Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Father William Most Collection

The Wisdom of Tacitus

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

Even though Tacitus is not Scripture, it is good to compare his shrewd observations with wisdom writings.

Tacitus was the greatest of the ancient Roman historians, writing around 100-110 A.D. He is considered the equal of modern historians in regard to getting the facts, though some charge him with being too hard on some, such as Tiberius. Cf. Ronald Syme, Tacitus, 2 volumes - has checked everything possible in the facts given by Tacitus, found only few small slips.

Tacitus was also a keen observer of human nature. From his works we can gather the following wise observations:

Friendship needs favors in both directions. In Annals 4.18: "Benefactions [favors] are welcome as long as it seems possible to repay them. When they go beyond this point, hatred is the payment instead of gratitude." Similarly Aristotle, in Book 8 of his Ethics, notes that for friendship there must be favors in both directions. Otherwise one party feels inferior, and may resent it.

Goodness may be a rebuke to others: Annals 4.33: "Even glory and merit make enemies - by showing their opposites in too sharp and critical contrast." This is specially true if a subordinate seems to do greater things than his superior - as in the case of David and Saul.

Automatic penalties: Annals 6.6: [Speaking of Emperor Tiberius, holed up in the island of Capri, giving self up to even sexual orgies]: "His crimes and wickedness had rebounded to torment him. How correctly the wisest of men used to claim that the souls of despots, if we could see them, would show wounds and mutilations - weals left on the spirit, like lash- marks on a body, by cruelty, lust and malevolence." The wisest of men is Socrates in Plato, Gorgias, 479-80 and in Theatetus 176-77. Cf. also St. Augustine, Confessions 1.12.

Virtue can bring hatred: Annals 15.21: "More sins are committed from the desire to please than from a wish to injure; in fact, some virtues are hated: the severity that never relaxes, the strength of soul that never gives in to favors."

Rulers may envy competence: Agricola 39.3: He is speaking of Emperor Domitian, jealous over the success of Agricola, father in law of Tacitus, Roman governor of Britain. "This was very frightening, that the name of a private individual should be more exalted than that of the Princeps [Emperor]."

Self-exaltation by contrast: Annals 1.10. Speaking of the fact that Augustus designated Tiberius as the next Emperor. "His appointment of Tiberius for his successor was not due to personal affection, or to regard for the national interest. Being thoroughly aware of the cruelty and arrogance of Tiberius, he [Augustus] intended to increase his own glory by the contrast with one so inferior."

Luxury weakens: Agricola 21.3: "Our style of dress was admired [by Britains],and the toga was common. Gradually they slipped into the allurements of vices: the public lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. And in their ignorance they called it culture, when it really was part of their enslavement."

Histories 2.69: [in the Romans] "strength was corrupted by luxury, in contrast to ancient discipline and the precepts of our ancestors, with whom Rome stood better by virtue than by money."

How to find the truth about subordinates: Annals 2.12. [Germanicus, wanting to find the facts about his men's thinking went out disguised at night]: "...thinking that the reports of colonels and company- commanders are pleasant rather than reliable, that ex-slaves remain slaves at heart, that friends are flatterers. If he called a meeting, initiative would be shown by a handful, the majority would applaud them. Mess-time he decided, was the time to discover what they really thought when the men talked freely, unsupervised, on their hopes and fears."

Influence may not last: Annals 3.30: [Sallust once had influence with Emperor Tiberius, but it turned out as it had been with Maecenas]: "It had been the same with Maecenas. Influence is rarely lasting. Such is its fate. Or perhaps both parties become satiated, when the ruler has nothing more to give, and the subordinate has nothing more to ask."

Excess flattery can disgust a man with some honesty: Annals 3.65: "It is reported that whenever Tiberius left the senate- house, he exclaimed in Greek: 'Men fit to be slaves!' Even he, freedom's enemy, became impatient at such low servility."

Power corrupts: Annals 6.48: [Arruntius, when he saw that Tiberius was near the end of his life, thought of suicide and said: "Certainly I might survive the few days until Tiberius dies, but in that case, how can I avoid the young emperor ahead [it would be Caligula]? If Tiberius, in spite of all his experience, has been transformed and deranged by absolute power, will Gaius do better? Almost a boy, wholly ignorant, with a criminal upbringing, guided by Macro [captain of the guard]?"

We may come to hate those we have harmed: Agricola 42:"It is characteristic of human nature to hate those you have harmed."

COMMENT: If we thought them good, we would accuse ourselves for harming them. So we are almost driven to think them evil.



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