Tacitus Who? by Cora Beth Knowles

The Eaters of Light
BBC/BBC Worldwide – Photographer: Simon Ridgway

I may have been the only Doctor Who viewer who cheered when one of the Picts said of the Romans:

Their work is robbery, slaughter, and plunder. They do that work and call it empire. They make a desert and call it peace.

(Doctor Who Series 10 Episode 10, The Eaters of Light, written by Rona Munro, aired on Sat 17th June 2017)


Finally, Tacitus comes to Science Fiction! Two of my favourite things coming together, like the invention of the chocolate pizza. It’s a happy day for me.

Tacitus and SciFi/Fantasy are of course a natural fit. The whole narrative of Star Wars, for instance, with its progression from idealistic Republic to corrupt Empire, fits in nicely with Tacitus’ world-weary condemnation of post-Republican autocracy in the Annals. The bloody battles of the Histories, with their quick succession of generals and villains, have a Game of Thrones sense of futility, as Tacitus paints the struggles of the Roman Empire against a background of human incompetence, arrogance and greed. The most ‘modern’ of our modern fantasy epics, whatever the scope of their imaginative world-building, are only just beginning to reach Tacitus’ level of disillusionment with society. He remains the master of the literary sneer.

The Doctor Who-Tacitus reference I mentioned above is rather more deliberate than most, however. Renowned playwright Rona Munro chose to set her episode in Roman Britain around the time of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, and made a conscious decision to quote Tacitus’ Agricola. In an interview she comments on Tacitus’ description of the Battle of Mons Graupius, ‘What’s interesting is how disapproving Tacitus’ account is, even though his own father-in-law was the general who led the battle. You sense that Tacitus didn’t really approve of this mass slaughter.’ In The Eaters of Light Munro takes this idea one step further, by encouraging her Romans to take responsibility for their actions against the indigenous people: ‘I wanted to go, “Do you know what? Maybe the Ninth Legion needs to give a little bit of an apology on behalf of the Roman Empire.”’

Munro uses the setting of the Roman-British conflict to touch on, with a light and at times humorous touch, a number of topical issues: perceptions of race, youth and sexuality, the relationship between Scotland and England, and the interconnected issues of immigration, integration and conquest. Finally both the Picts and the Romans go out in a blaze of glory, battling a common, alien threat, and save the world in the process.

Yet despite all these themes and issues, as well as the interplay between the developing story and the ongoing plot threads, I can’t help fixating on the notion of the apology. What would Tacitus say about the portrayal of the Romans as nice but dim young men offering an apology to the native tribes?  I suspect there would be a devastating epigram involved.

I’ll finish with a longer extract from the episode, which manages to combine both Tacitus and Doctor Who with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Has somebody been peeking at my Christmas list…?!


KAR: “Let me tell you about the Romans. They are robbers of the world. When they’ve thieved everything on land, they’ll rob the sea. If their enemies are rich, they’ll take all they have. If their enemies are poor, they’ll make slaves of them. Their work is robbery, slaughter, and plunder. They do that work and call it empire. They make a desert and call it peace.”

THE DOCTOR: “Aye, but the indoor plumbing’s quite useful, eh?”


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