The Head of the Snake: Tacitus’ Indictments Against Unjust Rulers (Sammy Sawyer, 2020)

Released in the early 2nd century BC, Tacitus’ history of the Principate and the Julio-Claudian dynasty, The Annals, analyzes the benefits to society provided by the emperors as well as the darker sides of society that were brought about by giving a few individuals supreme auctoritas. These histories are written following a period of great instability at the head of the empire, specifically in 69 AD in a year known as the “Year of the Four Emperors,” and, as such, Tacitus seeks to expose what issues existed in the Julio-Claudian dynasty that led to the corruption and instability in the Principate that he saw growing up in Rome. Unlike other histories of emperors such as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti that are either directly written by the emperor or heavily influenced by them, Tacitus writes The Annals without their censorship to provide a glimpse into the darker sides of the emperors. It is in revealing the negative traits of these rulers that he explains what causes the negative aspects of the Principate. Tacitus identifies the problems in the Principate not as a result of the system of government itself, but instead as rooted in the individuals and corrupt rulers that made up the Julio-Claudian dynasty, citing issues such as these rulers using their power to benefit their own self-interest and the censorship of critics of the emperor.

It is first essential to understand how Tacitus views the Principate strictly as a form of government and the advantages that it provides for Roman society. Following the civil wars and uprisings in the provinciae that became typical of the late Republic period, Tacitus respects the efficiency of the Principate in maintaining order and quelling turmoil around the empire. He provides an example of this maintaining order in his chronicling of the battles against rebelling tribes in Britannia, most notably that of the Catuvellauni tribe led by Caratacus (Tacitus, Annals 12.33). While the leaders of the tribes are able to encourage their men and whip them into a frenzy for battle, their military tactics are no match for the strength of the Roman military and their commanders who were chosen by Claudius (Tacitus, Annals 12.35). These military conquests in Britannia, as well as other similar campaigns, show one of the greatest strengths of the Principate:  the nature of an authoritarian rule allowed for decisive allocation of resources, resulting in well-trained and focused armies. The supreme auctoritas of the emperors also allowed them to create central strategic objectives and create unified goals amongst commanders, resulting in more consistency across the entire Imperial army.

Tacitus also expresses how the centralization of power allowed for swift improvements to public life and society. One example of this phenomenon is Claudius’ creation of the college of soothsayers to maintain the practice amongst the public (Tacitus, Annals 11.15.1-4). The emperors were able to push through public works projects or new programs such as the introduction of soothsayers’ institutions very quickly as a result of their power. This was not the case in much of the later period of the Republic, as can be seen with the Gracchi’s Reforms being fought over and pushed back against. The emperor was also generally encouraged to think of the public in their decisions and put forth these types of programs. Claudius describes the role of the leader in his speech to Meherdates and the Parthian representatives as not being “in terms of mastery over slaves” but instead as “being a director amongst citizens” (Tacitus, Annals 12.11.7-8). Considering the lives of the public should be an integral part of the emperor’s role as he makes decisions and puts forth policies. With these factors in mind, Tacitus portrays the role of the emperor and the organization of the Principate government as a whole to be a potentially beneficial system to the wellbeing of the nation if the emperor works to maintain unity and a high quality of life for the public.

Tacitus’ analysis of the Principate and its effectiveness is thus entirely dependent on the quality of the emperor and his surrounding parties. As such, Tacitus proceeds to describe both the good and the bad of both Claudius and Nero, as well as their wives and collaborators, in order to determine their righteousness as rulers and if they could be the cause of some of the systematic problems he sees in the Principate. He begins with Claudius, who he finds to be lacking in empathy and ignorant to the true state of affairs in Rome. Tacitus describes Claudius’ demeanor and lack of emotion when the emperor receives the news that his wife, Messalina, had passed away. Rather than asking the details of her death and either showing grief at her death or even satisfaction that someone who had been betraying him had died, he simply “carried on with the routine of the banquet” (Tacitus, Annals 11.38.8). The stoic, emotionless nature of Claudius at a time of such political and personal importance also demonstrates another of Claudius’ traits that Tacitus criticizes: when he focuses on one idea or responsibility, he ignores everything else happening in the world. In the case of Messalina’s death, he was focused on dining with his friends and family, so he did not focus on her death at all. Claudius had also previously ignored the fragile state of his marriage and Messalina’s scheming because he was “busy with his duties as censor” (Tacitus, Annals 11.13.1-2). While Claudius can be effective at somethings when he puts his mind to it, such as his establishment of the soothsayer’s institutions, he is unable to take on many roles at once in the manner that is necessary for a highly effective ruler. Despite these traits, Tacitus depicts Claudius as a ruler who was just and fair, citing such moments as him pardoning Caratacus following his speech at the tribunal (Tacitus, Annals 12.38.1-2). Overall, as demonstrated through the policies that he proposed and his military’s excellence in controlling its vast lands, Tacitus believes Claudius himself to be a fine ruler for the Principate.

As for Claudius’ wives, on the other hand, Tacitus portrays them as self-centered, power-hungry, and full of hatred. Messalina blindly accuses Asiaticus of crimes for the selfish reason that “she hankered after his gardens” (Tacitus, Annals 11.1.3). Messalina is willing to accuse anyone or sleep with anyone in order to gain more power and possessions, leading to great corruption in the Principate (Tacitus, Annals 11.26). Agrippina has similar values, as is seen early on by her hatred of Lollia for competing with her for the title of Claudius’ wife (Tacitus, Annals 12.22). Her thirst for power only increases as she plots her coup (Tacitus, Annals 12.42), and, once Nero rises to the throne and her power has become supreme, she spares little time in executing those who she believes to be violent and a threat to the throne, such as Junius Silanus (Tacitus, Annals 13.1). Both of these women are given immense power as empresses of Rome, and they abuse that power for their own gains and self-centered priorities. It is in these rulers that Tacitus begins to identify the roots of issues that would plague the Principate for years to income, including an overpowering thirst for power amongst those who would be emperor as well as an abuse of that power for their own protection and gain.

While Messalina and Agrippina were early examples of these issues in government, they were still not the emperor and did not have the highest power in Rome. Nero becomes the representation of what an overwhelming thirst for power looks like in the emperor himself. One of the most despicable things that Nero frequently does is silence critics and take away the liberty of speech from the people of Rome. One such instance of this phenomenon occurring is his indictment of Antisitius for producing satirical poetry that criticizes his rule (Tacitus, Annals 14.48). Nero is abusing his auctoritas to protect his own rule and make sure there is no threat to his power. He progresses from simply making accusations against people and letting them be heard before the senate to frequently ordering executions against people that would conspire against his tyranny such as Sulpicius Asper (Tacitus, Annals 15.68) or Annaeus Lucanus (Tacitus, Annals 15.70). Not only is he willing to do this with members of the general public or magistrates, but he is also unafraid of attempting to silence senators. This fact is made no more evident than in his ongoing feud with Thrasea Paetus, resulting in him attempting to have them executed in a way that Tacitus describes as a “deep desire to exterminate virtue itself” (Tacitus, Annals 16.21.2). Tacitus views Nero’s willingness to strike down those who would speak against him as the ultimate example of an emperor abusing his power in a way that ultimately corrupts the benefits of the Principate system. These are not faults in the system itself, but rather faults specifically in Nero that make the entire system problematic. Nero is not working, as Claudius put it, as a “director amongst citizens” (Tacitus, Annals 12.11.7-8), but he is instead using treating the public as slaves that should not disrespect their master.

Tacitus’ ideal government is entirely dependent on the leader in charge of it. So long as the leader prioritizes the public, works efficiently, maintains order around the empire, and does not seek to silence critics, Tacitus believes an authoritarian rule such as in the Principate to be the most effective way to rule Rome. The issues come when the leaders of society become driven solely by their desire for power and their own self-interest. It begins with Messalina and Agrippina making accusations and having sexual relations with people in order to gain more power, and then it manifests itself fully in Nero executing and silencing those in all ranks of society who would challenge him. The drive for power that controls these people would continue to be a problem for years to come, especially in the Year of the Four Emperors, and it became the cause for instability and corruption in the Principate that Tacitus knew all too well.