The name of a writer will appear unexpectedly and off to the side in something I am reading. If familiar and admired, the source is logged in the mental (and sometimes digital) Rolodex for possible use. If unfamiliar but the allusion sounds promising, that too gets logged. If familiar and unadmired, it might receive an asterisk for future satirical exploitation. Occasionally, a writer’s name will show up with uncommon frequency. After how many appearances does it become a pattern? “Coincidence,” we conclude, while lapsing into magical thinking: “This is a message. I must pay attention.” That’s what I’m doing with Tacitus, who began making unbidden cameos sometime late last year. This started even before Joseph Epstein published “Tacitus the Great” in The Weekly Standard, after which I read Ronald Syme’s two-volume biography of Tacitus published in 1958.
Clive James devotes a chapter to him in Cultural Amnesia (2007) and drops his name in a poem about Geoffrey Hill, who in turn alludes to the historian in Scenes from Comus (2005). Boswell and Johnson are less than enthusiastic. In Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Return of the Proconsul” we are advised to “never lose sight of Tacitus.” And now, for the first time, I have been reading Fading Contact (trans. Francis R. Jones, Anvil, 1997), a collection by the Croatian poet Ivan V. Lalić (1931-1996), and what do I find? “Reading Tacitus.” Like Zbigniew Herbert, Lalić evokes classical characters and events to comment on the contemporary world. The volume was originally published in Serbo-Croat in 1975, when Marshal Tito was still in power, before the horrors of the nineteen-nineties (not that Tito was Mother Teresa). “Reading Tacitus” is unavailable online, but here is the conclusion of the twenty-one-line poem, which is written as a single sentence:
“. . . but along the section
Of yesterday’s wisdom and tomorrow’s experience
Only unfocused images, an illegible mottling,
As if on the freshly-sliced liver
Of a sick bull—
Clamor, vulnera, sanguis palam,
Causa in occulto . . .
and when , at last, the effects
Are gathered in—this, perhaps, is the easiest—
The ache of the emptiness at the centre
Is all that points toward the truth,
“Already absent, already disguised, moving
On a fresh, fast horse, under a new name.”
In the notes to the poem, Lalić or Jones give this translation of the passage in Latin: “The shrieks, the wounds, the blood plain to see, / The motive mysterious.” This is from Book I, Chap. 49 of Annals. Here is that paragraph as translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb:
“The scene was a contrast to all civil wars which have ever occurred. It was not in battle, it was not from opposing camps, it was from those same dwellings where day saw them at their common meals, night resting from labour, that they divided themselves into two factions, and showered on each other their missiles. Uproar, wounds, bloodshed, were everywhere visible; the cause was a mystery. All else was at the disposal of chance. Even some loyal men were slain, for, on its being once understood who were the objects of fury, some of the worst mutineers too had seized on weapons. Neither commander nor tribune was present to control them; the men were allowed license and vengeance to their heart's content. Soon afterwards Germanicus entered the camp, and exclaiming with a flood of tears, that this was destruction rather than remedy, ordered the bodies to be burnt.”
Tacitus might be writing about Syria, the Central African Republic or the former Yugoslavia.