Tacitus: The Continuing Message
Christopher B. Krebs considers Irene Coltman Brown’s article on the ambivalent and ironic Roman historian Tacitus, first published in History Today in 1981.
The Iron Curtain did not flutter. No masses chipped the wall that scarred Berlin and symbolised the restrictions and repression endured by millions in Eastern Europe. When History Today published Irene Coltman Brown’s article Tacitus and a Space for Freedom in 1981 informers organised by the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic still spread uncertainty and fear. Tacitus (AD 56-117) wrote of the Stasi’s Roman predecessors who ‘divested the people of the free exchange of words’. His works, including the Annals and Histories, present a detailed pathology of power under the Roman emperors and were called upon by Coltman Brown to analyse the politics of the 20th century. History Today labelled the article ‘The continuing message’. But what exactly is that continuing message?
Since the 16th century Tacitus has enjoyed a reputation as a political realist. His Annals in particular reveal the slippery mechanics of rule: the ‘secrecies of the imperial family; the advice of confidants and soldiers’ services’, in the words of an imperial adviser. A reader of Tacitus and friend of Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) succinctly stated that the historian taught subjects how to comply with a tyrant and the tyrant how to check his subjects. Generations of subsequent readers, eager to find lessons for the present in the past, were quick to adapt Procrustes’ method: like the mythical robber who made his victims fit his bed by severing or straining their limbs, they cut and stretched meanings to make Tacitus’ message fit their needs. They ignored the historian’s ironies and perplexing ambivalences, content with their selective readings of his works but blind or blinded to the philosophical dimension that caught Brown’s interest some 30 years ago.
She joined a minority of scholars who appreciated Tacitus’ moral complexity and accentuated his ambivalence. She lingered over his vexed hesitation in the face of the ‘dreadful peace’ at Rome: Roman autocrats, it is true, stifled individual freedom, but they also provided stability for society; they suppressed their subjects who were, however, all too ready to stoop down in servitude. And the Germanic tribes – Rome’s northern nemesis – warded off her rule, but only to war against one another. Tacitus, the philosopher, thought in adversatives which, though tightly woven into his historical accounts, were less often savoured than sundered.
Of Tacitus’ texts none suffered more cuts to its intricacy than his weirdly influential booklet Germania, or On the Origin and Mores of the Germanic Peoples. An account of the Teutonic tribes east of the Rhine, it is also and more profoundly a subtle reflection on core human values.Yet after its rediscovery in the 15th century it was quickly reduced and celebrated as the birth certificate of the German people. For most readers it contained a simple message: it presented a pure, heroic and virtuous people; it incriminated its author’s contemporaneous Romans; and it provided a lesson in character for German youth. When in Munich in 1933, at the height of nationalistic infatuation with Tacitus’ Germania, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber attempted a subtler reading, his speech was burned by members of the Hitler Youth and two shots were fired at his residence.
Brown, however, who discusses Tacitus’ Germania in some detail, reveals the contradictions and rightly emphasises the historian’s ‘weigh[ing] the attractions and the cost of the barbarian alternative [i.e., to Rome’s civilisation]’. Once again there are two sides to a coin: the simple Germanic lifestyle affords higher morality – but at the price of primitiveness. In recent years interpretations of Tacitus’ works have become increasingly nuanced and a simplistic view of him as a teacher of politics or morals looks exceedingly implausible – but not any more so than would have the crumbling wall in 1989 seemed in 1981. Thus, given Tacitus’ many afterlives, one ‘continuing message’ might be that it is each reader’s responsibility to look carefully on the past when studying it in the light of the present.
Christopher B. Krebs is Associate Professor of the Classics at Harvard University and the author of A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (W.W. Norton, 2011).
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