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Tacitus, Histories

In the popular mind, the history of Imperial Rome consists of the scandalous biographies of Emperors at the center and the battles of military textbooks at the periphery, linked by marching and countermarching iron-shod legions building bridges and roads, and constantly revolting and hoisting one of their number aloft on their shields and onto the Imperial throne — rather without meaning as we understand history. The life and works of Tacitus are themselves a revelation of meaningful history in the first generations of the Empire. He was born in the onset of the collapse of the first principate, grew to maturity in the dark days of the reign of Domitian, wrote his greatest works under the benign Trajan, and probably lived on into the reign of Hadrian, the first Roman Emperor to achieve the omnipotence of the Hellenistic King of Kings, Basileos Soter, which the passionately philhellene Nero had so barbarously failed to even understand.

In Tacitus, Senatorial history reaches its anticlimax, for he is the propagandist of the caste that in Chinese affairs we call the scholar-gentry, which would never again, if the plot of the historical drama is the shifts and conquests and losses of real power, play a major role on the stage of Western history. After the Punic Wars, Roman Senators were hardly gentry. They certainly never were scholars. On the face of it, each book of Tacitus — The Germania, The Agricola, The History, and The Annals — is a party pamphlet; yet we believe them because of their unparalleled trenchancy. Succeeding ages assumed that his Histories suffered only from the commendable virtue of Republican party enthusiasm and took it for granted that the perverts and gangsters of Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars were figures of embittered, comic romance. Tacitus persuades us that Tiberius and Claudius must have been the sort he says they were.

Modern historians and the experience of a century more embittering than the first of the Christian era prove us wrong on both counts. Today we know that clowns and blood-drinking perverts climb to the summits of power, pushed on by the enthusiastic applause of the majority; nor is it now unbelievable that a Roman Emperor enjoyed being sodomized on the public stage. But the destructive policies of morose Tiberius, the sloth and foolery of Claudius, the lunacy of Nero are not substantiated by research.

In Tacitus’s day the economic, social, and political system against which his work is a polemic came to its full power. Devoted to the imaginary frosty virtues of the Republic of Livy, he lived to see the midsummer of Empire. He first appears as the prosecutor in the Senate of the crooked Proconsul Marius Priscus for “conduct unbecoming a gentleman.” In youth he visited Germany and married the daughter of Agricola, the Governor of Britain. In the first work attributed to him, he bemoans the decline of oratory and says flatly that the art of persuasion has passed from the halls of justice to the study of the historian. His life of his father-in-law is a celebration of an ideal Roman gentleman of the oldest school, a Cincinnatus reborn; his description of the heir-apparent Germanicus, the romance of a new aristocrat, stainless, decorative, and as politically ineffectual as Sir Philip Sydney.

Roman history as Tacitus knew it in his own time began with the last days of the struggle to reorganize the Republic, while preserving its ceremonial forms, into an imperial-palace system of the Mesopotamian-Egyptian-Chinese-Byzantine type. It was necessary to deprive the senators and all other Republican castes of every vestige of real power. Before Tacitus was born they had already lost all power; but he was to establish for posterity their oligarchic mysticism as it expressed itself in impotent resistance two generations after actual total defeat. The social role, the moral qualities, the political competence the Senate imagined it still might reclaim, Tacitus sculptures out of granite into an image for all time.

The real Roman oligarchy — the gentleman-farmers, scholar-statesmen, amateur but indomitable warriors of legend — in Tacitus’s day were precisely the new technocrats, proprietors of immense slave-operated estates, court poets, holders of imperial franchises. They were creatures of the court, eunuchs and freedmen, mostly highly cultivated Greeks and Levantines who had never heard of the right and wrong defined in the pages of aristocratic history and were beyond the good and evil of the heroes of oligarchic myth.

It is because Tacitus knew this bitter truth in his heart, although every word he wrote was devoted to countervailing it, that his is perhaps the most mordant style in the history of prose. It was as though he sensed that long legend of martyrdom working out in pitiful reality which lay ahead of him — Boethius defying Theodoric, Arnold of Brescia, Rienzi, Daniele Manin, Matteotti. So his prose gnaws and chews with a grimness unknown to Burke, Gibbon, and their French congeners, for these men believed that a European scholar-gentry, which in reality was to play so fleeting a role, would succeed and all the world would be united under the benevolent sway of enlightened Whigs and Girondins, brave and learned landlords.

In Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy, and, above all, Tacitus, we willfully suspend disbelief and enjoy the ceremonial stateliness of the drama and, in Tacitus’s case, the grandeur of his malice, a style like a tray of dental instruments. So deeply is this style embedded in the narrative, in every inflection of perception and judgment, that even the most inept and donnish translators have never been able to erase it. We read it for its relentless bite. Tacitus’s images of two great Roman emperors are mirrors of contemporary figures who have created out of aristocratic republics the all-encompassing structures of the oriental palace systems, the imperial bureaucracies, of our own day. Tacitus too speaks against The Palace and for his Founding Fathers, although he certainly never met a contemporary Roman who bore the slightest resemblance to one, just like our own Jeffersonians.

In spite of disaster, Thucydides had the confidence of a man who could see no threat to his own kind on any horizon. Alexander and the constellations of perfumed and jeweled Ptolemys and Antigonids were rising slowly from the nadir of time and some day would dominate the Greek empyrean, but of this Thucydides never dreamed. His heroes, for all their folly and pride and covetousness, are like the self-determining personalities caught in the dooms of Sophoclean tragedy. The figures of Tacitus act out a melodrama in which powerless men are whirled through catastrophe by impersonal force. The mask that garbs such force, the Emperor as the embodiment of a dark, inscrutable Imperial will, can never be more than a figure of gruesome farce, like the Fu Manchus, Mad Scientists, and Master Bolsheviks of our own fictions; his opponents can never rise above the condition of marionettes of pathos. Neither can be fully fleshed as complete men, as heroes of a tragic history like Thucydides’s, because they can never generate their own motives. The sharpness of Tacitus’s bite makes it easy to forget that melodrama prevents him from being a writer of the first rank, from having a genuine political morality or philosophy. Many a disgusting old fraud in Roman literature managed to convince himself he was a Stoic. Even this was not permitted Tacitus. His personal life attitude must have been like that of one of the gloomier Existentialists of the present day — a clerkly individual who has discovered that his kind is no longer useful and who therefore has lost hope in the future, faith in natural process, and charity toward his fellows. Tacitus, writing in the Empire’s most halcyon season, could survey its human relationships and come only to the judgment: no exit.


This essay is from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

This book is in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get it.

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