Historians Polybius, Sallust, Seneca, Suetonius & Tacitus

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Historians Polybius, Sallust, Seneca, Suetonius & Tacitus

POLYBIUS (204 – 122 BC) had the good luck (from the intellectual point of view) to be a historian during the rise of Rome after the 2nd Punic War. He was a Greek of noble blood not without political importance, but he was taken toRome with several other Greeks as hostages. This happened after the Roman intervention in Athens by Aemilius Paullus and others. Polybius formed a circle of clever fellows around his captor who became his mentor.

He was present in the company of another ‘patron’ Scipio Aemilianus at the sack of Carthage by the Romans. He wrote his Universal History while under the protection of the army; this covered the years 220 – 145 BC and is invaluable for reference to those times.

Polybius wrote more than forty books, in which he emphasises that Roman success was due to the Roman Legions – their skills, bravery and leadership;  just administrators placed as governors of conquered territory, and an essential balance of regal, noble and ‘popular’ elements in the republican administration. Of these books but five have survived, but his history of Hannibal’s exploits satisfactorily augments that of Livy.

SALLUST (84 – 36 BC), whose full name is Caius Sallustius Crispus, was among the first of the significant Roman historians. He was wise enough to be a supporter of Julius Caesar, and was appointed governor of Numidia in North Africa. Though accused of extortion he nevertheless never appeared on trial.

In retirement after rather a colourless life’s work, he wrote a history of the Numidian War fought between Marius (157 – 86 BC) and Jugurtha (156 – 104) King of the Numidians. He also completed an account of the Catiline Conspiracy. These both survive, but very little of his five-volume work on the history of Rome remains.

SENECA (4 BC – 65 AD) was called Lucius Anneous (also Seneca the Younger to distinguish him from his father Seneca the Older who was well known inRome as a teacher of rhetoric). The younger Seneca was born in the Iberian Peninsula at what is now Cordoba. He started off well, studying law and politics, but ran foul of the Emperor Caligula, narrowly escaping death.

Claudius (Clo-Clo) banished him from Rome suspecting him of having an affair with his sister (42 AD) but oddly enough recalled him later to become the tutor of Nero, who was twelve. Seneca was popular with Nero as a result and when the young emperor ascended to the throne Seneca was appointed his political counseller.

All went well for a while; in company with the Praetorian Prefect, Seneca counselled and taught Nero, who seemed to take most of the advice. Then came the murder of Nero’s mother Agrippina and Seneca had to compose Nero’s explanation to the Senate. Every senator thought he knew best about this murder, and suspicions over Nero’s complicity did not help Seneca. The latter thought the best thing to do was retire, which he did in 61 AD. Retirement did not save him as he had hoped it would; Nero falsely accused him of treason three years later and Seneca (rather like Rommel many centuries later) was forced to kill himself.

Some works of Seneca the Younger survive, such as his nine mythological tragedies, and a wicked satire on the supposed deification of Claudius. Most significant however are his 124 Letters and Natural Questions, a treatise on natural science, and a collection of essays on philosophical subjects, full of reason and wit. They are notable for an epigrammatic style using rhetoric to recommend staunch principles.

SUETONIUS (69 – 140 AD), real name Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus became an important historian/chronicler of the early emperors ofRome. He was by training a lawyer, but he was also the Emperor Hadrian’s private secretary, and therefore privy to his intimate life, secrets, thoughts and opinions.

He wrote a meticulous account of the life of the first twelve Ronan Caesars. The writing is only partially based on fact. Suetonius would have made an excellent novelist, if such a literary form had existed at that time. He also drew on informed anecdote and straightforward court gossip, but his work is invaluable as a racy account of the times. If he had a flaw, it was his failure to judge the accuracy of his raw material. Suetonius was also, most importantly for the history of Christianity, a non-Christian who recorded the early following and acts of Jesus Christ.

TACITUS (c. 55. c.120 AD), whose names were Publius Cornelius was both a consul and a historian. At first he was merely a politician and became Governor of Asia (no small task) in 112 AD. He composed the earliest known account of the German tribes, and a biography of his father-in-law Agricola, Governor of Britain.

He wrote the Histories (the period from Galba to Domitian 69 – 96 AD), and the Annals dealing with that most difficult part of Roman history from the death Augustus (q.v.) in 14 AD through to the disastrous reign of Nero (q.v.). Like Suetonius he is one of the first non-Christian writers to record the life and death of Jesus Christ. Unlike Suetonius he has a reputation as a historian of scrupulous accuracy. He saw a writer’s function as the recording of virtue, and the denouncing of vice for posterity. His style is described as intense, rapid and incisive. The later historian Gibbon admired Tacitus more than any other ancient historian. Indeed, Gibbon’s own biting and concise English style comes closest to the Latin of his literary hero.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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