Roman Empire Discussion Questions

September 6: Aeneid Discussion 1

  1. In the first book we see several kings/potential kings - Aeneas, Aeolus, Dido.  What characteristics mark them as good rulers or as bad rulers? How might this relate to Augustus?
  2. How does Virgil moralize war in Book 2?
  3. Is Dido guilty and thus responsible for her own demise, or is she an innocent victim of Aeneas or the gods or fate?
  4. Aeneas is often described as pious, or dutiful or “devoted to duty.” What qualities mark him out as a pious or dutiful man, and what does this show about how the Romans understood piety?
  5. What is the significance of the burning of the ships? How justified is Juno in fighting the decrees of fate?
  6. Virgil is found of ecphrases and other digressive descriptions - what is the significance of the temple frieze and the Daedalus frieze?
  7. What sort of picture of human life on earth do we get from the cosmology that Anchises articulates at 6.835ff?  Is it harmonious with the rest of the poem?  
  8. Book 6 is the first of two books to give a general overview of Roman history.  How does it characterize Rome?  What elements of Roman society is Virgil keen to emphasize, and how might this relate to the Augustan era?

September 13: Aeneid Discussion 2

  1. What is the state of civilization and culture of the native Latins, including Turnus’ Rutulians, as depicted in the first half of book 7 and elsewhere, and how does it relate to the Augustan era?
  2. Is Hercules being presented as a model for Aeneas and perhaps for Romans generally?  How is he portrayed?  Does the story of Cacus have any other relevance for the poem?
  3. How does the description of Aeneas’ divinely made shield continue the poem’s treatment of Roman history? What do you make of Aeneas’ own reaction to its images?  Does this shed any light on the end of Book 6?
  4. What is Virgil trying to convey in Book 9 with the Nisus and Euryalus episode?
  5. How does Virgil characterize the strife between Trojans and Latins as a civil war?  How does he hint at the eventual unity of the two peoples?  Can we see any sort of Italian nationalism in the later part of the poem?
  6. Virgil describes the image on Pallas’ sword-belt when Turnus strips it away (10.586ff).  What is the significance of this ecphrasis?
  7. How justified is Juno in fighting fate and trying to stop Aeneas?  What, if anything, does she get out of it?
  8. How do we interpret the death of Turnus at the end of the poem?

September 20: Augustus Discussion

  1. For whom was the Res Gestae intended? How successful is it at accounting for the facts of Augustus' life? How convincing is it?
  2. How much does the image of imperial power given by Dio differ from what emerges in the Res Gestae?
  3. What does Augustus' seem to be the most proud of in the Res Gestae? What understanding of the aims and purposes of his reign can we gain from it?
  4. How does Augustus reconcile absolute rule with the Republican ideal?
  5. How does the Res Gestae depict Augustus' foreign policy?
  6. How do the three different summations of Augustus' life (Dio, Tacitus, and the Res Gestae) differ in their portrayals? Is it possible to reconcile them? Can we ultimately understand Augustus?

September 29: Tacitus Discussion 1

  1. How does the preface to the Annals compare with the prefaces of Livy and Sallust that we read earlier?
  2. Why does Tacitus, who is famous for writing with passion and with an agenda, claim to write "without anger and partiality"?
  3. Does Tacitus admire Germanicus, or not? How does Germanicus' performance compare to that of Drusus? How do you rate Germanicus' handling of the mutiny? Why does Tacitus give Germanicus so much attention?
  4. How do the various German leaders (especially Arminius, note his obituary) serve as foils for the Romans and what is Tacitus trying to tell us about the state of Roman civilization through these Germans?
  5. What role does Sejanus play in Tiberius' reign? Is he entirely a negative influence, or does he exercise any restraint on the emperor?
  6. How does Tacitus compare, directly or indirectly, the Republic with the Principate? Note especially 3.25-28.
  7. What are Tacitus' purposes in writing history? Look especially at 4.32-33, but also at the ends of the individual books. What other passages are revealing about why Tacitus writes history? What messages might Tacitus have for his readers?
  8. What is Tacitus' basic picture of the reign of Tiberius? (Be prepared to identify specific passages which relate to this issue) How effectively does this analysis account for the facts that Tacitus presents? How does the obituary of Tiberius at the end of 6 fit into this?
  9. What, in Tacitus' view, is the duty of a senator under an emperor like Tiberius?

October 11: Tacitus Discussion 2

  1. Compare the Lyon Speech with Tacitus' version again. Now that you've read lots of Tacitus, what do you think of Tacitus's rewriting? Does it fit other themes we see in the Annals? Note 12.6 especially.
  2. Tacitus has four very prominent female characters in these later books: Messalina, Agrippina, Poppea, and Boudicca. How are the four contrasted and what does Tacitus want us to take away about the proper role of woman and the state of Rome and the Romans?
  3. How does Tacitus set up the reign of Nero to parallel that of Tiberius? Based on Nero, what qualities define a good emperor?
  4. What is Tacitus’ opinion of the Stoic philosopher Thrasea Paetus and his manner of opposing Nero? How does this compare to the role the Stoic philosopher Seneca plays?
  5. Why is the Pisonian conspiracy so important? Based on the figures Tacitus portrays in the conspiracy and aftermath, what are the qualities he admires, and does any figure truly merit unadulterated admiration? What can we draw from all this on Tacitus' views on the duty of a senator under a bad emperor?
  6. How does Tacitus portray the Britons (and the Germans in the earlier books) compared to the Romans?
  7. How does Tacitus define Liberty, and how does this relate to his views on the Republic versus the Principate?

October 20: Tacitus Discussion 3

  1. Compare the prologues to the Annals and the Histories - how are they similar, how are they different. Are the differences best explained by the different subject matter, or does Tacitus reveal his development as an historian?
  2. Why does Tacitus start with the beginning of 69, rather than the death of Nero or the death of Galba which would seem like more logical points?
  3. How do the emperors of 69 try to consolidate their power? What seems to be most effective?
  4. Does Tacitus want us to admire Galba or not?
  5. How does the army behave during the civil wars of 69? What is the effect of civil war on the army? Is there a difference between the Roman soldiers and the auxiliaries?
  6. What are the effects of civil war on Roman society as a whole? 
  7. Compare the ends of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. How does Tacitus use them to explain what defines a good Roman and what defines a good emperor?
  8. How do the emperors of the Histories compare to the emperors of the Annals? What other differences, in content, tone, or style, do you notice between the two works - remember, the Histories were written first.

October 30: Pliny the Younger Discussion

  1. What sort of role does a member of the elite such as Pliny have to play under Trajan?  How does Trajan maintain their support?
  2. What are the concerns of an upper-class Roman such as Pliny?  What do the letters reveal about the relationship of the upper-class and everyone else in Rome?
  3. What do the letters reveal about the nature of history-writing under the Principate?
  4. Why would Pliny have felt his letters were worthy of being published and circulated?
  5. What sort of respect is expected of members of the elite like Pliny by the Emperor?  Is this a two-way street?
  6. What is Trajan’s leadership style?  Is he a very hands-on emperor, or does he feel confident delegating to subordinates like Pliny?
  7. What does Trajan’s overall policy towards the provincials seem to be?  How does he keep them happy and quiet?  What role does the governor have to play in all this?  What is expected of the provincials themselves?
  8. What is Trajan’s approach to the Christians?  How much does Pliny seem to know about them?  Is Trajan’s approach consistent with his policies elsewhere?

November 8: Tacitus Discussion 4

  1. Based on the life of Agricola, what is the duty of a senator under a bad emperor? Is this consistent with what we saw in the Annals?
  2. What qualities in the Britons does Tacitus particularly emphasize? How are they similar/dissimilar to the Romans?
  3. How would Tacitus define “civilization?” Is Agricola portrayed as bringing civilization to the Britons?
  4. How does Agricola contrast with Calgacus? Does Calgacus bear any similarity to other Roman enemies Tacitus has portrayed?
  5. How does Tacitus' portrayal of the Britons compare with the Germans? What does he admire most about the Germans?
  6. How does the landscape influence the nature of the Germans?
  7. How do the Germans of the Germany compare to the Germans of the Annals? What does Tacitus want his Roman audience to take away from his portrayals of the Germans?
  8. How does Tacitus’s portrayal of the Jews compare with the other non-Roman peoples we’ve seen in his works? Why is he so hostile towards them?