August 16, 2009

Crimes, Follies and Misfortunes

Eulogies indeed were written by Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio- the one of Thrasea Paetus; the other of Helvidius Priscus. But both were treated as capital offences and the savage fury of their enemies was vented upon the books as well as the authors. (Agricola para 2 trans Mattingley London 1970)


We have seen that history is naturally subversive of the currents of popular opinion- it tends to attack the envious and support the admiring and this, as Tacitus dryly notes, is contrary to human nature. What we are yet to explore is the way that the Republic and the Empire produce different reactions to history, to that disturbing admiration. Tacitus offers us a clue here. Imperial censorship is a means of allowing the 'enemies' of eulogy to thrive- the plural is important, Tacitus is not arguing that censorship proceeds merely from the throne but that the throne and the people unite to exploit its prerogative in order to crush eulogy. Tacitus was fully aware that despotism rests upon consent as much as any other regime and that is not his quarrel with it: rather his quarrel with it is what it does to the people under its command, as we are to see. This point though is crucial and important- histories cannot be written under the empire not because the tyrant will object but because those that do object now have the prerogative powers to attack histories.

Tacitus enlarges on this later in the same passage: he links the burning of books to the fact that the Romans under the Empire are 'robbed... by informers even of the right of exchanging ideas in conversation' (Agricola para 2 trans Mattingley London 1970). The image that he presents is, as typical with Tacitus's understanding of the imperium, truly terrifying. Human thought and life has turned to become an internal activity rather than an external one: tyranny means that the only thing left to the Roman subject is their 'memories', they have lost their 'tongues' (Agricola para 2 trans Mattingley London 1970). Tacitus's portrait of this process is not meant merely to illustrate a situation but to teach us about what that situation does to the population who live under it. The student of empire must analyse the effects of the imperial system upon the people who live under it- we have seen they are silenced and that they consent to the prerogative silencing because it satisfies their envy- but Tacitus has more to say on the effects of the process upon their minds and habits of thought.

Tacitus's description is one of tyranny under Domitian- tyranny under Nerva and Trajan is a different and more benign thing: he tells us that 'Nerva harmonised the old discord between autocracy and freedom', that Trajan is 'enhancing our happiness' (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). But even under such virtuous princes (bear in mind that Tacitus writes under Trajan as well- he may be hinting in his first paragraphs that all is not well even now) the Roman populace are unable to use their freedom. He comments that the 'mind and its pursuits can more easily be crushed than brought to life again' (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). The effects of tyranny are longlasting: young men have passed into their primes, old men to the limits of their mortality without saying a single unguarded word of praise (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). Mental idleness has turned from a despised option into a relaxing habit (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). Tacitus's psychology of imperial rule comes to its culmination when he addresses the kind of history that now can be written:

I shall still find some satisfaction however unartistic and unskilled my language, in recording the bondage that we once suffered and in acknowledging the blessings we now enjoy (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970)


This is our last irony- even the great historian himself is so effected by despotism that his only recourse as a historian is to describe it or praise it. The kind of history that Tacitus says is most laudable- eulogy- has passed and become impossible: the effect of empire is that there are only two subjects, to write about the slavery that one knew about under past emperors and to sustain the illusion that under present regimes there is perfect freedom. The mind has been taught by the blazing fires of books, the whispering of informers and the creak of the rack that anything else is dangerous and the brain has become too indolent to realise how to write another text: in Tacitus's text, Gibbon's old saying has become true and modern history is formed as the record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of human kind. Tacitus cannot write any other type of account.

4 comments:

James Higham said...

"We have seen that history is naturally subversive of the currents of popular opinion- it tends to attack the envious and support the admiring and this, as Tacitus dryly notes, is contrary to human nature."

Right from the start you make the point I was making today, an excellent point, that history undercuts popular opinion but it also undercuts revisionism which has been in vogue so long it has actually become mainstream.

Gracchi said...

I don't understand your post James.

Revisionism has several different forms and several different points. I accept some revisionism and not other revisionism.

Revising what other historians have written is part of history- it is pretty essential because history is constantly informed by new discoveries and perspectives. To give an example of the latter: Diarmaird McCulloch's work on Cranmer has led to us taking a greater degree of interest in Cranmer's links to continental reformers.

James Higham said...

On Cranmer, yes but that is a far cry from setting out to rewrite texts where there have beenrelatively few new discoveries over the centuries.

It's the difference between a nutcracker and a sledgehammer. The complete revision of all school texts since 1979 is no "tweaking" to take account of new discoveries - it is an overtly political act.

Ditto the late dating of the gospels - it was for a specific purpose.

That's the fine line between history and politics.

Gracchi said...

James I suppose revisionism for me means something done in universities- the work of people in my own area like Kevin Sharpe, John Morrill, Conrad Russell, etc. Their revision was very profound concerning the whole nature of the civil war but it was fundementally evidence based- that is the revisionism I'm most familiar with. I could mention other types of revisionism- for example the arguments of Eamonn Duffy and Chris Haigh that there was no real demand for a Protestant Reformation in England- which is also fundementallly evidence based. That type of revisionism I'm in favour of.

Rewriting school textbooks? It depends what they say- some school text books have historically said some pretty crazy stuff, others have said sensible stuff- the first should be rewritten, the second not.

The issue of the gospels- I'm not knowledgable enough to contribute to- I have read them of course, but don't know the arguments on either side. Until I have read both the revisionists and anti-revisionists I'll refrain from commenting as someone who is quite literally ignorant.

As to 'specific purposes' I see what you mean, but I prefer to argue about the history and the evidence- you can normally impute a 'specific purpose' to anyone's view: I prefer to be charitable and try and treat people's arguments on their merits. I would not argue you are keen to date the gospels early because you are a Christian, nor that those that want to date them later want to because they are atheists. What I am interested in is the evidence- I read your posts with interest but would like to read more on both sides of the argument before I make up my mind.