These Were the Days

     It was a time when those not destroyed by their enemies were destroyed by their friends.
     People were indicted not for their acts, but for their presumed opinions — “an indelible blot upon that reign.”
     Good stuff, huh? Tacitus on Tiberius.
     Nothing like finding something 2,000 years old that sounds like yesterday to let you know you’re onto something.
     After the great catastrophe of the year 64, the Fire of Rome, Nero organized the tortures and executions of “alien” scapegoats — not because they were guilty, but for the pleasure of the mob, and because it was so easy to do — thanks to the aliens’ loathsome religion, which was called Christianity.
     Proof again that God did not want men to be happy, but wanted us to suffer, Tacitus said. God is indifferent to our conceptions of good or evil.
     Historians today consider Tacitus, who died in the year 117, the most reliable of the old Roman historians. If he had an ax to grind, he did it quietly.
     As a senator and consul from the equestrian (upper middle) class, not an aristocrat (the 1 percent), Tacitus witnessed the decline of the empire from the inside, and had the wits and the courage to describe it — on a bank shot.
     “Such was the depravity of the times” (Gibbon), Tacitus knew he could not take on the Powers That Be directly — not when they could kill him, or lock him up forever without trial for the way they thought he thought.
     So Tacitus wrote about the glories of their ancestors. That was allowed: to give glory to the long-dead, and place the blame on the recently, conveniently dead. Because there are enemies everywhere — and if they are not in power today, they may be tomorrow.
     Casting his cold eyes upon power politics, Tacitus wrote that it is no virtue to shut oneself up in the armor of an ideology — no matter how popular it may be at the moment.
     And speaking of virtue, Tacitus’ biographer Ronald Syme, the twentieth century’s greatest historian of ancient Rome, wrote that virtu, for the old Romans, can best be defined by our words courage and energy.
     The love of liberty and the love of domination spring from the same root, with good or evil results: courage and energy, Syme wrote, paraphrasing Tacitus. The vanquished — in this season’s terms, “the losers” — are left to feel the lesser evils of hatred and resentment.
     Tacitus observed that the powerless — the losers — tend to abandon logic and resort to apocalyptic predictions.
     And since we’re on the subject, long before the rise and fall of the empire, Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) said that the enemies of Rome had every right to aspire to freedom and to pray for Rome’s defeat.
     Cato’s views were “obnoxious” to the Roman Senate, if you can believe Plutarch, but enough people liked Cato to let him die in bed. “What Cato dreaded,” Plutarch wrote, was the day “when the Roman people were inebriated and staggering with their power.”
     As the empire’s first megalomaniac emperors led their people toward catastrophe, Tacitus asked: “How can one not deride the brute stupidity of those who hold power? Let them punish opinion, they can never destroy it.”
     Ringing any bells yet?
     Sixty days until our presidential election.
     As Harry Truman said as he popped his head out of the curtains on the voting booth in 1948: “Think I should vote a straight ticket?”

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