Ancient History & Civilisation


Presenting the Past

I strongly predict – and my prediction does not mislead me – that your histories will be immortal: so, all the more (I will admit it, candidly) I want to be included in them

Pliny to Tacitus, Letters 7.33

From Augustus to Hadrian, the Roman ‘First Citizens’ live on for us as individuals. The reason for this afterlife is only marginally their archaeological remains; their sculptures and buildings spread such lies by presenting their patrons only as they wished to be seen. Until Domitian, the emperors live so vividly because they are described in texts, in the biographies of Suetonius and the penetrating histories of Tacitus.

Both of these authors ranked among Pliny’s friends. Suetonius was the younger of the two and benefited from Pliny’s patronage: Pliny exercised ‘suffrage’ for him by writing and asking for favours on his behalf. Significantly, the word ‘suffrage’ now applied to intercession, not (as formerly) to the free exercise of a Roman citizen’s vote.1 Tacitus, by contrast, needed none of Pliny’s suffrage. His formidable learning was recognized early. Hence, in 88 he was appointed one of the Roman priests who oversaw foreign cults, of which Christianity would have been one. Tacitus was a fine orator and was a consul three years before Pliny. Pliny published eleven letters to him in order to show proof of a friendship which would dignify himself. Like Pliny, Tacitus loved hunting, but he also had a style, an insight and a capacity for judgement which Pliny, his good friend, lacked.

Suetonius was of equestrian rank. Perhaps his family hailed from north Africa. He was never a senator, but he held three literary posts in the emperor’s household, including the job of librarian, and travelled very interestingly. He was with Pliny in Bithynia and later he was with Hadrian in Britain. In 122 his career came to a halt there. Later gossip alleged that he had been ‘too familiar’ in Britain with Hadrian’s disgruntled wife, Sabina.

Suetonius’ most famous surviving works are his Lives of the Caesars which included, revealingly, a Life of Julius Caesar: Suetonius did not avoid describing the life of the real founder of ‘the Empire’. The strengths of the best of his Lives are their vivid details and their use (in the case of Augustus’Life) of the emperor’s own letters and autobiography. Through anecdotes, they bring out each emperor’s fondness for ‘luxury’ and they observe each man’s practice of giving justice. They are interested in astrology and in most of the emperors’ revealing fondness for it. They are also our best sources for each emperor’s origins and physical appearance. The best emperors, in Suetonius’ view, were Augustus and Vespasian, the two obvious choices.

Suetonius’ Lives became a model for later biographers, especially for the important life of the post-Roman ‘emperor’ Charlemagne, written by Einhard (c.AD 850). However, their understanding and their accuracyare limited. The further Suetonius went on, the weaker the Lives become: perhaps, after his dismissal in Britain, research became harder. He is at his best with anecdotes, especially when reporting stories contemporary with himself. Did Nero really dress himself up in animal skins, have himself let out of a cage and then attack the private parts of men and women who were tied to stakes, before being sexually gratified by a freedman whom he had married? Such was the gossip fifty years later. Suetonius also insisted that he had discovered from ‘quite a few people’ that Nero was convinced that nobody was chaste in any part of his body, and that everyone concealed this fact.2 His researches are evidence, at least, for people’s later attitudes to Julio-Claudian debauchery.

What he ignores is the cardinal issue of liberty. Here, we have to look to his greater contemporary, Tacitus. Whereas Suetonius was only an equestrian and a functionaryin the emperor’s service, Tacitus was a senator and a consul, ranks for which ‘liberty’ was a living issue. Pliny was already aware that Tacitus was the real genius of his age, the one with whom he would do well to be associated. Like Pliny, Tacitus was not born in Rome. Almost certainly, he came from southern Gaul, perhaps from Vasio (modern Vaison). The south of Gaul was heavily Italianized, however, and was no more ‘provincial’ than north Italy. Tacitus’ career rose quickly to a consulship and then to the grand provincial governorship of Asia: the rise was even more rapid and the result more distinguished than Pliny’s own. Born in c. 58, Tacitus’ progress has now been confirmed in more detail by renewed study of what appears to be part of his funerary inscription, found in Rome.3

Like Pliny, Tacitus had prospered as a senator under Domitian, but he was explicit about the compromises which were imposed on him at that time. As a senator, he knew the relevance of hypocrisy and fraudulence in human nature. ‘Liberty’ was a cardinal value to him, but he also fraternized with contemporaries ‘who knew too much to be hopeful’.4 He wrote variously, on oratory (where he diagnosed correctly the connection between great oratory and a free political context) and on his father-in-law, Agricola, the governor of Britain (Tacitus gave fine words on ‘freedom’ to a northern Caledonian chieftain). He was not at all blind to provincial life. He wrote good things on the Gauls (though nothing on Spain). He also wrote a remarkable text on Germany, where his father had served and where he himself had also, probably, spent part of his career. Liberty, he wrote, is beloved by Germans, but discipline is not. Germans are prone to strong emotions, and their priests are more powerful than their kings. There is real thought and observation here and he is not inventing his Germans simply by crediting them with the converse of Rome’s own vices. The text has been called ‘the most dangerous ever written’; it became extremely important for Germans’ later independence from the Roman Catholic Church and more recently, for the Nazis’ pathological ‘German’ nationalism. A high-level operation was mounted by Hitler’s SS to seize the main manuscript of Tacitus’Germania from its Italian owners, but fortunately it was frustrated.5

Tacitus was shocked, like many, by the later years of Domitian. It was this experience, not the brusque ‘adoption’ of Trajan, which did most to shape his historical interpretation. His two masterpieces are the Histories, which run from 69 until Domitian’s reign, and then later, the Annals, which run from Augustus’ death until Nero’s. Unfortunately, neither has survived intact, but their style, human insight and penetration are the classics of Roman history-writing.

As a ‘new man’ in the Senate, Tacitus’ social views were certainly not liberal. He had no faith in the political wisdom of the mob and no respect, either, for men and women on the make or take. He was similarly prejudiced against Greeks and Jews. He did, however, endorse the inclusive policy of Rome towards its subjects: he revised a speech by the Emperor Claudius so as to make the merits of this inclusion explicit (as a provincial, he had benefited from it). But as a new man at Rome, he liked episodes of old-style robustness, whether in battle or religion or diplomacy. The very form of his Annals was old-world: he followed the year-by-year arrangement of the earliest Roman historians, a form which had existed long before the emperors transformed the nature of the state.

Tacitus’ supreme gift is to see the gap between profession and reality and the need for constant distrust of the devious ‘spin’ and professed morality of one-man rule. Tacitus did do research by reading the ‘acts’ of previous senatorial meetings, and perhaps he did it in the spacious rooms of Trajan’s new libraryin Rome. Brilliantly, he appreciated the oratorical style of individual emperors and their eras, while also seeing through the abundant official deceptions and euphemisms about events. The recent find of the inscribed official response of the Senate to events in Tiberius’ family in AD 20 confirms, in essentials, the penetration of Tacitus’ own version and its mistrust of the clouds of rhetoric around these happenings.

Theoretical constitutions, Tacitus remarks, are hard to realize and very quick to fail. Unlike Cicero, he did not waste time on ideal republics nor did he praise, like Thucydides, a ‘moderate blend’ of opposing classes. There is a wonderfully truculent sarcasm in Tacitus’ judgement. He is not an incurable pessimist, but he is always wry about events and about what their participants were hiding. In him, posterity found the supreme historian of absolute rule, both how to sustain it and how to react to it. For despite Tacitus’ sarcasm and his sense of what had been lost, he was also prepared to serve under a despot (like his friend Pliny). While regretting lost liberty, he advocated the middle path in politics and hoped that chance or destiny would bring some ruler who might be better than the worst. In the 30s BC Sallust had acidly described the Republic’s loss of freedom: Tacitus, heir to Sallust’s style, described the effects of that loss, but not the ways in which to reverse it.

In due course, his stress on liberty and ‘moderate’ accommodation with a ruler intrigued Edward Gibbon and left a profound mark on his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire : conversely, Tacitus was abhorred by the fraudulent Napoleon. His greatest age of influence was the seventeenth century. He showed readers of that age how to react under despotism and how to cherish a contrary notion of ‘freedom’. He also addressed their concerns about the many court ‘favourites’ whom contemporary rulers in England and Europe were promoting so wantonly. Tacitus had seen both the rulers’ need for favourites and the favourites’ foibles, exemplifying them in his descriptions of Tiberius’ hated Sejanus or Claudius’ assertive freedmen.6 But he also described how despots induce servility, how freedom becomes artful subservience and how justice is distorted by informers and ‘sneaks’. This picture of the Romans’ predicament was powerfully received byEnglish lawyers and political gentlemen when confronted with the vanities of James I and the luxurious demands of his successor, Charles I. At Rome, lawyers had obsequiously found precedents and a context for autocracy; in England, by contrast, lawyers trained in the classics upheld the conception of ‘liberty’ whose loss, they found, had been so poignantly described by Tacitus. And yet Tacitus saw that full liberty was impossible in the existing Roman system and that other values now mattered since the republican days of Cicero’s youth.

To us, his insights are still highly relevant in our age of one-party rule, of ‘spin’ and ‘favourites’ and ‘democracies’ emptied of the word’s real content. His works still guide a real understanding of the Roman Empire, rather than pseudo-bureaucratic studies of its ‘structures’. For one major reason why the flavour of each decade was so different was because of the people whom Tacitus grasped so brilliantly at its centre – the crafty, malign Tiberius, the foolish and pedantic Claudius, the depraved Nero. To complain that Tacitus focused on court politics, not on the social and regional diversity which appeals more to manymodern historians, is to miss the value of what he gives us. The emperors’ characters did have profound consequences throughout society. The intertwined personalities of their females were also significant for structures and events. The Messalinas and Agrippinas are distinctive facts of the Julio-Claudian era, and only those who have no awareness of high-society women in such contexts are likely to mistake their portraits as mere rhetoric or a male-prejudiced stereotype.

His Histories, describing events from 69 to 96, were the first of the long works to be finished, with their brilliant sense of the soldiers’ varying reactions and the differing styles of the crowds who participated in the year of Four Emperors (ad 69). The Annals, from 14 to 68, followed next. The date of the Annals ‘completion continues to be disputed, but the clear sign is that they too were composed entirely in the reign of Trajan. Their terse, mordant style needed no long gestation: Sallust and Cicero had been the staples of Tacitus’ education as a young man. He was not writing them with one eye on Hadrian and the controversial early years of Hadrian’s reign: the work had already been finished under Trajan. Perhaps it was the appearance of each of Tacitus’ masterpieces which prompted Suetonius to attempt his own Lives of past rulers, beginning, however, with the life of Julius Caesar, whom Tacitus did not discuss.

Like Suetonius and Pliny, Tacitus considered Christianity to be a ‘pernicious superstition’. He observed, however, that people pitied those Christians whom Nero martyred on a false charge. Suetonius, by contrast, thought that Nero had been right. For Tacitus, rule by a ‘First Citizen’ was an evil, but in some ways an inevitable evil. By being moderate, ‘civil’ and law-abiding, the ruler could mitigate the evil, but the loser would always be sturdy liberty. Aspects of this liberty could still be defended, especially the liberty of free speech: speakers in Tacitus’Annals put the decisive case against repressive censorship, a case which Tacitus himself endorses. So, too, laws (he realizes) will never succeed in confining luxury: the standards of luxury simply change and evolve, with the passing of time. Yet neither his own nor his speakers’ conception of liberty is our idea of democratic freedom. They were Romans, after all, and they were senators. When the crafty Tiberius sat in on trials and expressed his own wishes concerning them, his conduct was regrettable to Tacitus, even when Tiberius’ preferred verdicts were the true and just ones. For Tiberius was undermining a different liberty: the freedom of senators to exert influence on others’ behalf, even if, as true Romans, they used that influence most unfairly.

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