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Tacitus Essay

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'For the ancients, 'historical truth' was a realistic narrative based on a hard core of facts.' Discuss with regard to Tacitus. It is now accepted that ancient historiography cannot and should not be directly compared with its modern equivalent, or judged against the same standards of objectivity and factuality that lie at the heart of the modern discipline. For the ancients, the distinction between historical writing and literature was blurred at best: the idea of history as a purely academic pursuit was unknown and entertainment as well as (if not instead of) exposition was the professed goal of the historian. Even today, an author such as Tacitus is admired as much for his linguistic flair as for his historical insight and analysis. The straightforward question of whether or not we can treat the work of Greek and Roman historians as unbiased historical records in the same way we might treat an official financial account or an artefact unearthed by archaeology is not, therefore, crucial: we cannot. The question is instead one of extent: if facts were not the historian's primary concern, then how important were they, and why? While Syme and those who have followed him have pointed out that Tacitus would have had access to reliable records, the 'facts' contained therein may have served as just one of many inspirations for a largely invented narrative. What, then, was the balance between substance and style; history and literature; fact and invention? Tacitus stands out from the crowd because of the scale, scope and skill of his work, but also because of his attitude. His writing is markedly more pessimistic, more critical than that of his predecessors. This could be the result of a personal preference, but it might also imply something about the time he wrote about, or indeed the time in which he wrote. The question takes on particular significance when applied to Tacitus' treatment of the emperor Tiberius. The eloquence of the historian's criticism, together with a lack of other satisfactory sources, means that our image of Augustus' successor as a cruel and cunning despot presiding over a cowed empire relies heavily on his presentation in the Annals. To take Tacitus' Tiberius as a literary creation would not only have implications for the way we think of 'historical truth' in the ancient world, but force us to re-evaluate the Principate as a mode of government. At first glance, there is a case to be made for the relative objectivity of Tacitus, and there are suggestions that he took pains to base his narrative on fact. First of all, we have the historian's own assurances of his impartiality and his thirst for knowledge. In the programmatic preface to the Histories, he assures readers of his distance from the events he will describe: 'I myself knew nothing of Galba, of Otho, or of Vitellius, either from benefits or from injuries'. The implication is that his narrative will not be coloured either by the 'flattery' or the 'hatred' of the imperial system that had undermined previous authors. In the same passage, he claims that his material is novel ('novis cladibus'), which on the face of it suggests he has unearthed new information. In a digression he makes in Book III of the Annals, he reasserts that his 'conception of the first duty of history' is 'to ensure that merit will not lack its record and to hold before the vicious word and deed the terrors of posterity and infamy', while in Book IV we find him positively apologising for dwelling on small details: 'I am not unaware that very many of the events I have described, and shall describe, may perhaps seem little things, trifles too slight for record'. Tacitus' claims to authorial distance appear borne out in the narrative on those frequent occasions he furnishes us with alternative viewpoints. That he often takes the time to dwell on relatively minor details - such as the name of the senator who proposed a particular motion - encourages us to believe
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