I ride the bus and for bus riding a certain kind of reading is necessary. I usually have the paperback of a classical author in my coat pocket. I never take them too seriously, though some are seriously good, which allows me take make light reading of them. Herodotus is a welcome escape from Washtenaw Avenue.
I have my favorites and my favorite is Tacitus. I’ve often thought about studying Latin just so I could read him in the original. The well worn Penguin edition of The Agricoloa and The Germania was with me today. I have read it a half dozen times already. It may not resemble fact, but it soars towards some truths. Tacitus writes in perfect time even when his view is entirely out of step with my own; his precision is fierce and even his most ludicrous of assertions, natural enough from a Roman of his class and position I suppose, are as sharp as a knife.
In the reign of Domitian a Caledonian chief named Calgacus resisted Roman encroachment into Scotland and fought Tacitus’ father-in-law Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupis. The Caledonians were crushed despite their numbers. Tacitus was an astute and aware man. Like many Romans he deeply respected those who would resist Rome and slavery and held the lickspittles in contempt. He penned these lines in the voice of Calgacus as the Caledonians rallied to fight his own father-in-law. The famous line about calling a solitude peace is here, but so much of the rest of the speech is extraordinary as well.
“Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
“Nature has willed that every man’s children and kindred should be his dearest objects. Yet these are torn from us by conscriptions to be slaves elsewhere. Our wives and our sisters, even though they may escape violation from the enemy, are dishonoured under the names of friendship and hospitality. Our goods and fortunes they collect for their tribute, our harvests for their granaries. Our very hands and bodies, under the lash and in the midst of insult, are worn down by the toil of clearing forests and morasses. Creatures born to slavery are sold once and for all, and are, moreover, fed by their masters; but Britain is daily purchasing, is daily feeding, her own enslaved people. And as in a household the last comer among the slaves is always the butt of his companions, so we in a world long used to slavery, as the newest and most contemptible, are marked out for destruction. We have neither fruitful plains, nor mines, nor harbours, for the working of which we may be spared. Valour, too, and high spirit in subjects, are offensive to rulers; besides, remoteness and seclusion, while they give safety, provoke suspicion. Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman’s leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve.
“Do you suppose that the Romans will be as brave in war as they are licentious in peace? To our strifes and discords they owe their fame, and they turn the errors of an enemy to the renown of their own army, an army which, composed as it is of every variety of nations, is held together by success and will be broken up by disaster. These Gauls and Germans, and, I blush to say, these Britons, who, though they lend their lives to support a stranger’s rule, have been its enemies longer than its subjects, you cannot imagine to be bound by fidelity and affection. Fear and terror there certainly are, feeble bonds of attachment; remove them, and those who have ceased to fear will begin to hate. All the incentives to victory are on our side… Be not frightened by the idle display, by the glitter of gold and of silver, which can neither protect nor wound. In the very ranks of the enemy we shall find our own forces. Britons will acknowledge their own cause; Gauls will remember past freedom; the other Germans will abandon them, as but lately did the Usipii. Behind them there is nothing to dread. … Whether you endure these for ever, or instantly avenge them, this field is to decide. Think, therefore, as you advance to battle, at once of your ancestors and of your posterity.”
These are most certainly not the actual words of Calgacus, but one wonders how many times since words like these have been breathed by people seeking their freedom. Countless thousands. The capitalist view of human nature presupposes conquest, competition and division. And yet even if we were to accept these parameters, which we will not, then isn’t it also true that each one of the ideologues’ examples is belied by the concurrent acts of resistance and solidarity? Each one?
And Palestine, also conquered by legions of Rome and empires more recent. How can I read Tacitus’ words and not think of Palestine today. Palestine, whose resistance negates the whole lie of Pax Americana now just as it did the Pax Romana then.