Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism
“To resume, in a few words, the system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus, and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people, it may be defined an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.”
– Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1, Chapter 3
On May 10, 1626, Sir John Eliot — an English parliamentarian and statesman — delivered a blistering speech to the House of Commons. One of the finest orators of his day, Eliot laced into King Charles I’s chief minister, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. A strong proponent of free speech and the rights of Parliament, Eliot had developed a deep revulsion for the wanton lifestyle and financial profligacy of his target and erstwhile patron. The latter’s position as Charles I’s favorite and, as many bitterly hissed, secret lover, allowed Buckingham to exert an inordinate level of influence over the formulation of statecraft. A series of foreign policy disasters that the chief minister had either inspired or commandeered had served only to fan the flames of Eliot’s righteous fury. Arguing in favor of the reviled royal creature’s impeachment, the learned parliamentarian turned to the writings of Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Quoting the first-century Roman senator and historian in the original Latin, Eliot compared Buckingham to Sejanus, the malevolent praetorian prefect who had maneuvered his way to near-ultimate power under the emperor Tiberius before being accused of treason and condemned to death.
Upon being made aware of the details of the parliamentary debates the following day, Charles I immediately took umbrage. After all, until his dramatic fall from grace, Sejanus’ reign of terror was enabled, in large part, by Tiberius’ credulousness. Through ruse, assassination, and emotional manipulation, the scheming Etruscan had skillfully clambered his way up the imperial hierarchy and, in doing so, had encouraged the aging emperor’s worst impulses. Stung by the unflattering historical parallel, the insecure monarch dissolved Parliament before throwing the contumacious Eliot into the Tower of London. When the monarch himself was beheaded two decades later for treason, one of the men who drew up the charges was Isaac Dorislaus, a Dutch historian who shared many of Eliot’s political sympathies and whose opening lectures on Tacitus had, many years before, resulted in his own expulsion from Cambridge University.
In their efforts to find moral succor and intellectual ammunition in the writings of Tacitus, Sir John Eliot and Isaac Dorislaus were part of a long line of statesmen, writers, and political theorists — stretching from Montesquieu to Alexander Pushkin and Thomas Jefferson — who have viewed the Roman senator as one of antiquity’s most intellectually rewarding figures and as its ablest anatomist of life under authoritarian rule. Writing to his young granddaughter on a winter day in 1808, Jefferson described Tacitus as “the first writer in the world without a single exception” before adding that “his book [The Histories] is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.” Over two centuries earlier, Michel de Montaigne expressed a similar opinion, noting that Tacitus’ The Histories was a “book to study and learn” in addition to a “nursery of ethical and political reflections for the provision and adornment of those who hold a place in the world.” While David Hume famously glimpsed through Tacitus’ somber ruminations the luminous contours of a “penetrating genius,” Edward Gibbon — whose 18th-century masterpiece sparkles with his Roman predecessor’s wry pessimism and savage wit — lauded Tacitus as the first truly philosophical historian. Meanwhile, modern scholars such as Anthony Woodman have drawn parallels between the leaden fear that suffuses the pages of The Annals dealing with Nero and Tiberius’ reigns — filled with their macabre cortèges of informers and treason trials — and the climate of collective paranoia that prevailed in Eastern Germany under the Stasi. Indeed, where Tacitus truly excels is in both his harrowing portrayals of the psychological aspects of life under authoritarian rule and his detailed — and at times anguished — commentary on the quiet inner struggles and daily moral compromises of citizens caught under the deadening weight of tyranny. The senator is also generally considered, despite his fondness for artful allusions and impish insinuations, to be one of the more informative and reliable of Rome’s great historians. More so, for example, than his younger contemporary Suetonius, whose taste for the sexually scurrilous — while wildly entertaining — often has a tendency to completely overshadow his other, more drily factual material.
Yet, despite Tacitus’ towering moral and intellectual influence over the centuries, his works are only rarely scrutinized by contemporary students of authoritarianism. As one classicist despondently notes:
Tacitus was once the most politically and morally influential of all ancient historians. Yet today Tacitus is ignored by most readers of history. His denseness of detail, the unremitting bleakness of his vision, and his seeming resistance to general theorizing make his work seem less immediately appealing than the anthropology of Herodotus or the compelling political philosophy of Thucydides.
It is time to bring Tacitus and the vibrant intellectual tradition that he inspired out of the shadows. Indeed, in an era in which the recrudescence of great-power rivalry has increasingly taken on ideological undertones, the Roman statesman’s rich commentary on the grim and stultifying nature of autocratic rule is more timely now than ever. Amid an intensifying battle over competing systems of government, the raw accusatory power that quietly ripples through Tacitus’ oeuvre constitutes a formidable force in liberal democracy’s intellectual arsenal.
Having served under several emperors, eventually reaching the rank of consul under Nerva, the Roman scholar-practitioner’s reflections serve not only as a lugubrious reminder of the gloom of a life shorn of genuine freedom but also as a warning against succumbing to complacency in the face of democratic corrosion within our own societies.
A Deadening Weight
“Remedies are more tardy in their operations than diseases, and as bodies slowly increase, but quickly perish, so it is easier to crush men’s spirits and their enthusiasm than to revive them; indeed there comes over us an attachment to the very enforced inactivity, and the idleness hated at first is finally loved.”
– Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola, 3.
Of all the Roman historians, Tacitus offers the clearest understanding of how moral resignation forms the dank loam within which tyranny takes root. The fall of the republic was accompanied by decades of vicious, fratricidal bloodletting — a “war worse than civil … when kindred fought against kindred … eagles were matched against each other, and pilum threatened pilum.” With their feuding strongmen, savage political purges, and mammoth-sized armies, the civil wars decimated Rome’s political elites while repeated interruptions to the city’s grain shipments frequently led to widespread famine. In Book I of The Annals, the rise of Octavian and the establishment of the Augustan Principate are presented, first and foremost, as acts of shared cynicism and collective exhaustion:
Augustus then brought a world exhausted from civil dissension under his authority, with the title of First Citizen … by seducing the military with donatives, the masses with grain allowances, and everybody with the pleasure of peace, he gradually increased his powers, drawing to himself the functions of Senate, magistrates and laws. He met no resistance. The most dynamic men had fallen in battle or through the proscriptions; and the remaining nobles rose to wealth and offices in proportion to their appetite for servitude. Having benefited from the revolution, they preferred the security of the current regime to the dangers of the old.
For the Romans who had reconciled themselves to the demise of liberty, the horror and anarchy of the civil wars played a justificatory role — as a mnemonic framework — similar to that of the Time of Troubles or “century of humiliation” for contemporary Russian and Chinese strongmen.
Even Tacitus, as critical as he was of the cravenness of Rome’s senatorial class and of the tyrannical excesses of different emperors, was resigned to the fact that a return to the halcyon days of the republic appeared, by his time, to be impossible. As contemporary scholarship has shown, illiberal governments spawn self-replicating patterns of corruption and networks of patronage that serve only to entrench undemocratic norms and practices. By the time Tacitus was alive, the authoritarian rot had set in too deep, and the memory of past liberties was too vague. As the emperor Galba wearily tells Piso, his designated successor, in Book I of The Histories, Rome’s populace had been irredeemably altered, being now composed of “men who could endure neither complete slavery nor complete freedom.” Tacitus’ pessimistic assessment of the principate’s political scene is perhaps most clearly laid out in one of his earliest works, an anthropological monograph of Germania and the Germanian people, titled the Germania. In perhaps one of the more detailed early instantiations of the myth of the noble savage, the historian tacitly opposes his decadent fellow Romans to the rural, chaste, and freedom-loving Germanians, who — sheltered within their deep, primeval forests — have yet to succumb to the corrupting influences of modern urban existence.
Within such a polluted political environment, the best that could be hoped for was a more benevolent brand of autocracy and an orderly succession process, whereby future holders of the imperial throne would no longer be selected on the sole basis of biological filiation but by merit, and then formally “adopted” by the serving princeps. Still, life for a public servant under the Roman Principate remained an unnerving game of Russian roulette: For every supposedly “good” emperor such as a Nerva or a Trajan, there was a Caligula or a Nero. Such a state of existential uncertainty wore down men’s moral defenses, producing the kind of jaded fatalism expressed by figures such as Eprius Marcellus, a notorious senator and Vichy-style collaborator under Nero, who in The Annals justified his vile actions by arguing:
I do not forget the times under which I was born, or the form of government which our fathers or grandfathers established. I may regard with admiration an earlier period but I acquiesce in the present, and, while I pray for good emperors, I can endure whomsoever we have.
Although Tacitus held various responsibilities under several emperors, Domitian’s 15-year rule of terror (81 to 96 C.E.) seems to have etched the deepest psychological scars. The sections of The Histories that dealt specifically with Domitian’s rule have been lost, but certain passages in Agricola provide some moving indications of the author’s trauma and, as we shall see, of his survivor’s guilt. Indeed, the detailed descriptions that we do have of Domitian — most notably those provided by Suetonius and Dio Cassius — paint a bleak portrait of an increasingly unhinged despot whose behavior fuses the flamboyant eccentricities of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan with the raw sadism of the Afghan warlord Rachid Dostum. Executing at least 11 senators of consular rank and exiling many more over the course of his reign, Domitian, according to Suetonius, “took a personal insult to any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men, being extremely sensitive about his appearance,” even publishing a haircare manual in which he whined about his capillary loss. Suetonius, ever one for colorful anecdotes, recounts how, in his spare time, the disturbed ruler would while away the hours in solitude “catching flies — believe it or not — and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”
Accounts of Domitian’s reign are punctuated with episodes of savagery and degradation, with the tyrant feeding a circus attendee to a pack of ravening hounds for supporting the wrong gladiator or ordering that a 90-year-old Jewish man be publicly stripped to establish whether he had been circumcised. As Sir Ronald Syme, one of the 20th century’s greatest classicists, has observed, those who emerged, staggering, from the 15-year ordeal of Domitian’s rule were “maimed in spirit, dazed and blunted.” Tacitus gives voice to this sentiment when, in Agricola, he portrays the Domitianic era as a dark, energy-leeching vacuum that drained the statesman and his peers of their youth and intellectual vitality:
During the space of fifteen years, a large portion of human life, how great a number have fallen by casual events, and, as was the fate of the most distinguished, by the cruelty of the prince; whilst we few survivors, not of others alone, but, if I may be allowed the expression, of ourselves, find a void of so many years in our lives, which has silently brought us from youth to maturity, from mature age to the very verge of life!
This theme — of the numbing, anesthetizing effect of authoritarian rule — is one that runs through the Roman historian’s oeuvre. Tacitus’ glum observations will be all too familiar for modern students of harsh autocratic systems. By their very nature, such regimes stifle artistic innovation, encourage cronyism, engender conformism or apathy, and breed mediocrity. In A Dialogue on Oratory, Maternus — the character most classicists believe acts as a stand-in for Tacitus’ own views — thus attributes the steady decline of rhetoric to the demise of the republic. In a rambunctious democracy, Maternus argues, the true spirit of eloquence, “like an intense fire, is kept alive by fresh materials: every new commotion gives it vigor, and in proportion as it burns, it expands, and brightens to a purer flame.” Even during the riotous tumult of the republic’s twilight years:
Talents were exercised, and genius opened the way to public honors. He who possessed the powers of persuasion, rose to eminence, and by the arts which gave him popularity, he was sure to eclipse his colleagues … No man, in those times, rose to eminence in the state, who had not given proof of his genius in the forum and the tribunals of justice.
Under the grayer artistic climes of the principate, however, such displays of rhetorical dexterity served little purpose other than as an empty academic exercise. As Maternus quips in what many view as a prime example of Tacitean irony:
In the senate, what need of elaborate speeches, when all good men are already of one mind? What occasion for studied harangues before a popular assembly, where the form of government leaves nothing to the decision of a wild democracy, but the whole administration is conducted by the wisdom of a single ruler?
Therefore, it was no exaggeration to argue that rhetoric — a quintessentially Roman art — “had died with public liberty.” In an environment governed by risk aversion and in which advancement was often more dependent upon imperial good graces than on actual merit, the overt pursuit of excellence could prove perilous. As in Xi Jinping’s China, where local party officials are often paralyzed by the fear of falling victim to an anti-corruption drive, the milk-warm waters of bureaucratic inertia held an undeniable appeal. Thus, in Agricola, Tacitus comments on his father-in-law’s decision to temporarily stall his own career in order not to provoke a cagey Nero’s enmity:
The interval between his serving the offices of quaestor and tribune of the people, and even the year of the latter magistracy, he passed in repose and inactivity; well knowing the mood of the time under Nero, in which indolence constituted wisdom.
Sextus Julius Frontinus, another governor of Roman Britain serving later under Vespasian, is also presented in the Agricola as a “truly great man” — but only “as far as circumstances would permit,” or only so long as his reputation did not overshadow that of the emperor. In Book XIV of The Annals, Tacitus, usually sparing in his praise, lauds the career of Memmius Regulus, an experienced senator “whose authority, firmness, and character had earned him the maximum of glory possible in the shadows cast by imperial greatness.” Somewhat remarkably, Regulus escaped the dire fate that Nero meted out to so many others. However, this was possible only because Regulus ensured that he “was shielded by his quietude of life” and that his “modest fortune aroused no envy.” As Alice Konig notes, “it seems that Tacitus cannot refrain from pointing out that the existence of all emperors — and even the supposedly more enlightened ones such as Vespasian — necessarily had a limiting effect on the behavior of Rome’s elite.” Reading Tacitus, one is therefore continuously reminded of the debilitating effects that such caution-driven behavioral patterns can have on authoritarian societies, and of democracies’ ability to more fully draw on their reservoirs of human potential.
Performance and Public Life
Figure 1: Mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung’s homecoming in Pyongyang, North Korea
Source: Wikicommons (Image by yeowatzup)
One of Tacitus’ greatest talents lies in his ability to shine a harsh, unflattering light on the hypocrisy and performativity that characterize almost every aspect of social existence under authoritarian rule. With his trademark mixture of biting irony and waspish innuendos, the Roman historian takes us by the hand and, lifting the thick, moldering curtain of fear, guides us through the dark spaces that lurk behind despotism’s creaking stage sets. Indeed, as the political theorist Roger Boesche observed, one of the great themes that pervades all of Tacitus’ writings is “the idea that under despotism everyone becomes an actor and all of society wraps itself in insincerity, role-playing and pretense.” One prime example would be his narration of Tiberius’ official accession following the death of his predecessor, Augustus. With his customary sly wit, Tacitus provides us with a masterful rendition in The Annals of the disingenuous, fear-laced histrionics that characterize public events in all autocratic regimes. The historian thus sardonically describes how, at Augustus’ funeral, the senators struggled to calibrate their facial expressions as they “rushed into slavery”:
The higher the rank, the greater the hypocrisy and the haste. With expressions composed to show neither pleasure at the passing of one emperor nor too much gloom at another’s inauguration, they blended tears and joy, grief and sycophancy.
While Tacitus is often harshly critical of Tiberius, he is equally — if not more — contemptuous of the city’s fawning elites, famously relaying the emperor’s own disgusted reaction at their groveling in an age “tainted” and “vile in its sycophancy.”
Perhaps one of Tacitus’ most memorable vignettes of everyday life under tyranny is one that depicts a Neronian theater performance during which the aspiring thespian, against the will of his appalled advisers, submits his audience to a rambling, outlandish, and ultimately degrading spectacle. Brimming with claustrophobic dread, the scene is strikingly effective. State security forces scrutinize the spectators for any subtle hint of disaffection, and — in the atmosphere of clammy unease — one is reminded of an infamous episode in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The parallels are indeed so remarkable that it is worth examining both passages in close juxtaposition. First, Tacitus:
The city rabble, at least, accustomed to encourage the posturing even of the ordinary actor, thundered approval in measured cadences and regulated plaudits. You might have supposed them to be rejoicing; and possibly rejoicing they were, without a care for the national dishonor! But the spectators from remote country towns in the austere Italy still wedded to its ancient ways … had no experience of such outrageous behavior and found the spectacle intolerable. Their unpracticed hands tired easily and proved unequal to the degrading task; they often had to be castigated by the soldiers lined along the rows of seats to assure that not a moment of time should be wasted in unmodulated clamor or sluggish silence …
A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaded to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation.’ For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation,’ continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?
In societies so steeped in dread and mistrust, where, to quote The Annals, “even voiceless, inanimate objects — ceilings and walls — were scanned suspiciously,” there can be no fleeting moment of respite, no hidden refuge or private sanctuary. The shadow of state power looms over all like a bloated, misshapen spider crouched over a vast and trembling web. If authoritarian control could already prove so stifling in ancient Roman times, one can only imagine the asphyxiatory effects of China’s suite of new surveillance technologies that have already been sold to fellow autocracies around the globe.
An Elusive Middle Way
Figure 2: The Death of Seneca by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez
Source: Wikicommons (Museo del Prado)
For an official operating under Nero or Domitian and deeply ensnared within a winding maze of oppression and corruption, what path to virtue remained? How could one preserve one’s dignity, honor the memory of one’s ancestors, and serve the public good without endangering oneself and one’s extended family? Seneca and other stoics had dourly argued that servitude could never be absolute. After all, a dissident always retained the option to take his or her own life. There was a longstanding Roman tradition of honorable suicide — as a means of both protest and preserving the dignity of one’s family name.
Tacitus, like any Roman patrician, could admire the pathos of a courageous death. Yet he was also a realist, and tragically aware of the potential futility of such demonstrative final actions, however noble, in the principate’s new age of iron. Indeed, all too often such high-profile suicides appeared to have little effect on imperial policy, simply amounting to one last desperate shout into the void. Somewhat controversially, Tacitus argued that such suicides — if deprived of their symbolic weight and, thus, of their ability to catalyze structured opposition to an emperor’s policy — could be more indicative of resignation or even moral narcissism than of a genuine desire to change the world for the better.
This critique is most clearly laid out in Tacitus’ earliest work, Agricola: a short, encomiastic biography of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, who served as the governor of Britain under Domitian. In addition to providing invaluable historical and ethnographic details on the Roman settlement of Britain, Agricola is a monograph “brittle with nervous tension” within which is nested one of history’s most sophisticated and pained discussions on how a government official can maintain a modicum of probity while operating within the stifling confines of an authoritarian system. Agricola is sharply critical of those who seek, first and foremost, glory through “ostentatious death” rather than through “public services rendered,” as well as of those who court fame by engaging in fruitless acts of defiance. Tacitus issues a similar, albeit more veiled, rebuke in The Annals when commenting on the political opposition of the stoic senator Thrasea Paetus under Nero’s rule. The historian coldly observes that, “For himself [Thrasea] he provided a reason for danger; but for others he did not furnish a beginning of freedom.” The historian’s summation of Nero’s reaction to the news of his longstanding adviser Seneca’s agonizing and drawn-out suicide is equally terse, almost brutal: “It delighted the emperor.”
Tacitus also provides depressing reminders of how acts of individual protest could rarely be allowed to exist in isolation and of how, in many cases, the “nobility” of the dissident’s suicide was tarnished by the need to shield family members from imperial retribution. Thus, Gaius Calpurnius Piso, the leader of a thwarted conspiracy against Nero, “loaded his will with repulsive flattery” of the emperor before taking his own life with the hope of sparing his wife from the despot’s vindictiveness. One is reminded in this instance of how the People’s Republic of China has taken a similarly inhumane approach to deterring Tibetan religious self-immolation as an act of protest, with Chinese officials brandishing the threat of collective punishment against the extended families of the deceased.
If suicide as a means of protest had little effect other than salvaging the honor of a family name, or if it ran the risk of only further imperiling one’s loved ones, could one simply “opt out” of the moral taint of collaboration and live a life of quiet contemplation? Tacitus suggests that a flight into inner exile, while tempting, is not necessarily an option. Under the most despotic emperors, even the act of political withdrawal could be interpreted as insubordination. Indeed, Thrasea’s suicide, which closes the surviving sections of The Annals, comes after his condemnation for having adopted precisely such a posture of performative abstinence. Tacitus’ description of his trial, with its absurd theatrics and rattled spectators, is one for the ages. The accuser, the contemptible Eprius Marcellus, is a familiar figure to anyone having read through accounts of modern show trials or “struggle sessions” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. “Grim and blustering as ever, fanatical of eye, voice and features,” Nero’s political hatchet man accuses his fellow senator of conducting “party-warfare against the government” through his refusal to participate in public events and his “glowering and gloomy manner” — a demeanor that, in its visible lack of enthusiasm for Nero’s policies, indicated that he “did not want the emperor to be happy.”
“In times so cruel and hostile to virtue,” the only viable remaining moral posture, argued the historian, was to attempt to chart a middle way, somewhere in between abject servility and futile opposition. As one close reader of Tacitus notes, there is a terrible sadness to his ashen resignation:
Experience, rather than his studies, had compelled him to develop a philosophy of survival … Tacitus accepted this situation as unblinkingly as the pitilessness of his vision required. There could be no hope of resistance in the Senate.
Tacitus’ father-in-law, Agricola, is presented as a role model for this approach to government service under authoritarianism. Like Frontinus and Regulus, by carefully shunning the limelight and quietly excelling in his duties, he “tempered his ardor, restrained his enterprising spirit,” and — for many years — avoided incurring enmities in high places despite a string of military successes as governor of Britain. Mindful of the fact that, in a government ruled by paranoia, hosts of nervous and beady eyes continuously track the rise and fall of public figures, Agricola labored to craft an unassuming and non-threatening image while hiding in plain sight:
He endeavored to soften the glare of military reputation, which is offensive to those who themselves live in indolence, by the practice of virtues of a different cast. He resigned himself to ease and tranquility, was modest in his garb and equipage, affable in conversation, and in public was only accompanied by one or two of his friends.
Despite his panoply of precautions, however, Agricola’s actions inevitably became the object of imperial resentment. As Tacitus notes, it was Agricola’s very success and — despite his most strenuous attempts at self-effacement — his growing popularity that put a target on his back. In fact, he states, “The source of his danger was not any criminal action, nor the complaint of any injured person; but a prince hostile to virtue, and his own high reputation, and the worst kind of enemy, his own eulogists.”
Thereupon, Agricola is described as wisely opting to retire without even emitting a word of protest when, in a petty act of imperial spite, he is passed over for a more prestigious position. Agricola, argued Tacitus, was able to lead a life of moral purpose and die of natural causes because he understood the need for discretion and compromise, and consequently developed the prudence and skills required for survival. The historian provides another example of this middle way approach in The Annals in the figure of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a “man of principle and intelligence” who “often palliated the brutalities caused by other people’s sycophancy” — all while enjoying “unbroken influence and favor with Tiberius.” Lepidus’ ability to positively shape policy from the inside made Tacitus ponder whether there was not a path “safe from intrigue and hazards” that lay between contumacia (perilous insubordination) and adulatio (degrading sycophancy).
It was this aspect of the historian’s thinking — in addition to his acerbic wit and elegant prose — that provoked such fascination in the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. For many leading intellectuals or “Taciteans,” the somber content of The Annals and The Histories provided a singularly perceptive commentary on the enduring characteristics of authoritarianism and civil war — many traits of which they recognized in their own societies riven by religious conflict. “Why, you would often think it us whom he is describing and criticizing!” exclaimed Montaigne in Les Essais.
Even more importantly, Tacitus’ writings appeared, in the eyes of nervous courtiers navigating their way through the treacherous shoals of court politics, to provide both a source of ethical instruction and a guide to political survival under tyrannical rulers. As Justus Lipsius, the great 16th-century neo-stoic, observed in an annotated study of The Annals, the uplifting perorations of Livy may have left him more moved, but they did not always make him “better equipped to face the vicissitudes of life.” In contrast, the harsh chronicles of Tacitus were an invaluable source of instruction on how to detect, delay, or survive the onset of authoritarianism.
For Marc-Antoine Muret, a French humanist, Tacitus had become increasingly relevant in a time of absolute monarchy, providing valuable insights into how morally upstanding advisers “managed” their corrupt or tyrannical rulers while striving to preserve a modicum of dignity and ethical standards:
Of course by the grace of God our own age does not have rulers like Tiberius, Caligula, or Nero; nevertheless it is worth knowing in what way good and prudent men lived, even under them; how, and for how long, they tolerated and glossed over the vices of their rulers; how they neither endangered their lives by using liberty at the wrong time without any advantage to the public, nor yet, did they, by praising foul and shameful conduct, indicate that base behavior pleased them.
Some, however, were more guarded as to how such a rich and complex body of work, filled with readily quotable aphorisms ripe for the plucking, might come to be cynically exploited by the very people whom Tacitus condemned. Francesco Guicciardini thus mordantly observed that “Cornelius Tacitus teaches well those who live under tyrants how to live and behave prudently; just as he teaches tyrants ways to establish their tyranny.” John Milton, for his part, deplored the fact that absolutist writers had “cut Tacitus into slivers and steaks” and used the author’s prose to buttress their own specious arguments in favor of one-man rule. The distinguished Italian classicist Giuseppe Toffanin, writing in the months leading up to Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome, famously divided these two interpretations of Tacitus into the “red Tacitus” (the republican, anti-tyrannical Tacitus) and the “black Tacitus” (the partisan of moral compromise and the guide to survival under authoritarianism).
Then, of course, there is the unfortunate legacy of the Germania, a legacy that has been meticulously charted by Harvard classicist Christopher Krebs in a fascinating recent study. The primitivist contents of the Germania — and most notably its passing references to the supposed “ethnic purity” of the isolated, forest-dwelling Teutons — were vivisected by 19th-century German nationalists, and then served up, piecemeal and mutilated of historical context, as Nazi racial propaganda during the interwar years. There is no doubt a tragic irony in the fact that the work of one of history’s most acerbic observers of authoritarianism should have been thus subverted, and even brandished by figures such as Heinrich Himmler as an Aryan “bible” to advance the ideology of the vilest of tyrannies.
Shared Wounds, Collective Guilt
Figure 3: Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome by the populace by Georges Rochegrosse
As many historians have noted, a thick ambiguity floats over all of Tacitus’ writings, particularly over Agricola. By strenuously defending his father-in-law’s conciliatory middle way approach to public service, the historian certainly seems to provide the basis for a justification of his own accommodationist tendencies. Yet, when Tacitus remembers the executions of some of his fellow senators under Domitian, the hitherto calm advocacy of the “Agricolan path” is abruptly interrupted by a confession of shared guilt that seems, in its emotional violence, to rip through the author’s polished prose like a sudden summer squall. He writes:
Soon it was our hands that led Helvidius to prison; it was we who were shamed by the looks and the sight of Mauricius and Rusticus; it was we who were drenched by Senecio’s innocent blood. Nero would at least remove his own eyes from such sights, and he ordered rather than viewed his crimes; it was a special part of the suffering under Domitian to see and be seen, when our sighs were noted down, when that savage, red face with which he fortified himself against shame was sufficient to mark out the pallor of so many men.
Shame, guilt, a lingering sense of powerlessness, and self-loathing: These are all emotions common to individuals living under tyranny. And, for all his literary brilliance and psychological acumen, Tacitus is no exception to this rule. In The Annals, when the historian describes the soul of a tyrant such as Tiberius, which he poetically envisions as crisscrossed with deep “lacerations” and “wounds,” he projects this state of invisible scarification onto Roman society as a whole. Indeed, the historian’s genius lies in his demonstration of how authoritarianism is, first and foremost, a collective malady — one that infects almost everyone, from the maniacal tyrant to the stolid local official, anonymous informer, or jeering spectator at the local theater. As Tacitus notes in a moving passage of The Annals, “the ties of our common humanity had been dissolved by the force of terror; and the rising surge of brutality drove compassion away.”
Dark currents of hatred course deep below the surface of all such brutalized societies, and Tacitus provides terrifyingly vivid descriptions of the ugliness of pent-up rage and mob violence in the event of regime collapse. The grisly demise of Aulus Vitellius, who in The Histories is drawn out of hiding and beaten to death by a slaughterous crowd, is strikingly similar to that of Moammar Gadhafi, as Tacitus describes in graphic detail how the “crowd harried Vitellius and killed him with the same perversity with which it had cherished him when alive.”
In an almost irredeemably corrupt political environment where fear, opportunism, and violence run rampant, the line between the oppressor and the oppressed becomes increasingly hard to discern over time as citizens weld themselves — and their bleeding conscience — to the state in a desperate bid for survival. As Joshua Yaffe notes in his masterful recent exposition of tortuous moral compromises in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, relativism and “whataboutism” often become a final mental refuge for those seeking to make sense of their own spiritual degeneration.
Tacitus, however, did not descend to such levels of cynicism. While he stressed the importance of compromise in order to serve the public good, he was at his most powerful when describing instances of remarkable courage emerging from some of the more unlikely places: “an emancipated slave and a woman,” who died under torture and “set an example which shone the brighter at a time when persons freeborn and male, Roman knights and senators, untouched by torture, were betraying each his nearest and dearest”; or Petronius, Nero’s “arbiter of elegance,” a court dandy whom nobody took seriously but who died laughing and, in one last gesture of theatrical defiance, embarrassed the emperor by publishing a list of his patron’s secret sexual habits and partners. Like many regime insiders-turned-dissidents, Petronius knew that the public unveiling of the tyrant’s squalid personal habits would be far more devastating than any fiery moral condemnation. Nevertheless, this author’s personal favorite would have to be the guard colonel Subrius Flavus, who, upon being condemned to death, openly vented the depth of his hatred and disdain to a rattled Nero’s face. Hauled off to a nearby field for his execution, Flavus witheringly commented on the grave that had been dug for him, which he deemed too narrow and shallow. “More bad discipline,” he let out in one final contemptuous snort before bowing his head for the executioner’s blade. Tacitus could still recognize true courage when he saw it, and he was a patriot, albeit one who knew that his country could now only really be loved “with a broken heart.”
A few years ago, my Norman grandmother, after many years of stoic silence, finally began to share her memories of a childhood spent under Nazi occupation. Discreet and self-effacing, she had thus far stolidly refused to disclose the nature of her family’s involvement in the French Resistance. Among other things, I was to discover that her relatives had sheltered downed British pilots in their barn, provided forged identity papers for Jewish fugitives, and liaised with British intelligence — all while having to contend with a succession of polite but ruthless Wehrmacht officers billeted in their home. One day, in hushed tones over coffee, she told me another story: that of Victor, her favorite uncle, a jovial dairy farmer who used to enjoy whizzing his little niece around on his bicycle. Accused of concealing a cache of weaponry on his farm, Victor was spirited away one morning to a German concentration camp, never to be seen again. Baffled by the fact that until then I had never even known of his existence, let alone of his heroic sacrifice, it took me some time to understand the full complexity of my grandmother’s emotions. As she later explained to me, the swell of patriotic pride that rose with any mention of Victor’s name was invariably accompanied by a lancing pain — a pain that stemmed not only from his loss, but also from a more profound anguish, and a lingering sense of betrayal. Indeed, everyone in the village knew that Victor had been denounced, most likely by a neighbor, and perhaps even by a relative. “I was ashamed,” she confessed, “that our country had become a place where neighbors can quietly betray one another and then carry on their lives as normal.” Tacitus would have been familiar with the roots of this pain: However noble one’s personal actions, the experience of authoritarianism is a collective wound that never quite goes away.
Ben Jonson, the famed Jacobean playwright, once argued that all “ripe statesmen” should carry a pocket edition of The Annals with them as a handbook to the secrets of political power. And indeed, the leaders of our troubled democracies would certainly gain from keeping a well-thumbed edition of the great Roman historian’s works within close reach — not as a guide to power but, rather, as an enduring reminder of the fickleness of human nature, of the pathologies of authoritarianism, and of the preciousness of the liberal political tradition increasingly under siege here at home.
Iskander Rehman is a senior fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks and can be followed on Twitter at @IskanderRehman.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article quoted Tacitus as saying, “Remedies are more tardy in their operations than discourses.” This was incorrect. Tacitus stated that, “Remedies are more tardy in their operations than diseases.”