Tacitus v Napoleon

Oct 2013
313
Australia
Anyone who has read The Annals knows Tacitus was not a fan of the Principate, especially in comparison to what he seems to have felt life must have been like under the Republic. He rips Tiberius pretty savagely in the opening books... But I found this quote below in the introduction to an edition translated by AJ Woodman quite interesting (pay special attention to the passage about Napoleon, at the end):

Tacitus’ sustained delineation of the emperor Tiberius in the first six books of the Annals is widely regarded as the most memorable and penetrating portrait of an individual in the whole of antiquity—a “miracle of art,” in the words of Lord Macaulay. Since the Renaissance, when the early printings of the Annals first made his finest work available to a wider readership,Tacitus has attracted the attention of some of the most prominent names in literature and affairs. In the seventeenth century John Milton described him as “the greatest possible enemy to tyrants,” Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth took him as his model in Decline and Fall, and Thomas Jefferson in the nineteenth considered him “the first writer in the world without a single exception,” while at almost exactly the same time Napoleon was denouncing him for his “obscurity” and for having “slandered the emperors.”
Now this also got me thinking about a certain quote of Napoleon’s, from his Address at Breda on 1 May 1810:

I am a monarch of God's creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me. I render an account of my government to none save God and Jesus Christ.
My question... Who comes out on top: Tacitus or Napoleon? Was Tacitus right to criticize the emperors? Or was he merely a ‘reptile of the earth’ daring not to oppose (remember, he wrote his history about prior periods, not current affairs) and instead slandering his betters, who were no longer around to chastise him with the stern justice a merciful prince may reserve only for determined and unrepentant malefactors?

Discuss, please! I myself confess I do not have a strong opinion either way.


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Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,984
Yötebory Sveriya
Napoleon was a very different sort of Emperor than those of the time of Tacitus. Napoleon was much closer to a Julius Caesar type ruler than a Principate type. Both were analytical, highly intelligent, but were also driven by elements of low self-esteem - a dangerous combination in any kind of a leader. Both leaders were revolutionary and influential, but also catastrophic.
 

Caesarmagnus

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,658
Australia
Napoleon was a very different sort of Emperor than those of the time of Tacitus. Napoleon was much closer to a Julius Caesar type ruler than a Principate type. Both were analytical, highly intelligent, but were also driven by elements of low self-esteem - a dangerous combination in any kind of a leader. Both leaders were revolutionary and influential, but also catastrophic.
I can't for the life of me see how this descriptor could refer to Julius Caesar, born with looks, bloodline, position, a notorious womanizer and polymath of sorts. Caesar had no reason for low self-esteem, and I see little evidence for it in his career; the evidence is all the other way, namely that he had a very high opinion of himself. Hard to see how Caesar was "catastrophic" either. Pretty much the opposite of my opinion in fact.
 
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mariusj

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,037
Los Angeles
I can't for the life of me see how this descriptor could refer to Julius Caesar, born with looks, bloodline, position, a notorious womanizer and polymath of sorts. Caesar had no reason for low self-esteem, and I see little evidence for it in his career; the evidence is all the other way, namely that he had a very high opinion of himself.
I concur. Especially on the womanizer part.
 
Oct 2013
313
Australia
Napoleon was a very different sort of Emperor than those of the time of Tacitus. Napoleon was much closer to a Julius Caesar type ruler than a Principate type. Both were analytical, highly intelligent, but were also driven by elements of low self-esteem - a dangerous combination in any kind of a leader. Both leaders were revolutionary and influential, but also catastrophic.

I would also point out that Antony thrice offered Caesar a crown, which he refused every time. Caesar was not an emperor. Caesar was appointed Dictator for life.

Regardless, can we address the stated question: does Tacitus deserve his reputation as a heroic enemy of tyrants? Keep in mind especially that he did not write about events current in his time. If one is really determined to oppose autocracy, would they not oppose it in its current incarnation? Did Tacitus feel it was too dangerous to write about the period in which he was living through, preferring instead to turn a poison pen on men long dead?

Or... Was Tacitus happy living under the reign of the “Good Emperors” ... and if that is true, is he really an enemy of Empire?

Furthermore: was the average Roman citizen better off during the time of the Republic, or under the Pax Romana of the Principate?

I also reflect that our word ‘taciturn’ has negative connotations and there is an unavoidable association with the name Tacitus.


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pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,785
I would also point out that Antony thrice offered Caesar a crown, which he refused every time. Caesar was not an emperor. Caesar was appointed Dictator for life.
And that was likely politically stage managed.

Emperor/King/Dictator little real difference.
 
Mar 2018
896
UK
I'm not sure I understand the original question. Tacitus would almost certainly have disapproved of Napoleon. Napoleon probably wouldn't have cared. What is there to discuss exactly?
 
Oct 2013
313
Australia
I'm not sure I understand the original question. Tacitus would almost certainly have disapproved of Napoleon. Napoleon probably wouldn't have cared. What is there to discuss exactly?

Shrug. </Thread>, then, I suppose.


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Sep 2017
119
Pennsylvania
Napoleon was a very different sort of Emperor than those of the time of Tacitus. Napoleon was much closer to a Julius Caesar type ruler than a Principate type. Both were analytical, highly intelligent, but were also driven by elements of low self-esteem - a dangerous combination in any kind of a leader. Both leaders were revolutionary and influential, but also catastrophic.
I would argue that Caesar was hardly as "revolutionary" as the Gracchi whose politics and methods he employed very well.

Worth noting as well is the fact that both Caesar and Napoleon were highly influential among the "common rabble" but not particularly so amongst the social elite of their nations. I would agree that Napoleon's rule was not particularly good for Europe as a whole, but I would hardly lay the blame solely at Napoleon's feet for that. Considering the overall situation in France - namely the French Revolution - at the time that Napoleon became Emperor, I'd say Napoleon could have done much worse than he did.

Similarly, Julius Caesar's reign can hardly be characterized as "catastrophic."

As far as the self-esteem comments, well others have already addressed that well.

I would also point out that Antony thrice offered Caesar a crown, which he refused every time. Caesar was not an emperor. Caesar was appointed Dictator for life.

Regardless, can we address the stated question: does Tacitus deserve his reputation as a heroic enemy of tyrants? Keep in mind especially that he did not write about events current in his time. If one is really determined to oppose autocracy, would they not oppose it in its current incarnation? Did Tacitus feel it was too dangerous to write about the period in which he was living through, preferring instead to turn a poison pen on men long dead?

Or... Was Tacitus happy living under the reign of the “Good Emperors” ... and if that is true, is he really an enemy of Empire?

Furthermore: was the average Roman citizen better off during the time of the Republic, or under the Pax Romana of the Principate?

I also reflect that our word ‘taciturn’ has negative connotations and there is an unavoidable association with the name Tacitus.


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I hardly think Tacitus deserves to be called a "heroic enemy of tyrants." It's easy to criticize the dead, which is primarily what Tacitus chose to do.

Tacitus and Taciturn share a common root but it's more than a little bit of a reach to think that the modern English Taciturn is meant to be a commentary on a dead Roman Historian's character.