Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. I.: The motives of Flattery considered. Its vileness, and whence it begins. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon's Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3)
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Sect. I.: The motives of Flattery considered. Its vileness, and whence it begins. - 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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The motives of Flattery considered. Its vileness, and whence it begins.
I SHALL now say something of the extreme Debasement of the Romans under the Emperors. Flattery ever rises in proportion to Power and Fear. Where Law and Liberty reign, and men hold not their Property and Lives at the mercy of one or a few; this security begets in them a pride and stubbornness inconsistent with Servility and Adulation. Men do not flatter such as they dare own to be no better than themselves, or such as have no power to hurt them; nor will they pay over-much reverence to great Titles which are not accompanied with great Power, nor supported by Superstition. For Superstition enslaves as effectually as real Power, and therefore confers it; nor is Tyranny ever so complete as when the chief Magistrate is chief Pontiff, as were the Soldans of Egypt and Bagdat; or, which is the next thing, can create and depose him, as do the Turkish Emperors. But where men hold their fortunes and lives at the mere mercy of another, they will fear him as much as they love themselves, and flatter him, as much as they fear him a . If his Power be limited, their Flattery will be limited; but boundless, if his Authority be so. Thus court and sycophancy prevail less under a mixed Monarchy, than under one that is despotic; in an Aristocracy less than there; and less still in a popular State. Perfect equality quite destroys it; complete Sovereignty raises it to the highest.
The more foolish and wicked a Prince is, the more Incense he will have; it is the surest way of pleasing a Tyrant, as it sanctifies his Iniquities, and represents him to himself as worthy of all his Grandeur and equal to all the highest Offices of Empire. Tiberius, who was a Prince of great penetration, hated Flattery, because he knew it to be so; as he knew that they who paid him most, the Senate and Grandees, dreaded, and therefore hated his Power; as he, who understood perfectly the nature and blessing of Liberty, would have dreaded and hated any man in his place, had he been in theirs. He knew that Flattery and Hate often go together; so that they who possess the greatest Hate, profess the greatest Affection. It is as much as their lives are worth, to manifest any tokens of Aversion; and the stronger it is, it will require the more Art and Assiduity to hide it. Julius Cæsar was loaded with all sorts and every excess of Honours, some that were divine, with design to make him odious, while they who conferred them abhorred him, and were concerting schemes to destroy him. With the same view the like artifices were practised by the Senate towards his Successor Octavius, afterwards Augustus, concerning whom the equivocal saying of Cicero, could not but be remembered by Tiberiusb , “they should extol the Youth, and take him off.” Hence though Tiberius was irreconcileable to public Liberty, he abominated Flattery c . He saw that Flattery was the mere effect of Bondage, and suiting only with the spirit of Slaves; and though he would not part with the Sovereignty (notwithstanding he often talked of it, as well as pretended great backwardness to accept it) yet he was ashamed of the vile and slavish abjectness of the Romans d .
But neither under Tiberius was there any security in abstaining from Flattery; he was a Prince infinitely jealous, and could brook no sort of opposition, nor even independence; and it was both necessary and dangerous to flatter him; but, in my opinion, not so dangerous as necessary: I mean, to such as purely consulted their own safety, and to escape the rage of the Tyrant. It is true, he despised Flatterers; but he hurt them not; and it was natural for him to think (suspicious as he was) that such as would not flatter him, scorned him. It is certain he never forgave free speakers, never could endure men of bold spirit, but, first or last, pursued them to destruction. It was perillous, says Tacitus, to practise no Flattery, and perillous to practise too much e . L. Piso had inveighed against the corruptions of the State, particularly against the pestilent pursuits of the Impleaders, who were daily arraigning, and circumventing, and menacing all men; he even threatened to quit Rome. Tiberius bore this calmly, nay, he descended to mollify him with kind words. But in a soul like his, brooding over Vengeance, though he had suppressed the sallies of Wrath, the deep impressions remained; Piso was a good while afterwards charged with Treason, and, but for a natural death, which opportunely intervened, must have suffered the pains of Treason. Asinius Gallus incurred his rage for a motion in Senate which had really a compliment in it. Tiberius had in a Letter to the Fathers complained, that from the plots and snares of his enemies, he led a life full of dread and apprehensions. Gallus proposed to address the Prince, that he would explain his fears to the Senate, and permit them to remove the causes; this incensed him. Gallus too had piqued him before, and was suspected by him of aspiring views; and though he had notoriously flattered him, he could not by it redeem his life.
As all Corruptions in a State begin commonly from the Grandees (or rather they are beginners of all Corruption) so the Grandees are the most signal Flatterers; they are most in the eye of a Prince, they are the most obnoxious to his jealousy, and thence the most prone to flatter him f . A Prince who governs or would govern by mere Will, must countenance and employ such as ask no reasons for what he does; but commend all he does; and the more they have to get or lose, the lower they must stoop, the more they must praise g . For this vile servitude of theirs they make reprisals upon the people, and are as terrible to those below them, as fawning to those above them; for the most prostitute Slaves, are the most insolent Tyrants, and it is from the same baseness of spirit that men oppress and flatter; it was truly said of Caligula, “that there never lived a more complaisant Slave, nor a more cruel and detestable Master.” Thus Flattery is propagated, and infects all degrees of men. The Prince awes the Grandees, and by the Grandees is flattered; the Grandees oppress and terrify the people; and thence the people dread and adore the Grandees. The Bashaws are slaves to the great Turk; the people slaves to the Bashaws.
The insolence of slavish spirits is by Tacitus exemplified in Vitellius, among many other instances. He was always the foremost in Flattery; ever assaulting every worthy Patriot with reproaches, and ever struck silent when repulsed; agreeably to the genius of Sycophants, to be both insulting and cowardly. This man, however, prospered by Prostitution. He had great employments under Tiberius, he was a great Favourite in the two succeeding Reigns, he was thrice Consul and once Censor. Nor did the man want good talents and qualifications; in the Government of Provinces, says Tacitus, he exercised the integrity of a primitive Roman. But his dread of Caligula, and complaisance to Claudius, changed him into a filthy Slave, and he is handed down to posterity as a pattern of the most infamous Flattery: The just reward of his servile submission. His first and best actions were forgot; his last and worst remembered; and the excellencies of his younger years obliterated by an old age drenched in servitude and iniquity. Besides his adoring Claudius as a God, he carried one of Messalina’s sandals in his bosom continually, frequently kissed it; and amongst his houshold Gods placed golden Statues of Pallas and Narcissus, the Emperor’s freed slaves. This man was, I think, farther to Vitellius afterwards Emperor. Such men such Princes delight in; regibus boni quam mali suspectiores sunt, semperque his aliena virtus formidolosa est: says Sallust.
[a ]Omnis exuta æqualitate, jussa Principis aspectare.
[b ]Ut juvenem laudarent, & tollerent.
[c ]Libertatem metuebat, adulationem oderat.
[d ]Etiam illum, qui libertatem publicam nollet, tam projectæ servientium patientiæ tædebat.
[e ]Adulatione, quæ moribus corruptis, perinde anceps si nulla, & ubi nimia est.
[f ]Ruere in servitium consules, patres, eques; quanto quis inlustrior, tanto magis falsi ac festinantes.
[g ]Primores civitatis quorum claritudo sua obsequiis protegenda erat.