Why Read Tacitus?
As I'm reading the Annals and Histories of Tacitus a few pages an evening I've decided to record why Tacitus is so important to us at the moment politically, historically, morally and personally.
1. Tacitus gives a careful and comprehensive picture of the early Roman empire. Seeing his picture enables us to better contextualize and understand current world events.
2. Tacitus is a sinuous and versatile prose master, even in translation, and thus a great teacher of how to speak, think and write.
3. Tacitus is the model historian, to be copied and defined against for all future tellers of true tales.
4. Tacitus really understands tyranny. To educate and reveal the abuses of absolute power, his vision is supreme, and a kind of negative picture of human liberty.
5. Tacitus sees with absolute clarity the differences between liberty and license, and the differences between civic virtue and private immorality. As such, he is in one book a citizen's education.
6. Tacitus is concerned with the nature of civilization as individual virtue. He constantly shows non-Romans as virtuous and noble free men, and Romans are savages, highlighting the reality of virtue as a property in men from all walks of life. He is truly cosmopolitan, concerned with civilization in its most intimate and personal reality as personal virtue. Thus Tacitus is a great moral teacher.
7. Tacitus gives one of the earliest non-Christian reports of Christianity, thus showing us a fascinating outside view of the young cult.
8. Tacitus gives an example of ruthless honesty in assessing one's birth culture, and how to maintain integrity throughout and avoiding alienating oneself from the culture.
9. Tacitus is a wisdom writer, giving the basic mentality of republican virtue in his words, ideas and personality, showing how one can be free even in the midst of a slavish society.
10. Tacitus is a great maker of sayings. For example:
"The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise."
"Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity."
"To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it."
"It is a principle of nature to hate those whom you have injured."
"The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws."
"Viewed at a distance, everything is beautiful."
"Men are more ready to repay and injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure."
10. For the first and last time in history the entire Mediterranean basin was united in one political unit during the time of Tacitus' histories, so his work is a unique and primary insight into the management of large enterprises such as are commonplace today. Tacitus himself served in this organism as consul and governor.
11. Other than Suetonius and Dio Cassius, both considered inferior historians compared to Tacitus, his is the only history of this key period of time to come down to us mostly intact, and it is said to be by far the best of the three.
12. Critics may equivocate all they like, but Tacitus is self-evidently republican, oligarchical, humanist, and reason-centered. As such, he is an elder contemporary to the Founding Fathers of the United States and valuable as a teacher to the creators of the modern world. He is still relevant for these essential values.
13. Tacitus examines mass psychology alongside and in contrast to individual psychology, delivering acerbic judgements of both; his description of psychology remain powerfully accurate and instructive.
14. Finally, I can no longer see or read the news without seeing them through the eyes of Tacitus, who is the original scholar of dissidents everywhere, and I must record that tyranny is alive and well in the public media - a view which is all thanks to the tutelage of this long-ago Roman historian.