Drawing by Brooke, engraved by S. Freeman, featured in ‘The Works of Cornelius Tacitus; with an Essay on his Life and Genius, notes, supplements’, by Arthur Murphy. London : Jones & Co, 1829. British Library.
Today’s sharing from the Blue house of HYGEIA is a quote from Publius Cornelius Tacitus’ ‘Agricola’, chapters I-II and III, where he describe how empty and traumatized everybody was after the assassination of Emperor Domitian, whose controversial rule was deemed by many as savage and cruel. Pliny the younger and Juvenal also suffered and gave their own testimonies about how life seemed to allow itself to flow again, without fear to displease or being sent into exile or, even worse, being killed in an horrible manner. We will publish soon their own voices on the same subject.
§ 1 AGRICOLA
It was a custom in the past not yet relinquished by our own age, indifferent though we may now be to events, to relay to posterity the deeds and manners of famous men; whenever, that is, mighty and noble virtue had conquered and suppressed that vice common to all states, great and small, the ignorance and envy of what is good.
And just as, in our predecessors’ times, the age was more favourable and open to actions worth recording, so distinguished men of ability were led to produce those records of virtue, not to curry favour or from ambition, but for the reward of a good conscience. Many indeed considered it rather a matter of self-respect than arrogance to recount their own lives, and a Rutilius Rufus or an Aemilius Scaurus could do so without scepticism or disparagement; virtue indeed being most esteemed in those ages which give birth to it most readily. But in this day and age, though I set out to write the life of one already dead, I am forced to seek the indulgence which an attack upon him would not require, so savage is the spirit of these times, and hostile to virtue.
§ 2 We read that Rusticus the Stoic’s praise of Thrasea, and Senecio’s of Priscus were declared a capital offence, so that not only the authors themselves but their books were condemned, and the works of our greatest men assigned to the flames, in the heart of the Forum, on the orders of the triumvirs. Perhaps it was thought that the voice of the people, the freedom of the Senate, and the conscience of mankind would vanish in those flames, since the teachers of knowledge were also expelled and all moral excellence exiled, so that virtue might be nowhere encountered.
Indeed we have given signal proof of our subservience; and just as former ages saw the extremes of liberty, so ours those of servitude, robbed by informants of even the ears and tongue of conversation. We would have lost memory itself as well as speech if to forget were as easy as to be silent.
§ 3 Now at last our spirits revive; at the birth of this blessed age, the Emperor Nerva at once joined things long disassociated, power and liberty, while Trajan daily adds to the felicities of our times, so that the public has not merely learned to hope and pray with confidence, but has gained assurance as to the fulfilment of its prayers, and strength. Though it is still in the nature of human frailty that the remedy acts more slowly than the disease, and just as the body is slow to grow, swift to decay, so it is easier to destroy wit and enthusiasm than it is to revive them, while inertia has a certain charm, and the apathy we hate at first we later love.
During the space of fifteen years, a large part of a lifetime, change on change did for many, the Emperor’s savagery for others, they being the most resolute: while we few who remain have outlived, so to speak, not merely our neighbours, but ourselves; since those years were stolen from our prime of life, while youths reached age, and old men the very edge of the grave, in silence.
Even though my speech is hoarse and unpractised, I shall not hesitate to compose a record of our former slavery, and our present blessings. In the meantime this work’s intention is to honour Agricola, my father-in-law: and it will be commended for, or at least excused by, its profession of filial affection.
[1.1] Clārōrum virōrum facta mōrēsque posterīs trādere, antīquitus ūsitātum, nē nostrīs quidem temporibus quamquam incūriōsa suōrum aetās omīsit, quotiēns magna aliqua ac nōbilis virtūs vīcit ac supergressa est vītium parvīs magnīsque cīvitātibus commūne, ignōrantiam rēctī et invidiam.
[1.2] Sed apud priōrēs ut agere digna memorātū prōnum magisque in apertō erat, ita celeberrimus quisque ingeniō ad prōdendam virtūtis memoriam sine grātiā aut ambitiōne bonae tantum cōnscientiae pretiō dūcēbātur.
[1.3] Ac plērīque suam ipsī vītam nārrāre fīdūciam potius mōrum quam adrogantiam arbitrātī sunt, nec id Rutiliō et Scaurō citrā fidem aut obtrectātiōnī fuit: adeō virtūtēs īsdem temporibus optimē aestimantur, quibus facillimē gignuntur.
[1.4] At nunc nārrātūrō mihi vītam dēfūnctī hominis veniā opus fuit, quam nōn petīssem incūsātūrus: tam saeva et īnfēsta virtūtibus tempora.
[2.1] Legimus, cum Arulēnō Rūsticō Paetus Thrasea, Hērenniō Seneciōnī Prīscus Helvidius laudātī essent, capitāle fuisse, neque in ipsōs modo auctōrēs, sed in librōs quoque eōrum saevītum, dēlēgātō triumvirīs ministeriō ut monumenta clārissimōrum ingeniōrum in comitiō ac forō ūrerentur.
[2.2] Scīlicet illō igne vōcem populī Rōmānī et lībertātem senātūs et cōnscientiam generis hūmānī abolērī arbitrābantur, expulsīs īnsuper sapientiae professōribus atque omnī bonā arte in exilium āctā, nē quid usquam honestum occurreret.
[2.3] Dedimus profectō grande patientiae documentum; et sīcut vetus aetās vīdit quid ultimum in lībertāte esset, ita nōs quid in servitūte, adēmptō per inquīsītiōnēs etiam loquendī audiendīque commerciō. Memoriam quoque ipsam cum vōce perdidissēmus, sī tam in nostrā potestāte esset oblīvīscī quam tacēre.
[3.1] Nunc dēmum redit animus; et quamquam prīmō statim beātissimī saeculī ortū Nerva Caesar rēs ōlim dissociābilēs miscuerit, prīncipātum ac lībertātem, augeatque cotīdiē fēlīcitātem temporum Nerva Traiānus, nec spem modo ac vōtum sēcūritās pūblica, sed ipsīus vōtī fīdūciam ac rōbur adsumpserit, nātūrā tamen īnfirmitātis hūmānae tardiōra sunt remedia quam mala; et ut corpora nostra lentē augēscunt, cito extinguuntur, sīc ingenia studiaque oppresserīs facilius quam revocāverīs: subit quippe etiam ipsīus inertiae dulcēdō, et invīsa prīmō dēsidia postrēmō amātur.
[3.2] Quid, sī per quīndecim annōs, grande mortālis aevī spatium, multī fortuitīs cāsibus, prōmptissimus quisque saevitiā prīncipis intercidērunt, paucī et, ut ita dīxerim, nōn modo aliōrum sed etiam nostrī superstitēs sumus, exēmptīs ē mediā vītā tot annīs, quibus iuvenēs ad senectūtem, senēs prope ad ipsōs exāctae aetātis terminōs per silentium vēnimus?
[3.3] Nōn tamen pigēbit vel inconditā ac rudī vōce memoriam priōris servitūtis ac testimōnium praesentium bonōrum composuisse. Hic interim liber honōrī Agricolae socerī meī dēstinātus, professiōne pietātis aut laudātus erit aut excūsātus.