Wednesday, August 17, 2005

“It has yet to be proved that acerbity or gloom is detrimental in an historian.”

I’ve been very gradually reading Syme’s immense book on the Roman historian Tacitus, mostly for the pleasure of spending as much time as possible with Sir Ronald’s austere wit. Unfortunately, the contemporary relevance of the subject matter intermittently interferes with the untroubled appreciation of the great classicist’s sheer virtuosity. The unfolding of present events brings ancient dilemmas in and out of focus. Roman writers of the empire like Tacitus and Seneca were greatly admired and closely read at the end of the Renaissance, no doubt because they spoke to the ethical predicaments of ambitious men in an age of burgeoning national empires—the literati of the Chinese Age of Warring States would probably have appreciated them as well. They certainly speak to an important group of modern individuals. And they speak to me as well.

Tacitus took up history writing after a not insignificant public career that began in the tyrannical regime of Domitian and extended into the time of Trajan, the second of the so-called five good emperors. Although a member of the Senate who sometimes evinced a certain nostalgia for the Republic, Tacitus did not write to restore a past that was gone for good and, for that matter, gone for good reason—he had no illusions about the fatal shortcomings of the old system of anarchic competition between selfish aristocrats. His great theme was not retrospective at all. It addressed the question of how virtuous men could live decently and usefully in the imperial present. The end of political liberty limited the prospects of ambitious men, but it didn’t absolve them of responsibilities to their country or to mankind. Even in its palmist days, the Roman Empire was only maintained by the strenuous efforts of a host of generals and officials. If the German barbarians didn’t sack Rome in the first century, if the Parthian horsemen didn’t overrun the East, it wasn’t because they weren’t trying. The Empire needed leaders who could some how function in an autocratic regime even though the emperor feared able men and often rewarded incompetence. (nec minus periculum ex magna fama quam ex mala’ — no less danger from a good reputation than a bad one — as Tacitus wrote, defending his father-in-law Agricola from the Tiber chapter of the Swift Boat Veterans) But what can integrity mean in a milieu in which dissimulation and flattery really are the prerequisites for career advancement?

Maybe it would be a good time to come out with an inexpensive paperback edition of Tacitus for the benefit of all the serious people in this country who are attempting the difficult act of behaving well in a vicious system.

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