August 14, 2009

Introducing Agricola

Tacitus's life of Agricola begins with a classic piece of Tacitean rhetoric:

Famous men of old often had their lives and characters set on record, and even our generation, with all its indifference to the world around it, has not quite abandoned the practice. An outstanding personality can still triumph over that blind antipathy to virtue which is a defect of all states large or small. In the past however the road to memorable acheivement was not so uphill or so beset with obstacles and the task of recording it never failed to attract men of genius. There was no question of partiality or self seeking. The consciousness of an honourable aim was enough. (Agricola para 1, trans Mattingley, London 1970)

My last couple of posts have examined history and its relationship to politics: Tacitus is one of the historians who seems to have considered that relationship most. As opposed say to Livy who does not really describe how he sees the role of the historian within the state, Tacitus here and in other places does. Tacitus grew up in the reign of Domitian and survived into the more benign reigns of Nerva and Trajan. What we have here is a record, an account, of what he believed presenting an account did and was about. Like many ancient historians he focuses on the individual- an account of the past is there to record the deeds of genius or bravery that marked famous men out from the crowd. Livy would have agreed that history has a didactic quality. But Tacitus imports another set of ideas- he believes that human beings don't neccessarily wish to admire, in all states there is a blind antipathy to virtue, in all states there is an envious mind and a wicked tongue.

So what does that mean. Tacitus does not leave us with an easy balance between the historian's duty to praise and the desire to criticise. He distinguishes between the old days (republican) and the new (imperial) era. He associates the former with 'honourable' behaviour and admiration, the latter with envy, a difficult road to acheivement and indifference to the world around it. The Republican citizen is a honour seeking individual, the Imperial subject an envious slave. Tacitus does not get deeper into the psychology of this- but rather uses it to introduce Agricola's career- but we need to remember this before we explore the contours of the Governor of Britain's career. Tacitus's preface no less than the tales of great Republican heroes is a didactic one: it is meant to introduce and to warn the reader of what comes next.