Tacitus and Tiberius

Tacitus1_AFAdam Kirsch in the Barnes and Noble Review:

After 100 years, the Loeb Classical Library is not just a repository of history — it is itself a historical document, through which you can trace the evolution of modern understandings of the ancient world. Take, for instance, the introduction to the 1931 Loeb edition of the Annals of Tacitus. The translator, John Jackson, grants that “the greatness” of the Roman historian's intellect and literary style can still “be felt after the lapse of eighteen centuries.” But “how long they will continue to be felt, one must at whiles wonder,” he goes on to write. On the whole, Jackson finds Tacitus' picture of corruption and political violence in imperial Rome too uniformly dark to be credible. He speaks of the historian's “wild exaggerations” and “poisoned” rhetoric, and complains that he lacked “a charity that thinks no evil.” At best, Jackson hoped that “as long as Europe retains the consciousness of her origins,” Tacitus would continue to find “some” readers.

The historical irony could not be thicker; for within the decade, modern Europe would become an uncannily perfect reflection of Tacitus' Rome. With the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Italy, and Russia, Tacitus' descriptions of Rome under the early Caesars would no longer seem like “wild exaggerations” but daily news reports. Secret police, anonymous denunciations, constant shifts of the government “line,” whole societies cowering before the whims of rulers: Tacitus described it all, two millennia earlier. The critic Lionel Trilling, writing about Tacitus in his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination, titled his essay “Tacitus Now”: “our political education of the last decades has given us to understand the historian of imperial Rome,” Trilling declared, with his litany of “dictatorship and repression, spies and political informers, blood purges and treacherous dissension.”