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Tacitus, the emperors, and Britain

Sallust and Livy, whom we have already mentioned, were well-
known historians, but the most famous of them all may be Tacitus,
who lived about 100 ce. He wrote the history of the period of the
emperors from the death of Augustus in 14 ce until the death of
Domitian in 96 ce, so he was dealing with events that had taken place
very recently. Only part of this work has been preserved.
Tacitus explained that he was writing sine ira et studio ˜without
anger or favour™.This expression is still quoted today as a description
of how historians are supposed to work. Tacitus certainly cannot
himself be accused of studium, which in this context means giving
undue preference to someone, since he very rarely speaks well of
anyone at all. He particularly disliked the emperors. Personally he
was a highly placed and successful man who belonged to a distin-
guished senatorial family. He had had bitter personal experience of
oppression under Domitian, and he often talks about freedom,
although what he means is primarily freedom for the Senate to
make decisions without interference from the emperor, as had been
the case in Rome in the olden days. Most Roman writers were con-
servative but it is probably fair to call Tacitus a reactionary. He it was
who created posterity™s images of some of the best-known emperors,
including Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. His portraits are very

A natural history of Latin

cleverly worked; the historical events are mentioned too, of course,
but the personalities of the main protagonists are described almost
as if they were characters in a novel.
At the beginning of his description of the reign of Tiberius, he tells
how Agrippina, who was married to one of Tiberius™ nephews, acted
with great courage and initiative during a military crisis on the
Rhine. He goes on to say: Id Tiberii animum altius penetravit ˜That
made a lasting impression on Tiberius™ (literally: ˜That penetrated
deeply into the mind of Tiberius™), because, he could not bear,Tacitus
explains, that a woman should show such initiative and acquire so
much in¬‚uence. Tiberius took no action on that occasion, but the
reader begins to get a sense of how he is going to get the better of
Agrippina later on. Through such comments and hints, Tacitus
builds up a picture of Tiberius as a sly, unforgetting, and vengeful
person. The ¬rst Roman emperors were hardly paragons of virtue,
but it has to be said that those who got Tacitus as their historian had
singularly bad luck. He knew how to make them appear demonic.
That, of course, is one of the things that makes him such compulsive
reading, but perhaps posterity has had a tendency to see that era a bit
too much through his eyes. Real blackguards are much more inter-
esting than ordinary, weak, moderately competent individuals.
But Tacitus was not just concerned with the emperors and their
personalities. His history tells us a great deal about what happened
in the wider empire and even in neighbouring countries. He was
particularly interested in events along the Rhine, which made up the
eastern border of the Empire, and in the people who lived on the
other side of the border. He wrote a separate little book called
Germania, in which he describes the peoples who lived in what is
now Germany and beyond.
The Germans were important to the Romans because they repres-
ented a continual military threat. Indeed, it was various Germanic
tribes who invaded the empire in the ¬fth century and ¬nally
brought about its downfall. However, the danger they posed was
probably not the only reason Tacitus wanted to write about them. He
was also interested in their kind of social organization and their

Latin and the Romans

habits and customs. He saw them as a primitive people, more free
and honest than the civilized Romans, but also more naïve and
impulsive. The way he describes them is a bit like the things
European explorers used to write about the peoples they encoun-
tered in distant places a century or so ago. But Tacitus had not trav-
elled to Germania himself, and probably got his information instead
from Roman traders who had been there. He knew about many
Germanic groups, among them the Angli, who at this time lived
inconspicuously in northernmost Germany. Tacitus also took a
special interest in Britain, and made an important contribution to
the history of the island. He wrote a biography of his father-in-law,
Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, entitled simply Agricola. This man was a
prominent military commander and politician, whose main achieve-
ment was his seven years as governor of the province of Britannia
from 78 to 84 ce. The southern and eastern part of the island had
come under Roman rule some thirty-¬ve years earlier, but there was
still much resistance against the occupiers. Agricola fought success-
ful campaigns in Wales and in the north, where he advanced as far as
the Firth of Forth and the Clyde.
Agricola records the details of these campaigns, and also contains
a great deal of information about the Britons. They were Celts,
closely related in language and culture to the inhabitants of Gaul. In
the eyes of Tacitus, they were ardent lovers of freedom, but incapable
of resisting the Romans in the long run because of their inability to
act together. He says Nec aliud . . . pro nobis utilius quam quod in
commune non consulunt ˜There is nothing more useful for us than
that they do not consult together™. Still, they made valiant attempts
to regain their liberty. One of their heroines was Queen Boudicca
(the name is sometimes written Boadicea), who was elected by other
chiefs as the head of a rebellion: Neque enim sexum in imperiis
discernunt ˜For they do not discriminate between the sexes when it
comes to command™. However, her army was swiftly defeated, and
she had to commit suicide. Later, the Britons fought (and lost) a large
pitched battle against Agricola and his troops in the north, and
Tacitus composed an imaginary account of a speech to the army by

A natural history of Latin

one of the British commanders. He is made to describe the indignities
of the Romans in graphic detail, and summarizes their deeds in
a famous phrase:

Ubi solitúdinem fáciunt, pacem appellant
When they produce a desert, they call it peace.

The author is in fact quite ambiguous in his attitude to the Roman
conquest as such. On the one hand, he admires the feats of his father-
in-law, not only when he wins the battles but also when he works
hard to change the hostile attitude of the Britons, enticing them to
use Roman baths and give their children a Roman education. On the
other hand, he thinks that this is just a very ef¬cient way to deprive
them of their former freedom:

Apud imperítos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset
Among the ignorant it was called civilization, when it was really part of
the slavery.

Clearly, the Romanization of Britain was in some aspects similar to
the Westernization of many countries of Africa. But Tacitus was
really much more concerned with the conquerors than with the
conquered. He thought that his own people had lost their freedom,
and were exporting their moral decay to others.

Christianity: from dangerous sect
to state religion

In his Annals Tacitus gives a detailed account of the great ¬re in
Rome in the year 64 ce, during the reign of Nero. After the ¬re,
there were many rumours that it had been the work of an arsonist,
perhaps even of the emperor himself. To divert these rumours, Nero
blamed a group who were already unpopular and whom people

Latin and the Romans

called Christiani, because, as Tacitus explains:

Auctor nóminis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratórem
Pontium Pilatum supplício adfectus erat.
Christ, from whom that name [i.e. ˜Christian™] originated, had been
sentenced to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of

This is one of our very earliest references to Christ and the Christians.
Apparently there were already Christians living in Rome thirty years
after the death of Jesus. Tacitus has no sympathy for their teaching,
which he calls exitiábilis superstítio ˜a pernicious superstition™. The
Christians were captured and executed in a variety of cruel ways, as
Tacitus documents: for example, they were used as living torches.
They were driven underground but still did not disappear. Less than
¬fty years later Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, in modern
Turkey, wrote to the emperor Trajan and asked what he was supposed
to do when people were accused of being Christian. It seems there
were many such cases, and Pliny™s inclination was that it was better to
give them the chance to repent than to put them to death at once. The
emperor agreed, but thought that it was better not to look into things
too closely, and simply punish those who were reported and convicted.
Christianity continued to spread and the punitive actions of the
state remained quite sporadic, but it was some time before the
Christians started to write in Latin. The religion had originated in
the eastern part of the empire, where Greek was the of¬cial language.
The authors of the New Testament also wrote in Greek, and that
became the language of the Church in the East. The ¬rst important
Christian writer in Latin was called Tertullian. Around the end of the
second century ce he wrote a number of works, one of which was a
defence of the Christians called Apolog©ticum, addressed directly to
the rulers who sat in judgement over them. Several of his other books
were about tricky theological questions like absolution and the
Trinity. Their most striking characteristic is their spiteful and
uncompromising attitude to everyone who thought differently from

A natural history of Latin

Tertullian himself, which unfortunately set the tone for theological
disputes down the ages.
In the third century ce Christianity was still just one of many
new kinds of religion and sect which were ¬‚ourishing within the
Roman empire. There are very few Christian texts from this period.
However, the Emperor Constantine, who reigned at the beginning of
the fourth century, gave preferential treatment to the Christians and
was himself christened shortly before his death. His successors
were, with a few exceptions, Christians, and by the end of the
century Christianity had become the of¬cial religion of the state.
During the fourth and ¬fth centuries most, and indeed the most
important, writers in Latin were Christian.The new religion attracted
the most talented people, as well as those who could sense which way
the wind was blowing. And there were plenty of gaps that needed
¬lling. The many new Christians in the western part of the Roman
empire were for the most part unable to read Greek, and so it became
necessary to create a Christian literature in Latin. The most urgent
thing, obviously, was to make the Bible accessible. Parts of the New
Testament and of the Old Testament had been translated into Latin
early on, but the quality varied widely. A complete and reliable
translation of the whole Bible did not appear until the beginning of
the ¬fth century, a monumental work that was due to the learned
and hard-working Jerome. He made an entirely new translation of
the Old Testament from the Hebrew and revised the existing trans-
lation from the Greek of the New Testament. Not without pride did
he call himself homo trilínguis ˜a trilingual man™.
Interestingly enough, Jerome had the same kinds of problems
with his readers as almost all later translators of the Bible have had.
They complained because he made changes to what they were used
to hearing in church. This was most evident in the case of the Book
of Psalms, which had long been used in a very bad translation from
Hebrew into Latin via Greek. The Psalms were frequently recited in
church services, and the opposition to Jerome™s new-fangled ideas
was so great that the old translation was in part allowed to go on
being used. However, Jerome™s translation was gradually accepted by

Latin and the Romans

everyone, and later came to be known as the Versio vulgáta, literally
˜the common version™ but usually now called in English the Vulgate.
This is the Bible that has been used ever since antiquity in the
Roman Catholic Church, and which is used even today in those
places where Latin is maintained as the language of worship.
The text of the Bible was not of course the only thing the
Christians needed. Hymns and texts for other parts of the religious
service were also important. Much of what was written at that time
has been preserved in the order of service over the centuries. One
example is the beginning of one of the best-known hymns:

Te deum laudámus
te dóminum con¬t©mur,
te aet©rnum patrem omnis terra venerátur.

which is translated in the Book of Common Prayer as
We praise thee, O God:
We acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee: the Father everlasting.

In this text there are words which are actually common in Latin but
which acquire new meanings in Christian texts. The word dóminus
means ˜master™ or ˜lord™. It is usually used in reference to the master
of a slave, but in Christian contexts it always mean the Lord with a
capital ˜L™, in other words God. The word con¬t©ri means ˜confess™
and is in origin a term used in court, but among the Christians
it acquires the meaning ˜to confess one™s faith in™, and the related
noun conf©ssio ˜confession™ in turn comes to mean ˜a confession of
one™s faith™. English borrowed the vocabulary of Christianity from
Latin a thousand years or so ago, so to us these meanings seem
entirely natural and even obvious, but for the Romans of late anti-
quity things must have been very different. The Latin language
did not have any terms for the core Christian concepts, so they
had to be created either by giving old words new meanings, as in
the example we have just seen, or else simply by borrowing words
from Greek.

A natural history of Latin

In many instances the changes were quite radical. We have
already talked about the important place that the art of public
speaking had in Roman life, and the normal verb for ˜to make a
speech™ was oráre. The speech itself was called orátio. But in
Christian Latin the verb orare meant ˜to pray (to God)™ and oratio
meant ˜prayer™. Another common Latin word is gratia, which means
˜thanks™ or ˜favour™. In Christian Latin, on the other hand, it had a


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