Agricola, Germany and The Dialogue on Oratory by Tacitus

Tacitus was a Roman author, orator and historian. His writings constitute an essential account of early imperial history, particularly of the Flavian Age, which began in A.D. 69, when Vespasian became emperor and lasted until Domitian’s death in A.D. 96. The Agricola and Germany of Tacitus and the Dialogue on Oratory is a compilation of Tacitus’ work around this time.

 

Agricola was published around A.D. 97. Agricola was a successful military leader who was instrumental in extending Roman power into Britain. He was also Tacitus’ father in law. The work, as Tacitus explains, was “intended to do honor to Agricola, my father-in-law, will, as an expression of filial regard.” Through his tribute to his father in law, Tacitus highlights the ideal traits of the time: humility, obedience, peaceful-natured and loyal to Rome.

Agricola moderated his energy and restrained his ardor, that he might not grow too important, for he had learnt to obey, and understood well how to combine expediency with honor…Never to enhance his own renown did Agricola boast of his exploits; he always referred his success, as though he were but an instrument, to his general and director. Thus by his valor in obeying orders and by his modesty of speech he escaped jealousy without losing distinction.

 

Through honor and sacrifice, one may achieve greatness and glory:

Let it be known to those whose habit it is to admire the disregard of authority, that there may be great men even under bad emperors, and that obedience and submission, when joined to activity and vigor, may attain a glory which most men reach only by a perilous career, utterly useless to the state, and closed by an ostentatious death.

 

The next writing, Germany, was most likely written around A.D. 98. In this work, Tacitus details his perception of German geography, religion, government, marriage and family, chastity, laws, food, jobs, impulses and vices. Whether or not it is ultimately an accurate representation of Germany, through Tacitus’ lens, Germany provides a window through which one can glean both Roman values and fears. For example, Tacitus praises German mothers for raising their own children rather than entrusting the task to servants and nurses, which emphasizes the importance of the “good” Roman woman and her role in the society and family. He also criticizes the German “love of drinking.” He states, 

If you indulge their love of drinking by supplying them with as much as they desire, they will be overcome by their own vices as easily as by the arms of an enemy.

 

In The Dialogue on Oratory, which would have been one of Tacitus’ earliest works, written around A.D. 75, he recounts a discussion between four men regarding oratory.
Marcus Aper, was an orator who “won his reputation for eloquence by his cleverness and natural powers, more than by training and culture.” According to Aper, oratory “is both a shield and a weapon; you can use it alike for defense and attack, either before a judge, before the senate, or before the emperor.” Eloquence necessary for an orator has an “inspiration and superhuman power,” while poetry “brings no dignity to the author.” He sharply criticizes the solidarity required for poets. In response, Curiatius Maternus, a poet and writer of tragedies, responds, “better by integrity than by eloquence.” Poets provide “delightful companionships” compared to the “harassing and anxious life of the orator.”

 

Vipstanus Messala and Julius Secundus praise oratory over poetry but assert that the orators of the old days are far superior to those of the present day. Messala maintains that an orator is,

like a solder equipped at all points going to the battle-field, enter[ing] the forum armed with every learned accomplishment. All this is so neglected by the speakers of our time…eloquence, banished, so to say, from her proper realm, is dragged down by them into utter poverty of thought and constrained periods.

 

Regardless of the superiority of oratory to poetry or of ancient orators to those of modern times, the irony, of course, is that the only existing memorialization of the conversation on oratory is in the surviving portions of this written work.


You can purchase your exquisite leather-bound edition of our Book of the Week here on our website! Tacitus

 

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