Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fun Facts from Tacitus

Reading the ancient historians, you really have to pay attention. While at times, they tell fascinating stories that resonate throughout the ages, there are times, I must admit, that things can get dull, kind of that "one thing after another" syndrome. Sometimes things are happening so quickly that you get lost in the names and events that may only get a page or perhaps even a sentence of description. As an example, I found Livy's history of early Rome dull in parts, but later, when he stretches out in his retelling of the Second Punic War, he creates quite the page-turner.

Tacitus (in a well annotated edition) is really interesting. The man could tell a good story. Sometimes too, you just come across unexpected tidbits. I recently read the W. H. Fyfe translation of The Histories by Tacitus. I found it well done. It was readable, and made sense. It was modern enough to flow easily through my mind. That doesn't always mean better, but compared to this translation on the web, I prefer Fyfe. Due to the fact that I'm lazy and don't feel like typing passages from the book though, I'm quoting from the web.

Our first selection is from book 1:
22. The soul of Otho was not effeminate like his person. His confidential freedmen and slaves, who enjoyed a license unknown in private families, brought the debaucheries of Nero's court, its intrigues, its easy marriages, and the other indulgences of despotic power, before a mind passionately fond of such things, dwelt upon them as his if he dared to seize them, and reproached the inaction that would leave them to others. The astrologers also urged him to action, predicting from their observation of the heavens revolutions, and a year of glory for Otho. This is a class of men, whom the powerful cannot trust, and who deceive the aspiring, a class which will always be proscribed in this country, and yet always retained. Many of these men were attached to the secret councils of Poppaea and were the vilest tools in the employ of the imperial household. One of them, Ptolemaeus, had attended Otho in Spain, and had there foretold that his patron would survive Nero. Gaining credit by the result, and arguing from his own conjectures and from the common talk of those who compared Galba's age with Otho's youth, he had persuaded the latter that he would be called to the throne. Otho however received the prediction as the words of wisdom and the intimation of destiny, with that inclination so natural to the human mind readily to believe in the mysterious.

At this point in our story, Galba is emperor, having taken over upon the death of Nero. An astrologer predicts to Otho that he will be replacing Galba on the throne. Otho accepts that prediction and goes on to overthrow Galba. He is then overthrown by Vitellus, who is in turn, overthrown by Vespasian, who serves for nine years. All of this overthrowing stuff takes place in the space of a year - a year of civil war.

If we replace the name Otho with the name Macbeth, substitute three witches for the astrologer, and change the author's name to Shakespeare, . . .

At the beginning of book five:
1. EARLY in this year Titus Caesar, who had been selected by his father to complete the subjugation of Judaea, and who had gained distinction as a soldier while both were still subjects, began to rise in power and reputation, as armies and provinces emulated each other in their attachment to him. The young man himself, anxious to be thought superior to his station, was ever displaying his gracefulness and his energy in war. By his courtesy and affability he called forth a willing obedience, and he often mixed with the common soldiers, while working or marching, without impairing his dignity as general. He found in Judaea three legions, the 5th, the 10th, and the 15th, all old troops of Vespasian's. To these he added the 12th from Syria, and some men belonging to the 18th and 3rd, whom he had withdrawn from Alexandria. This force was accompanied by twenty cohorts of allied troops and eight squadrons of cavalry, by the two kings Agrippa and Sohemus, by the auxiliary forces of king Antiochus, by a strong contingent of Arabs, who hated the Jews with the usual hatred of neighbours, and, lastly, by many persons brought from the capital and from Italy by private hopes of securing the yet unengaged affections of the Prince. With this force Titus entered the enemy's territory, preserving strict order on his march, reconnoitring every spot, and always ready to give battle. At last he encamped near Jerusalem.
What can we say about that? It began, so the story goes, with Jacob and Esau. It continues to this day. To Tacitus, who was unclear on that history, it was glossed over as just the usual hatred between neighbors.

And time still marches on.

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At 7:49 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...


very good post

very good.

and yes, this war began in the beginning of time and will continue to the end of time.

(I need to learn to sew and type at the same time!)

At 2:10 AM, Blogger MightyMom said...

you are hereby invited to stop by my place and play Thesaurus Thursday. test your vocabulary and your funnybone at the same time!!

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Harry said...

Thanks, glad you like the post. You could grow another pair of hands. I hear body modification is all the rage these days. I've seen your Thesaurus Thursdays. They're fun. We used to play a similar game (in person if you can imagine that) called Dictionary. One person looked up an unfamiliar word and wrote the definition on a slip of paper. The rest of the group wrote their own definitions, or daffinations. Then we had to figure out the correct one.


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