Silver Men

So I’ve been reading bits of Tacitus for my A-level, as you might be able to tell from the Tacitus quotes turning up everywhere. It’s…interesting, particularly in how clipped and varied the prose is. By “interesting”, I mean “almost unreadable because so much text is left out and what’s left is incredibly convoluted”. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fun – but it’s also quite difficult, especially when you first get thrown into it.

One of the interesting things about Tacitus, and indeed one of his main themes, is the way he writes about certain people. For a start, he certainly doesn’t write sine ira et studio (without anger or zeal), as he promised to do; rather, he alleges a lot of things about people, usually leaving the worst allegation till last so that it’s more psychologically available to the audience. He may also describe a trait of the person rather than the person themselves (for example, describing Nero’s grief as immoderate as his happiness rather than saying that Nero himself was immoderate). The need for these subtle allegations, and indeed for Tacitus’s writing style, partly arose because of the toxic political climate that some of the “bad emperors” created. I put the term in quotes, as while historians of the period like to characterise them as near-universally awful, modern historians sometimes reject these views and cast the traditional “bad emperors” in a more positive light.

Because emperors were all-powerful, yet had no defined method of succession, this resulted in a lot of backstabbing and intrigue to get the job – and a lot of paranoia if you did eventually manage to become emperor. Indeed, Domitian, one of the bad emperors, was said by Suetonius to be so paranoid that the gallery where he took his daily exercise was lined with highly-polished stones so that he could see anything happening behind his back. And emperors were particularly paranoid when there was a high-ranking and popular man (this is Rome, it’s fiercely patriarchal) around, since he could easily wrest power from the incumbent and be loved more. They also hated dissent, one of the reasons that the Senate was heavily declawed around the time that the old Roman Republic was morphing into the Principate.

The upshot of all this is that not only were people afraid of open dissent, but since the senatorial class now had very little power it all became a bit of a mockery. Since people could not openly criticise the Principate without being forced to commit suicide, they used Latin’s quirks to imply but never outright state their dissent, and since rhetoric had very little practical purpose in an autocracy Latin prose became ever more florid and varied to the point of being near-incomprehensible. This is how Silver Latin arose.

Anyway, this was never about Silver Latin, but more about silver men…Roughly speaking, he divides members of his own class into three categories.

Firstly, there are the obsequious senators, who recognise just how limited the power of the Senate is and how little they can do about it, but will happily serve even the most temperamental and tyrannical emperors if it means they get to save their own skins. As can be seen from my own failure to write sine ira et studio – and Tacitus’s too – he does not give a particularly favourable impression of these people, because he disapproves of their spinelessness and reluctance to stand up to a corrupt system.

Secondly, there are the martyrs, people like Seneca and Thrasea who died at the hands of the regime. Tacitus romanticises them – certainly his portrait of Seneca is very favourable and glosses over a lot of the unfavourable things he did – but he reserves the highest honour for a third category of men: people like Agricola, Tacitus’s father-in-law, who did their best to preserve the old Roman virtues under the empire. This is an interesting view, and probably born partly out of guilt – Tacitus served as praetor in 88 and later as quindecimvir (a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular games), then in the provinces from around 89 to 93. This was all under the reign (81-96) of Domitian, and Tacitus and his property survived unscathed while others died or were exiled for their opposition. It certainly didn’t put him in the easiest of positions.

Yet Tacitus had a point: he did not live in a democracy. He did not even live in a pretended democracy; Domitian had done away with any pretence that the Senate had any real power. And he certainly did not live in a time and place where dissent was tolerated. Dead people aren’t very good at effecting change, for the most part.

This was a silver age, for silver men.

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