The Works of Tacitus, Vol. I
By Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Edited and translated and with essays by Thomas Gordon
Published by LibriVox
Read by a wide variety of readers
Having read Tacitus’ Annals (aka History of the Roman Empire from the Death of Augustus, which chronicle the early Roman Empire from Tiberius through Nero, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a different translation than the one I had read. This particular one may well have been a mistake, however.
I originally read the Michael Grant translation published by Penguin Classics in 1971. He wrote a twenty-eight page introduction to the volume and then allowed Tacitus to speak for himself. Thomas Gordon produced his translation in the 18th Century and for reasons that I might get into late wrote no less than ten “Discourses” or lectures on the Early Roman Empire as viewed from a highly biased viewpoint (ie the morality of one particular 18th Century historian), On listening to these long diatribes – seriously; with the long dedication to Sir Robert Walpole, it takes about seven hours to listen just to these prefaces in which he subjects his readers to a Roman History that would leave an atheist wondering why God did not come down from Heaven to personally smite the Romans Old Testament style.
It seems that Thomas Gordon did not have a good word to say about any of the Caesars (from Julius to Nero and beyond – he mentions Domitian once and several others as he went along) and I wondered that since he obviously found the whole culture so distasteful, then why did he choose to study it? Then again, perhaps Mister Gordon did not like anyone (aside from his benefactor, Sir Robert Walpole) or else he just saw this as a great way to further the aims of his fellow Commonwealth Men. Anyway you care to put it, however, it was poor history from our modern point of view even if it was typical of the time. Of course nearly all of the time he was using this as an excuse to push his own political philosophiy and haphazardly tosses in examples from all of history until I had to wonder what any of it had to do with Tacitus. It seemed to me that if Gordon was going to call these “Political Discourses Upon that Author” meaning Tacitus, there should have been a better connection to Tacitus and what he wrote. In truth, however, while the Founders of the USA might have been inspired by Gordon and his colleagues, I can only hope that other so-called Commonwealth Men were able to argue a little more coherently, without weaving on and off the purported subject like a drunk driver on the freeway. But, read it for yourself if you think I am being too harsh.
Even worse, he starts off the whole book by trash-talking all previous translations and there is nothing subtle about 18th Century trash talk. Obviously, he did not like any of his predecessors’ work, because if he did, he probably would not have felt the need to translate Tacitus’ work for himself, but to so vehemently take each one apart to present it as not being worth the time to read it, I felt, was both rude and unprofessional.
After that he spends the next six hours or so describing how corrupt and evil each of the Caesars were – he also paints all but Julius as cowardly and while there is some historic basis to many of his depictions of these men, most of it is colored harshly by Gordon’s personal morality, religion and politics.
Now most of my opinions, I will admit, come from my own 20th-21st Century point of view in which the historian should cover his or her subject with a neutral bias or with the mores of cultural milieu in which that history took place accounted for. Gordon, on the other hand, had a mucking great axe to grind and a stone suitable for the job.
After finally wading through the toxic review of Rome and her rulers, I was surprised to find that there was more of Gordon than Tacitus in the volume. It is possible that this is only true for the first volume. I do not have access at the moment to the later volumes.
I was also disappointed to discover that Volume 1 did not even include all of the reign of Tiberius. I should have been surprised it included the Annals at all, since it might have started with the Histories or some of Tacitus’ monographs, like Germania and Agricola. Certainly it should have included all the Annals that are extant – some of Tiberius is missing as are anything about Caligula and the first six years of Claudius’ reign and then breaks off before the death of Nero. It is possible that Tacitus did not stop there. His Histories cover the Year of Four Emperors and then the reigns of the Flavians. It is possible he also wrote about the reigns of Nerva and Trajan (he intended to) but we do not have that. One can only hope that the renewed X-Ray exploration of the scrolls discovered in the ruins of Herculaneum will reveal more of Tacitus and other lost writers of the ancient world, although I would not hold my breath waiting. Tacitus was still alive and writing in 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted, burying both Pompeii and Herculaneum, and also, just because a new method has been developed that can read the carbon ink letters on a totally carbonized scroll of papyrus, being able to read an entire scroll that way is still a ways off.
I will admit, however, that I did not find his actual translations to be particularly vexing. Yes, he did tend to choose words that brought Tacitus’ work closer to the points he made almost interminably in his various “Discourses,” but as Michael Graves pointed out in the introduction of his translation, Tacitus’ Latin is not particularly easy to translate. It is a bit odd, due to the preferred nature of the written word at the time and far more idiomatic than many other Roman authors – and don’t even try to compare it to Julius Caesar’s Commentaries which even the Romans probably used as primers to help foreigners learn to read their language.
If there is anything worse than reading Thomas Gordon’s political discourses, it has to be listening to them and if there is anything worse than listening to them, it is reading them aloud for a recording. That may be why there are so many different readers in this audiobook. You can practically hear the sighs of relief as they get to the ends of their tracks. Only a few come back to read more than once or twice.
In some cases this is a good thing. As is too often the case with multi-reader publications from LibriVox, some readers are easier to listen to than others and when the material is as turgid as Gordon’s “Discourses” that can really make the listening painful. Fortunately, many of the readers are quite good and once they finally got to the main reason I downloaded this audiobook – Tacitus – none of them were so bad as to ruin the listening experience and a few quite enhanced it.
So, if you are looking for the sort of political discourse that strongly influenced the Founding Fathers of the USA, maybe you should look this one up. On the other hand, if you are more interested in ancient history as told by an ancient historian, perhaps you might want to listen to some of LibriVox’s other offerings.