Tacitean Despair vs. “The Long View”

Lionel Trilling, Tacitus Now:

The moral and psychological interests of Tacitus are developed at the cost of what nowadays is believed to be the true historical insight. The French scholar Boissier remarks that it is impossible to read the History and the Annals without wondering how the Roman Empire could possibly have held together through the eighty years of mutiny, infamy, intrigue, riot, expenditure, and irresponsibility which the two books tell us of. At any moment, we think, the political structure must collapse under this unnatural weight. Yet almost any modern account of the post-Augustan Empire suggests that we are wrong to make this supposition and seems to imply a radical criticism of Tacitus’s methods. Breasted, for example, includes the period from Tiberius to Vespasian in a chapter which he calls “The First of Two Centuries of Peace.” And Rostovtzeff in his authoritative work gives us to understand that Rome, despite the usual minor troubles, was a healthy, developing society. Yet Tacitus finds it worthy of comment that at this time a certain man died a natural death — “a rare incident in so high a rank,” he says.

It is not, as I gather, that Tacitus lacks veracity. What he lacks is what in the thirties used to be called “the long view” of history. But to minds of a certain sensitivity “the long view” is the falsest historical view of all, and indeed the insistence on the length of perspective is intended precisely to overcome sensitivity — seen from sufficient distance, it says, the corpse and the hacked limbs are not so very terrible, and eventually they even begin to compose themselves into a “meaningful pattern.” Tacitus had no notions of historical development to comfort him; nor did he feel it his duty to look at present danger and pain with the remote, objective eyes of posterity. The knowledge, if he had it, that trade with the East was growing or that a more efficient bureaucracy was evolving by which well-trained freedmen might smoothly administer affairs at home and in the provinces could not have consoled him for what he saw as the degradation of his class and nation. He wrote out of his feelings of the present and did not conceive the consolations of history and the future.

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