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CL3461: Tacitus: The Making of HIstory

Course Outline

Cornelius Tacitus is our most sophisticated and original analyst of the political culture of the Roman imperial age. The richness of his work has made him a figure of abiding interest and, indeed, considerable controversy. As a historian, he uses the events that he narrates to think about political life. Unlike a political philosopher or a writer of tracts, the historical narrative allows Tacitus to explore the full political and moral complexities of his world, to doubt and to question, to provide alternatives and to explore uncertainties. Especially in the Annales, Tacitus explores the fraught relationship between republic and monarchy (traditional categories of Classical political thought) and the new conception that was empire, the transformation of the Roman political class in the face of empire, what was lost and what was won. Tacitus explores the political and moral world of compromise and imperfection; in a world where there is no perfect solution, no utopia, what is the right course? This conflicted and ambivalent world is one of loss and irony and of such a distance between appearance and reality that, for many, deciding what was real was impossible (and at least one of the Tacitean purposes of history was to make more clear what was real). It is in this context that Tacitus has given us a literary masterpiece in which his characters explore the paradoxes of the imperial world, and in many cases realise that they are fated to die, trapped within a political and cultural system. For those interested in the nature of political power, how power intersects with the individual and shapes society, Tacitus is a fundamental text to which political thinkers continually return, from the Republicans of the sixteenth century to the postmodern radicals of the twenty-first. In this course we will engage with read Tacitus against political theory, against literary theory, against the Classical tradition of Republicanism, against the radicalism of contemporary French philosophers, against post-colonial theory. Such resonances offer us insight into Tacitean and the political crisis of the imperial age. 

Course Plan

1. Background: Livy, Sallust and the Writing of Rome’s History

2. Tacitus and his times: The Agricola: Domitian and the Politics of Virtue

3. Tacitus and his times: The Dialogus: The Politics of Resistance

4. Time and History: The Annales and the formation of the Principate

5. Time and History: Cremutius Cordus and the Last Roman

6. Time and History: Germanicus and Lucan at Troy

7. Time and Space: Mutinies on the Frontiers: A Democratic Moment?

8. Time and Space: Claudius Speaks: How to Make Romans: Past and Future in the Roman Empire

9. Time and Space: The Barbarian Speaks: Calgacus and the Frontiers of Empire

10. Time and Space: Germany and Rome

11. Power Politics: Tiberius meets the senators: The exceptional state and the death of the Father

12. Power Politics: Germanicus and Piso: Empire and Republic

13. Power Politics: Germanicus Comes Home: Rituals, Power and the Imperial Imaginary

14. Power Politics: Sejanus: Civil War Resumed? Power in the absence of Power.

15. Power Politics: Galba’s Guide to Being Emperor

16. Family Life: Claudius, his women, and the novelistic life of the imperial family

17. Family Life: Nero: Killing Mother

18. Staging Virtue: The Death of Seneca

19. Staging Virtue: Thrasea Paetus and the Politics of Opposition

20. Staging Virtue: Nero: Death of the Artist 


Formative: Critical Commentary (term 1) [1500 words] on a passage selected from Tacitus; Essay Plan and notes (term 2) [up to 1000 words]

Summative: [3000-3500 word essay] submitted on the designated day in term 3 (40%); Exam (60%)


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