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Tacitus and the Decadence of Rome

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 10 July 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Roman historian Tacitus who chronicled some of Rome’s most notorious emperors, including Nero and Caligula, and whose portrayal of Roman decadence influences the way we see Rome today. “The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace”. So reads page one of The Histories by the Roman historian Tacitus and it doesn’t disappoint. Convinced that Rome was going to the dogs, Tacitus depicts a Rome which is a hotbed of sex and violence, of excessive wealth and senatorial corruption. His work is a pungent study in tyranny and decline that has influenced depictions of Rome, from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. But is it a true picture of the age or does Tacitus’ work present the tyranny and decadence of Rome at the expense of its virtues? And to what extent, when we look at the Roman Empire today, do we still see it through Tacitus' eyes?With Catharine Edwards, Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London; Ellen O’Gorman, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Bristol and Maria Wyke, Professor of Latin at University College London

  • Further Reading

    SOURCE TEXTS:

    The Annals by Tacitus, A. J. Woodman (Introduction, Translator), (Hackett Publishing Company, 2004)

    The Histories (Oxford World's Classics) by Tacitus (Author), D. S. Levene (Editor), W. H. Fyfe (Translator) (OUP, USA; Revised edition, 2001)

    The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, (translator, Robert Graves), (revised with introduction and notes by James Rivers), (Penguin Classics, 2007)

    Lives of the Caesars (Oxford World's Classics) by Suetonius, Catharine Edwards (translator & introduction), (OUP, USA, 2001)

    Velleius Paterculus: Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Loeb Classical Library) by Velleius Paterculus, (Harvard University Press, 7th printing, 1st edition 1924)

    Suetonius (Bristol Classical Paperbacks) by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, (Bristol Classical Press; New Ed edition 1998)

  • .

    SECONDARY READING:

    The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations by Maria Wyke (OUP, 2002)

    Tacitus: Histories Book II by Tacitus, Edited by Rhiannon Ash, (Cambridge, 2007)

    Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus by Ellen O'Gorman, (Cambridge, 2000)

    Latin Historians by C.S.Kraus and A.J.Woodman (Oxford, 1997)

    Rhetoric in Classical Historiography by A.J.Woodman (London, 1988)

    Tacitus by Ronald Syme (Oxford, 1958)

    Texts on Tacitus’ Agricola:

    “An island nation: re-reading Tacitus' Agricola” in Journal of Roman Studies 91 by Katherine Clarke, (2001), pp. 94-112

    Theme of Death in Tacitus:

    Death in Ancient Rome by Catharine Edwards (London and New Haven, 2007), chapter 4

    Tacitus and the Funerary Baroque by Roland Barthes, pp.162-6 in Susan Sontag (Editor) Barthes: Selected Writings (London, 1982)

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