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Something that strikes me about Tacitus’s prose is how very dry and compressed it is – well, his narrative prose anyway. When rendered into English it is prosaic and unassuming, but in the original Latin it is often deliberately ambiguous and abstruse to avoid imperial wrath (Tacitus lived and made his way through the cursus honorum under the bloody rule of Domitian, and was left with a hatred of tyranny). It’s also incredibly varied, using a wide range of grammatical structures (including bending the rules of Golden Latin for some of them) and often using rare forms of a word, or a Greek one where a Latin word would have sufficed.

This brief and varied prose is interesting (and difficult) to read, but that’s not its only purpose; by deliberately developing a complex and compresed style, Tacitus is better able to bring out the voices of other characters.

Take, for example, Thrasea Paetus – a nobleman, a contrarian and an enemy of Nero and what he stood for (in the Annals, degeneracy and tyranny; in real life, probably populism). His speeches are written in a very balanced and polished style reminiscent of Golden Latin, with a traditional tricolon crescens, use of alliteration to emphasise his points and a clearly defined structure:

“usu probatum est, patres conscripti, leges egregias, exempla honesta apud bonos ex delictis aliorum gigni. sic oratorum licentia Cinciam rogationem, candidatorum ambitus Iulias leges, magistratuum avaritia Calpurnia scita pepererunt; nam culpa quam poena tempore prior, emendari quam peccare posterius est. ergo adversus novam provincialium superbiam dignum fide constantiaque Romana capiamus consilium, quo tutelae sociorum nihil derogetur, nobis opinio decedat, qualis quisque habeatur, alibi quam in civium iudicio esse.

Olim quidem non modo praetor aut consul, sed privati etiam mittebantur, qui provincias viserent et quid de cuiusque obsequio videretur referrent, trepidabantque gentes de aestimatione singulorum: at nunc colimus externos et adulamur, et quo modo ad nutum alicuius grates, ita promptius accusatio decernitur. decernaturque et maneat provincialibus potentiam suam tali modo ostentandi: sed laus falsa et precibus expressa perinde cohibeatur quam malitia, quam crudelitas. plura saepe peccantur, dum demeremur quam dum offendimus. quaedam immo virtutes odio sunt, severitas obstinata, invictus adversum gratiam animus. inde initia magistratuum nostrorum meliora ferme et finis inclinat, dum in modum candidatorum suffragia conquirimus: quae si arceantur, aequalibus atque constantius provinciae regentur. nam ut metu repetundarum infracta avaritia est, ita vetita gratiarum actione ambitio cohibebitur.”

“Senators, it has been proved by experience that in a community of honourable men excellent laws and salutary precedents may have their rise in the delinquencies of others. So, the licence of the advocates bore fruit in the Cincian rogation; the corruption of candidates, in the Julian laws; and the cupidity of officials, in the Calpurnian plebiscites; for, in the order of time, the fault must precede the chastisement, the reform follow the abuse. Let us, then, meet this new development of provincial arrogance by framing a decision consonant with Roman honour and firmness: a decision which, without detriment to the protection we owe to our allies, shall disabuse us of the idea that the reputation of a Roman may be settled elsewhere than in the judgement of his countrymen.

“There was a day, indeed, when we sent not merely a praetor or a consul, but private citizens, to visit the provinces and report upon the loyalty of each; and nations awaited in trepidation the verdict of an individual. But now we court foreigners; we flatter them; and, as at the nod of one or other among them, there is decreed a vote of thanks, so — with more alacrity — is decreed an impeachment. And let it be decreed! Leave the provincials the right to advertise their power in that fashion; but see that these hollow compliments, elicited by the entreaties of the receiver, are repressed as sternly as knavery or cruelty. Often we go further astray while we oblige than while we offend.31 In fact, certain virtues are a ground for hatred — unbending strictness and a breast impregnable to favouritism. Hence, the early days of our officials are usually the best; the falling off is at the end, when we begin, like candidates, to cast about for votes; and if that practice is vetoed, the provinces will be governed with more steadiness and consistency. For as rapacity has been tamed by fear of a trial for extortion, so will canvassing for popularity be curbed by the prohibition of votes of thanks.”

You can tell you’re supposed to sympathise with this guy, can’t you? Especially when comparing it with Nero’s speech:

illic veneratus deos, cum Vestae quoque templum inisset, repente cunctos per artus tremens, seu numine exterrente, seu facinorum recordatione numquam timore vacuus, deseruit inceptum, cunctas sibi curas amore patriae leviores dictitans. vidisse maestos civium vultus, audire secretas querimonias, quod tantum itineris aditurus esset, cuius ne modicos quidem egressus tolerarent, sueti adversum fortuita adspectu principis refoveri. ergo ut in privatis necessitudinibus proxima pignora praevalerent, ita populum Romanum vim plurimam habere parendumque retinenti. haec atque talia plebi volentia fuere, voluptatum cupidine et, quae praecipua cura est, rei frumentariae angustias, si abesset, metuenti. senatus et primores in incerto erant, procul an coram atrocior haberetur; dehinc, quae natura magnis timoribus, deterius credebant quod evenerat.

There he worshipped the gods; then he entered also the temple of Vesta, and there feeling a sudden trembling throughout his limbs, either from terror inspired by the deity or because, from the remembrance of his crimes, he was never free from fear, he relinquished his purpose, repeatedly saying that all his plans were of less account than his love of his country. “He had seen the sad countenances of the citizens, he heard their secret complainings at the prospect of his entering on so long a journey, when they could not bear so much as his brief excursions, accustomed as they were to cheer themselves under mischances by the sight of the emperor. Hence, as in private relationships the closest ties were the strongest, so the people of Rome had the most powerful claims and must be obeyed in their wish to retain him.” These and the like sentiments suited the people, who craved amusement, and feared, always their chief anxiety, scarcity of corn, should he be absent. The Senate and leading citizens were in doubt whether to regard him as more terrible at a distance or among them. After a while, as is the way with great terrors, they thought what happened the worst alternative.

As you can see, not only is Nero’s Latin grammatically much simpler, but it also contains subtext that, to be deliciously frank and colloquial, makes him look like an idiot.

Lastly, Tacitus often makes use of sententiae – concise, balanced phrases that the Romans loved. However, these have a characteristically Tacitean twist; the sententiae of other writers are normally much more positive in outlook, while Tacitus’s are darker and more bitter, often emphasising the cowardice and hypocrisy of the Senate.

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.

I’m sat here doing prose composition (so it’s pretty bad to be blogging while I’m supposed to be doing my work – on the other hand, it is technichally my lunch break). Generally, while I’m doing this, I have at least one prose composition book open (over the past couple of years my teacher’s loaded me up with several guides – thanks, Mr Smith!), my Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary (it’s nowhere near pocket-sized, it’s getting too brief for my needs, and I need to reinstall my Lewis & Short program on my computer), and my Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (which will always lead you back onto the straight and narrow path when you find yourself having to use some ridiculously rare irregular verb). In addition to this, I also own several commentaries and Latin texts, a couple of books of unseens and at least one other dictionary. And several folders full of cutesy handouts about rules I’m never really going to remember because there are simply far too many of them. And several old workbooks for old set texts. And a couple of Latin textbooks. And I’d have more, but I threw away all my GCSE stuff because it’s incredibly basic. When you study Latin, you just end up accumulating…well…stuff, and having to carry around a lot of this stuff to and from lessons. (And that goes without mentioning the merchandise that a lot of Latinists end up getting – I’ve still got my Non Omnis Moriar badge knocking around somewhere!)

Anyway, you get the picture: Latinists own a lot of random stuff. That’s somewhat interesting, but not at all the subject of this blog post; I was actually going to talk about how hard prose composition is.

Dark sign with a white snowflake and the words

My generation

At this point, should any hard-nosed traditionalists have finally figured out this internet business and managed forte (non-Latinists probably won’t get this unless they can think of a certain derivation, because I’m a hipster like that) to stumble upon this blog, they’ll probably be guffawing and rolling their eyes. I’m yet another poor sod complaining about the difficulty of writing Latin – as if I expected it to be easy! Honestly, this generation wants everything on a plate, flurry of special snowflakes that we are. Next thing they know, we’ll start complaining about cases and plurals, and respectable British society shall crumble before our entitlement. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. Or something.

The thing is, I know that prose composition is difficult – and I don’t object to that. I simply have an idea about it.

For those not in the know, one of the things that makes prose composition so difficult (for me at least) is the multitude of rules, regulations and fairly obscure style points that you have to remember, like when time is subjunctive and what case durations of time take. Time is a problem. So are dates, because they’re all done in relation to certain days in certain months and you count up to them or down to them. There are several examples, and they are generally not difficult on their own; the trouble comes in how many of them there are. You will almost certainly forget some of them, or their usage, unless you’re a genius. In textbooks and on handouts they generally all tend to be whacked together in one big set of rules right before the exercise – and the longer I think about this the odder I find it.

You see, although nobody actually speaks Latin properly anymore, and although Classical Latin was an exclusively written language (it’s too complex to use in everyday conversation), its quirks and irregularities resemble those of living languages; irregularities in nouns, verbs and adjectives come about from being said and written so frequently that the original words lose their lovely, regular form. Complex grammar mostly comes from style and idiom. This is because living languages are fluid and constantly evolving – and the same thing has happened with Classical Latin, except its present state is just a petrified form of an evolving language. Trust me, if we still used it regularly it would be constantly changing – and indeed it did, from Classical Latin into Late Latin and evolving into all the Romance languages we know today. Even then it survived in Medieval Latin, and is still used today in certain applications (albeit it’s now evolved so far that it’s mostly unintelligible to people who only know Classical Latin, just as most English speakers don’t understand Medieval English or Anglo-Saxon for obvious reasons).

What I’m getting at is that for teaching purposes, it might be easier to treat Classical Latin as a living language, or at least as a fossilised one, rather than considering it as dead. After all, living languages have confusing irregularities and strange grammatical rules as well, and people still manage to learn them just by taking those rules in stride instead of…well, revering them, I suppose.

“One often cannot – and should not – make a distinction between Propertius’s descriptions of his life and his poetry.”

 – Commager

I’m not sure how much I agree with this, to be honest. Due to the number of programmatic references in his poems, it is clear that to some extent he does treat the events he relates to the audience (for example, Cynthia scratching (notet) him with her fingernails is a programmatic reference as “notet” can mean “marking”) as having a large poetic element, but I’m not so sure that he wrote from life. He certainly gives the impression of this due to the free use of pronouns and quite often the first person voice, to give his poems greater immediacy, but at least when it comes to his poems about Cynthia we have maybe one other piece of evidence that she ever existed (the Apologia of Apuleius). If Cynthia were aristocratic, we would certainly expect to have more information about her – and besides, her pseudonym is taken from an epithet of Apollo (Cynthios), indicating that Propertius intends to write a literary lover. Moreover, poets making up events that they were supposed to have experienced is not unprecedented; there are no records indicating that Ovid’s mistress Corinna ever existed, and more importantly, no records outside of Ovid’s poetry show that he was ever exiled. It is certainly possible that he made the whole thing up – and perhaps that Propertius did too. (He is also famously ambiguous.)