Tacitus on the Thrill of Writing

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

How do we know whether we have talent? And if we do, what are we supposed to do about it? These are questions that writers grapple with from that first moment when they put down a book and say to themselves: “I could do that too.” Ancient literature boasts a few authors, most notably the poet Horace (65–8 BC), who talk at length about their vocations; but the shrewdest commentary on literature as a career will be found in Tacitus (AD c. 56–120), in the least read of his extant works. Yet it is not about writing. Not as a principal focus, anyway.

Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus (‘A Discussion about Orators’) is a provocative exploration of public speaking in imperial Rome, at a time when oratory had lost most of its real influence on political life. The treatise is framed as a conversation that took place in AD 75, a quarter-century or so before it was written. Modern readers are drawn not only to its deftly-drawn characters and stylish prose but also to Tacitus’ insights into literature, and on how and why we write. Tacitus poses particularly hard questions about talent, and its wisest use. In this respect, the Dialogus de Oratoribus illuminates poetry even more than oratory: this fact makes it a must-read for aspiring writers.

A keen reader of Tacitus: Elizabeth I’s translation of Annales I (Lambeth Palace, London), readable here.

An Unfortunate Tragedy

Curiatus Maternus, a barrister with literary ambitions, has just given a public reading of his poetic tragedy Cato. His friends Marcus Aper and Julius Secundus visit him at home out of concern for his safety: Cato has caused a stir in Roman society, and may have offended some powerful people – perhaps even the Emperor himself. But Maternus refuses to revise the text, or cut out any sections that might be dangerously misinterpreted; instead, he says he will clarify his ideas in the next tragedy he writes – if he is ever allowed to get around to it.

Cato the Younger (95–46 BC), the play’s subject, was quite literally a die-hard opponent of monarchy: he chose to commit suicide rather than live as a subject of Julius Caesar. Hardly a figure to be presented as a hero in front of the imperial court. Particularly so if the Emperor Vespasian were present: he had added ‘Caesar’ to his own name as well as his son’s; by the time Tacitus wrote this dialogue, ‘Caesar’ was not just a name, but a title in the imperial family.

At his recitation, Maternus read out the part of Cato himself: apparently he became emotionally involved in his role, to the point where he became oblivious to how this might have looked to the audience. No wonder his friends are now worried.

The Suicide of Cato, Giovanni Battista Langetti, c. 1670 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia).

Why Are You Writing?

Aper asks Maternus why he wastes his time writing tragedies when he is both in demand as a barrister and better suited to that profession. In Aper’s experience, men write poetry when they lack the talent to become anything useful. Maternus, by contrast, really does have widely-recognised abilities; yet he has chosen to turn his back on all the power and influence he can gain as a lawyer and statesman. He was educated for this life; why doesn’t he try to live it?

Maternus’ rejection of a practical career seems perverse to Aper. Poetry cannot advance a poet’s interests. The pleasure and satisfaction of writing do not last for very long; and after all the time and effort involved in putting together a book, writers must all but beg for an audience. Even successful public readings result in nothing more that polite applause. If a poet is lucky, he might receive a tip from the Emperor. There is no other way for him to earn a fortune.

Aper regards the literary life as scandalous for someone like Maternus. Simply to produce a manuscript, a poet has to turn his back on society and seek peace and quiet. Yet despite all the effort and sacrifice required to create a literary work, there is no real demand for it in the end. Perhaps a few people know the names of the most prominent poets, and nobody has ever heard of anyone else. Who cares about poetry readings? Who even goes to them?

For Aper the conclusion is obvious: Maternus, in wasting his gifts for oratory, is wasting his life. If he thought he could live a life of literary tranquillity as a poet, the reception of his tragedy Cato has just demolished the fantasy. Besides, if he wanted a quiet life, why did he seek an audience for his work in the first place? And why did he write a tragedy calculated to shock and offend the most powerful members of his audience, and take the part of the main character himself, as if to leave no doubt in their minds of his inflammatory, potentially treasonous opinions?

Eyes on the Prize: a romantic reconstruction of a Roman bust of Tacitus (Samuel Freeman’s engraving, 1820s, from a drawing of William Henry Brooke).

This Is What I Want

Maternus is unperturbed by Aper’s criticisms. It turns out that he owes his current standing in public life to his literary projects: he first won a name for himself through his dramatic readings, not because of an impressive courtroom performance. But now he really has had enough of public life. Aper has every right to enjoy the centre of Rome where all the action is; whereas in Maternus’ eyes one of the most attractive aspects of literary writing is precisely that it must be produced away from society and the world.

Aper himself admits that the art he practises professionally – rhetoric – was devised to be used as a weapon; Maternus describes it as the product of a decayed, depraved society. No such thing was needed back in the Golden Age (which was the ancient pagans’ equivalent, very roughly, to the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man): at happier points in history, poets were regarded as seers and prophets, and accordingly treated with respect. Aper, for all his worship of fame and status, would have to admit that there is no orator who will ever be revered as much as Greek poets and playwrights such as Homer and Sophocles.

Apollo and the Muses, Nicolas Poussin, 1630s (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

All in all, Maternus would prefer to avoid the constant stress and anxiety of an orator’s life, no matter how great its material rewards are. Besides, Vergil did not have to live like a City lawyer to enjoy favour with the Emperor Augustus and the Roman people. Whereas nobody can seriously envy the modern orators whom Aper all but worships: they can never be too servile for those in power, or independent enough to be people who are genuinely free. Maternus prefers a life of modest contentment, and freedom from obligation and bother.

Later, Maternus points out that oratory is never very important in a stable, orderly, virtuous society; healthy communities do not really need orators. The most famous ones lived in times of terrible turbulence and civic strife: Cicero (106–43 BC) is not the only great orator to have died violently – and readers may recall how the only reason the Greek orator Demosthenes (384–322 BC) did not is that he committed suicide first. Nobody can simultaneously enjoy great renown and real tranquillity. Maternus may be making two implicit points: one, that poetry is an art of peace; two, that he does not really want glory for himself.

Cicero Denouncing Catilina, Hans Werner Schmidt, lithograph of 1912.

An Art or a Hobby?

As a commentary on the nature of oratory, the Dialogus de Oratoribus seems damning. The most celebrated orators of Tacitus’ youth cannot even agree on the basic premise of whether their art has declined. But for aspiring literary writers, the treatise may be even bleaker.

Aper’s conclusions on poets and poetry seem unanswerable. Maternus, by contrast, has no real arguments. He composes verse because he enjoys the very process of writing, and seems to get an emotional thrill out of performing. Is he writing poetry only to please the Muses? Because nobody else seems to have noticed his work, other than the audience at the Cato recitation, whose reaction was not necessarily delight. Maternus’ only footprints in history are found in the Dialogus de Oratoribus; otherwise, he and his poetry are completely forgotten. Apparently he was mistaken about his literary vocation.

All of this seems profoundly disheartening until you realise that it was written by a great literary artist who won immortality as well as lifetime renown for his histories, which feature the most brilliant prose in all Latin literature. Tacitus was not a philistine, just a realist. Aper was right about Maternus: he really did waste his talent on poetry. He got so much pleasure out of posing as a poet and acting like a writer that he forgot about communicating with his audience. This is the real lesson of his failure.

Mosaic of Orpheus of the 2nd century AD, discovered in the ‘House of Orpheus’ in ancient Caesaraugusta (modern Zaragoza), Spain.

People with no talent love the act of writing because they enjoy the sheer emotional experience – the thrill of creation; they forget that nobody else can feel this intoxication alongside them. On stage and page alike, self-indulgent performances are embarrassing to watch because you feel as though you are watching something personal and private that has inappropriately been made public. Maternus playing the part of Cato must have felt to the audience like a man singing to himself in the shower – one who is unaware he is being watched and oblivious to the reality that he has revealed fantasies (among other things) best kept hidden.

Tacitus is by no means an impersonal writer: he has one of the strongest personalities in literature. But he never forgot that his writings were for his audience, not himself. He knew he had to win his readers’ trust before he could persuade them of the truth as he saw it. He never loses sight of the reader, whom he unfailingly treats with respect. This was what Maternus could not understand. Tacitus too had a successful career as an orator, and also abandoned it for literature. But unlike Maternus, he never forgot what he learnt. History has demonstrated his wisdom.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses.

Further Reading

Readers who want to go through the Dialogus de Oratoribus quickly in English will find a useful translation in Classical Literary Criticism by Donald Russell and Michael Winterbottom (Oxford World’s Classics, 1972).

Classics students will be particularly interested in Roland Mayer’s commentary on the Dialogus de Oratoribus (Cambridge UP, 2001). An older commentary by Sir William Peterson (Oxford UP, 1893) was reprinted in 1998 by the Bristol Classical Press, and remains well worth a look, particularly for those who want a little more help making sense of the Latin. Though Peterson can be opinionated…

The same man translated the Dialogus for the original Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus’ early works (Cambridge, MA, 1914). Updated English and Latin texts (revised by Michael Winterbottom) appeared in the Loeb series (1989) along with Tacitus’ Agricola and Germania. This is a convenient starting point, for those who are interested in the Latin and want a more welcoming page than critical editions provide.

The Oxford Classical Text of the Dialogus de Oratoribus (in Cornelii Taciti Opera Minora, Oxford UP, 1975) was edited by Winterbottom, along with R. M. Ogilvie. Those nervous to tackle a text with no English in it may be reassured that Winterbottom really doesn’t bite.