Wrapped up in Classics: The Seriousness of Reading Tacitus

You know how it has been this summer. Am I a nervous wreck? Sort of.

And though I have done some “light reading,” i.e., short new books and some slightly longer classics (Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City being the longest, at 672 pages),  the titles have not been as varied as usual.

I finally managed to squeeze in some Roman history, just to feel serious. In June I read Tacitus’s Annals, in Latin, of course. Though I can’t recommend J. C. Yardley’s stilted English translation (Oxford), the Latin prose is elegant, dramatic, and engrossing. (N.B. My sympathies are with Yardley, since reading and understanding Latin is one thing, translating it on paper into a differently-structured language and capturing the stylistic effects is altogether more demanding.)

tacitus annals penguinAs you know, it is Latin poetry rather than history that lured me into classics. Great as Tacitus is, I would far rather reread Ovid or Catullus. But Tacitus is a page-turner among historians, and his fascinating version of the mutiny of Germanicus’s troops after the death of the emperor Augustus, shortly before Tiberius’s official succession, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and entertaining.

Tacitus is also an eloquent composer of well-wrought speeches, allegedly delivered by the historical characters. This is one of the more charming aspects of Greek and Roman histories. Tacitus’s speeches fall somewhere between the delightful effects of Herodotus and the fascinating dialogue of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. And I was spellbound by the eloquence of the sympathetic character Germanicus, as he tries to get the troops under control.  And I was utterly astonished that one of the main agitators was the former leader of a claque in a theater.

annals tacitus vol. 1Tacitus also provides us with “royal” family history: I have always enjoyed reading about Augustus’s wife Livia, who possibly poisoned some of Augustus’s prospective heirs, or even Augustus himself. And  she was almost certainly responsible for the banishment of Julia, Augustus’s daughter. In Book I of the Annals, Germanicus’s son, “Little Boots” (Caligula), makes an appearance.  Raised in an army camp, he is popular with the troops.  Too bad he grew up to be a mad emperor.

Tacitus and I will meet again–but not yet!

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