How To Write History While It’s Happening: Lessons From Tacitus
Richard Cohen on the Enduring Influence of One of Ancient Rome’s Most Famous Historians
He has been called Rome’s greatest historian, the most acute analyst of the autocratic rule of its emperors. His actual last name means “silent,” yet Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a formidable and highly articulate orator and an outspoken author of several books. Born around AD 56 somewhere in the northern provinces, he was a boy in the time of Nero and spent his early career in public affairs. His father was probably an equestrian official and chief financial officer of Belgic Gaul, thus near the top of Roman society, although not an aristocrat. The equestrian order was like a club, entry to which was tied to personal wealth. Its members had many special privileges, although these were not quite as extensive as those of the senatorial class.
Tacitus himself was a praetor by the time he was thirty, was promoted to the Senate, then, after four years away from Rome with his new wife, the daughter of a consul, became consul. He was thus one of the two leading magistrates in the city, commanding the army and presiding over the Senate. He achieved particular celebrity in AD 100, when, working alongside his friend Pliny the Younger he successfully prosecuted a proconsul under Nero for bribery and extortion.
Tacitus might have risen even higher, but he ended his public life as governor of what is now modern Turkey. “Over the course of a glittering career,” writes Tom Holland, he had “demonstrated a canny, if inglorious, instinct for survival.” As emperors did terrible things, he “opted to keep his head down, his gaze averted.” But he was to make up for that conservatism once he took to writing history.
The year after his consulship, Tacitus published two short books: Agricola, a biography-cum-eulogy of his late father-in-law, governor of Britain (the earliest reference to London by name is by Tacitus), and the Germania, a treatise of some thirty pages on the Germanic peoples that catered to the tastes of educated Romans, who at the time were keenly interested in the independent tribes of Germany and their army’s campaigns against them.
For Tacitus the books were good first subjects on which to hone his writing skills. Agricola himself never comes entirely to life, there is little anecdotal material, and the military campaigns are roughly drawn—Tacitus, who probably never visited Germany, has often been described as an unmilitary historian. But the incisive judgment that distinguishes his later work is there already; after outlining Agricola’s measures to promote the Romanization of Britain, Tacitus comments: “Our style of dress was admired and the toga became fashionable.
Little by little they lapsed into those allurements to vice, the public lounge, the bath, the eloquent banquet. In their ignorance they called it culture, when it was part of their enslavement.” With his father-in-law in mind he gives us this epigram: “Even under bad rulers there can be great men.” And the words put into the mouth of a British chieftain about his Roman occupiers famously read: “They rob, kill and plunder all under the deceiving name of Roman Rule. They make a desert and call it peace.”
Tacitus went on to write much more polished works: a treatise on rhetoric, Dialogus de Oratoribus; The Histories, from the fall of Nero in AD 68 and the accession of Tiberius through the “Year of the Four Emperors” (AD 68–69: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian), ending with the death of Domitian in AD 96; and, more than a decade later, a history that has been known since the 16th century as The Annals, from the death of Augustus to Claudius, breaking off mid-sentence in AD 66. Overall, more than half The Annals has been lost, including the middle section that deals with the mad emperor Caligula.
As with Livy, Tacitus is keen to provide moral lessons:
It is no part of my purpose to set forth every motion that was made in the Senate, but only such as were either honorable or especially disgraceful in their character. For I deem it to be the chief function of history to rescue merit from oblivion, and to hold up before evil words and evil deeds the terror of the reprobation of posterity.
He seems uninterested in the long rhetorical flourishes of oral recitation and is more concerned with reaching the private reader. He has few settled ideas in philosophy or religion and his writing has inconsistencies, although his continuing fondness for epigrams rivals Herodotus: “Once killing starts, it is difficult to draw the line”; “The desire for glory clings even to the best men longer than any other passion”; “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government”; “Benefits are acceptable, so long as it seems possible to repay them; when they exceed that point, hatred takes the place of gratitude.” The balanced rhythm of this final aphorism has something of Samuel Johnson in it.
In his later books, Tacitus was writing about the civil wars of his own time, and his descriptions of human suffering combine fascination, disgust, and an almost cinematic sweep. In AD 9, three Roman legions had been lured into Teutoburg Forest (now Lower Saxony), where they were ambushed by the young German hero Arminius. Five years later, another Roman army, this time under Germanicus, visited the site:
The scene lived up to its horrible associations… A half-ruined breastwork and shallow ditch showed where the last pathetic remnant had gathered. On the open ground were whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, heaped up where they had stood and fought back. Fragments of spears and of horses’ limbs lay there: also human heads, fastened to tree trunks. In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman officers.
Despite such passages, Tacitus is not really interested in the Roman Empire at large (“my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome”) and focuses on the private lives of the emperors, on the court and its intrigues, and on the governing class to which he belonged. At the beginning of The Annals, he declares that he plans to write “unmoved, as I have no reason to be moved, by either hatred or partiality.”
The truth is different, and in The Histories his distaste for Domitian, to whom he admits he owed in part his own advancement, is obvious; one of the emperor’s enthusiasms, he tells us, was stabbing flies with a sharpened stylus. Tacitus’s portraits of Tiberius (of whose final years he has scarcely a good word), Claudius, and Nero are close to caricature, so strong are his feelings. After the death of Tiberius he sums up:
His character passed through like changes to his fortunes. Admirable in conduct, and in high esteem, while in a private station, or filling commands under Augustus; dark and artful in affecting virtue, so long as Germanicus and Drusus lived, he presented the same mixture of good and evil until his mother died. Then came a period of fiendish cruelty, but masked libertinism, during the days when he loved and feared Sejanus: until at last, freed from all fears, lost to all shame, he broke out in wickedness and wantonness alike, and showed himself in no character but his own.
Rousing stuff, only contradicted by other accounts that attest to Tiberius being conscientious to the last and hold that the frenzied orgies and reign of terror that Tacitus later describes never took place. But his is the source one remembers, with its lurid detailing of Tiberius having his testicles licked by young boys or having the children of Rome’s great families “perform multiple couplings in front of him.” In many of his pen portraits, he is a skillful psychologist, and yet he conceived of character as static and unchangeable, so the view that Tiberius ended his reign a dictator obliges him to assume the emperor was vicious from the first.
At other times he can see that moral decay is a process, often taking years; it was the emperors he could not forgive. They fail to cope with their scheming, murderous wives; their junior ministers wheedle and connive; and the blood-crazed mob that makes up the imperial army disposes of emperors and laws alike with impunity. By AD 68, not a single descendant of Augustus was still alive.
Tacitus had great descriptive powers, especially when writing of war. He was an unceasing moralist, even if it was easy to make a stand against a court characterized by “unprecedented agitation and terror… cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, envy, sloth, corruption, bloodlust, flattery, stupidity, malevolence, and sexual excess.” Overall he exhibits a zeal for truthful presentation and a sifting of evidence; yet success did not arrive overnight.
Pliny the Younger may have been so certain that Tacitus’s histories would last through the centuries that he pleaded with him to be mentioned in them, but historians of the later imperial years hardly mention him, and he was little read before the fourteenth century, in part because of the Christian antipathy toward a writer regarded as pagan. The Annals and The Histories survived the Middle Ages each in but a single manuscript, The Annals in an incomplete and badly damaged copy.
However, the accolades were about to pour in. Gibbon acclaimed Tacitus as the model “philosophical historian.” Machiavelli states in The Prince that reading The Annals and The Histories opened his eyes to the amorality of power. Stendhal refers over fifty times to Tacitus in his novels and read him on his deathbed. Jefferson loved him above all other ancient historians, writing to his granddaughter, “Tacitus I consider the first writer in the world without a single exception.” Simon Schama even for a time used “Tacitus99” as part of his email address.
Yet he was and remains controversial, much being made of his claim that the German tribes were racially unmixed, “a people of their own, pure and like no other.” Germania, which so praised their simple virtues, became a literary source for the German Protestants’ revolt against Catholicism in the sixteenth century and, far less sympathetically, for German nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth. Critics have charged that Tacitus was anti-Semitic, and in our own time his books have been banned in eastern Europe.
The Stanford classics professor Christopher Krebs, in A Most Dangerous Book, describes how the Nazis would extol Germania as “a bible,” a “golden booklet,” signal proof of Germany’s glorious antiquity. Heinrich Himmler, exulting in the portrayal of ancient Germans as free-spirited warriors, wrote the foreword to a 1943 edition of the book. The Third Reich was infamous, however, in distorting the messages of writers to suit their propaganda. It is enough to conclude that for nearly two thousand years Tacitus has exerted a profound influence.
Excerpted from Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past by Richard Cohen. Copyright © 2022. Available from Simon & Schuster, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.