Tacitus: Contribution as Roman Historian and Politician

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      The end, however, was not yet; and in the generation which immediately followed, the single imposing figure of Cornelius Tacitus, the last of the great classical writers, adds a final and, as it were, a sunset splendour to the literature of Rome. The reigns of Nerva and Trajan, however much they were hailed as the beginning of a golden age, were really far less fertile in literary works than those of the Flavian Emperors; and the boasted restoration of freedom of speech was almost immediately followed by an all but complete silence of the Latin tongue. When to the name of Tacitus are added those of Juvenal and the younger Pliny, there is literally almost no other author—none certainly of the slightest literary importance—to be chronicled until the reign of Hadrian; and even then the principal authors are Greek, while mere compilers or grammarians like Gellius and Suetonius are all that Latin literature has to show. The beginnings of Christian literature in Minucius Felix, and of mediaeval literature in Apuleius and the author of the Pervigilium Veneris, rise in an age scanty in the amount and below mediocrity in the substance of its production.

Little is known of the birth and parentage of Tacitus beyond the mere fact that he was a Roman of good family. Tradition places his birth at Interamna early in the reign of Nero; he passed through the regular stages of an official career under the three Flavian Emperors. His marriage, towards the end of the reign of Vespasian, to the daughter and only surviving child of the eminent soldier and administrator, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, aided him in obtaining rapid promotion; he was praetor in the year in which Domitian celebrated the Secular Games, and rose to the dignity of the consulship during the brief reign of Nerva. He was then a little over forty.
Tacitus: as Roman Historian and Politician

      Little is known of the birth and parentage of Tacitus beyond the mere fact that he was a Roman of good family. Tradition places his birth at Interamna early in the reign of Nero; he passed through the regular stages of an official career under the three Flavian Emperors. His marriage, towards the end of the reign of Vespasian, to the daughter and only surviving child of the eminent soldier and administrator, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, aided him in obtaining rapid promotion; he was praetor in the year in which Domitian celebrated the Secular Games, and rose to the dignity of the consulship during the brief reign of Nerva. He was then a little over forty. When still quite a young man he had written the dialogue on oratory, which is one of the most interesting of Latin works on literary criticism; but throughout the reign of Domitian his pen was wholly laid aside. The celebrated passage of the Agricola in which he accounts for this silence may or may not give an adequate account of the facts, but at all events gives the keynote of the whole of his subsequent work, and of that view of the imperial government of the first century which his genius has fixed ineradicably in the imagination of the world. Under Domitian a servile senate had ordered the works of the two most eminent martyrs of reactionary Stoicism, Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio, to be publicly burned in the forum; "thinking that in that fire they consumed the voice of the Roman people, their own freedom, and the conscience of mankind. Great indeed," he bitterly continues, "are the proofs we have given of what we can endure. The antique time saw to the utmost bounds of freedom, we of servitude; robbed by an inquisition of the common use of speech and hearing, we should have lost our very memory with our voice, were it as much in our power to forget as to be dumb. Now at last our breath has come back; yet in the nature of human frailty remedies are slower than their diseases, and genius and learning are more easily extinguished than recalled. Fifteen years have been taken out of our lives, while youth passed silently into age; and we are the wretched survivors, not only of those who have been taken away from us, but of ourselves." Even a colourless translation may give some idea of the distilled bitterness of this tremendous indictment. We must remember that they are the words of a man in the prime of life and at the height of public distinction, under a prince of whose government he speaks in terms of almost extravagant hope and praise, to realise the spirit in which he addressed himself to paint his lurid portraits of Tiberius or Nero or Domitian.

      The exquisitely beautiful memoir of his father-in-law, in the introduction to which this passage occurs, was written by Tacitus in the year which succeeded his own consulship, and which saw the accession of Trajan. He was then already meditating a large historical work on the events of his own lifetime, for which he had, by reading and reflection, as well as by his own administrative experience, accumulated large materials. The essay De Origine Situ Moribus ac Populis Germaniae was published about the same time or a little later, and no doubt represents part of the material which he had collected for the chapters of his history dealing with the German wars, and which, as much of it fell outside the scope of a general history of Rome, he found it worth his while to publish as a separate treatise. The scheme of his work became larger in the course of its progress. As he originally planned it, it was to begin with the accession of Galba, thus dealing with a period which fell entirely within his own lifetime, and indeed within his own recollection. But after completing his account of the six reigns from Galba to Domitian, he did not, as he had at first proposed, go on to those of Nerva and Trajan, but resumed his task at an earlier period, and composed an equally elaborate history of the empire from the death of Augustus down to the point where his earlier work began. He still cherished the hope of resuming his history from the accession of Nerva, but it is doubtful whether he lived long enough to do so. Allusions to the Eastern conquests of Trajan in the Annals show that the work cannot have been published till after the year 115, and it would seem—though nothing is known as to the events or employments of his later life—that he did not long survive that date. But the thirty books of his Annals and Histories, themselves splendid work for a lifetime, gave the continuous history of the empire in the most crucial and on the whole the most remarkable period of its existence, the eighty-two years which succeeded the death of its founder.

      As in so many other cases, this memorable work has only escaped total loss by the slenderest of chances. As it is, only about one-half of the whole work is extant, consisting of four large fragments. The first of these, which begins at the beginning, breaks off abruptly in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. A gap of two years follows, and the second fragment carries on the history to Tiberius' death. The story of the reign of Caligula is wholly lost; the third fragment begins in the seventh year of Claudius, and goes on as far as the thirteenth of Nero. The fourth, consisting of the first four and part of the fifth book of the earlier part of the work, contains the events of little more than a year, but that the terrible "year of Emperors" which followed the overthrow of Nero and shook the Roman world to its foundations. A single manuscript has preserved the last two of these four fragments; to the hand of one nameless Italian monk of the eleventh century we owe our knowledge of one of the greatest masterpieces of the ancient world.

      Not the least interesting point in the study of the writings of Tacitus is the way in which we can see his unique style gradually forming and changing from his earlier to his later manner. The dialogue De Oratoribus is his earliest extant work. Its scene is laid in or about the year 75. But Tacitus was then little if at all over twenty, and it may have been written some five or six years later. In this book the influence of Quintilian and the Ciceronian school is strongly marked; there is so much of Ciceronianism in the style that many scholars have been inclined to assign it to some other author, or have even identified it with the lost treatise of Quintilian himself, on the Causes of the Decay of Eloquence. But its style, while it bears the general colour of the Silver Age, has also large traces of that compressed and allusive manner which Tacitus later carried to such an extreme degree of perfection. Full as it is of the ardor iuvenilis, page after page recalling that Ciceronian manner with which we are familiar in the Brutus or the De Oratore by the balance of the periods, by the elaborate similes, and by a certain fluid and florid evolution of what is really commonplace thought, a touch here and there, like contemnebat potius literas quam nesciebat, or vitio malignitatis humanae vetera semper in laude, praesentia in fastidio esse, or the criticism on the poetry of Caesar and Brutus, non melius quam Cicero, sed felicius, quia illos fecisse pauciores sciunt, anticipates the author of the Annals, with his mastery of biting phrase and his unequalled power of innuendo. The defence and attack of the older oratory are both dramatic, and to a certain extent unreal; it is probable that the dialogue does in fact represent the matter of actual discussions between the two principal interlocutors, celebrated orators of the Flavian period, to which as a young student Tacitus had himself listened. One phrase dropped by Aper, the apologist of the modern school, is of special interest as coming from the future historian; among the faults of the Ciceronian oratory is mentioned a languor and heaviness in narration—tarda et iners structura in morem annalium. It is just this quality in historical composition that Tacitus set himself sedulously to conquer. By every artifice of style, by daring use of vivid words and elliptical constructions, by studied avoidance of the old balance of the sentence, he established a new historical manner which, whatever may be its failings—and in the hands of any writer of less genius they become at once obvious and intolerable—never drops dead or says a thing in a certain way because it is the way in which the ordinary rules of style would prescribe that it should be said. A comparison has often been drawn between Tacitus and Carlyle in this matter. It may easily be pressed too far, as in some rather grotesque attempts made to translate portions of the Latin author into phrases chosen or copied from the modern. But there is this likeness: both authors began by writing in the rather mechanical and commonplace style which was the current fashion during their youth; and in both the evolution of the personal and inimitable manner from these earlier essays into the full perfection of the Annals and the French Revolution is a lesson in language of immense interest.

      The fifteen silent years of Tacitus followed the publication of the dialogue on oratory. In the Agricola and Germania the distinctively Tacitean style is still immature, though it is well on the way towards maturity. The Germania is less read for its literary merit than as the principal extant account, and the only one which professes to cover the ground at all systematically, of Central Europe under the early Roman Empire. It does not appear whether, in the course of his official employments, Tacitus had ever been stationed on the frontier either of the Rhine or of the Danube. The treatise bears little or no traces of first-hand knowledge; nor does he mention his authorities, with the single exception of a reference to Caesar's Gallic War. We can hardly doubt that he made free use of the material amassed by Pliny in his Bella Germaniae, and it is quite possible that he really used few other sources. For the work, though full of information, is not critically written, and the historian constantly tends to pass into the moralist. His Ciceronianism has now completely worn away, but his manner is still as deeply rhetorical as ever. What he has in view throughout is to bring the vices of civilised luxury into stronger relief by a contrast with the idealised simplicity of the German tribes; and though his knowledge and his candour alike make him stop short of falsifying facts, his selection and disposition of facts is guided less by a historical than by an ethical purpose. His lucid and accurate description of the amber of the Baltic seems merely introduced in order to point a sarcastic reference to Roman luxury; and the whole of the extremely valuable account of the social life of the Western German tribes is drawn in implicit or expressed contrast to the elaborate social conventions of what he considers a corrupt and degenerate civilisation. The exaggeration of the sentiment is more marked than in any of his other writings; thus the fine outburst, Nemo illic vitia ridet, nec corrumpere et corrumpi seculum vocatur, concludes a passage in which he gravely suggests that the invention of writing is fatal to moral innocence; and though he is candid enough to note the qualities of laziness and drunkenness which the Germans shared with other half-barbarous races, he glosses over the other quality common to savages, want of feeling, with the sounding and grandiose commonplace, expressed in a phrase of characteristic force and brevity, feminis lugere honestum est, viris meminisse.

      The Agricola, perhaps the most beautiful piece of biography in ancient literature, stands on a much higher level than the Germania, because here his heart was in the work. The rhetorical bent is now fully under control, while his mastery over "disposition" (to use the term of the schools), or what one might call the architectural quality of the book, could only have been gained by such large and deep study of the art of rhetoric as is inculcated by Quintilian. The Agricola has the stateliness, the ordered movement, of a funeral oration; the peroration, as it might not unfairly be called, of the two concluding chapters, reaches the highest level of the grave Roman eloquence, and its language vibrates with a depth of feeling to which Lucretius and Virgil alone in their greatest passages offer a parallel in Latin. The sentence, with its subtle Virgilian echoes, in which he laments his own and his wife's absence from Agricola's death-bed—omnia sine dubio, optime parentum, adsidente amantissima uxore superfuere honori tuo; paucioribus tamen lacrimis comploratus es, et novissima in luce desideraverunt aliquid oculi tui—shows a new and strange power in Latin. It is still the ancient language, but it anticipates in its cadences the language of the Vulgate and of the statelier mediaeval prose.

      Together with this remarkable power over new prose rhythms, Tacitus shows in the Agricola the complete mastery of mordant and unforgettable phrase which makes his mature writing so unique. Into three or four ordinary words he can put more concentrated meaning than any other author. The likeness and contrast between these brief phrases of his and the "half-lines" of Virgil might repay a long study. They are alike in their simple language, which somehow or other is charged with the whole personality of the author; but the personality itself is in the sharpest antithesis. The Virgilian phrases, with their grave pity, are steeped in a golden softness that is just touched with a far-off trouble, a pathetic waver in the voice as if tears were not far below it. Those of Tacitus are charged with indignation instead of pity; "like a jewel hung in ghastly night," to use Shakespeare's memorable simile, or like the red and angry autumnal star in the Iliad, they quiver and burn. Phrases like the famous ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant, or the felix opportunitate mortis, are the concentrated utterance of a great but deeply embittered mind.

      In this spirit Tacitus set himself to narrate the history of the first century of the Empire. Under the settled equable government of Trajan, the reigns of the Julio-Claudian house rapidly became a legendary epoch, a region of prodigies and nightmares and Titanic crimes. Even at the time they happened many of the events of those years had thrown the imagination of their spectators into a fever. The strong taint of insanity in the Claudian blood seemed to have communicated itself to the world ruled over by that extraordinary series of men, about whom there was something inhuman and supernatural. Most of them were publicly deified before their death. The Fortuna Urbis took in them successive and often monstrous incarnations. Augustus himself was supposed to have the gift of divination; his foreknowledge overleapt the extinction of his own house, and foresaw, across a gap of fifty years, the brief reign of Galba. Caligula threw an arch of prodigious span over the Roman Forum, above the roofs of the basilica of Julius Caesar, that from his house on the Palatine he might cross more easily to sup with his brother, Jupiter Capitolinus. Nero's death was for years regarded over half the Empire as incredible; men waited in a frenzy of excited terror for the reappearance of the vanished Antichrist. Even the Flavian house was surrounded by much of the same supernatural atmosphere. The accession of Vespasian was signalised by his performing public miracles in Egypt; Domitian, when he directed that he should be formally addressed as Our Lord God by all who approached him, was merely settling rules for an established practice of court etiquette. In this thunderous unnatural air legends of all sorts sprung up right and left; foremost, and including nearly all the rest, the legend of the Empire itself, which (like that of the French Revolution) we are only now beginning to unravel. The modern school of historians find in authentic documents, written and unwritten, the story of a continuous and able administration of the Empire through all those years by the permanent officials, and traces of a continuous personal policy of the Emperors themselves sustaining that administration against the reactionary tendencies of the Senate. Even the massacres of Nero and Domitian are held to have been probably dictated by imperious public necessity. The confidential advisers of the Emperors acted as a sort of Committee of Public Safety, silent and active, while the credit or obloquy was all heaped on a single person. It took three generations to carry the imperial system finally out of danger; but when this end was at last attained, the era of the Good Emperors succeeded as a matter of course; much as in France, the success of the Revolution once fairly secured, the moderate government of the Directory and Consulate quietly succeeded to the Terror and the Revolutionary Tribunal.

      Such is one view now taken of the early Roman Empire. Its weakness is that it explains too much. How or why, if the matter was really as simple as this, did the traditional legend of the Empire grow up and extinguish the real facts? Is it possible that the malignant genius of a single historian should outweigh, not only perishable facts, but the large body of imperialist literature which extends from the great Augustans down to Statius and Quintilian? Even if we set aside Juvenal and Suetonius as a rhetorician and a gossipmonger, that only makes the weight Tacitus has to sustain more overwhelming. It is hardly possible to overrate the effect of a single work of great genius; but the more we study works of great genius the more certain does it appear that they are all founded on real, though it may be transcendental, truth. Systems, like persons, are to be known by their fruits. The Empire produced, as the flower of its culture and in the inner circle of its hierarchy, the type of men of whom Tacitus is the most eminent example; and the indignant hatred it kindled in its children leaves it condemned before the judgment of history.

      The surviving fragments of the Annals and Histories leave three great pictures impressed upon the reader's mind: the personality of Tiberius, the court of Nero, and the whole fabric and machinery of empire in the year of the four Emperors. The lost history of the reigns of Caligula and Domitian would no doubt have added two other pictures as memorable and as dramatic, but could hardly make any serious change in the main structure of the imperial legend as it is successively presented in these three imposing scenes.

      The character and statesmanship of Tiberius is one of the most vexed problems in Roman history; and it is significant to observe how, in all the discussions about it, the question perpetually reverts to another—the view to be taken of the personality of the historian who wrote nearly a century after Tiberius' accession, and was not born till long after his death. In no part of his work does Tacitus use his great weapon, insinuation of motive, with such terrible effect. All the speeches or letters of the Emperor quoted by him, almost all the actions he records, are given with this malign sidelight upon them: that, in spite of it, we lose our respect for neither Emperor nor historian is strong evidence both of the genius of the latter and the real greatness of the former. The case of Germanicus Caesar is a cardinal instance. In the whole account of the relations of Tiberius to his nephew there is nothing in the mere facts as stated inconsistent with confidence and even with cordiality. Tiberius pronounces a long and stately eulogy on Germanicus in the senate for his suppression of the revolt of the German legions. He recalls him from the German frontier, where the Roman supremacy was now thoroughly re-established, and where the hot-headed young general was on the point of entangling himself in fresh and dangerous conquests, in order to place him in supreme command in the Eastern provinces; but first he allows him the splendid pageant of a Roman triumph, and gives an immense donative to the population of the capital in his nephew's name. Germanicus is sent to the East with maius imperium over the whole of the transmarine provinces, a position more splendid than any that Tiberius himself had held during the lifetime of Augustus, and one that almost raised him to the rank of a colleague in the Empire. Then Germanicus embroils himself hopelessly with his principal subordinate, the imperial legate of Syria, and his illness and death at Antioch put an end to a situation which is rapidly becoming impossible. His remains are solemnly brought back to Rome, and honoured with a magnificent funeral; the proclamation of Tiberius fixing the termination of the public mourning is in its gravity and good sense one of the most striking documents in Roman history. But in Tacitus every word and action of Tiberius has its malignant interpretation or comment. He recalls Germanicus from the Rhine out of mingled jealousy and fear; he makes him viceroy of the East in order to carry out a diabolically elaborate scheme for bringing about his destruction. The vague rumours of poison or magic that ran during his last illness among the excitable and grossly superstitious populace of Antioch are gravely recorded as ground for the worst suspicions. That dreadful woman, the elder Agrippina, had, even in her husband's lifetime, made herself intolerable by her pride and jealousy after her husband's death she seems to have become quite insane, and the recklessness of her tongue knew no bounds. To Tacitus all her ravings, collected from hearsay or preserved in the memoirs of her equally appalling daughter, the mother of Nero, represent serious historical documents; and the portrait of Tiberius is from first to last deeply influenced by, and indeed largely founded on, the testimony of a madwoman.

      The three books and a half of the Annals which contain the principate of Nero are not occupied with the portraiture of a single great personality, nor are they full, like the earlier books, of scathing phrases and poisonous insinuations. The reign of Nero was, indeed, one which required little rhetorical artifice to present as something portentous. The external history of the Empire, till towards its close, was without remarkable incident. The wars on the Armenian frontier hardly affected the general quiet of the Empire; the revolt of Britain was an isolated occurrence, and soon put down. The German tribes, engaged in fierce internal conflicts, left the legions on the Rhine almost undisturbed. The provinces, though suffering under heavy taxation, were on the whole well ruled. Public interest was concentrated on the capital; and the startling events which took place there gave the fullest scope to the dramatic genius of the historian. The court of Nero lives before us in his masterly delineation. Nero himself, Seneca and Tigellinus, the Empress-mother, the conspirators of the year 65, form a portrait-gallery of sombre magnificence, which surpasses in vivid power the more elaborate and artificial picture of the reign of Tiberius. With all his immense ability and his deep psychological insight, Tacitus is not a profound political thinker; as he approaches the times which fell within his own personal knowledge he disentangles himself more and more from the preconceptions of narrow theory, and gives his dramatic gift fuller play.

      It is for this reason that the Histories, dealing with a period which was wholly within his own lifetime, and many of the main actors in which he knew personally and intimately, are a greater historical work than even the Annals. He moves with a more certain step in an ampler field. The events of the year 69, which occupy almost the whole of the extant part of the Histories, offer the largest and most crowded canvas ever presented to a Roman historian. And Tacitus rises fully to the amplitude of his subject. It is in these books that the material greatness of the Empire has found its largest expression. In the Annals Rome is the core of the world, and the provinces stretch dimly away from it, shaken from time to time by wars or military revolts that hardly touch the great central life of the capital. Here, though the action opens indeed in the capital in that wet stormy January, the main interest is soon transferred to distant fields; the life of the Empire still converges on Rome as a centre, but no longer issues from it as from a common heart and brain. The provinces had been the spoil of Rome; Rome herself is now becoming the spoil of the provinces. The most splendid piece of narration in the Histories, and one of the finest in the work of any historian, is the story of the second battle of Bedriacum, and the storm and sack of Cremona by the Moesian and Pannonian legions. This is the central thought which makes it so tragical. The little vivid touches in which Tacitus excels are used towards this purpose with extraordinary effect; as in the incident of the third legion saluting the rising sun—ita in Suria mos est—which marks the new and fatal character of the great provincial armies, or the casual words of the Flavian general, The bath will soon be heated, which were said to have given the signal for the burning of Cremona. In these scenes the whole tragedy of the Empire rises before us. The armies of the Danube and Rhine left the frontiers defenceless while they met in the shock of battle on Italian soil, still soaking with Roman blood and littered with unburied Roman corpses; behind them the whole armed strength of the Empire—immensa belli moles—was gathering out of Gaul, Spain, Syria, and Hungary; and before the year was out, the Roman Capitol itself, in a trifling struggle between small bodies of the opposing forces, went up in flame at the hands of the German troops of Vitellius.

      This great pageant of history is presented by Tacitus in a style which, in its sombre yet gorgeous colouring, is unique in literature. In mere grammatical mechanism it bears close affinity to the other Latin writing of the period, but in all its more intimate qualities it is peculiar to Tacitus alone; he founded his own style, and did not transmit it to any successor. The influence of Virgil over prose reaches in him its most marked degree. Direct transferences of phrase are not infrequent; and throughout, as one reads the Histories, one is reminded of the Aeneid, not only by particular phrases, but by a more indefinable quality permeating the style. The narrative of the siege and firing of the Capitol, to take one striking instance, is plainly from the hand of a writer saturated with the movement and language of Virgil's Sack of Troy. A modern historian might have quoted Virgil in a note; with Tacitus the Virgilian reminiscences are interwoven with the whole structure of his narrative.

      These quotations indicate strikingly enough the way in which Tacitus is steeped in the Virgilian manner and diction. The whole passage must be read continuously to realise the immense skill with which he uses it, and the tragic height it adds to the narrative.

      Nor is the deep gloom of his history, though adorned with the utmost brilliance of rhetoric, lightened by any belief in Providence or any distinct hope for the future. The artificial optimism of the Stoics is alien from his whole temper; and his practical acquiescence in the existing system under the reign of Domitian only added bitterness to his inward revolt from it. The phrases of religion are merely used by him to darken the shades of his narrative; Deum ira in rem Romanam, one of the most striking of them, might almost be taken as a second title for his history. On the very last page of the Annals he concludes a brief notice of the ruin and exile of Cassius Asclepiodotus, whose crime was that he had not deserted an unfortunate friend, with the striking words, "Such is the even-handedness of Heaven towards good and evil conduct." Even his praises of the government of Trajan are half-hearted and incredulous; "the rare happiness of a time when men may think what they will, and say what they think," is to his mind a mere interlude, a brief lightening of the darkness before it once more descends on a world where the ambiguous power of fate or chance is the only permanent ruler, and where the gods intervene, not to protect, but only to avenge.

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