Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote in the early second century, during the reigns of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He wrote several books that have come down to modern times entirely or partially, including Germania, The Annals (about the first dynasty of Roman emperors, minus the founder Augustus, AD 14-68), and The Histories.
My first encounter with Tacitus was an excerpt of The Annals in my tenth-grade literature textbook, describing a fire that devastated the city of Rome in the year 64. As I recall, the passage hadn’t even been assigned for us to read, but I found it while flipping through the book and read it out of curiosity. I was taken by the vivid narrative explaining how the fire had spread through the city while the much-reviled emperor Nero whiled away the hours of the catastrophe singing about the burning of Troy. I was also intrigued by a brief reference to the Christians who were scapegoated for the fire—one of the earliest references to the practitioners of this new religion outside their own scriptures.
In eleventh grade, when my family went to Rome for Christmas and New Year’s, I brought along a Penguin edition of Tacitus’s Annals, translated by Michael Grant. Although there was much I couldn’t understand, I excitedly read the book on the trip to Italy and afterward. There were several episodes that stood out to me in the narrative, and I still remember them clearly. One of them was the assassination of Nero’s step-brother Britannicus, who was offed by putting poison in a cup that had already been tested, ostensibly to cool the too-hot drink down. There were many stories like this, about the intrigues and schemings of nobles in the inner circle of power.
Reading Tacitus corresponded with my own awakening as a scholar late in high school. Now that my days of adolescent apathy were past, I was beginning to see the world with new eyes, and it was turning out to be a big and fascinating place. The Annals was the beginning of an ancient history reading kick that continued with Josephus, Tacitus again (this time The Histories), Herodotus, Thucydides, and a little later (in college), Arrian (The Campaigns of Alexander).
When I read The Annals the first time, I took its content and style very much for granted. I guess I assumed that this was the one way to tell the history of early imperial Rome. By reading Tacitus, I felt that I was learning the true, authoritative history of Rome.
Ten years later, when I was in graduate school, I reread some parts of The Annals for a class about historiography (the history of history-writing). It was unsettling to read Tacitus again, because his writing didn’t seem so worshipful now. The parts that I read this time seemed petty and narrow-minded, as they focused almost completely on a small power-holding elite in a vast empire. There was nothing true or authoritative about any of this. I felt that my teenage self had been naïve to see the endless string of assassinations as the definitive account of Roman history. I now knew that there were many ways to tell the story of a time and place, and Tacitus had only chosen one of them.
I was ready to jettison Tacitus entirely when I reread him in grad school, but I have been assured—both by a friend who is a late-antique historian, and my own reading—that Tacitus is still an important and indispensable resource for early-imperial Roman history. The key is not to read him as the authoritative account and final word on everything, as I did in high school, but to read him critically as a source, much as I would read a project report for an Indian development project or an editorial from the Times of India or Hindustan.
But there is at least one fundamental way in which the work of an ancient historian differs from my own: I don’t have to reconstruct the past. Certain details of events that I am interested in might remain obscure, but the period that I as a modern historian study is very well-documented. That is not the case for Roman history. Most books, including Tacitus’s narrative histories, are missing large parts. Many books have disappeared entirely. Before ancient historians can study why something happened, they first must try to discover what happened. I have the luxury of skipping that step.