Friday, September 29, 2006

Friday Reflection: The Annals of Tyranny

Before we go to our review of current events from a fellow who lived about 1,950 years ago, watch Stewart demonstrate how "information, entering the brain, confuses it."

This week's banner quote comes not from last week's New Yorker, nor from Digby, Alterman, or Daily Kos. It only seems that way.

Our author is the ancient Roman historian, and arguably the greatest historian of all time (perhaps alongside Greece's Thucydides)—Tacitus. Our quote is from Book XVI of his masterpiece, The Annals.

Now I would invite the interested citizen to perform the following experiment: go and stand outside any high school in the nation one afternoon, as the kids are being released from their day's studies, and ask a number of the children who Tacitus is or was. If you find one in ten who has any idea who this guy was, then consider yourself lucky.

One reason why our society seems trapped in a mournful repetition compulsion of tyranny, incompetence, war, and disaster, is that we have stopped reading the likes of Tacitus. This week, today, in this very moment, he has so much to teach us.

I find it personally surprising that Tacitus is so neglected, because the stories he has to tell us would make your hair curl, far more than anything you might see on Desperate Housewives or 24. He is brutally unsentimental in his portrayal of the decadance, depravity, and prurience of power; and he undresses the incompetence of tyranny with florid rigor.

We are beholden to Tacitus for our knowledge of the reign of Claudius, a story which in our time has been retold in one of the few great moments of television, PBS's series I Claudius. Tacitus also delivered one of the earliest (and probably most truthful) accounts of the execution of the leader of an occult sect of a formative religion from the early centuries of the Roman Empire. His recounting of this curious incident sheds a lot of light (or could, if anyone paid attention) on the likely result of branding certain insurgent groups of an obscure desert land with the title "Islamo-fascists." To institutionalize madmen with sectarian names only gives them power; to subject them to a program of mass extermination only gives them resolve. Here is the account of Tacitus in this vein (he is describing the Neronian government's efforts to deflect blame for a domestic disaster, the fires in Rome of 64 A.D.):

But all human efforts...did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Tacitus recounts how Nero (and others, too) silenced the wealthy of his state with further enrichments and other blandishments of power; randomly tortured and murdered both the innocent and the guilty; deflected blame (as in the quote above) for domestic disasters (and their mishandling in his government's response) onto foreign and domestic enemies; engaged in lavish displays of self-aggrandizement and pompous ceremony; and claimed credit and glory for others' accomplishments, even as he disenfranchised, exiled, or murdered the true authors of those successes.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, then I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Tacitus' works and start reading. You will not be disappointed.

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