Tacitus and the Tacitus Forum
Cornelius Tacitus (AD 55 – 117) stands alongside Thucydides as the greatest historian of classical antiquity. What we know of Rome – its political upheavals, social circumstances, the campaigns of its legions and the native resistance to those campaigns – is in large part due to Tacitus. Like Thucydides, Tacitus believed that change, turmoil and conflict are seminal human experiences. He recorded in his Histories, “Rome’s unparalleled suffering supplied ample proof that the gods are indifferent to our tranquillity, but eager for our punishment”. As a pioneering exemplar of a social scientist, he also reminded us that, “truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty”.
For Tacitus, historical crises are important for the responses they evoke at both the individual and societal level. Writing of the reign of the Emperor Nero, Tacitus noted with sadness the willingness of many to sacrifice both principles and friends so as to acquire “official posts and backstairs influence”; a predilection that caused “those who had not an enemy in the world” to be “ruined by their friends”. Paradoxically, he also observed that humans have a predilection to sacrifice their all in resistance to tyranny “with unflinching courage”.
Arguably the greatest social commentator that Rome produced, Tacitus was acutely aware of how the empire was perceived by the subjugated, and those beyond the frontier. His reflections embody universal truth. As such, they help us grapple with the perplexing challenges of the twenty-first century.