The Light Missing from Tacitus’ Darkness

Tacitus’ Annals make for a rather depressing read. They tell of wicked person after wicked person, of men and women consumed by lust for pleasure, power, and wealth, caring nothing for what is right. Private murders and murders through false legal cases abound. Those in authority are either corrupted in their own right or so weak, like the emperor Claudius, that they allow others to be the real rulers. Vice and greed seem to be the norm, from the imperial palace through Rome and out to the eastern provinces and subject states. I have recently read of very, very few upstanding figures in Tacitus, and they are far overshadowed by the bad ones. Oh, how fallen, how changed, the Rome of the Annals is from the Rome of Livy’s early History. Where is Horatius now? Where Mucius? Where Cloelia? Where Cincinnatus?

Livy’s history, indeed, has its dark spots as well as its light. His noble, brave, virtuous characters are needed because of base, cowardly, vice-filled actions. To Lucretia there is Sextus Tarquin; Brutus’ own children turn traitor; and I think there are few things more against the Roman honor and ideals than the young men going up into the capitol and leaving their aged and unnecessary fathers behind them to welcome the barbarians. But even in his darkest places, Livy gives us examples of virtue to love and rejoice over as well as examples of vice to abhor. Tacitus’ Rome, on the other hand, seems to be made up only of Tarquins and Tullias.

Is it possible for there to be a city and a state where only evil remains? Can there be a time or place in which all honor and nobility have vanished? As Romans 5:20 says, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Yet for all Tacitus shows, his Rome might be one which God had given up on.

While thinking about this question, about the black tangle of the Annals, I have realized that Tacitus only knows half of the story. In the days Livy writes of, there was honor and goodness transcending mortality or desires among the pagans. But great as the deeds of Horatius and Cincinnatus were, they were done only for a mortal institution. The flower of Rome’s honor faded and drooped, and by the first century AD, little was left but crushed petals to show more clearly how black was the heel that trod on them. Still, Tacitus wrote of the first century AD, though he did not know that date; the first hundred of the years of our Lord. The Christian era had begun. Christ had set the world on fire, though many flames lit the deaths of His followers—followers who, when they died, lived. From being the city of destined mortal glory, Rome was becoming the Eternal City.

Romans of Livy’s time sacrificed their lives for their temporal city and honor; but in Tacitus’ time, Romans sacrificed their lives for the Eternal King. Only—Tacitus did not know. Tacitus tells only of the old order which had been corrupted and grown sour, not of the new order which was growing up like a flame to conquer the whole world. When he tells of Felix, a governor in Judea, Tacitus only mentions Felix’s corruption and tumults—not of the Paul whom Felix encountered. Tacitus’ history of Rome is like telling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, with their sins and punishment, but leaving out Abraham; like telling the story of Jezebel but leaving out Elijah; like telling the story of the captivity of Israel but leaving out Daniel and Shadrach, Messach, and Abednego.

The world is always particolored. There always is and shall be some black, always some white. But Tacitus is left mourning that the snow is blackened and dirty, not recognizing the new green which is rising underneath it; left clinging to the faded old which must pass away, not realizing that a better promise has already been made; left measuring the blackness of the night sky, not understanding that

…though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

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