[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Franklin Library, Limited Edition, Pennsylvania, 1979, translated by A J Church and W J Brodribb, Great Books of the World, 1952; fully bound in brown leather, gold inlays and print; raised spine; moiré end papers; gilt edges; and silk ribbon.

Tacitus was born in the first century after Christ.  He reached senatorial and consular rank.  He wrote mainly under the relatively peaceful aegis of the emperor Trajan, after the murder of the ‘tyrannical’ Domitian.  An early work was a small piece on his father-in-law, Agricola, and a book about the Germans, which would become very influential, but he is remembered for two classical works, his Annals and Histories. 

You will see that like Thucydides, Tacitus was equipped by his experience in public life to write a history of and about his times.  The Annals cover the empire from Tiberius to Nero; The Histories deal with a later period including the year of four emperors.  We are missing parts but we are lucky to have what we have – The Annals survived only in two medieval manuscripts, one of one part, and one of another.

Tacitus concedes that the Republic was doomed by its inability to provide peace, but he yearns for older and better days.  At the beginning of The Histories, he does not hold back on the horrors in store.

I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.  Four emperors perished by the sword.  There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once.  There was success in the East, and disasters in the West….Sacred rites were profaned; there was profligacy in the highest ranks; the sea was crowded with exiles, and its rocks polluted with bloody deeds.  In the capital there were yet worse horrors.  Nobility, wealth, the refusal or acceptance of office, were grounds for accusation, and virtue ensured destruction.  The rewards of the informers were no less odious than their crimes; for while some seized on consulships and priestly offices, as their share of the spoils, others on procuratorships, and posts of more confidential authority, they robbed and ruined in every direction amid universal hatred and terror.  Slaves were bribed to turn against their masters, and freedmen to betray their patrons; and those who had not an enemy were destroyed by friends…..Never, surely, did more terrible calamities of the Roman people, or evidence more conclusive, prove that the gods take no thought for our happiness, but only for our punishment…[After the joy at the death of Nero]  The respectable portion of the people, which was connected with the great families, as well as the dependents and freedmen of condemned and banished persons, were high in hope.  The degraded populace, frequenters of the arena and the theatre, the most worthless of the slaves, and those who having wasted their property were supported by the infamous excesses of Nero, caught eagerly in their dejection at every rumour. (I, 2 to 4)

There are two things to notice.  That is a reasonable picture of hell on earth; and we see immediately why Gibbon idolised Tacitus – rolling, rhythmic doom-laden periods, even in translation, dripping with moral outrage and irony.

Tacitus has however told us that he was then ‘enjoying the rare happiness of times, when we may think what we please, and say what we think.’  He begins The Annals with a snap-shot history of Rome.

When Rome was first a city, its rulers were kings.  Then Lucius Junius Brutus created the consulate and free Republican institutions in general.  Dictatorships were assumed in emergencies.  A Council of Ten did not last more than two years; and then there was a short-lived arrangement by which senior army officers – the commanders of contingents provided by the tribes – possessed consular authority.  Subsequently, Cinna and Sulla set up autocracies, but they too were brief.  Soon, Pompey and Crassus acquired predominant positions, but rapidly lost them to Caesar.  Next, the military strength which Lepidus and Antony built up was absorbed by Augustus.  He found the whole state exhausted by internal dissensions, and established over it a regime known as the Principate.

Previous accounts have been marred by flattery or hatred. ‘I shall write without passion or partiality’ – sine ira et studio.

Tacitus then gives a succinct account of the revolution wrought by Augustus.

He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians.  Indeed, he attracted every body’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace.  Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law.  Opposition did not exist.  War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit.  Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.  They had profited from the revolution and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous opportunities of the old regime.  Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1, 1)

The Annals focus on the relations between the emperor and senate, of whom Tacitus is scathing.  A prime function of the historian is ‘to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciation.  He goes on to describe Rome under Tiberius.

This was a tainted, meanly obsequious age.  The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.  There is a legend that whenever Tiberius left the senate-house, he exclaimed in Greek, ‘Men fit to be slaves.’  Even he, freedom’s enemy, became impatient of abject servility.  (3, 65)

But Tacitus says Tiberius disdained monuments.  ‘Marble monuments, if the verdict of history is unfriendly, are mere neglected sepulchres.’  (4, 38)

The lieutenant of Tiberius, Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, sets up Tiberius into a reign of terror.  The author records the terror with language of astonishing power, in words that will be instantly understood by anyone who has ever lived under a police state.

At Rome, there was unprecedented agitation and terror.  People behaved secretively, even to their intimates, avoiding encounters and conversation, shunning the ears both of friends and strangers.  Even voiceless, inanimate objects – ceilings and walls – were scanned suspiciously.  (4, 69)

It was indeed a horrible feature of the period that leading senators became informers even on trivial matters – some openly, many secretly.  Friends and relatives were as suspect as strangers, old stories as damaging as new.  In the Forum, at a dinner-party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution.  Every-one competed for priority in marking down the victim.  Sometimes this was self-defence, but mostly it was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic.  (6, 7)

It is unlikely that anyone reading this has lived under Stalin or Hitler, but can you imagine a more powerful picture of what it may have been like?  In the Agricola (45), Tacitus had said that ‘The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us.’  Writing of these horrors must take a toll.  The author feels a need to talk about his task.

Similarly, now that Rome has virtually been transformed into an autocracy, the investigation and record of these details concerning the autocrat may prove useful.  Indeed, it is from such studies – from the experience of others – that most men learn to distinguish right and wrong, advantage and disadvantage.  Few can tell them apart instinctively.  So these accounts have their uses.  But they are distasteful.  What interests and stimulates readers is a geographical description, the changing fortune of a battle, the glorious death of a commander.  My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined – a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes.  (4, 32 to 33)

Eventually, Sejanus over-reaches and is murdered.  What Professor John Burrow describes as ‘the appalling ruthlessness of Roman political atrocity’ is pitifully depicted in the treatment of the son and daughter of Sejanus in one of the cruellest parts of Western letters.

The general rage against Sejanus was now subsiding, appeased by the executions already carried out.  Yet retribution was now decreed against his remaining children.  They were taken to prison.  The boy understood what lay ahead of him.  But the girl uncomprehendingly repeated: ‘What have I done?  Where are you taking me?  I will not do it again!’  She could be punished with a beating, she said, like other children.  Contemporary writers report that because capital punishment of a virgin was unprecedented, she was violated by the executioner, with the noose beside her.  Then both were strangled, and their young bodies were thrown on to the Gemonian Steps.  (5, 6)

The Gemonian Steps were next to the prison.  They were called the Stair of Sighs.  After execution, dead prisoners were thrown on to these steps, and then dragged to the Tiber.

What Tacitus is describing here is a form of moral disintegration, a kind of national nervous breakdown, of the sort that the French would experience in the nineteenth century, and the Germans in the twentieth.  Roman virtue in the old Republican sense has gone.  It is no longer active and patriotic, but Stoic.  The last way for a senator to show worth was to commit suicide with style.  The only way out might be this form of escape, and it might protect the family from a loss of property flowing from a conviction for treason.  In truth, the old tradition of the family having to give way to the state might bear very nasty fruit.

In The Histories, there is a chilling description of the reaction at Rome to an invasion.

The populace stood by and watched the combatants; and, as though it had been a mimic conflict, encouraged first one party and then the other by their shouts and plaudits.  Whenever either side gave way, they cried out that those who concealed themselves in the shops, or took refuge in any private house, should be dragged out and butchered, and they secured a larger share of the booty; for while the soldiers were busy with bloodshed and massacre, the spoils fell to the crowd.  It was a terrible and hideous sight that presented itself throughout the city.  Here raged battle and death; there the bath and the tavern were crowded.  In one spot were pools of blood and heaps of corpses, and close by prostitutes and men of character as infamous; there were all the debaucheries of luxurious peace, all the horrors of a city most cruelly sacked, till one was ready to believe the country to be mad at once with rage and lust.  It was not indeed the first time that armed troops had fought within the city; they had done so twice when Sulla, once when Cinna triumphed.  The bloodshed then had not been less, but now there was an unnatural recklessness, and men’s pleasures were not interrupted even for a moment.  As if it were a new delight added to their holidays, they exulted in and enjoyed the scene, indifferent to parties, and rejoicing over the sufferings of the Commonwealth.  (3, 83)

They do indeed look like a people that has gone mad, with not one shred of decency left.

The Germania was to become popular in some quarters, not least Germany, for being complimentary.  This is the way Tacitus described some of their customs:

Affairs of the smaller moment the chiefs determine; about matters of higher consequence, the whole nation deliberates.

In the Assembly, it is allowed to present accusations and to prosecute capital offences.  Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. 

Without being armed, they transact nothing, whether or public or private concernment.  But it is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them.

They are almost the only barbarians contented with one wife. 

To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband to the wife.

There is little that is barbaric here.  Indeed, the German view on carrying weapons – essential for such a warlike race – is much more civilised than that adopted in those jurisdictions that hold every adult – even an untrained fool – has the right to carry a hand gun, a weapon so much more lethal than anything the barbaric Germans could have dreamed of in their cold, dark woods and bogs.

No, the Roman prejudice was not based on the customs of the kind described by Tacitus, but on the living habits of the Germans, a prejudice carried through to Dante, who in The Inferno mocked their consumption of beer, the ‘guzzling Germans’, and later on the habit of the Germans of defeating the Romans at war.  And Tacitus can set up against the drunkenness and aggressiveness of the Germans, those qualities so missing at Rome – sexual temperance, manliness, strength, courage, and loyalty.

And much would be made in the Renaissance and later of the suggestion that the Germans had no hereditary kingship – freedom was said to be older than absolutism.  The downside was the claim of Tacitus that the German tribes had always inhabited Germany and were of unmixed race.  That could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Agricola is a loyal tribute to his father-in-law, and has a lot to do with affairs in England.  It begins with these words.

Famous men have from time immemorial had their life stories told, and even our generation, with all its stupid indifference to the present, has not quite abandoned the practice.  The outstanding personality has still won an occasional triumph over that blind hostility to merit that poisons all states, small and great alike.

Is that not just dead true – ‘that blind hostility to merit’ – of our choking embrace of bland mediocrity right now?

Later, he gives a most remarkable address by a Briton (Calgacus) to his troops before battle.  Some of it follows.

Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes from the defilement of tyranny.  We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed.  We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown….Brigands of the world, they [the Romans] have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea….They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy.  Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create desolation and call it peace…..Can you really imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war comes up to their wantonness in peace?  (30, 32)

Finally, Tacitus refers to the fact that Agricola stood up to the evil Domitian.

Let it be clear to those who insist on admiring insubordination that even under bad emperors men can be great, and that a decent regard for authority, if backed by ability and energy, can reach that peak of honour that many have stormed by precipitous paths, without serving their country, by a melodramatic death.  (42)

The translations of the smaller works are from the 1948 Penguin (H Mattingly).  The point may be clearer in the more modern translation in the Oxford History of the Classical World.

Let all those whose habit is to admire acts of civil disobedience, realise that great men can exist under bad emperors, and that compliance and an unassuming demeanour, if backed by energy and hard work, can attain a pitch of glory, which the majority reach through an ostentatious and untimely death.

There is a reminder that we proceed under a real disability.  We are not reading what this great writer actually wrote.  It is the same, for most of us, with Thucydides, and we have to take our translation on trust.  The remarks by an ancient critic about the astringency and severity of Thucydides and ‘his terrifying intensity’ apply equally to Tacitus.  But we have seen enough to show why both these great writers are historians for the ages.


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