A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.
Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56 – after 117) was an orator, lawyer, senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Information about his life is rare and primarily based on various hints historians have gleaned from the few writings left to us like the letters to his childhood friend, admirer and colleague, Pliny the Younger. The remaining portions of his two major works—The Annals of Imperial Rome (117 AD) and the Histories of Tacitus (105)—a survey the rule of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian (AD 69). These two major writings by Tacitus cover the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to the years of the First Jewish-Roman War in AD 70. This war was actually a fulfillment of a prophecy made by Jesus 40 years earlier to his disciples regarding the Second Temple which was destroyed by General Titus—Luke 21:6 – As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
The minor writings by Tacitus include—De origine et situ Germanorum (98) (Germania); Dialogus de oratoribus (102)(Dialogue on Oratory)discusses oratory in dialogue style and De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (98)(The Life and Death of Agricola), a biography of the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the Roman general in charge of much of the Roman campaign essentially focusing on his battles in Britannia.
Of all the ancient Roman historians scholars consider Tacitus to be one of the greatest. He flourished in what was referred to as the Silver Age of Latin literature (14–117 AD, from the death of Augustus to the death of Trajan). This period of Roman history is marked by limited free speech and emphasizes mannerism rather than firm content, thus as a man of his times Tacitus is known for the conciseness and substantive nature of his Latin prose, in addition to his strong, probing understanding into the psychology of how absolute political power invariably leads to absolute tyranny. Despotic rule was not theory to Tacitus; he actually lived through nine Roman emperors—Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan—most of whom were bloodthirty tyrants and depraved maniacs, especially Nero and Domitian.
He served in the provinces from ca. 89 to ca. 93 either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He (and his property) survived Domitian’s reign of terror (81–96), but the experience left him cynical and perhaps ashamed at his own complicity, instilling in him a venal hatred of tyranny and distrust of political power entrusted to one man which is so evident in his works. The Agricola, chs.44–45, is illustrative:
Agricola was spared those later years during which Domitian, leaving now no interval or breathing space of time, but, as it were, with one continuous blow, drained the life-blood of the Commonwealth… It was not long before our hands dragged Helvidius to prison, before we gazed on the dying looks of Manricus and Rusticus, before we were steeped in Senecio’s innocent blood. Even Nero turned his eyes away, and did not gaze upon the atrocities which he ordered; with Domitian it was the chief part of our miseries to see and to be seen, to know that our sighs were being recorded…
Tacitus writes in a historical style which scholars believe was influenced by the great Roman historian, Sallust (86- c. 35 B.C.). His historiography offers searching—often pessimistic—view into the psychology of power and the tyranny of politics, combining outspoken explanations of events, moral teachings, and strongly concentrated historical accounts of major events of Roman history from Augustus through the time of Christ up to the early second century.
Histories by Tacitus
Tacitus Histories (written before the Annals) covers the historical period six months after the death of Nero (AD 69) and continues to the death of Domitian on September 18, 96. The fifth book contains—as a prologue to the events of Titus’s brutal conquest of the Great Jewish Revolt—a short ethnographic examination of the ancient Jews and is an important chronicle of the elite Romans’ views towards the Jews. Tacitus wrote the Histories 30 years later, shortly after Trajan’s coup d’état, which had striking connections to the events of the year 69, when four Emperors—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian each took power in rapid succession. During this period of Roman history the tactics and strategies employed in their accession to imperial power was determined through the support of the legions, therefore an emperor didn’t necessarily need Rome, the Senate, nor the support of the Roman people, but anywhere in the empire where sufficient numbers of legions were amassed for his disposal secured his throne… albeit usually for a short time.
Annals by Tacitus
The Annals was Tacitus’ last and greatest work and provided a crucial basis for modern understanding of the history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius in AD 14 to the end of the reign of Nero, in AD 68. As in the Histories, Tacitus sustains his thesis of the necessity of the Principate—the first period of the Roman Empire, covering the beginning of the reign of Augustus Caesar to the Crisis of the Third Century (27 BC – 284 AD), after which it was replaced with the Dominate. The Principate period is described as a determined effort on the part of the Emperors to preserve the deception of the unquestioned supremacy of the Roman Republic even after it had long been in decline.
Tacitus writes that Augustus instituted and mandated peace to the Empire after years of civil war (known as the Pax Romana—27 BC to 180 AD), however, he scrupulously chronicles the depraved lifestyles, the vanity, waste, abuse; the capricious and destructive decisionmaking under the Caesars. The history of the Empire is also the history of the decline of the political self-determination of the senator-class, which Tacitus viewed as morally degenerate, unethical, and appeasing towards the emperor.
Senators had become so irrelevant since the early first century that Caligula (ruled 37-41) seriously spoke of making his favorite horse a senator (he made the horse a ‘priest’ instead) and turned the palace into a brothel discussing intimate sexual details he had with the senator’s wives the night before during dinner parties he held at his palace delighting in humiliating the senators in public. Senators were held in such contempt that during Nero’s reign there had been a well-known collection of literary works in favor of promoting senators to commit suicide—exitus illustrium virorum (“end of the illustrious men”). However, Tacitus strongly wrote against this trend in his Agricola, opposing people, particularly politicians who chose the easy way out through ineffective death and futile suicides, rather than putting in the hard work necessary to bring real and substantive change to society.
Tacitus on Christ
In book 15, chapter 44 of the Annals, written c. 116 AD, there is a passage which discusses the relatively recent events of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and a mass execution of Christians ordered by Nero after a six day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD.
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Despite its grotesqueries, this passage is rich in historical value as a rare, non-Christian reference to the origin of Christianity, the martyrdom of Jesus described in the canonical gospels, and a secular narrative of the persecution of Christians in First century Rome including the mysterious six-day Great Fire of Rome that burned much of the city in AD 64 during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero and according to many historians may have been perpetrated by him to clear land so that he could build his coveted pleasure palace. According to Tacitus Nero then blamed the fire on the then new Christian sect called “Christians” and in an act of demonic depravity, Nero made a huge spectacle of punishing the Christians by crucifying them and turning their bodies into human torches.
Historical Legacy of Tacitus: Ancient and Modern
In regards to the historical value of Tacitus works, historian Ronald Mellor has stated that the Annals is “Tacitus’s crowning achievement” which embodies the “pinnacle of Roman historical writing.” The excerpt from Annals cited above is also of great historical value in instituting three distinct realities about Rome around AD 60: (i) that there were a sizable number of Christians in Rome at the time, (ii) that it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome, and (iii) that at the time pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Roman Judea.
In the Great Books of the Western World, chapter 59 (Monarchy) the author writes: “Both Aristotle and Plato also say that as tyranny is the worst form of government, so monarchy at the opposite extreme is the best. But though in their opinion tyranny is always the worst form of government, Aristotle at least does not seem to think that monarchy is always—under all conditions—best.” Here, Tacitus’ worldview of monarchy would be more closely aligned with Aristotle rather than Plato, whose ‘philosopher-king’ paradigm are the most prominent figures of his utopia city-state Kallipolis, and argued if this ideal city is to ever come into being, “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize” (The Republic, 5.473d).
Tacitus was a child of Imperial Rome and knew the monarchy on a personal, political historical and psychological level. Virtually all of the emperors of his age were naked despots with a predilection for bloodlust and rampant pathology, therefore in such a dangerous society one had to be very careful what you said and wrote. Tacitus writing about his own father-in-law a General who subdued Britannia in The Life of Agricola, said: “If you would know who controls you see who you may not criticize,” and in Histories he wrote, “It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.” These sentiments by Tacitus exposed the existential zeitgeist of fear dominating these times; the reckless, totalitarian power of the emperors that severely repressed basic humanity, decency and independent thinking as Tacitus certainly endeavored to express at great peril of his own life.
Tacitus deeply resented the capricious, absolute power of monarchy and how the emperors repeatedly abused this great power and authority through confiscatory taxation, by murdering their perceived enemies and friends without logic or justice and their almost perpetual warmongering to expand and maintain the “Republic.” He summarized the historical legacy of the Great Roman Empire in these blunt terms: “They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor… They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”
What does Tacitus mean to us in modern times? As with Europe, America’s constitutional Framers and Americans today monarchy, totalitarian, despotic, Democratic Socialist and progressive governments are synonymous with tyranny, abuse of liberties and the deconstruction of the sacred, immutable natural law and natural rights given to humanity by God which no king, emperor, president, bureaucracy, Supreme Court nor tyrant can lawfully violate. That we see a naked tyrant before our eyes in modern times in the administration of President Barack Obama who flagrantly violates federal immigration law inviting hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens into America, purposely causing untold chaos and Congress and the people do nothing to remove him from office using the articles of impeachment only demonstrates that the American people are both apathetic and ignorant of the history of tyranny. Tacitus said it best, “A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.”
*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief(University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 3, Chap. 59—Monarchy and Vol. 15–Tacitus.