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Déjà vu Tacitus, Thucydides and Trump

11 January 2021

Déjà vu: ‘We have all been here before'

AD 69 was a good year for emperors: after all, there were four of them. But perhaps it wasn't a good year to be an emperor: after all, there were four of them. 15 January AD 69 was going to be the last day on earth for the first of them, Galba, for whom Tacitus wrote the best, and most untranslatable, of all political epitaphs, ‘capax imperii nisi imperasset', ‘capable of being an emperor, if only he hadn't been one'.

As the day begins, Galba is the emperor - just - and Otho's fragile and uncertain coup, supported by 23 members of his security forces, is about to move into action. The military are on Otho's side, probably, and the people are an irrational, amoral mob, as Tacitus describes.

‘The ordinary people, as one, were filling the Palatine Hill. There were slaves amongst them and, with raucous shouting, they were all demanding the death of Otho and the conspirators, as if they were calling for the next event at the races or in the theatre. There was neither judgement nor truth in them. After all, in the course of one day they were going to demand two different things with equal force. In the end, they followed the habit that had been handed down to them of flattering the emperor, whoever he was, with uncontrolled cheering and vacuous enthusiasm.'

[Tacitus: Histories 1.32]

At such a moment, Galba depended on his inner circle. One of his advisers suggested that he should stay put, take his time, bolt the doors, put some security forces in place, avoid meeting the crowd. Others suggested that it was a time for urgency: he should get out there and get on with it, face down the threat. Galba chose the latter course, put on his armour, got carried out in a sedan chair and, having been tossed back and forth by the surging crowds of soldiers and citizens, was decapitated and dismembered. So, Otho became emperor, albeit only for exactly four months.

497 years earlier, in 428 BC, there was civil strife, not in Rome, but on the island of Corcyra, Corfu to you and me. Corfu neither is nor was Rome and this might seem to us like a little local difficulty in a distant war about which we know little, if anything. However, this civil strife differs from lots of similar events scattered throughout history because Thucydides wrote about it. Here are some of the judgements - and there are plenty more - he made about the impact that civil strife had on the behaviour of the island's citizens:

‘Irrational daring was considered to be an act of loyal bravery... taking your time to think things through was just cowardice by another name. Moderation was a cover for not being enough of a man..... Frantic edginesss was the mark of a real man.......... these parties weren't formed to work with the support of the existing laws but to seek personal gain in contravention of them...... power gained through greed and personal ambition was the cause of all these problems. And, once winning was the only thing that mattered, passion took over.

‘Both sides used fine words to describe their purpose, but, whilst in words they expressed concern for the common good, in reality they were actually seeking prizes for themselves. They fought for supremacy over each other using every possible means, doing the most terrible things and going even further in acts of revenge. They weren't limited by justice or the good of the state: all that mattered was the pleasure of their own side: whether through a false conviction or taking power by violent means, they were always at the ready to fulfil their own immediate ambition.'

[Thucydides 3.82]

Thucydides, writing in Athens at the end of the fifth century BC, says that he writes history in the hope that it will be useful to those who read it: after all, since human nature is what it is, similar things will happen in the future. Tacitus, writing at the beginning of the second century AD, says that the main purpose of history is to ensure that ‘acts of virtue are not lost in silence' and so that those who do and say terrible things should be frightened of disgrace in the future.

Well, events scattered across millennia from imperial Rome and the Palatine to the ‘Republican' Capitol and White House via Corcyra/Corfu do show us that Thucydides was right in thinking that human nature doesn't change. And Tacitus, writing from the depths of despair about Rome's fateful combination of autocracy and ochlocracy, shows that the people can destroy and make their leaders for no good reason, that leaders can have lots of advisers who have lots of advice and then and get it wrong, and that it only takes a day for the world to change. As for Thucydides' analysis of how civil strife changes the very nature of human beings and their behaviour, W H Auden was right, too:

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

[September 1, 1939]

And, finally, Tacitus' work, which only survived agonisingly through one manuscript, has ensured that those who do and say terrible things should fear the judgement of history. It is his writing that has defined our perception of Rome and Roman emperors from Augustus to Vespasian, just as Thucydides' history saved the Peloponnesian War from the erosion of time. Perhaps Twitter accounts and phone films will do the same in the future.

John Claughton (1975)
Chief Master 2005-2016