Jan 2 2011

Tacitus, when you feel like hacking away at things with a sharp object

January 2 2010 Warm, in the mid sixties, with an unsettled sky.

It’s my favorite kind of sky—the kind that blows dark clouds across slanting sunlight and you can just feel the rain coming on. It’s hard to do anything but walk and look, so that is mostly what Ray and I did, with Tacitus in the earphones as a kind of sound track to the weather. I’m coming back to Tacitus, actually, having gone through the Histories at some point last year. I think when I was trying to come to terms with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus—which was a struggle. Tacitus was among his source materials, and therefore I decided to read him. Because lately I’ve been reading with the idea that context is everything, and because I’ve always been willing to be blown (like the clouds above me this afternoon?) across literature from book to book to book.

Tacitus, it turns out, is better than Hesiod for gardening. Especially the kind of gardening that requires attacking last year’s recalcitrant weeds and clumps of grass and digging them out of the beds with nothing more than a hoe and a pair of hedge clippers. He’s all mutinies and violence, murder and machinations and dreadful punishments, is Tacitus. But he still manages to bring out the character and the nature of the men he writes about. It sounds like absolute madness from my perspective (as I hack hack hack away), but there is virtue there. And I can almost believe it when Edith Hamilton writes that the great gift of the Romans to civilization was the rule of law.