Ancient History & Civilisation

4. TACITUS AND THE WORLD

There are moments and whole epochs when everything seems, to Tacitus, to be at the mercy of a fate which is blind – and even malignant.

On such matters he is as inconsistent as most other ancient historians – and as most people are today. When specific causes for disasters are identifiable – such as moral degradation – he does not generally blame fate for them. Yet it sometimes appears to him that what has blighted events is anger from heaven: from the gods, as a Roman would put it (or he might also say, from God). Tacitus, spasmodically and with reserves, is a believer in prophecy and portents. At other times he is not certain whether there are any interested divine powers at all. And he is often afraid that mankind may be doomed. The existence of such an attitude suggests a reason why subsequent generations would increasingly turn to religion – why they withdrew into an other-worldliness which led to the prevalence of mystics, the victory of Christianity, and the proliferation of monks and nuns.

Human fate often looks black to Tacitus. So does human nature. Yet he is far from sceptical about the potentialities of the human spirit. Even in times of civil war and tyrannical government, he is able to point to human actions of extraordinary virtue, bravery, and pertinacity. Indeed he is a humanist, and one whose contribution to our western tradition of humanism has been immense and singularly inspiring.

Yet the Annals of Tacitus were almost unappreciated for nearly fourteen hundred years.1 Indeed, they only survived by a narrow chance. Our knowledge of the work is based on a single medieval manuscript of the first half of the work and another of its second half – the two Medicean codices, now both at Florence. Boccaccio (1313–1375) seems to have known one of them. But certain aspects of their rediscovery in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are veiled in obscurity. The High Renaissance was less attentive to Tacitus than to Livy, who provided it with suitable heroes. However, before 1500, Tacitus – for the first time since his death – was beginning to exercise a rapidly growing influence. At that time ancient history was a favourite field for translation and study; and the fame of Tacitus reached sensational proportions.

The first complete edition of his surviving works was published at Rome in 1515. In the same century Machiavelli and Montaigne were greatly moved by him. Later, a committee of Venetian scholars was to blame Tacitus for the attitude of Machiavelli ‘who would destroy public virtues’. This may seem an unfair judgement of Tacitus. But, if so, its unexpectedness illustrates a conspicuous feature of his reputation. He was so versatile, and his personality so complex, that he seemed to provide slogans for – and against – every section of political opinion. Everybody saw in him an adherent of something different. Thus, while the Venetians attacked him for political cynicism, a French royalist praised him as a supporter of autocratic law and order; and, in reaction, he was attacked by John Milton as one who had despaired of the Republic. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Tacitus’ reputation temporarily declined, because of two opposite factors: the impact of religious scruples, and the growth of rationalism, neither of which phenomena was in harmony with the historian’s attitude. After 1700, however, he found new followers. They were particularly numerous in England, where, ever since Francis Bacon, he had been admired as the enemy of despots. In France, too, he exercised a profound influence on thinkers of the Revolutionary age. ‘The utterance of his name,’ declared André Chénier, ‘turns tyrants pale.’ Madame Roland was reading him in prison before her execution, and the echoes of Tacitus in Le Vieux Cordelier, the journal of Camille Desmoulins, caused Robespierre to have the paper burned. And the Founding Fathers of the United States of America studied him with equal care – deeply concerned with his warning against a constitution of mixed type,1 which was what they hoped to establish.

Such impassioned discussion, during the last four hundred years, affords a striking contrast to the neglect of Tacitus in the Middle Ages, when all references to him are of the most tenuous character; and in the latter part of antiquity itself, to which he left no school. Why, for much more than a millennium after his death, was he so little regarded?

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