“It is true indeed that noble character is best appreciated in those ages in which it can most readily develop. But today, when I set out to recount the life of one no longer with us, I had to beg an indulgence that I would not have sought for an invective: so savage and hostile to virtue are our times.”
This passage from the opening chapter of “Agricola” may be a reference to Tacitus having requested permission from Domitian to write about Agricola and being denied. Whether or not this is true, the sentiment Tacitus expresses here speaks to his belief that tyranny eroded morality under Domitian’s reign. According to Tacitus, the emperor was jealous of others’ success and hostile to hearing them praised, making it easier to abuse great men than honor them.
“No doubt they believed that by that fire the voice of the Roman people, the freedom of the Senate and the moral consciousness of the human race were wiped out; even teachers of philosophy and all honorable studies were banished, so that nothing decent might be encountered anywhere. We have indeed left an impressive example of subservience. Just as the Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, so have we plumbed the depths of slavery, robbed by informers even of the interchange of speech. We would have lost our memories as well as our tongues had it been as easy to forget as to be silent.”
Here, Tacitus discusses the depths to which Roman morality has sunk during Domitian’s tyrannous reign. The “Rome of old” most likely alludes to the republic, ostensibly a time of greater freedom for Roman citizens, which Tacitus contrasts with the current empire, which not only engages in expansion abroad but seeks to colonize the inner consciousness of its citizens. The “fire” that would wipe out the Senate’s freedom and humanity’s moral consciousness—meaning the burning of the eulogies written for Paetus Thrasea and Priscus Helvidius—represents the destruction of freedom, especially freedom of memory and thought. Tacitus’s form of resistance is to preserve memory by writing history.