Books: Cultural Amnesia — Tacitus |
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Throughout this book, Tacitus (ca. a.d. 55–ca. 120) is the voice behind the voices. In Greece, Thucydides had already given the world a way of talking about democratic politics, but Tacitus gave the world a way of talking about the despotism and terror that so often succeed the collapse of a representative system—a familiar pattern in recent times. The tone of voice he found to deal with these matters has remained a paradigm for almost two thousand years. From Montesquieu through to Golo Mann, pre-modern and modern heroes in this book measured the fulfilment of their responsibilities against the grandeur of Tacitus, his powers of condensed expression. Born and raised under the Empire, Tacitus never saw the old Republic except as an ideal, although his first work praised his father-in-law, Agricola, as an exemplar of the lost virtues. The first career of Tacitus was as a pleader at the bar and as a praetor. But his formative experience, and the source of his secret as an analyst of the totalitarian mentality, was under the tyranny of Domitian: a reign of terror that gave him his retroactive insight into the age of Tiberius, which had happened before his time, but whose influence, he correctly assumed, had generated a lingering infection. When the relatively benevolent Nerva dispelled the climate of fear created by Domitian, Tacitus returned to public life as a consul, and was able to continue his career as an historian without threat of reprisal. After the useful Germania, his third major work was the indispensable Historiae, an analytical narrative covering the period from the accession of Galba in a.d. 68 to the death of Domitian. Only the first four and a fragment of the fifth of its twelve books survive, but the student should regard the Histories as a necessary port of call, and as a reason, all on its own, for learning to read some Latin. For students acquiring Latin in adult life, the language is most easily approached through those historians who really wrote chronicles—Cornelius Nepos, Sallust, Suetonius and Livy—but with the Histories of Tacitus you get the best reason for approaching it at all. There are innumerable translations but the original gives you his unrivalled powers of compression. (You can pick this up from a parallel text, always remembering that the purists, when they warn you off the Loeb Library, are giving you the exact reason you should hold it dear—it’s a painless dictionary.) What Sainte-Beuve said of Montaigne—that his prose is like one continuous epigram—is even more true of Tacitus. His last capital work, Annales (Annals), is a still harder nut to crack: even experts in the ancient languages find it as difficult in the Latin as Thucydides is in the Greek. Tacitus’s already elliptical style becomes so tightly wound that it seems impenetrable. But the narrative is a must. It concerns the Julian line from Tiberius through to Nero. Only about half of the original work survives, but what we have would still be essential reading if it contained nothing else except Tacitus’s reflections on the reign of Tiberius, which was the single most startling ancient harbinger of twentieth-century state terror, just as Tacitus’s account of it remains the single most penetrating analysis of what we now see as the morphology of limitless power. If, below, I presume to offer a critique of a great critic, it is only on a single point, and in the full knowledge that I would not even possess the viewpoint from which to attempt it if Tacitus had not first lived and written. This whole book of mine grew out of a single sentence of his: “They make a desert and they call it peace.” More than fifty years ago I heard that line quoted by one of my schoolteachers, and I saw straight away that a written sentence could sound like a spoken one, but have much more in it.

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But in Rome, the consuls, the Senate, the knights, rushed headlong into servitude.

ALONG WITH THUCYDIDES, Tacitus by his mere existence pushes us hard up against the central conundrum posed by the realistic political thinkers of the ancient world: if they were so like us, why weren’t they more like us? Though his characteristic technical device was the pregnant statement rather than the extended argument, Tacitus showed powers of analysis that we are unable to take for granted even among political writers of our own time. Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They make a desert and they call it peace. As a four-word encapsulation of a counterproductive political policy and a campaign of euphemistic propaganda, it identifies each and condemns both. Not many writers now could match it for compression. (What makes the line even more impressive is that Tacitus gives it to a German leader speaking against Roman policy in general, not just against a specific abuse.) In the Annals book 22, his picture of the Roman upper orders volunteering for subservience goes to the root of the Republican tradition’s irretrievable collapse in the time of Tiberius.

You would think that a man who could see that could see anything. And indeed Tacitus saw the tragedy in every aspect of the old order’s vulnerability: when virtue had been declared a crime, there was no refuge even in reticence. The more nobly behaved the family, the less chance it stood. Psychological torture had become a weapon in the emperor’s hands more effective than military violence. Fathers had to choose between giving up their daughters to concubinage or condemning the whole family to death. Tacitus was so alive to all this that he had to develop a new kind of prose to contain his despair: the prose of the crucible.

Yet he could never see anything wrong with the legal precept by which a slave’s testimony could be taken only under torture. It would have been too much to expect that he might have seen something wrong with the institution of slavery itself. But he might have seen something wrong with torture. Rome, after all, was not Greece. In Athens, both Aristotle and Demosthenes had regarded torture as the surest means of getting evidence. But they were only Greeks. Autres temps, autres mœurs, and Rome prided itself on being a step forward. In Rome, even Cicero—by every measure a lesser mind than Tacitus, and certainly the greater opportunist—managed to figure out that torture had something wrong with it. By this important parameter, then, Cicero, and not Tacitus, became the precursor of Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Manzoni, who all condemned torture, and of the less famous but far more efficacious Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria, the reforming jurist who not only wrote against it but actually managed to introduce the practical measures that cleared it out of Tuscany in 1786. Cicero the infinitely malleable advocate had the right idea. Tacitus, the man of steel, didn’t. It seems never to have crossed his mind. By mere intuition, with no means of observation, Nicholas of Cusa guessed right about the movement of the planets, Lucretius guessed right about atoms, and Heraclitus guessed that the whole of existence was an endless flux. Tacitus, whose opportunites to observe were ample, never guessed right about the morality of putting slaves to the torture. He heard the screams, and must have been revolted. He just never worked out what his revulsion meant.

But we should avert our gaze from the spectre of what Tacitus never did, and fix it on the reality of what he could do, because without the reality we never would have seen the spectre. Tacitus did not invent the cruelties of his age, though such is the force of his prose that he inevitably seems to have done: he invented the pity for them. Somehow, as if a tunnel had opened through time, our feelings go back to join his voice. In the Annals, the young daughter of Sejanus is taken away to be killed. “What have I done?” Tacitus has her say. “Where are you taking me? I won’t do it again.” We have heard that voice before, but it was later: it was only yesterday, in the Ukraine, at one of the Dubno shooting pits, on October 5, 1942. All the victims were naked. The German engineer Hermann Graebe recalled one moment particularly. “I still clearly remember a dark-haired, slim girl who pointed to herself as she passed close to me and said, ‘Twenty-three.’” It is the same horrific event, dramatized with the same helpless voice, and just as we can’t admire it as an artefact in the modern instance, because it is too real, we should not admire it in the ancient instance either, because it was real then. If it had not been for Hermann Graebe, we would not have heard the girl at Dubno speak; and we would not have heard Sejanus’s daughter speak if it had not been for Tacitus.

It is quite possible that Sejanus’s daughter said nothing, and that Tacitus made up what she said, as all the Roman historians made up the speeches of their emperors and generals. But the emotion he registered, both hers and his, was a true one, and puts us beyond aesthetics. Great writing is not just writing. As we can see in the troubling case of Ernst Jünger, even the most gifted writer can hide from reality in his art, and it might well be true that the more gifted he is, the more he is tempted to do so. Jünger, in his notebooks before July 20, 1944, had already said enough about Hitler to get himself executed if the Gestapo had seized them. We can see from his notations that he had been told everything that mattered about the Final Solution. But he couldn’t address the dreadful reality in his writing. After the failure of the attempt on Hitler’s life, while people Jünger knew well were being tortured and strangled for their complicity, he turned his full attention to Monet’s country studio at Giverny, and gave one of the best ever literary descriptions of the cycle of paintings we call the Waterlilies. After visiting the Groult Collection in the Avenue Foch, he voiced his sensitive concern about the holes in the roof caused by flak splinters. The holes might let in the rain, to damage the treasure house of Fragonards, Turners and Watteaus. You can hear his full concern about a threatened civilization. But the threat to civilization had already gone far beyond that, and he had declined to deal with it, as if it was beneath his art.

It wasn’t beneath his art; it was beyond his art; and Tacitus is there to prove it. We know now, in retrospect, that even worse things happened in the time of Tacitus than he could realize. But he did face up to the worst thing he knew. Though it took the whole of his art to write it down, his art was not the first thing on his mind: the first thing on his mind was to register the intractable fact of an innocent, unjust death. He could not make the girl immortal. When we say that she has never ceased to speak, we speak metaphorically. She died. In fact, as he tells us, it was even worse. Because virgins were safe from the executioner, she was raped first, so that no laws would be broken. The Nazi execution squads in the east were obeying the law too. The paradox had already been identified by Tacitus, and traced to its origin, in the mind of a tyrant. Great writing collapses time by freeing us from illusions, one of which is that the aesthetic impulse can be a law unto itself. An advantage of being able to write criticism in the wonderfully copious English language is that we are not stuck with an inappropriate word to register the impact of art at its height. Hearing the voice of Sejanus’s daughter, we are not obliged to say, “That’s beautiful.” In Italian, even the mighty Croce could only have used the word bello. Croce painted himself into a corner with an aesthetic vocabulary that he inherited but fatally neglected to expand. The warning is clear. An aesthetic vocabulary is only part of what we need. Criticism needs a complete vocabulary, or else the rare art that responds to the whole of reality will leave us helpless; and far from being able to appreciate Tacitus, we won’t even be able to appreciate Hermann Graebe.