“The chief duty of the historian,” he thought, “is to judge the actions of men, so that the good may meet with the reward due to virtue, and pernicious citizens may be deterred by the condemnation that awaits evil deeds at the tribunal of posterity.” It is a strange conception, which turns history into a Last Judgment and the historian into God. So conceived, history is a sermon- ethics teaching by horrible examples- and falls, as Tacitus assumed, under the rubric of rhetoric. It is easy for indignation to be eloquent but hard for it to be fair; no moralist should write history. Tacitus remembered tyranny too intimately to view tyrants calmly; he saw nothing in Augustus but the destruction of freedom and supposed that all Roman genius had ended With Actium. He seems never to have thought of tempering his indictments by recording the excellent administration and growing prosperity of the provinces under the imperial monsters; no one would suspect, from reading him, that Rome was an empire as well as a city. Perhaps the lost “books” viewed the provincial world; those that remain make Tacitus a deceptive guide, who never lies but never reveals the truth. He often cites, and sometimes critically examines, his sources- histories, speeches, letters, Acta Diurna, Acta Senatus, and the traditions of old families; but for the most part he has heard only the stories of the persecuted nobility, and never imagines that the executions of senators and the assassinations of emperors were incidents in a long contest between vicious, cruel, and competent monarchs and a decadent, cruel, and incompetent aristocracy. He is fascinated by striking personalities and events rather than by forces, causes, ideas, and processes; he draws the most brilliant and unjust character portraits in history, but he has no conception of economic influences upon political events, no interest in the life and industry of the people, the stream of trade, the conditions of science, the status of woman, the vicissitudes of belief, the achievements of poetry, philosophy, or art. In Tacitus Seneca, Lucan, and Petronius die, but they do not write; the emperors kill, but they do not build. Perhaps the great historian was limited by his audience; probably he read parts of his work- following the custom of the time- to the aristocratic friends whom Pliny describes as crowding to his receptions; he would have told us that these men and women knew Roman life, industry, literature, and art, and did not have to be reminded of them; what they wanted to hear, again and again, was the exciting story of the evil emperors, the heroic deeds of stoic senators, the long war of their noble class against tyrannical power. We cannot condemn Tacitus for not succeeding in what he did not attempt; we can only regret the narrowness of his great purpose and the limitations of his powerful mind.

He does not pretend to be a philosopher. He praises Agricola’s mother for dissuading her son, who “had acquired a keener zest for philosophy than became a Roman and a senator.” His imagination and art, like Shakespeare’s, were too creatively active to let him ponder quietly the meaning and possibilities of life. He is as rich in illuminating comment as in unverified scandal; but it is difficult to find in him any consistent view of God, or man, or the state. He is cautiously ambiguous on matters of faith, and suggests that it is wiser to accept one’s native religion than to try to replace it with knowledge. He rejects most astrologers, auguries, portents, and miracles, but accepts some; he is too much of a gentleman to deny the possibility of what so many have affirmed. In general, events seem to prove “the indifference of the gods to good and bad alike,” and the existence of some unknown, perhaps capricious, force that drives men and states fatally onward to their destiny- urgentibus imperii fatis. He hopes that Agricola has departed to a happy life, but he obviously doubts it, and contents himself with the last delusion of great minds- an immortality of fame. Nor does any utopian aspiration console him. “Most plans of reformation are at first embraced with ardor; but soon the novelty ceases, and the scheme ends in nothing.” Matters are temporarily better in his time, he reluctantly admits; but not even the genius of Trajan will prevent renewed deterioration. Rome is rotten literally to the core, in the hearts of men, of a populace whose disorder of soul has made an anarchy of freedom, a rabble “fond of innovation and change, and ever ready to shift to the side of the strongest.” He mourns the “malignity of the human mind,” and scorns like Juvenal the alien stocks in Rome. After blackening the Empire he does not dream of returning to the Republic, but hopes that the adoptive emperors will reconcile the Principate with liberty. In the end, he thinks, character is more important than government; what makes a people great is not its laws but its men.