Narratives of death in Tacitus' Annals

  • Sanne van den Berg

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis argues that we can deepen our understanding of Tacitus’ Annals by reading the narrative through the lens of death. Through close reading and structural analysis, I demonstrate that deaths are important narrative devices in the Annals that create links and engender important (often political) themes. Looking at their interplay and cumulative effect, my analysis shows that deaths in the Annals create meaning and help us understand the text better. This research has wider implications for how we read the Annals and the importance we ascribe to mentions of death. It also looks beyond the Annals, showing to what degree death functions as a narrative device in other texts.

This thesis is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the position of deaths in the structure of the text. Chapter 2 analyses death as a metaphor for the End, both of Nero, the Julio-Claudians, and the Annals as a literary work. Chapter 3 looks at strategic positions of death (often bookending and at year-ends), showing that deaths structure the narrative. The second part of this thesis is organised thematically. Chapter 4 focuses on violent deaths, contrasting non-affective deaths in battle with dramatic imperial assassinations and deaths caused by the arena. In chapter 5, murders by starvation and poisoning are examined. Tacitus employs these deaths as a vehicle to focus on those (allegedly) responsible, causing death to have a lasting impact on the emperors’ characterisation. Chapter 6 centres on the political power dynamic between emperor and senator in (forced) suicides. As I show, Tacitus uses suicide as a vehicle to talk about control and agency. Death in the Annals does not only leave a trail of bodies, but also tells a political narrative, a character study of the Julio-Claudians, a tale of Rome’s decline, and forces the reader to confront their own position in history.
Date of Award16 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorAlice Rebecca König (Supervisor)


  • Tacitus
  • Annals
  • Roman historiography
  • Narratives of death
  • Death
  • Suicide

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 26 April 2028

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