Front Page Titles (by Subject) DISCOURSE II.: Upon Tacitus and his Writings. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon's Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3)
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DISCOURSE II.: Upon Tacitus and his Writings. - Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon’s Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3) [120 AD]
The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Works of Tacitus, 4 vols.
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Upon Tacitus and his Writings.
The Character ofTacitus.
AS to the Character of Tacitus and his writings; he was the greatest Orator, Statesman, and Historian of his time; he had long frequented the Bar; he had passed through all the high offices of State: he was Edile, Pretor, Consul; and after long acquaintance with business and men, he applied himself to collect observations, and to convey the fruits of his knowledge to posterity, under the agreeable dress of a History. For this task he was excellently qualified: No man had seen more, scarce any man had ever thought so much, or conveyed his thoughts with greater force and vivacity; a mighty genius, for which no conception or design was too vast; a powerful Orator, who abounds in great sentiments and description: yet a man of consummate integrity, who, though he frequently agitates the passions, never misleads them: a masterly Historian, who draws events from their first sources; and explains them with a redundancy of images, and a frugality of words: a profound Politician who takes off every disguise, and penetrates every artifice: an upright Patriot, zealous for publick Liberty and the welfare of his Country, and a delared enemy to Tyrants and to the instruments of Tyranny; a lover of human-kind; a man of virtue, who adores Liberty and Truth, and every where adorns and recommends them; who abhors falshood and iniquity, despises little arts, exposes bad ones; and shews, upon all occasions, by the fate and fall of great wicked men, by the anxiety of their souls, by the precariousness of their power, by the uncertainty or suddenness of their fate, what a poor price greatness obtained is for goodness lost; and how infinitely, persecuted virtue is preferable to smiling and triumphant wickedness. Germanicus under all his hardships and disfavour, is a happier man than Tiberius with all his power and Empire; happier in peace of mind, happier in his fame and memory. Tigellinus is a great favourite with Nero, but detested by all the rest of the world and fearful of all men. Seneca is disliked by the Emperor, but universally beloved and regretted. Tacitus is a fine Gentleman, who suffers nothing pedantick or low, nothing that is trifling or indecent to fall from his pen. He is also a man of wit; not such a one as is fond of conceits and the quaintness of words, but a wit that is grave, majestick, and sublime; one that blends the solemnity of truth with the fire of imagination, and touches the heart rather than the fancy; yet for the better reception of truth, pleases and awakens the fancy.
The telling of truth is dry and unaffecting; but to enliven it with imagery, is describing it: and every one knows the advantages that Description has over bare Narration. Hence the force of fine painting; though, in my opinion, the Orator has the advantage of the Painter, as words can multiply ideas better than the pencil, throw them thicker together, and inflame them more. What piece of Apelles could have animated the Athenians against Phlip of Macedon, like one of Demosthenes’s Orations? What picture of Love can equal the description of that passion by Lucretius, the noblest wit of all the Latin Poets? It is hardly, I believe, possible for colours to carry images higher than they are by Michael Angelo carried, in his piece of the Last Day: yet I believe it not only possible, but easy to make a description of that day more affecting than the sight of that celebrated piece.
How much he excells in Description and Force.
PAINTING in words is the strongest painting; and in that art Tacitus excells to amazement. His images are many, but close and thick; his words are few, but pointed and glowing; and even his silence is instructive and affecting.
How justly does he represent that noble sullenness and disdain of the wife of Arminius, when brought with other captives before Germanicus? Inerant & feminæ nobiles, inter quas uxor Arminii, eademque filia Segestis, mariti magis quam parentis animo, neque victa in lacrymas, neque voce supplex, compressis intra sinum manibus gravidum uterum intuens, A. 1. c. 57. A circumstance of distress more moving than this last, could not be devised; and what words, or exclamations, or tears could raise compassion so effectually, as the representation of a spirit too great to weep or complain; of a grief too mighty to be uttered?
The March of Germanicus and his Army to the Forest of Teutburg, to bury the bones of Varus and his Legions, there massacred by the Germans; the description of that Camp, with the revival of the circumstances of that tragical event; and the sympathy and resentments of the Soldiers, are all beautifully displayed with great force and brevity, with equal tenderness and horror.
Permoto ad miserationem omni qui aderat exercitu, ob propinquos, amicos, denique ob casus bellorum, & sortem hominum. Incedunt mœstos locos, visuque ac memoria deformes. Prima Vari castra lato ambitu, & dimensis principiis, trium legionum manus ostentabant: dein semiruto vallo, humili fossa, accisæ jam reliquiæ consedisse intelligebantur: medio campi albentia ossa, ut fugerant, ut restiterant, disjecta vel aggerata: adjacebant fragmina telorum, equorumque artus, simul truncis arborum antefixa ora; lucis propinquis barbaræ aræ, apud quas tribunos ac primorum ordinum centuriones mactaverant. Cladis ejus superstites pugnam aut vincula elapsi, referebant, hic cecidisse legatos, illic raptas aquilas; primum ubi vulnus Varo adactum, ubi infelici dextra, & suo ictu mortem invenerit; quo tribunali concionatus Arminius; quot patibula captivis, quæ scrobes; utque signis & aquilis per superbiam inluserit. Igitur Romanus qui aderat exercitus, sextum post cladis annum, trium Legionum ossa, nullo noscente alienas reliquias an suorum humo tegeret, omnes ut conjunctos, ut consanguineos, auctâ in hostem irâ, mœsti simul & infensi condebant, An. 1. c. 61, 62.
Here is eloquence and description! What can be added, what can be taken away? His stile is every where warm and pathetick, and he never informs the understanding, or entertains the imagination, but he kindles the affections. You are not only convinced by his sentiments, but governed by them, charmed with them, and grow zealous for them. This is a trial of the power and skill of a writer: this the drift and glory of persuasion and eloquence; and this the talent of Tacitus.
To display Tyrants and Tyranny he chuses the strongest words and figures: facinora ac flagitia sua ipsi quoque in supplicium verterant. Si recludantur tyrannorum mentes, posse adspici laniatus & ictus; quando ut corpora verberibus, ita sævitia, libidine, malis consultis, animus dilaceretur: quippe Tiberium non fortuna, non solitudines, protegebant, quin tormenta pectoris suasque ipse pœnas fateretur, An. 6. c. 6.
It was his business and design to lay open the iniquity and horrors of their mis-rule; sæva jussa, continuas accusationes, fallaces amicitias, perniciem innocentium. You see the bloody hands of the executioners, Rome swimming in the blood of her own Citizens, and all the rage of unrelenting Tyranny; undantem per domos sanguinem, aut manus carnificum. You see the bands of accusers let loose, nay hired to destroy, and breathing death and exile; sævitiam oratorum accusationes minitantium: delatores per præmia eliciebantur. You see the barbarous outrages of an insolent and merciless soldiery; cuncta sanguine, ferro, flammisque miscent. You see madmen bear rule, these mad rulers governed and made worse by slaves, villains, and harlots; yet all these monsters adored, their persons, wickedness, and even their fury sanctified; iniquity exalted, virtue trod under foot, laws perverted, righteousness and truth depressed and banished; every worthy man doomed to scaffolds, rocks, and dungeons; the basest of all men pronouncing that doom, and making a prey or a sacrifice of the best; fear and distrust and treachery prevailing; the destroyers themselves haunted with the perpetual dread of destruction, at last overtaken by it, yet seldom leaving better in their room.
All these melancholy scenes you see exposed in colours strong and moving: the thoughts are great, the phrase elevated, and the words chaste and few. It is all a picture: whatever he says, you see, and all that you see affects you. It puzzles one to give instances, because there are so many in every page. How many affecting images are there in these few words near the beginning of the first Annal; Quotusquisque reliquus qui rempublicam vidisset? How mournful too and expressive, yet how plain are these which immediately follow! Igitur verso civitatis statu, nihil usquam prisci & integri moris; as well as those a little before; rebus novis aucti tuta & præsentia, quam vetera & periculosa mallent.
With what thunder and vehemence does Arminius rouse the Cheruscans, his country-men, to arms, when his wife became a captive to the Romans, and his child a slave though yet unborn? Egregium patrem! magnanimum imperatorem! fortem exercitum! quorum tot manus unam mulierculam avexerint: sibi tres Legiones, totidem legatos procubuisse: non enim se proditione, neque adversus feminas gravidas, sed palam adversus armatos bellum tractare. Cerni adhuc Germanorum in lucis signa Romana. Coleret Segestes victam ripam, redderet filio sacerdotium, &c. In how few words does he comprise a long and perplexed debate in the council held by Germanicus, how to proceed with the mutinous Legions! Augebat metum gnarus (superior exercitus) Romanæ seditionis, & si omitteretur ripa, invasurus hostis; ac si auxilia & socii adversum abscedentes Legiones armarentur, civile bellum suscipi: periculosa severitas, flagitiosa largitio: seu nihil militi, seu omnia concederentur, in ancipiti Respublica. Igitur, &c. An. 1.
Further instances of the justness of his Genius, and of his great Thoughts.
HIS account of the persecutions of Germanicus, with his last words and amiable Character, makes a fine Tragedy; so does the Death of Seneca; so does that of the Conspirators against Nero. With what magnanimity and calmness does Sulpitius Asper the Centurion answer the brutal Tyrant, when asked, why he had conspired against his life? non aliter tot flagitiis ejus subveniri potuisse. With what silence and firmness did the Consul Vestinus die? though he was Nero’sold companion and friend, and unconcerned in the conspiracy, and no crime nor accuser against him: vigens adbuc balneo infertur, calida aqua mersatur, nulla edita voce qua se miseraretur. How beautiful, how deep, and just are his observations upon human nature! Molles in calamitate humani animi: mobiles ad superstitionem perculsæ semel mentes: cupidine ingenii humani lubentius obscura credi: neque morum spernendus, nisi quod paupertatem præcipuum malorum credebat. Vivorum ut magna admiratio, ita censura difficilis: eandem virtutem admirantibus cui irascebantur: manebat admiratio viri & fama, sed oderant. Beneficia eo usque læta sunt dum videntur exsolvi posse; ubi multum antecessere, pro gratia odium redditur. Exacto per scelera die, novissimum malorum fuit lætitia. Rumore populi, qui neminem sine æmulo sinit: minore spe veniæ, crescit vinculum sceleris: populus novarum rerum cupiens pavidusque: vulgus eadem pravitate interfectum insectatur, qua viventem foverat.
How masterly and profound are those upon Government! Primas dominandi spes in arduo: ubi sis ingressus adesse studia & ministros. Arduum eodem loci potentiam & concordiam esse. Potentia cautis consiliis tutius habetur. Major e longinquo reverentia. Principibus præcipua rerum ad famam dirigendo. Insociabile regnum: cupido regni fratre & filia potior. Scaurum cui implacabilius irascebatur (Tiberius) silentio tramisit. Intelligebantur artes, sed pars obsequii in eo, ne deprehenderentur. In summa fortuna æquius quod validius. These I do not quote as the finest Thoughts in Tacitus, but only such as occur to me.
He paints Thoughts and Faculties, Men and Passions, Tyranny and Slaves. His imagination is boundless, yet never out-runs his judgment; his wisdom is solid and vast, yet always enlivened by his imagination. His designing is great, his drawing just, his colouring beautiful. See the description of a Pestilence at Rome, An. 16. c. 13. Domus corporibus exanimis, itinera funeribus complebantur. Non sexus, non ætas periculo vacua. Servitia perinde ac ingenua plebes raptim extingui, inter conjugum & liberorum lamenta, qui dum assident, dum deflent, sæpe eodem rogo cremabantur. Equitum Senatorumque interitus quamvis promiscui, minus flebiles erant, tanquam communi mortalitate sævitiam Principis prævenirent. Under a Tyrant, a Plague was a blessing.
Who but Tacitus could have said as he does of the antient Germans: Argentum & aurum propitii an irati Dii negaverint, dubito? or that afterwards of the same people: mira diversitate naturæ, cum iidem homines sic ament inertiam, quietem oderint? or that of the Sitones, a particular Clan of Germans, who were under the Government of a Woman; in tantum non modo a libertate, sed etiam a servitute degenerant? These are such instances of discernment, sagacity and happy expression, as few Writings can shew. By them and a thousand more, it is manifest that Tacitus saw every thing in a true and uncommon light: and his reflections are like mirrours where human nature and government are exhibited in their proper size and colours.
I cannot help thinking That to be a bold and gallant Saying of Boiocalus to the Roman General, who refused him a mansion for himself and his people in the vacant lands of Frizia; and thence provoked him to implore the Sun and Stars: quasi coram interrogabat, vellentne contueri inane solum? potius mare superfunderent adversus terrarum ereptores. Deesse nobis terram in qua vivamus; in qua moriamur non potest. What a sublime thought is that of his concerning the Fennians? The most savage and wretched race this of all the wild Germans; their cloathing, skins; their bed, the earth; their food, the grass; destitute of horses, houses, and arms; the thick branches of trees their only shelter against tempests and the ravening beasts: Here they find cradles and protection for their babes; here live the old men, and hither resort the young. Yet this miserable life they prefer to that of sweating at the plough, and to the pains of rearing houses: they thirst not after the fortunes of others; they have no anxiety about preserving their own; so that they hoped for nothing that was not theirs, and having nothing of their own, could fear to lose nothing; securi (says Tacitus) adversus homines, securi adversus deos, rem difficillimam adsecuti sunt, ut illis ne voto quidem opus sit.
The Morality ofTacitus,and his spirit virtuous and humane.
AS obvious too as his other great qualities, is his love of Mankind, of Civil Liberty, and of private and publick Virtue. His Book is a great tablature of the ugliness and horrors of Tyranny; of the scandal and infamy of servitude and debasement; of the loveliness of virtue and a free spirit; of the odiousness of vice and sycophancy. Such was his sympathy for the sufferings and severe lot of the Romans under Tiberius, that he is glad of a digression from home, and keeps thence as long as he can, to relieve his soul from attending to domestick evils; duabus æstatibus gesta conjunxi, quo requiesceret animus a domesticis malis. He grieves for the slavish spirit, for the stupid tameness of the Romans under the Tyranny of the detestable Nero. So much Roman blood wantonly shed by that monster, is a load upon his soul, and oppresses it with sorrow. Patientia servilis, tantumque sanguinis domi perditum, fatigant animum, & mæstitia restringunt.
He delights in good times, in publick Liberty and virtuous Reigns, and delights to praise them; such as those of Nerva and Trajan;rara temporum felicitate, ubi sentire quæ velis, & quæ sentias dicere licet. In what a different strain does he speak of the foregoing Emperors? Nobilitas, opes, omissi gestique honores pro crimine, & ob virtutes certissimum exitium. He glories however that the worst and most faithless times produced many instances of friendship and generous fidelity; non tamen adeo virtutum sterile seculum, ut non & bona exempla prodiderit.
He is fond of a virtuous Character; as that of Labeo:Labeo incorrupta libertate & ob id fama celebratior: such as that of Lepidus;hunc ego Lepidum temporibus illis, gravem & sapientem virum fuisse comperio: nam plæraque ab sævis adulationibus aliorum, in melius flexit: and that of L. Piso chief Pontiff; nulliu servilis sententiæ sponte auctor. How amiable are the Death and last words of L. Arruntius, like those of a Patriot, and a Prophet! But how vile every where, and even miserable and insecure, are Tyrants, Flatterers and the Ministers of Iniquity? What he says of the first I have quoted above: and against the other hear his honest indignation: tempora infecta, & adulatione sordida fuere. Fædaque & nimia censerent. Adulatio perinde anceps si nulla, & ubi nimia est. Delatores genus hominum in exitium publicum repertum, perniciem aliis, ac postremo sibi invenere. What an odious insect is Vatinius; what a horrible villain Tigellinus; what infamous sycophants are Capito and Vitellius; and what a shocking paricide is Serenus, the accuser of his father and a general accuser?
The Stile ofTacitus,how pertinent and happy: his Obscurity, a charge of the moderns only.
BESIDES the grandeur and dignity of his phrase, he is remarkable for a surprising brevity: but let his words be ever so few, his thought and matter are always abundant. His expression is like the dress of Poppæa Sabina, described by himself; velata parte oris ne satiaret aspectum, vel quia sic decebat. He starts the Idea, and leaves the Imagination to pursue it. The sample he gives you is so fine, that you are presently curious to see the whole piece, and then you have your share in the merit of the discovery; a compliment which some able Writers have forgot to pay to their Readers. I cannot help thinking Mr. Locke a great deal too wordy, and that the plainness of his propositions, as well as their strength, suffers often by an explanation over-diffuse. Dr. Tillotson’s stile is much better, indeed very fine, but takes up too much room; it is likely he chose it as fit for popular discourses; since it is plain from the vivacity of his Parts, and the many fine turns found in his Writings, that he could have been very sententious. These two great names are by no man reverenced more than I reverence them, and without malignity I mention them, as I do that of the worthy Lord Clarendon, whose language is weighty, and grave, but encumbred and even darkened, I might say flattened, with a multiplication of words.
Stile is a part of Genius, and Tacitus had one peculiar to himself, a sort of a language of his own, one fit to express the amazing vigour of his spirit, and that redundancy of reflections which for force and frequency are to be equalled by no Writer before or since. Besides, the course and fluency of his Narration, is almost every where broken by persons whom he introduces speaking and debating; insomuch that a great part of his History comes out of the mouths of other people, and in expressions suitable to their several Characters. It is plain too that the older he grew, the more he pruned and curtailed his Stile; for his Histories are much more copious and flowing than his Annals: and thus what has been by others reckoned a fault, was in him the effect of his judgment. Neither were his Works intended for the populace; but for such as governed States, or such as attended to the conduct of Governors; nor, were the Stile and Latin ever so plain, would they ever be understood by such as do not. As Plutarch came to understand the Roman Tongue by understanding their Affairs; Tacitus is to be known by knowing human nature, and the elements and mechanism of Government.
It is madness to wish for the manner and redundancy of Livy in the Writings of Tacitus. They wrote at different times, and of Governments differently formed. Tacitus had transactions of another sort to describe, and other sorts of men; (for by Government men are changed); the crooked arts of policy, the false smiles of power, the jealousy, fury and wantonness of Princes uncontrolled; the flattery of the grandees; the havock made by the accusers, and universal debasement of all men: matter chiefly for reflection, complaints and rebuke! Nobis in arto, & inglorius labor: mœstæ urbis res, &c.Livy had another field and more scope; the History of a Commonwealth rising, forming and conquering; perpetual victories and matter of panegyrick; and his pen flowed like the prosperity of the State. Ingentia bello, expugnationes urbium, fusos captosque reges, discordias Consulum adversus Tribunos, agrarias frumentariasque leges, plebis & optimatium certamina, libere egressu memorabat, An. 4. 32. Doubtless he could have adopted another Stile if he would, perhaps the stile of Livy, as I think this very quotation shews; but Tacitus had another view and different topicks; nor would another stile, the easy and numerous stile of Livy, have answered his purpose. I fancy too that no body who knows Tacitus, would wish him to have written in a strain different from what he has done. There are charms in his manner and words, as well as in his thoughts, and he wears the only dress that would become him.
It is amazing that this obscurity of his should never be mentioned by any of the Antients who mention him. It is a fault discovered by the Moderns, though, in my opinion, common to him with other Classical Writers; nor has he puzzled the Commentators more than Horace, Cicero, Pliny, Sallust,&c. His Latin is truly pure and classical; he has few or no words which had not been used by approved writers, nor does he often give new ideas to old words. If his Works were no wise obscure to men of sense when he composed them, as we have no reason to think; it is insolence and folly in us to reckon his obscurity a fault. It is a dead language which he writes in, and he wrote seventeen hundred years ago. When Tacitus the Emperor directed copies of his Books to be placed in all the Libraries, and for their better preservation, to be transcribed ten times every year, he ordered no Grammarian to explain his abstruse places; though the Historian had been then dead near two hundred years. Great Writers are in their manner and phrase a Law and Authority to themselves; and not confined to the Rules that fill the heads or grammars of small wits and pedants. Milton has a stile of his own, and rules for writing of his own; and who that tastes his genius would wish him more fashionable and exact, or to have written otherwise. I am even pleased with the jarrings of Milton’s phrases. But here I chiefly mean his poetical style. Of his prose I shall make mention hereafter.
When the subject varies, so should the stile: that of Tacitus is marvellously suited to his subject and design; had it been more familiar, it had neither been so just nor so beautiful. To me nothing is more so than the manner of Tacitus; his words and phrases are admirably adapted to his matter and conceptions, and make impressions sudden and wonderful upon the mind of man. The doleful condition of the Emperor Vitellius, when deserted by his fortune and all men, is strong and tragical as imagination and words can make it. Terret solitudo & tacentes loci; tentat clausa; inhorrescit vacuis; fessusque misero errore, & pudenda latebra semet occultans, à Tribuno protrahitur. Vinctæ pone tergum manus; laniata veste, fædum spectaculum ducebatur, multis increpantibus, he adds, nullo inlachrymante; and the reason he gives for this, is judicious and fine; deformitas exitus misericordiam abstulerat. What follows is in the same affecting strain; as are the first sensible approaches of his calamity. Vitellius, capta urbe, Aventinum in domum uxoris cellula defertur, ut si diem latebra vitavisset Terracinam—perfugeret: dein mobilitate ingenii, & quæ natura pavoris est, cum omnia metuenti, præsentia maxime displicerent, in palatium regreditur, vastum desertumque; dilapsis etiam infimis servorum, aut occursum ejus declinantibus.
Who would blame Tacitus for a paucity of words, when he conveys so many images in so few? Is habitus animorum fuit, ut pessimum facinus auderent pauci, plures vellent, omnes paterentur? Where can there be a happier expression than that concerning Galba, when the Empire was already rent from him, and he knew it not? Ignarus interim Galba & sacris intentus, fatigabat alieni jam imperii deos. When Otho, proclaimed Emperor by no more than three and twenty Soldiers, was advancing to the Camp, & paucitate salutantium trepidus; the behaviour and acquiescence of those he met in his way are accounted for with surprising brevity and justness; alii conscientia, plerique miraculo; pars clamore & gladiis, pars silentio, animum ex eventu sumpturi. There is infinite pathos in what he says of the Omens and Phænomena, which were observed during the Civil Wars, and the strife of Princes; cœlo terraque prodigia, & fulminum monitus, & futurorum præsagia læta, tristia, ambigua, manifesta. What can be more solemn, sounding and sublime, even in Lucretius? When Nero was disgracing himself and the Roman State, by debasing his person to that of a player upon the publick Stage; how pathetically is the behaviour and spirit of Burrus described in a few words; adstabat Burrus mærens & laudans!
A general Character of his Works.
THERE is no end of specimens and examples; it is all over a wonderful Book, full of wisdom, full of virtue; of astonishing strokes of genius and superior sense. Yet he seems not to value himself upon his great thoughts; the finest things fall from him like common things; he says them naturally, and never dwells upon one, because he has always more to utter. When he has struck your imagination, and you want to stand still and ruminate, you have no time; he draws, or rather forces you forward, and the next thought strikes you as much; so does the third, and all of them; and you go on reading and wondering, yet wishing for leisure to ponder and recollect. But he gives you none; for from first to last the present reflection is always the best.
’Tis all of it eternal good sense, and will bear an eternity of time and censure. It is no wise akin to your pretty trifles of humour and fancy, that just tickle the imagination, but go no deeper, and please for a day. His beauties are solid, and upon the strictest examination discover no paint or tinsel; his wisdom and instruction are inexhaustible, and his works consequently an everlasting feast. I have seen several performances of tolerable length and notable reputation, all derived from so many short sentences of Tacitus, well wiredrawn and paraphrased. He is indeed a fund for Writers who have discretion and stile, but want depth.
There is a fine short Character of Tacitus in Owen’s Epigrams;
Tacitusvindicated from the imputation of deriving events from counsels too subtle and malevolent.
HE is accused too of over-much subtilty and refining, and of deriving the actions of his Princes, even the most innocent and plausible, from crooked designs, and a base heart; and of imputing to craft and politicks what was often no more than the effect of inclination and passion: A charge in my opinion intirely groundless. Tacitus describes things and men as they are, shews particulars acting agreeably to their characters, their situation and views; and represents counsels flowing from such sources only as were likely to produce them. Let us examine his reign of Tiberius for which he is chiefly censured.
The first feat of this reign, was the murder of Agrippa, the grandson of Augustus. Tiberius ordered it, and denied it, and threatned the Centurion who was the executioner, that he should answer for it to the Senate. This is the account given by Tacitus, and the same is given by Suetonius; the former adds, that it was done from jealousy of State, and for the removal of a Rival; and what other reason is to be given? for he had shewn how improbable it was that the same had been ordained by Augustus, though this was pretended, as Suetonius too testifies. Nor was any thing more natural than his apprehensions of Germanicus, a young Prince popular above all men, and at the head of a great army, who wanted him for their Emperor in the room of Tiberius. This is matter of fact, and well attested. Now where is the extreme refining, to represent Tiberius as contriving to remove such a dangerous man, one of such good pretences and powerful interest, first from his faithful Legions, and then from home, for ever; though at the same time he flattered him, extolled him, and heaped honours upon him? All this is but the common road of such Courts, when they have the same designs and fears. Is it not usual in Turkey to load a Bashaw with Imperial Presents, to bestow upon him some great Government, and to murder him before he arrive at it?
Is not power a jealous and artificial thing, full of fears and wiles; and is not Tiberius allowed by all men to have been a Prince of infinite distrust, craft, and cruelty? What meant he by making great men Governors of Provinces, and yet never suffering them to go thither for a course of years, nor even out of Rome, though they still held the name? What meant he by continuing others in the actual possession of Provinces for a long tract of years, nay frequently to the end of their life? Was it not his distrust of the former; and that as to the latter, he could not make a safer choice, and therefore was afraid to choose any? Yet Tacitus, far from diving into his Politicks in this matter, or being subtle and dogmatical about it, gives you the sentiments of others; alii lædio novæ curæ, semel placita pro æternis servavisse. Quidam, invidia, ne plures fruerentur. Sunt qui existimant, ut callidum ejus ingenium, ita anxium judicium; neque enim eminentis virtutes sectabatur, & rursum vitia oderat: ex optimis periculum sibi; a pessimis dedecus publicum metuebat. Never was any thing said more impartial, never any thing more just and solid. From the doubles and even contradictions that possess the heart of man, the conduct of men will be perplexed and contradictory. It is allowed that alieni appetens, sui profusus, was a just branch in the Character of Catiline, and is reckoned one of the beauties and strong places in Sallust. Without peradventure, as beautiful, and strong, and just, is this of Tacitus;neque eminentis virtutis sectabatur, & rursum vitia oderat; the reason too assigned for it, is equally just and fine; ex optimis periculum sibi; a pessimis dedecus publicum metuebat. Is not this accounting, from the principles of nature and self-preservation, for the conduct and politicks of Tiberius? Many of his actions and measures, recounted by Tacitus, are supported by collateral evidence, by Suetonius, Pliny, Dion Cassius, and others; many by them omitted are by him related, with such probability, and so perfectly resemble the rest of his conduct, that we must deny Tiberius to have been such a Prince as all men agree he was, or believe the account of him given by Tacitus.
His dissimulation was constant and notorious. In the very beginning, while he confidently acted as Emperor, with all the pomp and might of Majesty, he openly refused the Empire; Principatum (says Suetonius) quamvis neque occupare confestim, neque agere dubitasset, vi & specie dominationis assumpta, diu tamen recusavit impudentissimo animo; Such severe language as this is not given him by Tacitus.
Does Tacitus represent him as hating and fearing the great Romans, and illustrious Senators? And do not other Historians; do not the facts themselves prove it? Was he not continually destroying them, till they were almost all destroyed? Of the twenty Grandees particularly (principum Civitatis) whom he desired of the Senate, for his Confidents and Counsellors, he left not above two or three alive; all the rest were by treachery and feigned crimes cut off by him: Horum omnium vix duos aut tres incolumes præstitit; cæteros, alium alia de causa perculit, says Suetonius. Is Tacitus therefore too refined, in discovering what facts demonstrate? Is it not Suetonius too who says, Multa specie gravitatis, ac morum corrigendorum, sed magis naturæ obtemperans, sæve & atrociter factitavit? “It was usual with him, to do actions exceeding barbarous and merciless, yet all under shew of Justice, and the reforming of Manners; but in reality from the instigation of his own cruel spirit.” Is Suetonius also over subtle, the Historian in the world the most plain, and seldom aiming at a reflection? For what reason did he suffer the boundaries of the Empire to be invaded, and Provinces to be seized by the Barbarians, but from fear of trusting any great Officer with the conduct of the War?
That he affected to derive all power from the Senate, yet left them but the shadow of authority, and was even jealous of that shadow, is sacredly true. It was even natural; and wanted no resining, to discover it. Did not Cromwel do the same? And are not all men willing to have their power, however lawless, legitimated, and the odium of their acts of violence transferred upon others? Will any one say, that the Senate liked his acts of Sovereignty, his frequent impeachments of their Members, often the best and most innocent, and his obliging them to condemn, (for he that dares not refuse is forced to consent) and his leaving every particular in continual dread of being the next; which was a farther motive in each to hatred and complaisance? He knew he had earned their hate, reputante sibi publicum odium. Is it likely now that he loved them, or that there was or could be sincerity or confidence on either side? What did his retirement in the Isle of Capreæ, with his perpetual absence from Rome, infer, but continual distrust of the Senate and People? Just before he expired, he was hastening from a ramble upon the Continent, back to his Den, non temere quidquam nisi ex tuto ausurus; to take measures of vengeance against the Senate, for that he had read in their acts, that they had discharged certain persons accused, though he had writ to the Senate, that they were only named by the informer; pro contempto se habitum fremens, repetere Capreas quoque modo destinavit, non temere, &c. This too is related by Suetonius. It is certain the Senate were to all these Tyrants a constant mark of jealousy and hate; and some of them, particularly Caligula and Nero, had proposed to extirpate that venerable Assembly, by murdering the whole Body.
More Proofs of the Candour and Veracity ofTacitus.
TACITUS makes Tiberius no worse than he was, hardly so bad. That he doomed almost his whole family to exile, famine, or the executioner; that his cruel suspicion and distrust extended even to women, even to his mother, nay to children, relations and strangers, to names, nobility, and all men, is undeniable. Nor does Tacitus relate any part of the conduct or politicks of Tiberius, but what evidently results either from the nature of the man, or the nature of his power. He frequently speaks well of that Prince; and ill he could not avoid speaking, if he spoke of him at all. Nay the whole sixth chapter of the fourth Annal, is a fine panegyrick upon the moderation and wisdom of his Government for eight years before: publica negotia, & privatorum maxima, apud patres tractabantur; dabaturque primoribus disserere, & in adulationem lapsos cohibebat ipse; mandabatque honores, nobilitatem majorum, claritudinem militiæ, inlustres domi artes spectando: ut satis constaret non alios potiores fuisse. Sua consulibus, sua prætoribus species; minorum quoque magistratuum exercita potestas; legesque, si majestatis quæstio eximeretur, bono in usu, &c.
What can be fairer than this? and do not other Historians agree that he grew worse and worse: that he had long smothered his vices, and was, first and last, a complete dissembler? And is it just upon Tacitus, to accuse him of displaying the subtleties and craft of a Prince, who was all craft and subtlety? Does he not give us the good and bad of his character, and frequently defend it? Does he not say of him, in opposition to popular opinion and report, non crediderim ad ostentandam sævitiam, movendasque populi offensiones concessam filio materiam; quanquam id quoque dictum est? An. 1. c. 76.
Does he not represent Tiberius elsewhere as mollifying a rigorous sentence of the Senate, for banishing a criminal to a barren and desolate Island, and arguing that to whomsoever they granted life, they ought to grant the conveniences of life; dandos vitæ usus, cui vita concederetur? Does he not represent him in another place absolutely refusing a new accession of power, and arguing against it, like a Republican; yet charges him there with no dissimulation?
In Tacitus you have no false colouring, no true worth blemished, no bad qualities disguised; but fair representations and equal justice. Tiberius is a dangerous Prince, extremely false, extremely cruel; but he has many abilities, and some good qualities. He is prudent in moderating the excesses of others, where he was not instigated by his own personal anger; prudens moderandi, ubi propriâ irâ non impelleretur. He loved power without bounds; yet was constant and resolute in rejecting pompous honours; spernendis honoribus validus: a great Tyrant, but a Prince observing the rules of primitive parcimony; antiquæ parcimoniæ princeps: furiously jealous of prerogative; yet the laws, where processes of treason interfered not, were in proper force; leges, si majestatis quæstio eximeretur, bono in usu. He is inflexible in his vengeance, and where-ever his jealousy or anger centers, there terrible tragedies are sure to follow; yet the popular imputation of his poisoning his son, is by Tacitus exposed as incredible and fabulous; with many the like instances of eminent impartiality. He gives fair quarter to the Man, but none to the Tyrant.
To Claudius, a stupid Prince, and almost a changeling, who had no judgment, no aversion of his own, but only such as were insused and managed by others, he allows a share of sense at intervals; allows that he did some reasonable things, gave good advice to the Prince of Parthia; and wanted not elegance in his speeches, when his speeches were premeditated. He owns the spirit of Sovereignty to be jealous and unsociable; but as an exception from this rule, mentions the amiable friendship and union between Germanicus and Drusus, in the Court of Tiberius, though their different interests had rent the whole Court into factions. He owns the friendship of Drusus, for the children of Germanicus; though the participation of power, and the union of hearts, are seldom compatible.
The same fair temper and truth he observes in the Conduct and Character of Galba, Otho, and even of Nero and Vitellius; and it was his business and design to lay open the iniquity and horrors of their misrule.
These are some of the objections made to the Writings of Tacitus, and I think with extreme injustice. His Critics are more subtle than he; they are false refiners, who for the reputation of sagacity, make singular remarks, and serve him as they say he did Tiberius; they pervert and blacken his designs, and are too curious to be equitable. Tacitus, with a masterly discernment, unravels the mysterious conduct of Tiberius; it is from awe of his Mother, it is from fear of Germanicus, it is from jealousy of the Grandees, and with design to amuse and humour, or to deceive them all, that he rules and acts with such temper and moderation, against the bent and pride of his nature always imperious and tyrannical. But when he had well established himself; when Germanicus was dead; when his Mother too was gone; when he had crushed some of the Grandees, and terrified all; and especially when he was far from the eyes of Rome, is it not most true, that he then gave a loose to all the excesses of vileness and cruelty? cuncta simul vitia, male diu dissimulata, tandem profudit. It is not Tacitus who says this.
Was he not continually mocking and deluding the Senate? First he would by no means accept the Empire, at a time when he was actually in possession; sometimes he was weary of it, and would needs resign at every turn. Before he quitted the City, he was for visiting the Provinces, and for this purpose many preparations were made, and high expectation raised; then, when he had retired to Capreæ, he was continually amusing them with his immediate return to Rome, nay begged one of the Consuls to guard him. He carried the deceit so far, that he often visited the Continent, and the very Walls and Gardens about Rome; but never once returned to Rome, nor visited the Provinces, nor had a thought of resigning. The Commonwealth was always in his mouth, even when he was acting the Tyrant most; he professed eminent moderation while he was meditating acts of cruelty; and in instances of injustice and rigour, pleaded law and mercy.
His malice in leaving so wicked a Successor appears more from Suetonius than from Tacitus, who allows him to have had some thoughts of appointing another; but the former testifies expresly, that Tiberius was wont to foretel what a devouring Dragon he reared for the Roman people, and what a Phaeton or incendiary to the whole earth. Tacitus is vouched by Suetonius in what he says was reported for the motive which determined Augustus to adopt Tiberius;ambitione tractum, ut tali successore considerabilior ipse quandoque fieret. Suet. in Tiber. c. 21. The same too is testified by Dion Cassius.
Mr.Bayle’s unjust censure ofTacitus;and how well the latter knew and observed the Laws of History.
MR. Bayle in his Dictionary in the Article of Tacitus, quotes some passages out of a Book entitled Anonymiana, (a very foolish book) where Tacitus is criticized as above, and approves those passages. This is the less matter of wonder to me, for that Mr. Bayle, with all his immense learning, acuteness, and candour, had a strange and unnatural biass to absolute Monarchy, though he had fled from the fury of it, and taken refuge in a free State. A proof this that great weakness cleaves to the greatest minds; and who can boast an exemption from prejudices, when a spirit so signally disinterested and philosophical as that of Bayle was not exempted? He himself says of Tacitus,qu’il y a bien à reprendre dans l’affectation de son langage, & dans celle de rechercher les motifs secrets des actions, & de les tourner vers le criminel. That this charge is groundless I have already proved. Much less to be regarded is the authority of Mr. St. Evremond in his censure upon Tacitus: his observations are without depth, to say no worse; nor have I found in his Works any political observations remarkable for solidity and force. What he has said of the Romans, is superficial, and often wrong.
Tacitus knew perfectly the Laws of History, and blames the passionate and partial accounts given by those who described the same reigns; since those of them which were written during the lives of the Princes, were falsified through dread of their Tyranny, and when dead, through detestation of their late cruelties. He had no motive to be partial; free as he was from affection, free from resentment. He knew that truth uncorrupted was the Business of an Historian, and that personal affection and hate should have no share in the work; nec amore quisquam, & sine odio dicendus est. Of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius he says, that to him they were known by no mark either of favour or diskindness. The same is true of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. He shews how the truth was corrupted, first by flattery, then by resentment; and professes to be far from either. I think he is as good as his word.
An Apology for the wrong account byTacitusgiven of the Jews and Christians, and for his disregard of the Religion then received.
THERE are other accusations against Tacitus: he has misrepresented the Jews and Christians, and wanted Religion.
Concerning the Jews, he followed the tradition and accounts current amongst the Romans. He tells you what different relations there were, and neither adds any thing, nor misrepresents things maliciously. It was an obscure State, generally enslaved to some greater power; to the Assyrians, Ægyptians, Grecians, and then to the Romans; and contemned by all, as much as they themselves hated all. They had not common mercy or charity toward the Gentiles and uncircumcised; and being persuaded that the Almighty loved only themselves, they fancied that he abhorred, and therefore they abhorred, the whole human race besides: so that it was said by Tacitus too truly, adversus omnes alios hostile odium. They were likewise ever solicitous to hide their mysteries from the eyes of the Heathens, and could not blame them for not knowing what was not to be known. Yet he was not ill informed in some instances, especially in their spiritual notions of the Deity, with their aversion to Images, and to the adoration of the Emperors: nulla simulacra urbibus suis; non regibus hæc adulatio, non Cæsaribus honor.
Of the Gospel it is manifest he knew nothing; he could not else have made so ugly a picture of those who professed it; for it is not likely that the Christians were yet so degenerated as to disgrace the Christian Religion. Tacitus wanted an opportunity to be better informed. That Religion, as it began among the lower sort of people, had not probably hitherto gained many proselytes of name and quality, to countenance and recommend it to men of figure. Tacitus considered it like a Statesman, as a new Sect inconsistent with the Laws of Rome, and threatning civil tumults and innovations. It is probable too he had heard and credited the calumnies then usually thrown upon the manners and meetings of that people. Nor after the best instruction could he have become a Believer without the illumination of the Spirit; which, it is plain, was withheld from him: and, without a change of heart, it was impossible for him to conceive the Resurrection of the dead, and the Crucifixion of the Son of God. Yet he does them the justice to vindicate them from the obloquy of Nero, and exposes the barbarity of their treatment by that Tyrant.
For his disregarding the Religion then received, when I consider what sorts of absurdities the Pagans held for Religion, I cannot so much blame him. It was a worship paid to Deities altogether frantick and impure, by sacrifices and follies ridiculous and vain; and both their Worship and their Gods were invented by the cunning or delusion of men. It consisted in no purification of heart, nor amendment of morals; the things which men and societies require; but in sounds, gesticulation, and the blood of beasts; not in truth and sense, in benevolence and rectitude of mind; but in lying oracles, unaccountable mysteries, and a raving imagination; sometimes in professed acts of lewdness; often in those of fury and madness; always in such as were foreign from real virtue, and the restraining of the passions. Public calamities were never thought to be brought down by public depravity and vice, nor to be averted or removed by public reformation. The Gods were not offended but by the omission, or wrong performance of some ceremony or grimace; and by grimace and ceremony they were to be appeased. And when the Deities were deemed to be endowed with the peevishness and caprices of children and apes, or the phrenzy of lunatics, what man of sense could reverence them, or believe in them? It would not have redounded to the reputation of his sense, if he had. Where Religion is pure Superstition, and the belief of it absolutely groundless and blind; where its Rites are fanciful, foolish, and unmanly, as the Religion, and Gods, and Worship of the Pagans were; it would have been a revolt from common Reason to have had any such Religion. We know how freely Cicero deals with their Gods.
It is true that these great men of Rome, who either had no notion of Religion, or one quite opposite to that publicly received and practised, regarded it as far as it was interwoven with the constitution of the State, and subservient to the ends of Government: yet they suffered their Poets, especially the dramatic Poets, to treat their Gods with severe jests and satire. They seemed to be of Tiberius’s mind, Deorum injurias diis curæ; that is, to leave to the Gods the avenging of indignities done to the Gods. Men were punished for their libelling particulars, people of condition, and especially Magistrates; but to ridicule and lampoon the Deities, Jupiter himself, even upon the Stage, was a matter of impunity and diversion.
Their Religion therefore consisting in Rituals, a man might be very religious with a very debauched and libertine Spirit. Cultor deorum parcus & infrequens, is a complaint made by Horace of himself, but does not seem to infer much heavenly-mindedness, nor a departure from his impure pleasures. One might, on the contrary, be exactly good and just, nay the pattern of Virtue, and a public patriot, without any tincture of their Religion. Such was Cato the Censor, such Epicurus, and such was Tacitus. He thought that either there was no Providence (for his mind wavered between the doctrine of necessity and that of chance) or such a Providence as he could have well spared; non esse curæ Deis securitatem nostram, esse ultionem. But this bold reproach upon the Deities, he uttered after his heart, zealous for the good of his Country, had been heated by a terrible detail of her Calamities.
Nor indeed, according to the ideas conceived of these odd Beings, so easily humoured and provoked, could one say much good of them, or expect it from them. In the reign of Nero he enumerates many presages, from which, as from signals divinely sent, great changes for the better were inferred; but all vanished into air and disappointment; prodigia crebra & inrita intercessere, &c. Hence he argues, that all these omens happened so apparently without any direction or interposition of the Gods, that, for many years after, Nero rioted in power and wickedness.
Whatever were the speculations of our Author about Religion, his Morality is strong and pure, full of benevolence to human society, full of every generous passion, and every noble principle; a terrible rebuke to iniquity, vice and baseness, in all stations and shapes; and one continued lesson of wisdom and virtue. These are the excellencies which in civil life recommend Books and Men; these the excellencies which recommend Tacitus; excellencies which he has carried as high as the utmost efforts of human genius could carry them. Mr. Bayle says, Ses Annales & son Histoire sont quelque chose d’admirable, & l’un des plus grands efforts de l’esprit humain; soit que l’on y considere la singularité du stile, soit que l’on s’attache à la beauté des penses, & à cet heureux pinceau avec lequel il a sçu peindre les disguisemens & les fourberies des politiques, & le foible des passions.
Nor does he shew more abilities than probity, as astonishing as his abilities were; and having so much, what more did he want for his design? or what more could we wish in him? Which is the better instructor, he who has store of saith, but wants virtue, and abounds not in good sense; or he who wants the first, but abounds in knowledge and the rules of righteousness? It is for this we consult Tacitus, not for his Theological Speculations. How do his metaphysical notions impede his excellencies as an Historian and Politician; or his mistakes in one thing, lessen his discernment and veracity in another?
According to the accounts of our best Travellers concerning China, the Mandarins who are the Nobility of the country, the Learned, and such as hold the Magistracy, have no religion at all, their governing principle is publick spirit; their principal study the good of the State; and they are noted for politeness and virtue. The Bonzes or Priests, on the contrary, pretend to extraordinary devotion; but are vicious, sordid, base, and void of every virtue private or public. Here is an instance of a Monarchy the most thriving of any upon earth, or that ever was upon earth; an Empire that contains more people than half the rest of the globe, these people full of industry and arts; yet administred by men who are of no particular Religion, or Sect, but are guided by the natural lights of Reason and Morality; nor knows it a greater blot and disgrace than the vile lives of its Priests and Religious.
Against this instance set another, that of the Pope’s Dominions, the center of the Romish Religions; where holy men sway all things, and have engrossed all things; where tortures and flames keep out Infidels and Heretics, and every man who thinks awry; and where the champions for devotion, so called, protect the Church, and feed themselves. Now where but here should one look for the marks of opulence, ease, and plenty, and public happiness, if by an Administration of Priests and Devotees, public happiness were advanced? But behold a different and melancholy scene! Countries fertile, but desolate; the people ignorant, idle, and starving, and all the marks and weight of Misery!
Does not this merit reflection, that a Church blended and debauched with excessive wealth and power, is worse, a thousand times worse than none; and that the mere light of nature and reason is many degrees more conducive to the temporal welfare of humankind, than a Religion or Church which is purely lucrative and selfish? Were the Romish Church, or any other Church that teaches pains and penalties; any that exalts Ecclesiastics into power, and leaves them the sword, or weilds it for them, once established in China; there would in a little time be an end of their incredible numbers; and it would soon feel the cruel curse attending the change. In this sentiment I am vouched by that polite Writer, and candid Prelate, Dr. Tillotson: “Better it were, says he, there were no revealed Religion, and that human nature were left to the conduct of its own principles and inclinations, which are much more mild and merciful, much more for the peace and happiness of human society; than to be acted by a Religion that inspires men with so wild a fury, and prompts them to commit such outrages.” Serm. Vol. I. p. 206.
Make another comparison between two particuculars, a Heathen guided by reason, and a Christian by passion and false zeal; between Tacitus and St. Jerom; behold the politeness, candour, eternal truth, and good sense in the one; mark the rashness and enthusiasm, the fierceness and falshood of the other. So much stronger were the passions and insincerity of this great Saint, than the impressions of the Christian Religion, which is all meekness and candour; nay, he often makes it a stale for his fury, forgeries, and implacable vengeance. I meddle not with his strange maxims, some foolish, some mad, many impracticable, and others turbulent and seditious. In Tacitus you have the good sense and breeding of a Gentleman; in the Saint the rage and dreams of a Monk. Does the religion of the latter recommend his reveries and bitter spirit; or the want of it in Tacitus, weaken the shining truths that are in him?
When a Writer relates facts, or reasons from principles, his good sense and veracity only are to be regarded; and we have no more to do with his speculations or mistakes in other matters, than with his person or complection. Pliny and Aristotle are reckoned Atheists; but what is this to their fine parts and learning? With small spirits and bigots every thing that is noble and free, is Atheism and Blasphemy. The littleness and sourness of their own hearts, is the measure of all things. Nerva, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius were Heathen Princes; but they had virtue and benevolence, and their administration was righteous: what more did their subjects want from them? Justinian, Constantius, John Basilowitz, John Galeas, and Lewis the eleventh were Christian Princes, and men pretending to high Devotion; some of them great contenders for Orthodoxy, and great builders of Churches; but all barbarous and consuming Tyrants. What were the people or themselves the better for their Religion, without good nature and probity? Nay, they made Religion one of the principal machines for Tyranny; as Religion in a Tyrant or Impostor is little else but an impious bargain and composition with God for abusing men.
Such in truth is the situation of things below, such the frame and foible of men, that it depends in a great measure upon Civil Government, whether Religion shall in this world do good or harm. Is a country filled with oppression, the happier for being filled too with Churches and Priests, as were Greece and Italy by Justinian? Or can a country that abounds in virtue, and happiness, and good Laws, want any more to all the purposes of social life; like Lacedæmon and Rome in their best ages? Let us praise all who have true Religion, full of mercy, and void of bigotry; but let us not condemn such as, for want of the same lights and revelation which we have been blessed with, are, without any forms of Religion, virtuous and wise. Certainly worse, much worse than none, is that Religion which inspires pride, bigotry, and fierceness, and hath not charity for all men.
To conclude this head, I shall here subjoin what I have said elsewhere to the like purpose; “That black is not white, and that two and two make four, is as true out of the mouth of an Atheist, as out of the mouth of an Apostle. A penny given by an Atheist to a beggar, is better alms than a half-penny given by a Believer; and the good sense of an Atheist is preferable to the mistakes of a good Christian. In short, whatever reputed Atheists do well, or speak truly, is more to be imitated and credited, than what the greatest Believers do wickedly, or say falsely. Even in the business of bearing testimony, or making a report, in which cases the credit or reputation of the witness gives some weight, or none, to what he says; more regard is to be had to the word of an Unbeliever, who has no interest on either side, than to the word of a Believer, who has; neither are the good or bad actions of an Atheist worse, with respect to the world at least, for his being one; though the sin of a Saint is more sinful than that of a Pagan. It is the greatest folly to think that any man’s crimes are the less for him who commits them; or that truth is less or more truth, for the ill or good name of him who speaks it.”
The foolish censure ofBoccaliniand others uponTacitus.
THE censure passed upon Tacitus by Boccalini and some of the other Commentators, as if he maliciously taught lessons of Tyranny; is so senseless and absurd, that it merits no notice, much less consutation. As well may they say that Luther and father Paul display the encroachments and frauds of the Church of Rome, on purpose to teach that or other Churches how to oppress and deceive; or that Livy, as great a Republican as ever lived, exposed the usurpations and Tyranny of Tarquin, in order to instruct Usurpers to support themselves and extinguish public liberty. Tacitus represents Tyrants as odious to all men, and even to themselves. But what answer could one give to a man who should advance that Grotius wrote his Book of the Truth of Christianity, with a view to promote and confirm Paganism?
Of the several Commentators and Translators ofTacitus.
IT were almost endless to mention all who have written upon Tacitus, and their success; numbers have done it, many as Critics, some politically; and several of the former with sufficiency and applause, such as Lipsius, Freinshemius, old Gronovius, and Ryckius. From the edition published by this last I have made my Translation; the text is very correct, and his notes are judicious and good. Of all those who have commented upon his Politics, I can commend but very few; I mean such as I have seen; many of them are worse than indifferent; tedious compilations of common places, or heavy paraphrases upon the original, where its vigour is lost in superfluous explications; and the lively thoughts of Tacitus converted into lifeless maxims; frequently wrong converted; frequently trifling and affected; often such discoveries as are obvious to every peasant or child; or puffy declamations, tedious, laboured and uninstructive. Of one or the other sort are the Commentaries of Boccalini, Annibal Scoti, Forstnerus, Schildus, and divers others.
Mr. Amelot De La Houssaye has made a large collection of political observations upon Tacitus, as far as the thirteenth Annal inclusive; some of them pertinent and useful; but many of them insipid, and little worth. The very first which he makes, is flat and poor; dés que la Roïauté commence a degénérer en tyrannie, le peuple aspire à la liberté. Little better is this; quand un Prince commence à devenir infirme, ou cassé, tout le monde tourne les yeux vers le soleil levant, c’est à dire, vers son successeur; or this; les refus du Prince doivent être assaisonnez de douceur & de courtoisie; or this; ceux même qui ont renoncé à leur honneur, & qui font gloire de leur sceleratesse, s’offensent d’etre appellez traitres; or this; un bon General ne doit jamais hazarder une bataille, qu’il n’ait mis bon ordre par tout; this too; il n’y a rien dont un Favori, ou un premier Ministre, doive se mettre plus en peine, que de bien connoitre l’humeur de son Prince; this too; un Prince dépoüillé de ses Etats ne reste pas volontiers entre les mains de celui qui en est emparé. All this is trite, void of force and instruction.
The Spanish Translation by Don Alamos De Barrientos, is accompanied with numerous Annotations, by him stiled Aforismos, which are as indifferent and impotent as the Translation it self is good and strong. His observation upon, cuncta discordiis civilibus fessa, nomine principis sub imperium accepit, is, Quando alguno se viniere a hazer Senor de una grande, y poderosa cividad libre, lo mas ordinario serà despues de una larga guerra civil; “the opportunity for any one to become master of a great and powerful free City, is most commonly at the end of a great civil war.” Tacitus says that Augustus left the first Lords of the Senate his heirs in the third degree, though most of them were hated by him; plerosque invisos sibi, sed jactantia gloriaque ad posteros.Don Alamos observes upon this; El principe muchas vezes haze honra a las personas que aborrece, para gagnar fama de modestia y sufrimiento; “a Prince often confers honours on those he hates, purely for the reputation of moderation and temper.” Tacitus says of Germanicus,anxius occultis in se patrui aviæque odiis, quorum caussæ acriores, quia iniquæ; El hombre inocente y bueno, (says Don Alamos by way of Annotation) de ninguna cosa recibe tanta congoxa, como de los secretos aborrecimientos que sabe le tienen sus parientos, sin merecerlo; “a worthy and innocent man feels so much anguish from nothing as from the secret hate which he knows his parents bear him, without deserving it.”
OF small value are such reflections, and small thought they cost to produce them; the less is the wonder that Don Alamos has vented such a myriad. Canini, an Italian, has however translated them into his own language, with high encomiums, and published them with the Italian Translation of Politi, a Translation which reads well, but hampers the thoughts of Tacitus, and from an affectation to be as concise as the original, loses much of its weight and spirit. Don Alamos, on the contrary, opens the sentiments of Tacitus fully, often over-fully, by supplemental parentheses, that are sometimes perfectly needless, and always mar and embarrass the reading.
These are the only Spanish and Italian Versions which I have seen of Tacitus. There are two more of the former, by Sueyro and Coloma, both well esteemed; and as many more Italian by Dati and Davanzati, not at all commended. Of French Translations there are five or six, all, except two, good for little, some of them good for nothing. These two are by Mr. D’Harlay De Chanvallon, who has done the whole, Mr. Amelot De La Houssaye, who has only gone as far as the thirteenth Annal. The former is vigorous and just, like that of a man of sense and observation; nor has the latter any advantage over him, save that his French is more modern, if that be any. Ablancourt is likewise one of the French Translators of Tacitus, a man of name and of a flowing stile; but if he has abused other Authors as he has abused and transformed Tacitus, it is fit they were all done over again. There is some life in him, and harmony, but no justness nor strength. All the force and fine ideas of Tacitus are lost in Ablancourt.
A Conjecture concerning the modern Languages, more largely concerning the English.
OF the French Tongue itself I may venture to say, after better judges than my self, that from a laxness and effeminacy essential to it, it cannot naturalize the strong expressions of the Ancients, without spreading and weakening them considerably. It has a number of relatives, particles and monosyllables that return incessantly, and flatten the sense, and tire the ear. The English Language has indeed many words more harsh than the French; but it has likewise many more spirituous and sounding; and though it be also loaded with relatives, particles and words of one syllable, yet I think not to the same degree, nor do those we have return so often; and we can frequently drop the particles, and leave them to be understood, as well as the relatives.
In this respect the Latins had an advantage over the Greeks; as those two Languages have over every other that is now in the world, or perhaps ever was. We are infinitely behind them in significancy and sound, and, with all our adventitious words and refinements, are still crude and gothick to them. Nearest in Language to the Ancients come the Spaniards and Italians, though still far behind; yet they stand over the heads of the English and French, and walk while we creep. The Spanish is the more sonorous and lofty; the Italian the more sweet and gliding; and both excel in harmony, numerosity, and the pomp of words. The Italians seem to have spoiled their Tongue, by wild hyperboles, and phrases of mere sound and compliment; whether it be from the turn of the nation to Love and Music; whether it be from the Legends of their Saints, and their extravagant Panegyrics upon them, or from their Slavery to Churchmen, or the Severity of their Government, or from what other cause, I do not pretend to determine.
The French profess to have greatly refined their Tongue; and it is indeed brought to be exceeding glib and perspicuous; but whether the refiners have not pared away its strength to make it more shapely and regular, has been doubted. Some refinements we also have made in ours, perhaps by imitating the French; though I hope we have better preserved its force. Easy writing has been studied to affectation; a sort of writing, which, where the thoughts are not close, the sense strong, and the phrase genteel, is of all others the most contemptible. Such were the productions of Sir Roger L’Estrange, not fit to be read by any who have taste or good breeding; they are full of technical terms, of phrases picked up in the street from apprentices and porters, and nothing can be more low and nauseous. His sentences, besides their grossness, are lively nothings, which can never be translated (a sure way to try language) and will hardly bear repetition. Between hawk and buzzard: clawed him with kindness: alert and frisky: guzzling down tipple: would not keep touch: a queer putt: lay cursed hard upon their gizzard: cram his gut: conceited noddy: old chuff: and the like, are some of Sir Roger’s choice flowers. Yet this man was reckoned a Master, nay a Reformer of the English Language; a man who writ no Language; nor does it appear that he understood any; witness his miserable Translations of Cicero’s Offices and Josephus. That of the latter is a Version full of mistakes, wretched and low, from an easy and polite one of Monsieur D’Andilly.
Sir Roger is one amongst the several hands who attempted Tacitus, and the third Book of the History is said to be done by him. He knew not a word of it but what he has taken from Sir Henry Savill, and him he has wretchedly perverted and mangled. Out of the wise and grave mouth of Tacitus he brings such quaint stuff as this; to cast the point upon that issue: — sneaking departure ofVitellius: — at the rate of a man at his wit’s end: — sottish multitude never went beyond bawling: — an Emperor lugg’d out of his hole: — the sexton of the Capitol: — the Government dropt intoVespasian’smouth: — not cut out for a soldier: — went not a sneaking way to work: — Valensin the interim with his dissolute train of capons: [into this senseless cant word Sir Roger elegantly changes that of Eunuchs used by Sir H. Savill; for I dare say he neither saw nor knew the original, agmine spadonum]: the Emperor guzzling and gormandizing like a beast.
Such jargon is hardly good enough for a Puppet-shew. Sir Roger had a genius for buffoonry and a rabble, and higher he never went; his stile and his thoughts are too vulgar for a sensible artificer. To put his Books into the hands of youth or boys, for whom chiefly Æsop, by him burlesqued, was designed, is to vitiate their taste, and to give them a poor low turn of thinking; not to mention the vile and slavish principles of the man. He has not only turned Æsop’s plain Beasts, from the simplicity of nature, into Jesters and Bussoons; but out of the mouths of animals inured to the boundless freedom of air and desarts, has drawn doctrines of servitude, and a defence of Tyranny.
The taste and stile of the Court is always the standard of the public. At the Restoration, a time of great festivity and joy, the formal and forbidding gravity of the preceding times, became a fashionable topic of ridicule; a manner different and opposite was introduced; jest and waggery were encouraged; and the King himself delighted in drollery, and low humour. Hence the Language became replete with ludicrous phrases; archness and cant grew diverting; the writings of witlings passed for wit; and if they were severe upon the Sectaries, as the fashion was, they pleased the Court. By this means L’Estrange got his character. It is very true that there appeared at the same time men of just wit, and polite stile; but it cannot be denied but that the other manner was prevalent; the greatest wits sometimes fell into it.
This humour ended not with that Reign, nor the next, but was continued after the Revolution by L’Estrange, Tom Brown, and other delighters in low jests, their imitators; and such witlings have contributed considerably to debauch our Tongue. If we go so high as Queen Elizabeth’s time, we shall find that a good stile began then to be used, agreeably to the good sense of that Princess, and her Court; and we have the Language of that age in Sir Walter Raleigh, whose genius was too just and strong to go into the miserable pedantry of the next reign. Many of the productions then, and particularly the Royal productions, are wretched beyond measure; (I wish the honour and politics of those days had been better) nor could so considerable a man as Sir Francis Bacon escape the infection.
The next Prince affected a high and rigid gravity, and a pomp and solemnity of stile became common; yet the Language began to recover, when the cant and enthusiasm ensuing, gave it a new turn extremely insipid and offensive. But between the reign of King James and the Restoration, several Writers appeared eminently happy in their stile: such particularly was Mr. Chillingworth, whose language is flowing, and free as his own candid spirit. The same character is due to the excellent Lord Falkland, and Mr. Hales of Eaton. Mr. Hobbes’s English is beautiful almost, if not altogether, beyond example; nothing can be finer than his way of expressing his thoughts; his stile is as singularly good, charming and clear, as many of his principles are dangerous and false. Under this character of his stile I do not comprize his Translation of Thucydides; as it does not, however just it be, resemble his other Works. Hence I am inclinable to believe what I have heard, that it was done by some of his disciples, and by him revised; yet it far excels most of our Translations. Milton’s English Prose is harsh and uncouth, though vigorous and expressive. The stile of Selden and Hammond is rugged and perplexed.
A Conjecture concerning the present state of the English Tongue, with an account of the present Work.
OF the Character of Writing in our own time, were I to give my opinion, I should be apt to say, that in general it comes too near to talking; a method which will hardly make it delightful or lasting; no words upon paper will have the same effect as words accompanied with a voice, looks and action; hence the thoughts and language should be so far raised as to supply the want of those advantages; but indeed this is impossible, and therefore there is the greater cause for heightening the stile; now because laboured periods are offensive, and flat ones are insipid, the excellency lies between pomp and negligence. Let it be as easy as you please, but let it be strong; two advantages that are very compatible, and often found in the same writer. Livy is remarkable for both; it is his eloquence and ornaments which have preserved him in such esteem, as much as his matter and good sense. The late Lord Shaftesbury, though he has been perhaps too anxious and affected in forming his phrase to easiness and fluency, has yet had good success; since it is manifest that his soft alluring stile has multiplied his Readers, and helped powerfully to recommend his Works. Dr. Burnet of the Charter-House wrote with great eloquence and majesty, yet easy and unaffected. Dr. Tillotson’s stile is plain and pleasant, enlivened too with fine images, and strong sense; yet many, while they strove to imitate him, have written very poorly. This has happened to some of our Divines, who, studying his manner, but wanting his genius, have uttered a flow of words, which sound not ill, but lack spirit and matter. I have looked over whole pages of Bishop Blackal’s Sermons, without finding any thing which offended the ear, or pleased the imagination, or informed the understanding. I cannot help mentioning here another Writer, who has gained great reputation for Stile, without deserving any; I mean Dr. Sprat, Bishop of Rochester. His expression is languishing and insipid, full of false pomp, full of affectation. He is always aiming at harmony and wit, but succeeds ill; for his manner is starched and pedantic. With much greater justice has the Stile of Dr. Atterbury, his successor, been admired.
Our Tongue is naturally cold, and the less force our words have, the more they must be multiplied; this multiplying of words is tedious; thence the remedy is as bad as the disease. The Latin phrases, on the contrary, are short and lively, and a few words convey many images. These difficulties, with many others, I found in this Translation very sensibly. I wanted new words, but have rarely coined any, as the creating of words is generally thought affected and vain; yet I have sometimes ventured upon a new phrase, and a way of my own, upon drawing the English idiom as near as possible to that of the Latin, and to the genius of my Author; by leaving the beaten road, dropping particles, transposing words, and sometimes beginning a sentence where it is usual to end it. I have studied to imitate the spirit, eloquence and turns of Tacitus, as far as I could, assisted by a Language weak in its sounds, and loose in its contexture. This manner of writing, I own, would be strange and even ridiculous in plain and familiar subjects; but where the subject is high and solemn, there must be a conformity of stile.
In the political Discourses following, I have likewise taken a method of my own, in reasoning largely upon topics which to me seemed of the most moment to this free Nation, and giving an idea of the politics of the Cæsars; of the vis, artes, & instrumenta regni, as they are called by Tacitus. I have vindicated the principles of civil Liberty; I have examined the defences made for Cæsar and Augustus; I have displayed the genius of these Usurpers; the temper and debasement of the people; with the conduct and tyranny of their successors, to the end of the Annals. In my Translation of the History I have done the same. I have little troubled myself with the strife and guesses of Commentators, and various Readings. I have chosen the best editions, and where the meaning was dubious, taken the most probable; for, after all, there is a good deal of guess-work and uncertainty; difficulties not peculiar to Tacitus.
I was persuaded to this undertaking several years ago by a friend of mine, a Gentleman of Letters in the City; for then I had never seen the English Translation, and knew not but it was a good one. Mr. Trenchard approved the design with his usual zeal for every thing which favoured public Liberty. My Lord Carteret, who understands Tacitus perfectly, and admires him, was pleased to think me not unfit for it, and gave me many just lights about the manner of doing it; that particularly of allowing my self scope and freedom, without which I am satisfied every Translation must be pedantic and cold. A Translation ought to read like an Original. The Duke of Argyll espoused it generously, with that frankness which is natural to him, agreeably to his knowledge and taste of polite Learning, and to his sincere love of Liberty. So did my Lord Townshend. Sir Robert Walpole encouraged me in the pursuit of it in a manner eminently to my credit; and to many Gentlemen of my acquaintance I am much obliged upon this occasion. I own I have been long about this Translation; that I was so, is to be ascribed not so much to idleness, as to diffidence. It was done a long while before I put it to the press; after all my care and many revises, I continued apprehensive that much fault might be found, and many objections made; a misfortune which I still doubt I shall not be able to escape, and wish I may not deserve. I therefore rely more on the candour of my Readers, than on my own sufficiency. Those of them who understand Tacitus in the original, will easily make allowances for the difficulty of making him speak any other Language. I have been chiefly careful not to mistake the sentiments of my Author about human Nature and Government; and I will venture to say, that no man who has not accustomed himself to think upon these two subjects, can ever make tolerable sense of Tacitus, let him be as learned in other things as he will. For the same reason, no man that is merely Learned, can ever be pleased with a free Translation, however faithful and just; for his chief attachment will ever be to Words and Criticism. Who had more Learning than Sir H. Savill? ’tis plain he abounded beyond most men; but I suppose Learning was his chief accomplishment; and thence his Translation is a very poor one. The fault cannot be ascribed to the time; for at that time the polite world wrote and spoke well; and if Sir Walter Raleigh had then translated it, no body I believe would have ever attempted to mend it.