Reading Tacitus Gives Me A Nightmare
Late last night I read in Tacitus how Germanicus died.
The significance of Germanicus to Roman history is that he was (or Tacitus makes him seem) the most decent candidate for emperor – almost the only decent person on stage at this part of Tacitus.
Apparently Germanicus never considered becoming emperor. After his bold victories in Germany, did soldiers remember Julius Caesar? Twenty centuries later, I think it. And yet Germanicus, unlike Caesar, was a decent soldier, administrator, and Roman, and no more.
His death is simple. Germanicus travelled widely, so he caught an infectious disease. Modern consciousness research as developed by David R. Hawkins validates the infectious disease view, and in addition vindicates Piso of his murder charges – twenty centuries late for Piso.
Not simple are the consequences of his death. Recall that the Romans would not have understood the infectious disease model – to them Germanicus did not simply “catch a bug”. Some darker force at work in the world was behind the death, the Romans must have felt.
And the legal case against Piso is significant too. The Roman people wanted Piso’s blood. All Piso was guilty of was ruthless political ambition - it doesn’t necessarily follow that Piso poisoned Germanicus.
I put the book aside with a feeling of deep scepticism about human political processes. How to ensure decent leadership? Was Roman decline inevitable? Is Western decline inevitable? How must Tacitus have felt, watching Imperial Rome dissolving into the tides of history?
I slept and dreamt that a great man had magically enslaved another. I watched with dread and fascination as he stripped his slave of humanity and made him into an instrument of his will. I took pleasure in the master’s evil power and felt the horror of the slave at the insult to his sovereign will.
On waking, I saw that the zombie in my dream was Rome under Tiberius.
The reason the Roman people reacted to the death of Germanicus with superstitious horror was not for the sake of Germanicus himself, but for the loss of the potential for decent leadership. After Germanicus no hope for a good leader remained, only passive obedience to an Emperor they did not love. And the shock of this loss of hope drove the Roman people to hound Piso to his death.
The ability of Tacitus to show the decline under Tiberius becomes still more impressive when you consider that Germanicus shows no inkling of being aware of the decline. It took more than the intelligence and goodwill of a Germanicus to detect the course history was taking; it took the genius of a Tacitus.