Tacitus, The Histories (Fyfe)/Introduction

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Tacitus, The Histories  (1912)  by Tacitus, translated by William Hamilton Fyfe


Tacitus held the consulship under Nerva in the year 97. At this point he closed his public career. He had reached the goal of a politician's ambition and had become known as one of the best speakers of his time, but he seems to have realized that under the Principate politics was a dull farce, and that oratory was of little value in a time of peace and strong government. The rest of his life was to be spent in writing history. In the year of his consulship or immediately after it, he published the Agricola and Germania, short monographs in which he practised the transition from the style of the speaker to that of the writer. In the preface to the Agricola he foreshadows the larger work on which he is engaged. 'I shall find it a pleasant task to put together, though in rough and unfinished style, a memorial of our former slavery and a record of our present happiness.' His intention was to write a history of the Principate from Augustus to Trajan. He began with his own times, and wrote in twelve or fourteen books a full account of the period from Nero's death in 68 A.D. to the death of Domitian in 96 A.D. These were published, probably in successive books, between 106 and 109 A.D. Only the first four and a half books survive to us. They deal with the years 69 and 70, and are known as The Histories. The Annals, which soon followed, dealt with the Julian dynasty after the death of Augustus. Of Augustus' constitution of the principate and of Rome's 'present happiness' under Trajan, Tacitus did not live to write.

The Histories, as they survive to us, describe in a style that has made them immortal one of the most terrible and crucial moments of Roman history. The deadly struggle for the throne demonstrated finally the real nature of the Principate—based not on constitutional fictions but on armed force—and the supple inefficiency of the senatorial class. The revolt on the Rhine foreshadowed the debacle of the fifth century. Tacitus was peculiarly well qualified to write the history of this period. He had been the eye-witness of some of the most terrible scenes: he was acquainted with all the distinguished survivors: his political experience gave him a statesman's point of view, and his rhetorical training a style which mirrored both the terror of the times and his own emotion. More than any other Roman historian he desired to tell the truth and was not fatally biassed by prejudice. It is wrong to regard Tacitus as an 'embittered rhetorician', an 'enemy of the Empire', a 'détracteur de l'humanité'.[1] He was none of these. As a member of a noble, though not an ancient, family, and as one who had completed the republican cursus honorum, his sympathies were naturally senatorial. He regretted that the days were passed when oratory was a real power and the consuls were the twin towers of the world. But he never hoped to see such days again. He realized that monarchy was essential to peace, and that the price of freedom was violence and disorder. He had no illusions about the senate. Fault and misfortune had reduced them to nerveless servility, a luxury of self-abasement. Their meekness would never inherit the earth. Tacitus pours scorn on the philosophic opponents of the Principate, who while refusing to serve the emperor and pretending to hope for the restoration of the republic, could contribute nothing more useful than an ostentatious suicide. His own career, and still more the career of his father-in-law Agricola, showed that ever under bad emperors a man could be great without dishonour. Tacitus was no republican in any sense of the word, but rather a monarchist malgré lui. There was nothing for it but to pray for good emperors and put up with bad ones.

Those who decry Tacitus for prejudice against the Empire forget that he is describing emperors who were indubitably bad. We have lost his account of Vespasian's reign. His praise of Augustus and of Trajan was never written. The emperors whom he depicts for us were all either tyrannical or contemptible, or both: no floods of modern biography can wash them white. They seemed to him to have degraded Roman life and left no room for virtus in the world. The verdict of Rome had gone against them. So he devotes to their portraiture the venom which the fifteen years of Domitian's reign of terror had engendered in his heart. He was inevitably a pessimist; his ideals lay in the past; yet he clearly shows that he had some hope of the future. Without sharing Pliny's faith that the millennium had dawned, he admits that Nerva and Trajan have inaugurated 'happier times' and combined monarchy with some degree of personal freedom.

There are other reasons for the 'dark shadows' in Tacitus' work. History to a Roman was opus oratorium, a work of literary art. Truth is a great but not a sufficient merit. The historian must be not only narrator but ornator rerum. He must carefully select and arrange the incidents, compose them into an effective group, and by the power of language make them memorable and alive. In these books Tacitus has little but horrors to describe: his art makes them unforgettably horrible. The same art is ready to display the beauty of courage and self-sacrifice. But these were rarer phenomena than cowardice and greed. It was not Tacitus, but the age, which showed a preference for vice. Moreover, the historian's art was not to be used solely for its own sake. All ancient history was written with a moral object; the ethical interest predominates almost to the exclusion of all others. Tacitus is never merely literary. The σεμνότης which Pliny notes as the characteristic of his oratory, never lets him sparkle to no purpose. All his pictures have a moral object 'to rescue virtue from oblivion and restrain vice by the terror of posthumous infamy'.[2] His prime interest is character: and when he has conducted some skilful piece of moral diagnosis there attaches to his verdict some of the severity of a sermon. If you want to make men better you must uncover and scarify their sins.

Few Christian moralists deal much in eulogy, and Tacitus' diatribes are the more frequent and the more fierce because his was the morality not of Christ but of Rome. 'The Poor' are as dirt to him: he can stoop to immortalize some gleam of goodness in low life, but even then his main object is by scorn of contrast to galvanize the aristocracy into better ways. Only in them can true virtus grow. Their degradation seems the death of goodness. Tacitus had little sympathy with the social revolution that was rapidly completing itself, not so much because those who rose from the masses lacked 'blood', but because they had not been trained in the right traditions. In the decay of Education he finds a prime cause of evil. And being a Roman—wherever he may have been born—he inevitably feels that the decay of Roman life must rot the world. His eyes are not really open to the Empire. He never seems to think that in the spacious provinces to which the old Roman virtues had taken flight, men were leading happy, useful lives, because the strong hand of the imperial government had come to save them from the inefficiency of aristocratic governors. This narrowness of view accounts for much of Tacitus' pessimism.

Recognition of the atmosphere in which Tacitus wrote and the objects at which his history aimed helps one to understand why it sometimes disappoints modern expectations. Particular scenes are seared on our memories: persons stand before us lit to the soul by a fierce light of psychological analysis: we learn to loath the characteristic vices of the time, and to understand the moral causes of Roman decadence. But somehow the dominance of the moral interest and the frequent interruption of the narrative by scenes of senatorial inefficiency serve to obscure the plain sequence of events. It is difficult after a first reading of the Histories to state clearly what happened in these two years. And this difficulty is vastly annoying to experts who wish to trace the course of the three campaigns. Those whose interest is not in Tacitus but in the military history of the period are recommended to study Mr. B. W. Henderson's Civil War and Rebellion in the Roman Empire, a delightful book which makes the dark places plain. But they are not recommended to share his contempt for Tacitus because his accounts of warfare are as bad as, for instance, Shakespeare's. Tacitus does not describe in detail the tactics and geography of a campaign, perhaps because he could not do so, certainly because he did not wish to. He regarded such details as dry bones, which no amount of literary skill could animate. His interest is in human character. Plans of campaign throw little light on that: so they did not interest him, or, if they did, he suppressed his interest because he knew that his public would otherwise behave as Dr. Johnson did when Fox talked to him of Catiline's conspiracy. 'He withdrew his attention and thought about Tom Thumb.'

There is no worse fault in criticism than to blame a work of art for lacking qualities to which it makes no pretension. Tacitus is not a 'bad military historian'. He is not a 'military' historian at all. Botticelli is not a botanist, nor is Shakespeare a geographer. It is this fault which leads critics to call Tacitus 'a stilted pleader at a decadent bar', and to complain that his narrative of the war with Civilis is 'made dull and unreal by speeches'—because they have not found in Tacitus what they had no right to look for. Tacitus inserts speeches for the same reason that he excludes tactical details. They add to the human interest of his work. They give scope to his great dramatic powers, to that passionate sympathy with character which finds expression in a style as nervous as itself. They enable him to display motives, to appraise actions, to reveal moral forces. It is interest in human nature rather than pride of rhetoric which makes him love a good debate.

The supreme distinction of Tacitus is, of course, his style. That is lost in a translation. 'Hard' though his Latin is, it is not obscure. Careful attention can always detect his exact thought. Like Meredith he is 'hard' because he does so much with words. Neither writer leaves any doubt about his meaning. It is therefore a translator's first duty to be lucid, and not until that duty is done may he try by faint flushes of epigram to reflect something of the brilliance of Tacitus' Latin. Very faint indeed that reflection must always be: probably no audience could be found to listen to a translation of Tacitus, yet one feels that his Latin would challenge and hold the attention of any audience that was not stone-deaf. But it is because Tacitus is never a mere stylist that some of us continue in the failure to translate him. His historical deductions and his revelations of character have their value for every age. 'This form of history,' says Montaigne, 'is by much the most useful . . . there are in it more precepts than stories: it is not a book to read, 'tis a book to study and learn: 'tis full of sententious opinions, right or wrong: 'tis a nursery of ethic and politic discourses, for the use and ornament of those who have any place in the government of the world. . . . His pen seems most proper for a troubled and sick state, as ours at present is; you would often say it is us he paints and pinches.' Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton and Provost of Eton, who translated the Histories into racy Elizabethan English at a time when the state was neither 'troubled' nor 'sick' is as convinced as Montaigne or the theorists of the French Revolution that Tacitus had lessons for his age. 'In Galba thou maiest learne, that a Good Prince gouerned by evill ministers is as dangerous as if he were evill himselfe. By Otho, that the fortune of a rash man is Torrenti similis, which rises at an instant, and falles in a moment. By Vitellius, that he that hath no vertue can neuer be happie: for by his own baseness he will loose all, which either fortune, or other mens labours have cast upon him. By Vespasian, that in civill tumults an advised patience, and opportunitie well taken are the onely weapons of advantage. In them all, and in the state of Rome under them thou maiest see the calamities that follow civill warres, where lawes lie asleepe, and all things are iudged by the sword. If thou mislike their warres be thankfull for thine owne peace; if thou dost abhor their tyrannies, love and reverence thine owne wise, iust and excellent Prince.' So whatever guise our age may assume, there are lessons to be drawn from Tacitus either directly or per contra, and his translators may be acquitted at a time when Latin scholarship is no longer an essential of political eminence.

  1. Napoleon's phrase
  2. Ann. iii. 65.