Thursday, February 14, 2008

Laughing along with Cornelius Tacitus

The Roman historian Tacitus (wrote circa AD 100) is not usually associated with humor -- and no wonder, since he chronicled the bloody intrigues of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Mordant, or bleak might be better words. However, I was recently reading Michael Grant's lively Penguin translation, and it occurred to me that he sometimes might have been going for laughs, and not just a sour little chuckle.

Read these two passages and see what you think:

Pharasmanes [leading a group of Iberian mountaineers against the Parthians] reminded his troops that they had never submitted to Parthia -- the loftier their aspirations, he said, the greater the honour of victory, and the disgrace and peril of defeat. Contrasting his own formidable warriors with the enemy in their gold-embroidered robes, he cried: "Men on one side -- on the other, loot!"

OK, maybe that's a doubtful case (though whether you laugh or not, it does sound like something out of 300), but consider this:

[An honorary triumph was awarded to Curtius Rufus, a commander in Upper Germany:] He had sunk a mine in the territory of the Mattiaci to find silver. Its products were scanty and short-lived, though the troops suffered and toiled, digging channels and doing underground work which would have been laborious enough in the open. This forced labour covered several provinces. Worn out by it, the men secretly appealed to the emperor, in the name of all the armies, begging him to award honorary triumphs to commanders before giving them their armies.
What do you think now? (NB: no blood was shed in either anecdote.)

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cornelius Tacitus speaks

One of the old greats, the Roman historian Tacitus ("I, Claudius" is derived from his vision of the early empire) says it all, or at least something significant:

Contradictory rumours have raged around [an imperial death] among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.

Of course, Tacitus himself has often been seen as the greatest of those who "twist truth into fiction."

The translation is by the prolific Michael Grant.

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