History Lesson: Tacitus on the Romans

I’ve started reading through Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome , and already it has confirmed that there is nothing new under the sun.

We see Lepida, falsely claiming to be impregnated by – suprise! – A rich and childless Roman.

At Rome meanwhile Lepida, who beside the glory of being one of the Amilii was the great grand-daughter of Lucius Sulla and Cneius Pompeius, was accused of pretending to be a mother by Publius Quirinus, a rich and childless man. Then, too, there were charges of adulteries, of poisonings, and of inquiries made through astrologers concerning the imperial house. The accused was defended by her brother Manius Lepidus. Quirinus by his relentless enmity even after his divorce, had procured for her some sympathy, infamous and guilty as she was. One could not easily perceive the emperor’s feelings at her trial; so effectually did he interchange and blend the outward signs of resentment and compassion. He first begged the Senate not to deal with the charges of treason, and subsequently induced Marcus Servilius, an ex-consul, to divulge what he had seemingly wished to suppress. He also handed over to the consuls Lepida’s slaves, who were in military custody, but would not allow them to be examined by torture on matters referring to his own family. Drusus too, the consul elect, he released from the necessity of having to speak first to the question. Some thought this a gracious act, done to save the rest of the Senators from a compulsory assent, while others ascribed it to malignity, on the ground that he would have yielded only where there was a necessity of condemning.

23. On the days of the games which interrupted the trial, Lepida went into the theatre with some ladies of rank, and as she appealed with piteous wailings to her ancestors and to that very Pompey, the public buildings and statues of whom stood there before their eyes she roused such sympathy that people burst in to tears and shouted, without ceasing, savage curses on Quirinus,

“to whose childless old-age and miserably obscure family, one once destined to be the wife of Lucius Caesar and the daughter-in-law of the Divine Augustus was being sacrificed.”

But at least the Romans punished for false accusations.

Then, by the torture of the slaves, her infamies were brought to light and a motion of Rubellius Blandus was carried which outlawed her. Drusus supported him, though others had proposed a milder sentence. Subsequently, Scaurus, who had had a daughter by her, obtained as a concession that her property should not be confiscated. Then at last Tiberius declared that he had himself too ascertained from the slaves of Publius Quirinus that Lepida had attempted their master’s life by poison.

We see the Romans impose legal sanctions against childless men, to the point of property penalties and confiscation, to support the state since they don’t have children.

25. It was next proposed to relax the Papia Poppea law, which Augustus in his old age had passed subsequently to the Julian statutes, for yet further enforcing the penalties on celibacy and for enriching the exchequer. And yet, marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent, so powerful were the attractions of a childless state. Meanwhile there was an increase in the number of persons imperilled, for every household was undermined by the insinuations of informers; and now the country suffered from its laws, as it had hitherto suffered from its vices.

We see sycophancy to a powerful executive, show-trials with groundless (But much repeated) accusations of treason.

We see nepotism and tribal behavior even under layers of a legal “system.”

We see the tendency of men to want to plan and control things that are simply too complex to manage – economies, prices, behavior – with terrible results.

We see decadence and a decline in morality, and the worry about sexual ethics.

And what do we do, with all this accumulated experience? We continue to fill students heads with ersatz history, history, such that we are bound to continue to repeat the mistakes  and perpetuate ignorance.


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