‘MARK MY WORDS. . .’ Thucydides speaks to the White House through the millennia

Thucydides: his words of warning ring true today, through the millennia

‘Déjà vu: We have all been here before’, writes classicist JOHN CLAUGHTON, former Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham. Now – as The Donald is trumped to be replaced by an Ordinary Joe in Washington – just as happened 1,592 years earlier, dynastic upheavals have repercussions. . .


THE YEAR AD 69 WAS A GOOD ONE FOR ROMAN EMPERORS: after all, there were four of them. But perhaps it wasn’t a good year to BE an emperor. As I say, there were four of them – Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian – in the twelve months following Nero’s suicide.

January 15th of the Year of the Four Emperors was the last day on earth for the first of them, Galba, for whom Tacitus wrote the best and most untranslatable of all political epitaphs: ‘capax imperii nisi imperasset’ –  ‘capable of being an emperor, if only he hadn’t been one’!

As the day begins, Galba is emperor of Rome, but only just: Otho’s fragile and uncertain coup, supported by 23 members of his security forces, is about to move into action. The military are on Otho’s side (probably) and the people are an irrational, amoral mob, as Tacitus describes. . .

‘The ordinary people, as one, were filling the Palatine Hill. There were slaves amongst them and, with raucous shouting, they were all demanding the death of Otho and the conspirators, as if they were calling for the next event at the races or in the theatre. There was neither judgement nor truth in them. After all, in the course of one day they were going to demand two different things with equal force. In the end, they followed the habit that had been handed down to them of flattering the emperor, whoever he was, with uncontrolled cheering and vacuous enthusiasm.’   [Tacitus: Histories 1.32]

At such a moment, Galba depended on his inner circle. One of his advisers suggested that he should stay put, take his time, bolt the doors, put some security forces in place, avoid meeting the crowd. Another suggested that he should get out there and get on with it, face down the threat.

Galba chose the latter course, put on his armour, had himself carried out in a sedan chair and, having been tossed back and forth by the surging crowds of soldiers and citizens, was decapitated and dismembered. So, Otho became emperor, albeit briefly.

Almost 500 years before that, in 428 BC, there had erupted civil strife – not in Rome, but on the island of Corcyra, or Corfu as we call it today.

Corfu neither is nor was Rome and might seem to be no more than a local difficulty in a distant war about which we know little, if anything. However, this civil strife differs from lots of similar events scattered throughout history because Thucydides wrote about it.

Here are some of the judgements he made – and there are many more –  about the impact of civil strife on the behaviour of the island’s citizens:

‘Irrational daring was considered to be an act of loyal bravery… taking your time to think things through was just cowardice by another name. Moderation was a cover for not being enough of a man. …. Frantic edginesss was the mark of a real man……….  these parties weren’t formed to work with the support of the existing laws but to seek personal gain in contravention of them……  power gained through greed and personal ambition was the cause of all these problems. And, once winning was the only thing that mattered, passion took over.
‘Both sides used fine words to describe their purpose, but, whilst in words they expressed concern for the common good, in reality they were actually seeking prizes for themselves. They fought for supremacy over each other using every possible means, doing the most terrible things and going even further in acts of revenge. They weren’t limited by justice or the good of the state: all that mattered was the pleasure of their own side: whether through a false conviction or taking power by violent means, they were always at the ready to fulfil their own immediate ambition.’ [Thucydides 3.82]

Thucydides, writing in Athens at the end of the 5th century BC, says that he writes history in the hope that it will be useful to those who read it: after all, since human nature is what it is, similar things will happen in the future.

Tacitus, writing at the beginning of the second century AD, says that the main purpose of history is to ensure that “acts of virtue are not lost in silence” so that those who do and say terrible things in the future should be frightened of disgrace.

Well, events scattered across millennia from Imperial Rome and the Palatine to the ‘Republican’ Capitol and the White House by way of Corfu do show us that Thucydides was right: human nature does NOT change.

And Tacitus, writing from the depths of despair about Rome’s fateful combination of autocracy and ochlocracy, shows that the people can destroy and make their leaders for no good reason, that leaders can take lots of advice and get it wrong, and that it only takes a day for the world to change.

As for Thucydides’ analysis of how civil strife changes the very nature of human beings and their behaviour, Auden was right, too:

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
[W.H.Auden, September 1, 1939]

And, finally, Tacitus’ work, which agonisingly survived only through one manuscript, has ensured that those who do and say terrible things should fear the judgement of history.

Perhaps Twitter accounts and phone films will do the same in the future.


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