The Wisdom of Tacitus
by Fr. William Most
Even though Tacitus is not Scripture, it is good to
compare his shrewd observations with wisdom writings.
Tacitus was the greatest of the ancient Roman
historians,writing around 100-110 A.D. He is considered the
equal of modern historians in regard to getting the facts,
though some charge him with being too hard on some,such as
Tiberius. Cf.Ronald Syme, Tacitus, 2 volumes - has checked
everything possible in the facts given by Tiberius, found only
few small slips.
Tacitus was also a keen observer of human nature. From
his works we can gather the following wise observations:
Friendship needs favors in both directions. In Annals 4.18:
"Benefactions [favors] are welcome as long as it seems
possible to repay them. When they go beyond this point, hatred
is the payment instead of gratitude." Similarly Aristotle,in
Book 8 of his Ethics, notes that for friendship there must be
favors in both directions. Otherwise one party feels
inferior, and may resent it.
Goodness may be a rebuke to others: Annals 4.33 :"Even glory
and merit make enemies - by showing their opposites in too
sharp and critical contrast." This is specially true if a
subordinate seems to do greater things than his superior - as
in the case of David and Saul.
Automatic penalties: Annals 6.6: Speaking of Emperor Tiberius,
holed up in the island of Capri, giving self up to even sexual
orgies]: Annals 6.6:"His crimes and wickedness had rebounded
to torment him. How correctly the wisest of men used to claim
that the souls of despots, if we could see them,would show
wounds and mutilations - weals left on the spirit,like lash-
marks on a body, by cruelty, lust and malevolence." The
wisest of men is Socrates in Plato, Gorgias, 479-80 and in
Theatetus 176-77. Cf.also St.Augustine,Confessions 1.12.
Virtue can bring hatred: Annals 15.21: "More sins are
committed from the desire to please than from a wish to
injure; in fact,some virtues are hated: the severity that
never relaxes, the strength of soul that never gives in to
Rulers may envy competence: Agricola 39.3: He is speaking of
Emperor Domitian,jealous over the success of Agricola,father
in law of Tacitus,Roman governor of Britain. "This was very
frightening,that the name of a private individual should be
more exalted than that of the Princeps [Emperor]."
Self-exaltation by contrast: Annals 1.10. Speaking of the fact
that Augustus designated Tiberius as the next Emperor."His
appointment of Tiberius for his successor was not due to
personal affection, or to regard for the national interest.
Being thoroughly aware of the cruelty and arrogance of
Tiberius, he [Augustus] intended to increase his own glory by
the contrast with one so inferior."
Luxury weakens: Agricola 21.3: "Our style of dress was admired
[by Britains},and the toga was common. Gradually they slipped
into the allurements of vices: the public lounge, the bath,
the elegant banquet. And in their ignorance they called it
culture,when it really was part of their enslavement."
Histories 2.69: [in the Romans] "strength was
corrupted by luxury, in contrast to ancient discipline and the
precepts of our ancestors, with whom Rome stood better by
virtue than by money."
How to find the truth about subordinates: Annals 2.12.
[Germanicus,wanting to find the facts about his mens' thinking
went out disguised at night]: "...thinking that the reports of
colonels and company- commanders are pleasant rather than
reliable, that ex-slaves remain slaves at heart, that friends
are flatterers. If he called a meeting, initiative would be
shown by a handful, the majority would applaud them. Mess-time
he decided, was the time to discover what they really thought
when the men talked freely, unsupervised, on their hopes and
Influence may not last: Annals 3.30: [Sallust once had
influence with Emperor Tiberius, but it turned out as it had
been with Maecenas]: "It had been the same with Maecenas.
Influence is rarely lasting. Such is its fate. Or perhaps both
parties become satiated, when the ruler has nothing more to
give, and the subordinate has nothing more to ask."
Excess flattery can disgust a man with some honesty: Annals
3.65: "It is reported that whenever Tiberius left the senate-
house,he exclaimed in Greek: 'Men fit to be slaves!' Even he,
freedom's enemy, became impatient at such low servility."
Power corrupts: Annals 6.48: [Arruntius,when he saw that
Tiberius was near the end of his life,thought of suicide and
said: "Certainly I might survive the few days until Tiberius
dies, but in that case,how can I avoid the young emperor ahead
[it would be Caligula]? If Tiberius, in spite of all his
experience, has been transformed and deranged by absolute
power, will Gaius do better? Almost a boy, wholly ignorant,
with a criminal upbringing, guided by Macro [captain of the
We may come to hate those we have harmed: Agricola 42:"It is
characteristic of human nature to hate those you have harmed."
COMMENT: If we thought them good, we would accuse ourselves
for harming them. So we are almost driven to think them evil.