History as Scourge

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History as Scourge How truly the wisest of men used to assert that the souls of despots, if revealed, would show wounds and mutilations – weals left on the spirit, like lash-marks on a body, by cruelty, lust, and malevolence. Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome. Penguin Group. Translation by Michael Grant, 1996 ed. Pg. 202 Tacitus wielded his history like a scourge, excoriating the corruption of emperors and populous alike, attempting to revise the fictions of earlier histories and chart the decay of Roman values and virtue in the early Empire. The end of the Republic in 31 BC was, for Tacitus, the end of freedom and equality in the Roman state. Though he idealized the republic as the embodiment of Roman values and virtue, Tacitus had no illusions, fully recognizing that it was irretrievably lost. The histories of Rome’s emperors after Augustus were, according to Tacitus, tainted by flattery. Venerating the old republic, Tacitus sought to strip away the concealment of earlier historians, revealing emperors and aristocrats as transgressors against Roman values. Tacitus’ view of the purpose of the historian was shaped by his determination to truthfully illuminate the moral character of his subjects. While we may be uncertain with regard to some of the specific events of The Annals, we are quite certain of the actors as they cross the stage. Tacitus leaves us with no doubt about who was virtuous and who was corrupt. Tacitus portrays the emperor Tiberius as a cunning and ambiguous figure, though Tacitus went to great lengths to resolve the emperors’ uncertain qualities as further evidence of corruption and excess. Tiberius suffers in comparison with his adoptive son, Germanicus. Tacitus always casts Germanicus in a positive light, praising his virtues, comparing him favorably to Alexander the Great who Germanicus surpassed, “in clemency, self-control, and every other good quality.” In elevating Germanicus to such heights, even raising the possibility that he might have restored the old republic, Tacitus denigrates Tiberius who is cast as scarcely able to conceal his delight at the death of his popular heir. In his final assessment of Tiberius, Tacitus maps the trajectory of his decline into corruption in proportion to his growing power.

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