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Lest we forget: Tacitus on history writing under a tyranny

Jakob Wisse, Professor of Latin Language and Literature, Newcastle University

Date/Time: 10th November 2011

Many Roman emperors were disliked by their contemporaries – and often with good reason. In many cases, their régimes amounted to tyranny, and people could end up paying with their lives for invoking the displeasure of the emperor or his circle. How, then, should one behave under a tyranny? And should one dare to write? These questions are a central concern in the work of Tacitus, the great historian of the early Roman Empire. This concern is very clear in the first part of Tacitus’ Annals, his treatment of the rule of the ‘bad’ emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD). This lecture will discuss Tacitus’ account of the trial of a fellow-historian, Cremutius Cordus, whose history had provoked the emperor’s anger. Prosecuted in the Senate in Tiberius’ presence, and knowing that he will have to die, Cremutius makes a bold speech. Through this speech, Tacitus highlights the importance of remembering victims of tyranny, especially those who dared to write history. Thus, Tacitus underlines the power of historical literature, his own as well as that of others like Cremutius.

This inaugural lecture was organised in conjunction with the Northumberland and Durham Classical Association.