Thursday, 7 July 2016

Agricola 1-9, Tacitean panegyric and the Stoic exempla virtutis


The first nine sections of the Agricola appear to be a standard introduction section of panegyric, introducing the theme of the work ostensibly as that of preserving for posterity the ‘clarorum virorum facta moresque’ (Ag.1.1), the acts and character of men of renown to posterity. But there is something else going on, not merely panegyric, but the sense that Tacitus is looking back over his shoulder at a troubled age where to praise certain prominent figures of whom the emperor disapproved would invariably lead to a death sentence and simultaneously casting a moralistic glance at the evils and decadence of the present. It is panegyric shot through with the classic Tacitean raspberry ripple swirls of moral disdain and cynical foreboding, never entirely free of the PTSD resulting from the imposed silence of the troubled reign of Domitian. Tacitus never fails to remind us, in a way which to has a distinctly old Roman, republican vibe, that everything was more pure, more morally elevated in the old days, virtue was its own reward, good men really were sometimes in the forefront of society and their qualities were celebrated and honoured without guile...he ends the first section in typical pithy epigrammatic style with his terse verbal finger pointed at the present…’, tam saeva et infesta virtutibus tempora’(Ag.1.4) So harsh is the spirit of our times, so hostile towards virtue.’

Section two opens with a couple of human exampla virtutis, moral examples of those who lost their lives in publicly extolling the virtues of others, Rusticus Arulenus and Herennius Senecio, with the fascinating image of the executioner given the task of burning the books that these men had written, as if to extinguish their very thoughts - to erase them from the record and block their road to the minds of the future. Prescient shades of the Nazis and even 1984. Rusticus Arulenus (35-93  CE) or rather Arulenus Rusticus was a Roman senator and friend and admirer of Thrasea Paetus the notable stoic senator and enemy of Nero. Rusticus tried to save Thrasea from being condemned to death by senatorial vote by offering to veto the decision but Thrasea stopped him knowing that such an act would not only be in vain but also be very likely to result in his own death. In the end Thrasea was unable to save him and Rusticus too was handed an Imperial death sentence under Domitian.

Herrenius Senecio (sentenced to death in 93 CE), another Stoic leaning senator and the author of a biography of the Stoic martyr Helvidius Priscus and linked to Thrasea by the fact of his marriage to his daughter Fannia, was another victim of the Domitian era persecution. Perhaps Tacitus is alluding to the ongoing culture wars between some of the heavily stoic pro-republican members of the senate who felt that the principate was trying to render them politically irrelevant. Tacitus’ use of these men as examples of the dangers of panegyric is slightly odd to me because elsewhere in his work he implies that he disapproves of the Stoics outspoken behaviour and in his eyes futile and over the top acts of self-sacrifice (see for example his comment on this very issue in Ag.42.4)

'sciant, quibus moris est inlicita mirari posse etiam sub malis principibus magnos viros esse, obseqiumque ac modestiam, si industria ac vigor adsint, eo laudis escendere, quo plerique per abrupta, sed in nullam rei publicae usum, ambitiosa morte inclaruerunt.'

'Let those whose way it is to admire only things forbidden learn from him that great men can live even under bad rulers; and that submission and moderation, if animation and energy go with them, reach the same pinnacle of fame, whither more often men have climbed, with no profit to the state, by the steep path of a pretentious death.'

 He clearly disapproves of the noble suicide so beloved of the Stoics while admiring their courage in standing up for the continued role of the senate as guardians of law and order both in Rome and in the provinces. It’s a compromised attitude (not in a completely negative sense) for me since I feel that Stoicism as a thought system is very much interlaced with old school republicanism, something dear to Tacitus’ heart and to a significant extent anti tyrannical in outlook, hence the inevitable and fatal clash with the political role and state actions of the principate. In a way, throughout Nero’s and later Domitian's reigns, the senate was struggling to answer the question of their meaningful function in the principate, both within itself as a legislative body and within the Imperial entourage for example in the form of Seneca as Nero’s Stoic influenced advisor. It is also interesting to note that Tacitus may have been providing the differing but not inconsistent Stoic approaches to tyranny in the contrasting exempla of Thrasea and Agricola; the former of outright confrontation and the latter of wise and informed and ultimately more productive accommodation.

In short, Tacitus was certainly bound up with the idea of history as a moral force with his extensive use of exempla but how much of that force should be wedded to the core concepts of Stoicism is less clear or at least it is difficult to determine which concepts he fully subscribed to and which he thought were not useful to his purpose or even potentially counterproductive to it.

Tacitus neatly contrasts the servitude that this imposed tyranny of censorship resulted in with the freedom and license of previous ages ‘; et sicut vetus aetas vidit quid ultimum in libertate esset, ita nos quid in servitute, adempto per inquisitiones etiam loquendi audiendique commercio.’ (Ag.2.3) ‘ and just as previous ages were witness to the extremes of freedom, so in our times we see the depths of our servitude in which informers have deprived us even of the free exchange of listening and speaking with one another.’ Grim times indeed - Tacitus seems a man for our own times too if we consider our current political controversies over the freedom of information and personal privacy.

But all is not lost as section three opens with a return a trope of panegyric, a thinly veiled exhortation to the virtues and great beneficence of the current ruler Nerva, who has once again united previously incompatible concepts, Empire and Liberty. Tacitus returns again to the theme of the damage of the previous era, the men who were in their prime losing fifteen years of their life, the mature men reduced to decrepitude and both under the yoke of enforced silence unable to speak out against the crimes of that era. With Section four we move into more familiar Panegyric territory with a brief outline of Agricola’s birth in Forum Iulii in Gaul and education in the city of Massilia - a city combining Greek refinement and provincial simplicity. Luckily for his mother, he doesn’t succumb to the philosophy of the Greeks too much and goes on after his schooling to a standard elite Roman career path, serving as tribune under the then provincial Governor Suetonius Paulinus in Britain in around 58 CE. It was certainly a good time to cut your military teeth – Britain was in revolt and at times things appeared to be on a knife edge ‘; trucidati veterani, incensae coloniae, intercepti exercitus; tum de salute, mox de victoria certavere.’ (Ag.5.3-4) Veterans were slaughtered, colonies were razed, military units cut off from their base, the men at one point fighting for their lives and the next fighting for victory.’

Agricola is recalled to Rome after a modest but respectable performance in Britain, by all accounts preferring to discuss the finer points of military strategy and camp morale with his superiors rather than getting pissed up on the best Falernian in the junior officer’s mess surrounded by alluring pale skinned slaves. He marries into a respectable elite family and then his career continues with quaestorships in Asia, followed by tribune of the plebs back in Rome and a praetorship where he is careful to walk the delicate balance between excessively mean and dangerously profligate in his role of provider of the official games..Tacitus has him being ‘far from extravagant but also mindful of public opinion’

From section seven onwards we are nearing the era of the year of the four emperors (69 CE) and Agricola is struck by sudden misfortune when he receives that wandering marauders in the service of one the Imperial wannabes Otho have killed his mother during a raid on the family estate in Liguria. He swiftly joins arms with Vespasian and assists him in his path to victory. After things settle down at Rome, Agricola is sent back to Britain, this time as commander of legio XX Valeria Victrix assisting Petilius Cerialis in the suppression of the Brigantes in the northern reaches of the island province in 71-4(?) CE. He then has a three-year stint as the governor of Aquitania and then, after marrying his daughter to Tacitus…heads off to Britain to assume the governorship proper in 77 CE which leads us to the start of the main body of the Britannia narrative.

I think that the questions we need to ask ourselves regarding this initial panegyric section are several: - How well has Tacitus joined this to the body of the narrative which in all likelihood was taken from notes out of his larger work the Annals/Histories? Is it seamless or can we see the cracks? Does it work structurally, thematically? Furthermore, to what extent can we accept Agricola as panegyric exempla as a realistic figure? Is it meant to be taken as real even? Has Tacitus had to compromise somewhere, making of Agricola a traditional stoic exempla of a man cut from the ‘traditional morally upright republican stuff’ but having to tone down the heavier aspects of stoic defiance in the face of tyranny, especially its more suicidal aspects, for example, defiance at all costs, even that of one’s life in service of the truth? Is it sometimes a moral act for Tacitus to serve tyrants rather than foolishly oppose them?

We must not forget that Tacitus contrasts bad princeps with good, Nero/Domitian=bad tyrants versus Nerva=benevolent prince who re-unites Empire with Liberty. So he comes across to the reader as interested to both accommodate respect for the principate and suggest ways in which adherence to exempla virtutis could benefit both camps despite his old school republican and pro-senatorial sympathies. Evidently there is much to chew over.

I look forward to discussing this section and indeed the main text with you all soon.


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