The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Matt Myers
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Perhaps predictably, considering my research interests, I would have to go with the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus is often seen as quite a gloomy writer and might not seem like the most natural choice for a “comforting” classical text, given his focus on tyranny and some of the less savoury aspects of human nature. However, just as we often turn to sad music in times of emotional turmoil, I find there is something very cathartic about Tacitus’ pessimistic narratives of decline, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from encouraging this kind of emotional engagement on the part of his readers.
One passage I’ve always found particularly moving comes during his narrative in the Histories of the aftermath of the first battle of Cremona: the climactic battle between supporters of Otho and Vitellius during the year of the four emperors. After the fighting ends and the Vitellians accept the Othonian surrender, troops from both sides come together and poignantly lament the senseless loss of life:
Both victors and vanquished melted into tears, and cursed the fatality of civil strife with a melancholy joy. There in the same tents did they dress the wounds of brothers or of kinsmen. Their hopes, their rewards, were all uncertain; death and sorrow were sure. And no one had so escaped misfortune as to have no bereavement to lament.
Histories 2.45.3 (trans Church and Brodribb)
Obviously there is a significant underlying pessimism in this passage (not least because the reader knows that the war is not over yet and there will soon be a second battle of Cremona), but the way that the soldiers lay aside previous allegiances and unite in their shared humanity is, I think, rather comforting. The complex emotional response to the violence of the battle (sadness at the loss of life mixed with joy and relief at having survived) is perfectly captured by the famous Tacitean oxymoron “melancholy joy” (misera laetitia), which not only sums up the emotions of the soldiers but is also a fitting description of the cathartic release that the passage (and Tacitus’ narrative as a whole) encourages on the part of the reader.
When did you first come across Tacitus’ works?
I first came across Tacitus briefly during my Classical Civilisation A-Level but didn’t really study him in any depth until my undergraduate degree. I was (and still am) really interested in the history of the first century AD, so naturally spent a lot of time with the “big three” sources for this period (Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio). If I’m being honest I initially found Tacitus to be quite heavy going (especially in comparison to the gossipy style of Suetonius), but after a Latin seminar in my second year in which we were encouraged to read the Roman historians not just as historical sources but as works of literature in their own right, suddenly all of the stylistic complexity started to make a lot more sense and I haven’t looked back since!
Can you tell me a bit about Tacitus and his context?
Tacitus was a historian writing in the early second century AD, mostly under the emperor Trajan. His two major historical works, the Annals and the Histories, cover the period from the death of Augustus in AD 14 down to the end of the Flavian dynasty in AD 96, though unfortunately both are missing significant chunks (the Annals is missing the reign of Caligula and some of Claudius, while the Histories as it survives only covers the year AD 69-70). He also wrote three minor works: a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, who was a Roman governor of Britain; an ethnographic study of the Germanic tribes; and a dialogue on oratory.
Tacitus was also a successful politician who rose to the upper echelons of Roman government. He was a member of the quindecemviral priesthood, became consul in AD 97, and held the prestigious governorship of the province of Asia in 112. His works are therefore informed by an intimate, first-hand knowledge of the political system he was writing about. A large portion of his political career coincided with the the reign of the tyrant emperor Domitian and there is a long tradition of scholars seeing the influence of Tacitus’ experiences in this period on his later writing. Indeed, another of Tacitus’ most famous and moving passages comes at the end of the Agricola and sees him grappling with his own survivor’s guilt and explicitly acknowledging his inaction and complicity during Domitian’s reign of terror.
What is it about Tacitus that appeals to you most?
I think one of the things I find most appealing about Tacitus is his approach to characterisation. His portraits of emperors like Tiberius and Nero and among the finest explorations of tyranny and the corrupting nature of power ever written, but they are far from simple invectives. He allows for nuance of interpretation and directs the readers’ opinion through the subtle manipulation of language rather than overt authorial comment. Sentences often have multiple meanings and things are not always as they appear on the first reading. This can make Tacitus a difficult and frustrating author to work with at times, but unpicking his dense, multi-layered prose is also incredibly rewarding (a misera laetitia, in fact).
I also really enjoy the way Tacitus narrates warfare and battles. He has sometimes come in for criticism as an “unmilitary” historian due to what some perceive as a lack of specificity when it comes to things like troop numbers, tactics, locations of battles, etc. However, as someone who finds all that stuff deathly boring, I find Tacitus’ emphasis on the inherent chaos and confusion of battle, the emotional experiences of combatants, and the moral implications of warfare (especially in the Histories) infinitely more interesting than the “hard facts” that others might prefer.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy literature (The Wheel of Time series is my favourite) and listening to a lot of music (I tend to alternate between the more sombre side of country, blues, and folk; and anything featuring loud guitars and a rousing chorus). I also really enjoy mountain biking and hiking so am looking forward to being able to travel further afield with my bike as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
Matt Myers teaches Roman history and literature at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the role of vision and space in Roman historiography (and Tacitus in particular), especially in relation to the representation of violence. He is currently working on an article on violence and urban space in Tacitus’ Histories and (hopefully!) turning his PhD thesis into a book.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.