Ancient History & Civilisation

3. TACITUS ON EMPIRE AND EMPERORS

Such tendencies are apparent in the earliest historical writings of the greatest post-Augustan historian, Tacitus. In his later publications, and particularly in the work that I have translated here, he incorporates and blends in a single structure all the traditional features of historical writing. The manuscript heading reads only ‘From the death of the divine Augustus’, but the title soon given to the work, the Annals, recalls that Roman traditions are ever apparent. Here too, are the interests of the later, Hellenistic, Greeks: ethnology, biography, psychology, rhetorical types and situations (his battle-scenes, for example, often create more factual problems than they solve), and emotional effects, aiming at pathetic stress and seeking to make events seem tragic and terrible.

Moral purpose, too, is never absent from Tacitus’ mind. The sequence of events on which he chooses to focus his attention provoked the sternest moral reflections. To him, as to many others, decline and disaster seemed due to vice. Virtue and vice are continually emphasized and contrasted. As Tacitus himself says, ‘It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil words and deeds with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.’1

That was the trend of Tacitus’ mind; it was also the trend of ancient historiography as a whole, with its epic, tragic, and moralizing background. These influences combined to inspire Tacitus with an exalted conception of his task. To him, history is a conspicuously elevated theme. He deliberately concentrates on subjects which contribute to his dramatic, meaningful whole.

Now the highest and most significant drama appeared to be centred on the all-powerful, glamorous, sinister imperial court. So we hear much of the emperors and their entourages. The Roman imperial personages do not, in our own day, any longer play an integral part in general culture, or exercise the fascination which once placed their lifesize marble busts in every mansion. True, the melodramatic novels of earlier days have not altogether ceased, and are now supplemented by even more spectacular burlesques in the cinema. But the Palace of the Caesars, like its picturesque evocations in Piranesi’s eighteenth-century etchings, seems too outrageously remote from an age of quieter artistic tastes and economic aspirations. Or it may be that the even more formidable absolute rulers whom some countries have experienced in our lifetimes have made antique autocrats vieux jeu. Yet not only did the imperial tragedies give a permanently admirable historian his greatest opportunities, but the workings of a Roman emperor’s power and influence, and his varying attitudes to problems of loyalty, have great relevance to the modern world.

The outlying territories are given a partial, tantalizing record; for example, Tacitus is interested in Asia, which he governed, and in Germany, which, again from personal experience, he saw as the source of the greatest future hazards.1 Yet he remains the heir to the traditionally centripetal view of Roman history. The emperor into whose reign he may have lived, Hadrian (A.D. 117–38), was to develop the idea of a Roman Commonwealth in which the provinces had a proud role as constituent parts, anticipatory of the national states to come. But to Tacitus, perhaps implying a criticism of the new imperial ideas, Rome is all-important. It is towards Rome that the most lurid light is generally directed. When we read of the faults or fate of an occasional visitor or governor in the provinces, Rome is in mind. And Tacitus, thinking of Rome, thinks of its emperor. Indeed the provinces, too, chiefly figure as parts of the immense structure which conferred on its ruler the heaviest responsibility that man had ever had to bear.

He had once intended to cap his earlier major work, the Histories, with an account of his own happier times under Trajan and Hadrian. But he shelved this task provisionally – and as it turned out, permanently – in favour of the earlier period. For that contained the sources of recent evils; and on those evils, for all the improved conditions of his own day, he still brooded.

Tacitus claims that he is unmoved by indignation or partisanship, since in his case ‘the customary incentives to these are lacking’1 – he has nothing to gain from them or to lose from their absence. Such protestations were conventional. Yet he was utterly sincere. So perhaps it must be said that to some extent (as we all do frequently) he deceived himself. For his famous character-study of Tiberius does not seem to us free from indignation or partisanship. The reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14–37) had ended nearly eighty years before Tacitus wrote about him. But the historian’s hostile attitude reflects the fact that, when he wrote his major works, he had recently lived through the equally or even more sombre and – to senators – terrifying last years of Domitian (A.D. 81–96). The mental disturbance that this experience had caused was probably all the worse because Domitian was on Tacitus’ conscience. For as a senator and high official he had been obliged or induced, as he hints in the Agricola, not merely to accept promotion but to acquiesce in purges undertaken by the emperor in circles close to the historian himself.

So Tacitus was obsessed by the real or imaginary Domitians of past history. Domitian had admired Tiberius. But there were many other reasons, too, why Tacitus decided that the evils which had proliferated under Domitian had their roots under Tiberius. Nowadays we believe that Tiberius was a gloomy but apparently honest ruler – a man who owed many of the tragedies of his reign to his inability to conduct personal and public relations. Augustus had conducted them excellently. Indeed Augustus’ whole régime, with its elaborate constitutional fictions indicating that the autocracy was a restoration of the Republic, had depended not only on force but also on his delicate handling of people, individually and in the mass. The glum Tiberius did not handle them delicately. He does not seem to have been too keen to tackle the task at all. Perhaps he was too honest for it.

But Tacitus regards him as anything but honest. To him, Tiberius is the arch-hypocrite. Tacitus is always deeply preoccupied with the discrepancy between fact and impression, and he lays continual stress on the duplicity and concealment of Tiberius. In a series of terrible incidents and comments, he is depicted in the role of the stock tyrant of the ancient literatures, unjust, sensual, ruthless, and – above all – suspicious and cunning. His mother Livia, also, to the indignation of most modern historians, emerges as a fearsome intriguer and multiple murderess. To blacken her and Tiberius all the more effectively, their young, attractive kinsman Germanicus is portrayed as a brilliant prince who can do no wrong; and his war in Germany is painted in glowing colours which almost conceal its expensive uselessness.

Tacitus suggests that Tiberius possessed a radically vicious nature which only became apparent by degrees. It is surmised, too, that the flaws might never have been apparent at all if he had not become all-powerful. The characters of other significant and powerful men are depicted by brief, passing, parenthetical observations: by this means a huge array of contemporary figures are isolated from the anonymous mass and vividly illuminated. They are of all degrees of power and significance. But they are mostly senators, and often leaders. Tacitus chiefly displays his art in the gradual, piece-by-piece presentation – or occasionally the full-length portrayal – of the dominant and mighty. And no one has ever equalled the might of a Roman emperor. Tacitus’ study of Tiberius, with its ulterior preoccupations, is hardly a psychological study. But it is an indelible and unforgettable picture of a great man as another great man saw him.

Every resource of Tacitus’ talent is devoted to painting this picture. One of his favourite devices, one of the touches by which he builds up a character, is the damning ‘aside’. But he utilizes every possible sort of suggestion to imply the worst. For the facts do not always seem to confirm the sinister interpretations which he places upon them. Miss B. Walker1 has invoked Jung’s distinction between ‘sensational’ and ‘intuitive’ types – the former perceive things as they are, the latter pass details over carelessly, but are well able to appreciate the inner meaning of occurrences, and their potential relations and consequences. Tacitus, asserts this author, is of the latter, intuitive type; and that may help to explain his occasional distortion of the facts in arriving at his vivid impressions.

After Tiberius, his accounts of Claudius and Nero, viewed as character studies, can afford to be more straightforward. Though Claudius is now believed to have been a painstaking and bold administrator and reformer, his faults and those of his terrifying women Messalina and Agrippina, and the other evils of his court, spring readily to the eye. So do the tragedies and bad jokes of Nero’s régime. It is true that Tacitus, with the old Roman love of aggressive glory, hardly refers to the Neronian Peace except in a sneering parenthesis – for aggression was again fashionable in his own day, under Trajan – and we have learned from Sir Ronald Syme’s Tacitus to be much more vigilant for contemporary references. Yet Nero himself was as ‘vulgar, timid, and sanguinary’ as Merivale called him. Merivale was following Tacitus. But Tacitus’ accounts of these more straightforward reigns did not need to revive the techniques of damning suggestion lavished on Tiberius. Instead we can enjoy the writer’s extraordinary, and very Roman, gift for pictorial description. We can read of the Great Fire, or of Agrippina’s murder, or Tigellinus’ party – those highlighted major descriptions at which Tacitus excels – without worrying whether he is playing fair. It is rather his account of Tiberius which seems to us to convict him of the hatred and partiality which he denies. But it is so enthralling that it carries conviction as a work of art – and very nearly carries conviction as history.

His interpretation of facts, then, whether unconsciously or through deliberate fervid intention, is often invidious, but the actual facts which he records are generally accurate – so accurate that they involuntarily contradict his sinister innuendoes. There is no doubt that he took a great deal of care in selecting his material. But where did he find it? Here we are lost. We often have no external check on what he says. And we still know very little about his sources. He himself does not greatly enlighten us. It must be granted that he mentions certain predecessors, for example the historian and literary historian Pliny the elder. But systematic, careful references are a modern invention. Ancient historians only specified their sources in a fragmentary and unsystematic fashion. Sometimes it seems as if pride impels them to mention only those on whom they have least relied – and this might almost be suspected of Tacitus. So when he claims judicious selection, this can, it is true, sometimes be taken at its face value, but often it proves to be another means towards a censorious hint, a damning delineation.

His attitude to the political structure of the State reveals, if not the split personality which some have identified, at least a very difficult and fundamental dilemma, which is as relevant to our world as to his. For Tacitus greatly admired, perhaps almost to the point of obsession, the traditional virtues of Rome and its antique Republic. Yet at the same time he fully understood that the Republic was a thing of the past and could never be revived. As the Histories are succeeded by the Annals, he even comes to regard political opposition to the autocrats, if it goes beyond passive, resigned disapproval, as theatrical and immoderate. Rome has declined so far, he seems to feel, that there is no room any longer for traditional valour. Passivity has become the only honourable course, and the decorous middle path followed by men like his father-in-law Agricola – as described in the biography Tacitus devoted to him – or by Marcus Lepidus or Seneca as they are summed up in the Annals,1 is what now wins his admiration.

Again, when he is talking of post-Augustan tyrants, he appears, by way of contrast, to admire Augustus. Yet his introductory survey of Augustus’ own reign (exceedingly valuable as a check on the official versions which had blared forth from the chancery) is one long list of sneers. He was writing under enlightened emperors, and, though some detect traces that he was disappointed even with Trajan,2 he expresses grateful awareness of this relative good fortune. Yet it seems that he is not really able to believe that an autocrat can be good. For he constantly stresses the evils of rule by one man. Perhaps this conviction is the central point of his philosophy. No amount of experience, he infers, can stand up against the corrupting effects of autocratic authority. ‘In spite of all his experience of public affairs,’ he makes Arruntius say, ‘Tiberius was transformed and deranged by absolute power’.3 So it was under Tiberius that freedom suffered its most fatal losses. As these are remorselessly described we do not feel two thousand years distant.

Tacitus is deeply interested not only in the characters of individuals but in the whole range of group psychology, with all its cross-currents and irrationalities. A large proportion of the first book of the Annals, like a major part of the Histories, is concerned with the psychology of the army which was playing so sinister a role in this process of disintegration. And Tacitus is also fascinated, for the same reason, by the senate. His picture of this once mighty oligarchic body is intentionally a depressing one. Its powerlessness under the emperors is unsparingly described, for it illustrates the moral theme of degeneracy from the good old days of the past. Although Tacitus is a staunch senator, and a supporter of the traditional oligarchic view of society, he places no reliance on the senate of imperial times. For he knows that the senate is helpless against the ruler: it is he who, through his own direct and indirect means of influence, does everything that matters. That is why Tacitus examines the motives and morals of successive emperors so carefully. That also is why he examines those critical moments when one autocrat died and another began to rule. The Histories, with their detailed account of the Civil Wars of A.D. 68–70, had shown the disasters which could occur when the succession was disputed. This was another dilemma. For civil war, Tacitus felt, was even worse than any autocrat, because of the excesses it engendered and the temptation it offered to potential German and Parthian invaders.

Yet rule by one man was also utterly hazardous, for Tacitus’ experience and temperament make him well aware that man is, and always has been, unreliable; so that, when the State is unified under an omnipotent ruler, human happiness hangs by a thread. When the emperor is a bad man, and rules badly, there is misery. Oppressive rule causes – as it is caused by – moral degeneracy. A series of themes continually reiterated by Tacitus illustrate the insidious increase of both. The idea of Progress was, in any case, alien to the mentality of the ancients, and here, already, is the Decline of the West which has so fascinated Spengler and Toynbee in our own day. Certainly, the emperors under whom Tacitus wrote were enlightened enough. But time had shown, he felt, that under an autocracy there was no certain safeguard against oppression. So he is embittered and pessimistic.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!