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.