Tacitus for the 21st Century

By: Bram L. H. ten Berge | Date: August 14, 2023 | Tags: Writing Imperial History, Author Post
Cover of Writing Imperial History with the post title Tacitus for the 21st Century

The Roman senator Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55–120 CE) speaks to our time every bit as much as he did to his own. As a historian, he is renowned for his gripping style and for his incisive analysis of the realpolitik that characterized Roman imperial rule. His sharp eyes saw through the ideological façades behind which these realities of power were hidden, allowing him to explore the consequences—cultural, social, military—of corrupt and oppressive political systems. Tacitus is precisely the kind of intellectual we need in our conflict-ridden and ideologically contested world. In his literary works, the historian worked against the oppressive aspects of a regime type in which one man needed to be preeminent in the major areas of political life and in which truthful representations were therefore systematically sacrificed to sanitize the emperor’s record. Tacitus, countering imperial propaganda, set out to offer historical reconstructions that recover essential truths and expose governmental distortion. That he managed to do so effectively and safely while remaining an active member of his government is testimony to his delicate touch and keen understanding of his world, as well as to his literary abilities.

My new volume Writing Imperial History offers the most comprehensive study of Tacitus’ oeuvre since Sir Ronald Syme’s two-volume Tacitus (1958). The book covers each of Tacitus’ five surviving works in detail, focusing on their interconnections and tracing the development of the historian’s outlook and methods across his oeuvre. From the Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola (governor of Britain), the Germania (an ethnogeography of the Germanic tribes in northern Europe that would have a massive influence on the history of Western ideas), and the Dialogus de Oratoribus (a meditation on the state of oratory in imperial Rome) to the Histories and Annals (chronicles of first-century CE imperial history), Tacitus lays out theories of the Roman state, of Rome’s imperial rule, and of historical, sociopolitical, and cultural analysis that are as timely for us now as they have ever been.

It is intriguing to imagine how a Tacitus would have described the American political system, a democracy in name, but in reality a type of government that allows for the kind of corruption and secretive decision-making that Tacitus loathed and that increasingly displays the sorts of problems and tensions that plagued the final century of the Roman Republic. It would be equally illuminating to imagine how the historian would depict the current crisis in Eastern Europe and, connected with the latter, the political regimes in both Russia and China.

Tacitus’ analysis of the conflict in Ukraine would have been complex. The historian was acutely aware of the challenges presented by climatic and geographical difficulties, which affect, among other things, an army’s supply lines; by cultural incompatibility between the warring parties, which steers a people’s resistance to outside influence and aggression and which imposes limits on empire; by poor military leadership, which affects the chain of command and general military discipline; by the composition of different armies (mercenary or auxiliary forces, for instance, do not always exert a positive influence on an army’s operational efficiency); and by technological capabilities, which affect an army’s striking and staying power. Tacitus would have highlighted the impracticability of Putin’s designs on Ukraine, and probably also his poor strategic foresight. At this point in the war, the swift and decisive Russian victory that many in the West had feared has not materialized, nor did the Ukrainians welcome Russian influence, as many in Russia had hoped or expected.

Strategy is only part of the narrative, however. Tacitus surely would have been concerned, too, with personalities and the way that both parties to this conflict have continued to justify their respective positions and decision-making. He would have been especially concerned with the inaccuracies and distortions that both parties (to differing degrees) have promulgated. Yet, Tacitus, that “master of light and shade,” would not have presented Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin as an untarnished hero and villain, respectively. Nor would he have focused exclusively on those two leaders. Rather, he would have combined analysis of their character traits and motivations with that of the wider structures of power—in Ukraine and Russia, and in terms of the geopolitical realities of our world—within which both men operate and by which both men are steered. Likewise, he would have used past events as a yardstick by which to measure the current crisis.

Where would all this have led? Depending on whether we imagine Tacitus as writing from within the Russian government (i.e., mirroring his own situation in Rome) or from the “outside,” he would—either explicitly or relying more on the so-called “art of subtle criticism”—have categorially condemned Putin’s rhetoric and imperialist pretexts. He would have allowed us to see how the Russian president’s ambition to restore a Romanov Russia founded on traditional (religious) values with himself as a newfangled tsar is akin to the claims of Roman emperors to return to the values and standards of Augustan Rome, or even the Roman Republic. Such claims would have earned Tacitus’ disapproval (and scorn), and he would have laid special emphasis on the contrast between rhetoric and reality.

Nor would Tacitus have shied away from exposing the distortions propagated by the Russian government: that the West is responsible for the outbreak of the war, that the latter serves to “liberate” a region dominated by fascists, and that the West has refused continuous Russian overtures to peace. Tacitus would have highlighted the naked power grab that Putin’s invasion represents. By undermining official representations—either in his own voice or by describing characters in his narrative as doing so—Tacitus would impart to his readers (Russian and other) the same lesson he had to his Roman ones: to be wary of official versions of events and to scrutinize one’s government very carefully.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy would not come off scot-free either. Tacitus’ world is not one of heroes and losers, but one of highly complex characters who at any given time are virtuous or corrupt depending on a range of factors, not least the influence exerted by those in their immediate orbit. We would not find in Tacitus a dichotomous contrast between East and West, no uniformly pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia stance. Just as he takes for granted Rome’s superiority in the world and simultaneously can be devastatingly critical of the corruption and vices that mark the City, so he would have appreciated certain aspects of Putin’s (ultimately flawed) rhetoric and condemned some of the blatant hypocrisies of Western reconstructions. In a world dominated by headlines, soundbites, and Tik-Tok, and by the spread of dis- and misinformation from all sides of the political spectrum, the intellectual stance of a Tacitus not only would be refreshing, but it would also offer a model for how to think more critically about the world and for how to engage in responsible political, historical, and (cross)cultural analysis.

This guest author post is by Bram L. H. Ten Berge, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Hope College and author of Writing Imperial History: Tacitus from Agricola to Annales, from the University of Michigan Press. The book is available in hardcover and accessible ebook.