Saturday, August 9, 2008
A Short Bit on Tacitus and a Translation of Some Tacitus
Tacitus is probably the hardest Latin author you will ever read. His style is rather abbreviated and rather obscure, as will probably come through in the translation further on in the post. Most interesting, however, is Tacitus' views on the Roman Empire and how he presented them in his works. He was fervently opposed to Roman Imperialism, which is all fine and good (depending on which Emporer you lived under and how well you masked it). However, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola, who was a relative by marriage of Tacitus, and most famously took over Britian in the name of Roman Imperialism. How, then, does one be critical of Roman expansion whilst writing a complementary biography (because Agricola was a family member--and a famous one at that) of someone who played a role in Roman expansion? Simple: put your views in speeches of the enemy. Here is presented an excerpt from one such speech; one can only handle so much Tacitus at once.
Quotiens causas belli et necessitatem nostram intueor, magnus mihi animus est hodiernum diem consensumque vestrum initium libertatis toti Britanniae fore: nam et universi co[i]stis et servitutis expertes, et nullae ultra terrae ac ne mare quidem securum inminente nobis classe Romana. Ita proelium atque arma, quae fortibus honesta, eadem etiam ignavis tutissima sunt. Priores pugnae, quibus adversus Romanos varia fortuna certatum est, spem ac subsidium in nostris manibus habebant, quia nobilissimi totius Britanniae eoque in ipsis penetralibus siti nec ulla servientium litora aspicientes, oculos quoque a contactu dominationis inviolatos habebamus. Nos terrarum ac libertatis extremos recessus ipse ac sinus famae in hunc diem defendit: nunc terminus Britanniae patet, atque omne ignotum pro magnifico est; sed nulla iam ultra gens, nihil nisi fluctus ac saxa, et infestiores Romani, quorum superbiam frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias. Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (Tacitus, Life of Agricola, ch. 30)
How often do I contemplate the reason and our neccesity of war, I think that today, this very day, and your gathering together, will be the beginning of liberty for all of Britian: for you all came together, inexperienced in slavery, and no land beyond and not even the sea is secure, the Roman fleet being near. Thus, a battle and weapons, which are honorable to the brave, in the same way are safest for cowards. Prior battles, in which it was contested with varying success against the Romans, held hope and troops in our hands because we, positioned far inland, not gazing at the shore of servitude, had eyes unviolated from the contact of domination. The remote position itself and the land of rumor defends us of this land and of liberty to this day: now the limit of Britian lies open and every unknown thing is for the sake of a splendid thing; but, there are no tribes beyond, nothing except seas and rocks and the rather hostile Romans, whose arrogance you would flee in error through compliance and respect. Robbers of the earth, they are, when all of the earth falls short, being in emptiness, they search through the sea: if the enemy is rich, they are greedy, if they are poor, ambitious, neither East nor West have satisfied them: they alone out of all people covet wealth and poverty with the same disposition. Stealing, destroying, plundering are for the false name of an empire: and when they make desolation, they call it peace.
I've translated some parts of the passage rather literally to get across how obscure Tacitus can be sometimes. Remember that this is more or less Tacitus speaking though the mouth of a general of a coalition of Celtic/Scottish tribes who are fighting the Romans. In the first line, where I translated "I think that..." in the Latin is actually, "there is great mind to me...". He seems to personify the "prior battles", stating that they "held hope, etc"; this is extremely confusing at first glance at the Latin. The verb "to be" (esse) is often omitted. The passage "every unknown thing is for the sake of a splendid thing" is rather hazy in meaning. I think what Tacitus is trying to say is that the Romans greatly desired the "unknown", which, upon discovery, was for the sake of "glory" or the Empire, or what have you. Just a bit further on, the clause that starts "whose arrogance..."; I believe he is saying that fighting is the only option and that submission to the Romans is the wrong way to go.
One can also see the anti-Roman stance in this excerpt. Romans are called "robbers of the earth" and are portrayed as greedy, malicious conquorers. There are more "implicit" critiques of Romans in Tacitus' writings; I'll perhaps present them in another post and comment more fully.