“We are too sophisticated nowadays to believe that lessons can be learned from history,” Anthony Woodman wrote in the introduction to one of his many books on Tacitus. Boy, did the professor get that right, though surely he was kidding with that word “sophisticated.”
Cornelius Tacitus (58-120) was the best chronicler of the early Roman Empire, whose decline began as soon as it ceased to be a republic. This came in the year 29, when Caesar Augustus took elections away from the people and began nominating and appointing all the officials himself.
I’ve been a bit obsessed with Tacitus lately for two reasons:
I can’t stand to read about U.S. politics anymore because it’s so relentlessly vile: so indicative of an empire in decline;
I don’t have to read about it, because the same things were going on 2,000 years ago.
We could start with the ruler(s) electing themselves, turning the plebeians’ casting of ballots into a charade. But there’s a better place to start: The first page of Tacitus’ “Annals,” written in about 109.
Rome’s decline from republic to empire, Tacitus wrote, was spurred, and falsely recorded, due to the “swelling sycophancy” of the ruling class and their historians.
Histories of the early emperors “were falsified by dread while the men flourished, and composed with hatred fresh after their fall.”
The republic fell from exhaustion after 20 years of civil war, which began when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January 49 B.C.
Interesting note: Everyone knows that’s when it began, but no one knows to this day exactly where the Rubicon was.
By the time Augustus gathered all power into his hands, the people had been bribed with “the sweetness of inactivity,” the soldiers with pay raises and benefits, and the Senate, “exalted by wealth and honors,” fell into line “each in proportion to his readiness for servitude.”
Plebeians in the hinterlands had no objections to this, as the Senate was no longer trusted, due to the debility and greed of its members; nor did the people place any faith in laws, “which had been disrupted by violence, intrigue and money.”
As he aged, Augustus appointed two of his sons as his heirs, despite their ineptitude, and these “two juveniles for a while would oppress the state and at some time tear it apart.”
Open despotism began under Augustus’s successor, Tiberius, who revived prosecutions and executions for treason — not just for actions, but for words and suspected thoughts. Treason became an element of virtually every legal charge: as though any act, proposal or thought with which the princeps disagreed were undermining the state.
High-ranking officials accused of treason had no idea how to comport themselves in court, if they got to court, because they had no way of knowing whether lying or telling the truth would get them into more trouble.
Ringing any bells for you yet?
Tiberius, to his credit, hated flatterers. But that avenue to power opened wide after he died and worse men succeeded to power. Caligula, Nero and their vile successors enjoyed “a passion for flattery,” so sycophants rose to power through their abject subservience. This stimulated public hatred of government officials, exterminating the spirit of the now-ancient Roman republic.
Finally, with true power out of reach of the common man, the only way to independence was to feign it, through malice.
That about wrapped it up for the Roman republic.
And that, dear reader, is why I find Tacitus a better companion, more interesting and far better written than our daily newspapers. And a better interpreter of what happened yesterday.
(Quotations from Tacitus’ “Annals” come from A.J. Woodman’s translation, Hackett Publishing, 2004.)
Subscribe to our columns
Want new op-eds sent directly to your inbox? Subscribe below!