the shelves of a wonderful little bookshop on the island of Santorini. (You’ll find Atlantis Books in Oia, should you ever visit the island). Hardly typical holiday reading, I nevertheless read most of the book whilst lounging beside the pool on a comfortable sunbed under a hot sun.

It’s generally the case that most of our leaders here in UK are educated in the classics. I can see why they hold the odd views they often do, if Tacitus is any guide to the content of their learning.

The book concentrates on certain aspects of Roman life that other historians have largely neglected, it seems. He is obsessed with legal cases, court actions and some fairly minor infringements of Roman law. Of course, there are accounts of battles, opinions on the various Emperors and tyrants (usually synonymous) who ruled the empire during the time he chronicles. First published around 102 AD, it deals with the short period from AD 14 to AD 68, when Christianity was in its infancy, but makes reference to many earlier historical events and personalities along the way.

The Annals reports on a period of history in which leadership was largely profoundly corrupt (a bit like the present, but with added casual execution, torture and murder – so perhaps not so different). Reflecting the beliefs of his day, he accepts the idea of mortal divinity whilst decrying the actions and morals of those made divine. He also believes in the existence of the legendary phoenix, so reliance on his belief system is probably unwise.

The book is dripping with the blood of the innocent mingled with that of the guilty. Suicide, murder, corruption, deceit, jealousy, nepotism, treachery, cheating, bribery, expedience, protection of those in office regardless of worth or merit, destruction of evidence, official blindness, flattery, preferential treatment, torture of lower classes to support claims of upper classes, incredible courage and noble sacrifice are all described. The reader is filled with a sense of how frightening it must have been to live in Rome and its empire of the time.

The absence of instant communication over great distance in an extensive empire that allowed distortions of truth and downright lies, shows how rumour could cause instant death, followed by regret when truth caught up with those guilty of the injustices.
If you have ever wondered how some leaders of the modern world can behave in the way that they do, this book gives an understanding of the minds of rulers and those who support them. I’m glad I read it, but, if you have children, I’d advise you to keep the text away from them until they’re mature enough to sift the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, the truth from the speculation and assumption. A fascinating but uncomfortable read and a real insight into the way in which power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Recommended.
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