Saturday, October 21, 2023

Quote of the Day (Tacitus, on an Earlier ‘Period Rich in Disasters’)

“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 disaster in the West…. Now too Italy was prostrated by disasters either entirely novel, or that recurred only after a long succession of ages; cities in Campania's richest plains were swallowed up and overwhelmed; Rome was wasted by conflagrations, its oldest temples consumed, and the Capitol itself fired by the hands of citizens. 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 the 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 spoil, 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.”—Roman historian and politician Tacitus (AD 56 – c. 120), The Histories (109 AD), translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

Believe it or not, I felt a strange sense of comfort along with a shock of recognition as I read this passage from the first book of Tacitus’ Histories, amid a week marked by two horrible wars abroad and disorder in the party controlling the House of Representatives.

The recognition, of course, came with events eerily similar to those involving the U.S. in the first quarter of the 21st century, including a Capitol coming under assault from its own citizens, the refugees flooding the borders, the mocking of the sacred, and corruption, crime, and betrayal everywhere.

The comfort derived from the realization that other civilizations have experienced—and even survived—as much, if not more. The era covered in the great writer’s Histories extended from the chaos after the death of the emperor Nero in AD 69 to AD 96, the end of Domitian's reign.

But Domitian was followed by nearly a century in which “The Five Good Emperors” brought Rome to the height of its reach and influence.

Maybe then, as now, much depends on the credibility and stability of the leaders of the land.

(The image accompanying this post is The Course of Empire: Destruction, created by the English-born American painter Thomas Cole in 1836. It is the four in a series of five paintings tracing the rise and fall of Rome. The concluding painting in the series, if you want to know, was Desolation.

For a succinct analysis of what Tacitus can teach contemporary journalists about how “to hold those in power to account without jeopardising their respectability, and, ultimately, their credibility,” I recommend the “Tacitus, Rhetoric, and Reporting Power” post from the “Hestia” blog of Trinity College Dublin Classics.”)

No comments: