Ancient History & Civilisation


The principal cause of this neglect was unquestionably the unusual and difficult Latin in which he wrote. The outstanding quality of Tacitus is his brilliance as a literary artist. Racine called him ‘the greatest painter of antiquity’. Others have compared his work not so much to a series of pictures as to a continuous frieze. But of his supreme artistic genius there can be no doubt. A large part of this artistry resides in his style – the aspect of his talent which a translator has least hope of reproducing. Now ancient readers usually recognized stylistic talent, and by no means found that it interfered with their enjoyment when history contained a strong infusion of rhetoric. But the style of Tacitus, as it had developed to its culminating point in these Annals, was indeed extraordinary. It displays a sharp, astringent and certainly deliberate contrast to the rotund periods of Cicero and to the flowing, ‘milky’ diction of Livy (p. 15).

For one thing, since Livy’s day rhetoric had gained mightily in strength as the basis of Roman education and taste. Under the influence of rhetorical declamations in school and society, the rounded fluency of classical style had been superseded by the pointed brevity of Silver Latin writers, such as Seneca (p. 12), who was not only one of the chief political figures of the age described in the Annals but a very clever moralizing epigrammatist – and the son of a leading professor of rhetoric. But the mature prose of Tacitus, besides undergoing all the influences of Silver Latin, has added to them his own formidable individuality.

The colour of his prose differs greatly in accordance with the varied intensity of his feeling. Sometimes, to give us a rest, there is a pedestrian factual passage. His style is at its most idiosyncratic when the subject-matter is not factual but emotional. When Tacitus ponders on oppression or moral decline, he writes in short, abrupt sentences, in staccato phrases, in trenchant, surprising epigrams far removed from our Ciceronian grammar-books. The vividness of his words and phrases often has a semi-poetical quality. If he borrowed much (p. 15), he made it his own; though the traditional and original elements in his style are notoriously hard to disengage, there is no doubt about its peculiarity. Much Latin literature is remote from the spoken tongue, but never had it been as remote as this. Tacitus is known to have become a fine orator (p. 7). In his writings, and especially in these Annals, he has transformed the rhetoric and ‘point’ of the Silver Age from the second-rate quality of all too many of its exponents into an unequalled brilliance.

But what a problem this brilliant style sets to the translator! The task has been attempted many times. But the more prudent translators have prefaced their efforts by apologetic reminders that ‘Tacitus has never been translated, and probably never will be’ – that he is ‘the despair of the translator’; it is ‘une œuvre impossible’.

To begin with, textual ambiguities quite often make it hard even to decide what Tacitus wrote. Since the text of each half of the work depends entirely on a single medieval manuscript, there is ample room for suspicions that error may have crept in. However, let us now assume, optimistically, that the meaning is understood. The next problem is to convey, in such minute degree as is practicable, the heart of the matter – that is to say, to reproduce the meaning in English; to convey, as faithfully as possible, the essential thought and significance of what Tacitus wrote. But ought one not also to attempt to reproduce his expression? In theory a translator, as opposed to a mere paraphraser, ought to do so. In practice, too, he ought to attempt to do so – at least to a limited extent. For example, a translation of Tacitus must aim at conciseness. It will be too far from his spirit altogether if it succumbs to our national inclination ‘that the writer shall set out his ideas with some space between them’. But any attempt to render Tacitus’ peculiar Latin into peculiar English would mean abysmal failure in another most peremptory requirement. For, in our mid-twentieth century, it would not be readable – and, except as a mere crib, an unreadable translation of a great master has obviously not done its job.

In translating in this series the fantastic Apuleius, Robert Graves remarked: ‘Paradoxically, the effect of oddness is best achieved in convulsed times like the present by writing in as easy and sedate an English as possible.’ ‘Sedate’ is surely not an ambitious enough epithet for a good rendering of Apuleius, or of Tacitus; but his reminder that twentieth-century English has to be plain is still relevant. No amount of colourful or fanciful language will make the strange personality of Tacitus understandable to contemporary readers, who find rhetoric and the grand style unnatural and unreadable. Today the only faint hope of rendering his complexity lies in as pungent a simplicity as the translator can achieve.

Unlike Tacitus, I have sought to avoid confusion by giving names in full, and also by placing (I), (II), etc., after them when more than one person of the same name is mentioned in the course of the book. I have only withheld these numerals in the case of the two Agrippinas:1 in Part I ‘Agrippina’ means Agrippina the elder, in Part 2 her daughter. ‘Gaius’ is the emperor (Caligula), ‘Gaius Caesar’ is Augustus’ grandson. ‘Nero Drusus’ is Tiberius’ brother, ‘Drusus’ his son, ‘Drusus Caesar’ his grandnephew. Yet in spite of all these pre­cautions the Imperial House can only be disentangled by employing the genealogical tables which are at the back of the book.

Wherever possible I have avoided or translated technical phraseology. For example, I have tried to Anglicize words relating to the Roman army – most of which are wholly incomprehensible without an effort at modernization. I am very grateful to Mr Eric Birley for supplying me with equivalents for Roman military terms which he, with his great experience of this subject, regards as close enough to be serviceable. Some may miss a few familiar words, military and otherwise; I preferred not to keep them, in the interests of throwing off the more misleading parts of the traditional apparatus.

Thus I have revolted against the outworn ‘freedman’ and ‘colony’. ‘Freedman’ means nothing in modern English, so I have preferred ‘ex-slave’, ‘freed slave’, or ‘former slave’. ‘Colony’ is misleading (partly because Roman colonies were towns, not countries), so I have used the word ‘settlement’.1 Also included are those few basic Roman official terms for which even the broadest or vaguest equivalent in English does not exist, such as ‘consul’ and ‘praetor’ – and ‘sestertius’ or sesterce, on which my note owes part of its information to the late Professor A. H. M. Jones.

I have translated the names of rivers and mountains (when these are identifiable), but it has not seemed possible to do so in the case of towns, of which the modern designations are sometimes Christian or Moslem and would sound anachronistic. Instead I have marshalled the ancient and modern names alongside each other in a list at the end. Almost every place-name mentioned by Tacitus is included (in its ancient form) in one of the maps.

Throughout the centuries it has been disputed whether translators ought, or ought not, to borrow felicitous words or phrases from their forerunners. There have been so many versions of Tacitus that strict avoidance of precedent would have added a further and almost insuperable difficulty to my task. Indeed, it would sometimes have meant that the only possible happy rendering would have to be avoided – too high a price to pay for the illusory advantage of complete independence. I owe a debt of gratitude to those translators into English whose thoughts I have, on occasion, consciously or unconsciously appropriated.

I owe an acknowledgement to the Cambridge University Press for allowing me to include in this Introduction certain passages from my book Roman Literature. Amendments incorporated in reprints are owed to Professor M. I. Finley, Professor E. N. Lane, Professor Sir Ronald Syme, Mr K. Wellesley and Professor E. C. Woodcock. I am also very grateful to Dr E. V. Rieu and Mrs Betty Radice, successive editors of Penguin Classics, for their help.


If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!