If, despite our surprise in finding a sermon and a drama where we had looked for history, we must nevertheless rank Tacitus among the greatest of historians, it is because the power of his art redeems the limitations of his view. Above all he sees intensely, sometimes deeply, always vividly. The portraits he draws stand out more clearly, stride the stage more livingly, than any others in historical literature. Here, too, however, there are blemishes. Tacitus composes speeches for his varied personages, all in his own fashion and majestic prose; he describes Galba as a simpleton and makes him talk like a sage. And he does not rise to the difficult art of making his characters develop in time. Tiberius is the same at the beginning of his reign as at the end; and if he appeared to be human at the outset it was, Tacitus thinks, pure dissimulation. First and last in Tacitus is the splendor of his style. No other author has ever said so much so compactly. This does not mean that he is brief; on the contrary, he is desultory and diffuse and takes 400 pages of the Histories to chronicle two years of time. Sometimes the condensation is extreme to the point of affectation or obscurity; every second word then requires a sentence to translate it; verbs and conjunctions are disdained as crutches for crippled minds. This is the culmination of Sallust’s concise rapidity, of Seneca’s pithy epigrams, of the balanced clauses taught in the schools of rhetoric. In a long work such a style, unrelieved with passages of a more even tenor, becomes an exhausting excitement to the reader, who nevertheless returns to it with mounting fascination. This martial brusqueness, more economical of words than of men, this scorn of the props of syntax, this passion of feeling and clearness of visualization, this tang of a novel vocabulary and murderous pungency of unhackneyed phrase, give to the writing of Tacitus a swiftness, color, and force which no ancient author has equaled. The color is dark, the mood is gloomy, the sarcasm stings, and the tone of the whole is that of a Dante without tenderness; but the cumulative effect is overwhelming. Along this black river of relentless exposure we are carried, despite our reservations and objections, by a narrative at once dignified and turbulent, stately and impetuous. Character after character rises upon the stage and is struck down; scene after scene rushes on until all Rome seems ruined and all the participants are dead. We can hardly believe, when we emerge from this chamber of horrors, that this period of despotism, cowardice, and immorality flowed into the zenith of monarchy under Hadrian and the Antonines, and the quiet decency of Pliny’s friends.
Tacitus was wrong in scorning philosophy- that is, perspective; all his faults were due to lack of it. If he could have disciplined his pen to the service of an open mind, he would have placed his name first on the list of those who have labored to give form and permanence to the memory and heritage of mankind.