Tacitus

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

Toujours Tacite ! Most ancient authors can be relegated to realms beyond the confines of general interest, but put Tacitus on the high shelf as often as you please, and he persistently refuses to stay put. It is but a year or two ago that Mr. J. C. Tarver, in a desperate effort to make an ideal Roman and an ideal ruler out of the Emperor Tiberius, condemned Tacitus to eternal oblivion as a mere malignant pamphleteer, whose sole gift of a diabolical rhetorical ingenuity was turned to the one task of falsifying Roman history. Then the Revue des Deux Mondes opened its columns to a very favorable consideration of his claims as a historian, from the pen of the veteran member of the Academy, M. Gaston Boissier.

Senator Hoar tells us in his Autobiography that the late Senator Cushman K. Davis, of Minnesota, was on familiar terms with the text of Tacitus, and volunteers the opinion that the man who has read and mastered Tacitus has had “the best gymnastic training of the intellect, both in vigor and in style, which the resources of all literature can supply.” A few weeks ago the editor of the Evening Post accompanied some severe censure of certain modern tendencies in historywriting by the assertion that Tacitus had made his period “forever alive, and forever a lesson to mankind.” We learn from the letters of Mrs. Bancroft, recently published, that her husband gave to Tacitus the days which seasickness left to him when on his way to the Court of St. James, as American Minister, under the administration of President Polk.

A recent volume on the reign of Nero credits Tacitus with composing “ the most damning epitaph ever penned by the hand of man,” referring to the few lines in which he sums up the life of Nero’s favorite, Tigellinus, known to non-classical readers chiefly, perhaps, from the pages of Quo Vadis. We have not read widely enough in the field of invective obituary to pronounce on the absolute justice of this characterization of the words of Tacitus, but for blasting, searing denunciation we have never met the equal of the passage in question. How swiftly and surely every sentence flies to its mark! In words of which there is not one to spare, to which there is not one to be added, he paints his low parentage, his odious boyhood, his use of his very vices to rise to positions which should be the rewards of virtue, the cruelty and avarice of his middle life, his corrupting friendship for Nero, followed by desertion and betrayal, his temporary protection under the brief reign of Galba through the influence of a powerful friend bound to him by services rendered for purely selfish purposes; and then the bitter end! the masses crowding to the Palatium, the public squares, the Circus Maximus and the theatres, vociferating their angry demands for his death, — Tigellinus himself at the baths of Sinuessa, where the news of his impending fate finds him in the midst of his drunken revels, and where, after maudlin farewells to his favorites and cowardly delays, “he cut his throat with a razor and stained an infamous life with a death dishonorable and all too long delayed!” In trying to outline the chapter, not translate it, I find by actual count that I have used one hundred and seventy words: Tacitus tells the whole tale with just one hundred and seventy-one.

What is the secret of so tremendously effective a style ? There are philologists who would have us believe that it is a purely artificial creation, that Tacitus was first and foremost a “consummate stylist,” devoting his midnight oil to the elaboration of ingenious ways of saying things, and ready even to sacrifice the thing to be said rather than the rhetorically brilliant way of saying it. If we mistake not, the truth lies nearer the opposite extreme. The style was emphatically the man. They tell us that poetry was born before prose, because the primitive man naturally expresses his emotions in rhythmical form. Are not the really essential features of the style of Tacitus just as natural an outgrowth of his feeling and temperament ? We can conceive of his deep moral indignation gradually breaking over the restraints of conventional modes of speech, as its intensity heightened with added years, until it reached its climax in the Annals of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero; but we cannot conceive of him as a mere “stylist,” gradually developing the linguistic form of the annals as a conscious product of applied rhetoric.

Senator Hoar has done well to recommend the mastery of his works as a gymnastic training of the intellect. The English writer can never fall into servile imitation of his style, for its outward form is an absolute impossibility to the English tongue; but he may get from it a brevity, directness, and intensity that would save more typesetting than a dozen phonetic spelling reforms.