Pride of Place
Footing It With Tacitus
Tacitus was never afraid to say too much, at least on paper. Life was a game and scoring was its point, so he committed his professional fouls when the referee wasn’t looking. He knew what he was doing, every move, putting the opposition under pressure. Not afraid to take risks with his reputation. The ‘hand of a god’ was his. The result still remains in the history books, though with a footnote (Tiberius thought it was illegal).
His rival Cicero could not stop talking in public. He may have spoken to his age, but not to mine. I studied one of his orations at school, but it seemed to me all long balls going into touch in goal. When Rufus sent him news about gladiatorial matches he rebuked him.
‘I want to hear of higher things’, he said. ‘Astronomy, for instance. I like to read someone everyday whose wisdom has stood the test of time and write a sentence which I hope will too (though I won’t be showing it to anybody for ten years. I need to be sure). And in the evening I dine with my friends, making no mentions that I have been mixing it with the immortals.
‘Courtesy dresses the table at the feast and supplies the sorbets to clear the palate for the after dinner speeches, which shouldn’t be too long. A half an hour is usually enough for me. A merry symposium is the meeting of lives, a philosophy in itself. I love finding out what they have been doing and how it worked out, as far as they know. But which lion mauled which slave is only of passing interest. And it does nothing to make life for our citizens safer and free. It’s only a game of bread and circuses to keep us from thinking what the Emperor has been up to.
‘This may seem rather heavyweight for a Balbus, who has taken emetics so he can eat and drink as much as he likes. But don’t malign him. He knows a full stomach and empty conversation can be avoided without any undue unpleasantness. Sick it up and begin again. Viands and gossip. What did I say about higher things?’
His antithesis Petronius was known as the elegant arbiter. He spoke well on both sides of any debate and only wrote things down when he had to. It’s difficult to arbitrate with yourself. Only his Satyricon has survived (I have never read it, to my shame. I’ve seen Fellini’s, which I’d prefer to forget. It’s too serious a subject for a sentimentalist. Pasolini should have made it. A bucket of cold water thrown over a state in conflagration needs a more thoughtful hand). Petronius’s day-job was as Nero’s Diaghilev. He arranged vulgar displays for the Emperor’s court, not baulking at bear baiting, belly dancing and bonfires for Nero to accompany on his fiddle. The Emperor’s tune was muted. The flames inspired melancholy.
The tears the slow air brought to his eyes were insufficient to douse the fire. Which is why he took against his great showman. It confirmed his doubts about being a god. He would end up in an ashtray like everybody else.
Things were never the same for Nero after condemning Petronius. He took it out on anyone at hand, kicking his wife Poppaea to death, for instance. When the barbarians were at the gates of Rome Nero found he had no friends, and took his own life, messily.
Tacitus, in his stop-press Annals, describes Petronius’s end. It was self orchestrated. The elegant arbiter cut a vein and, after losing some blood, bound it up again and talked with his friends, not of any serious matter like the immortality of the soul or what the wise men say, but of light verses and comic songs, and bestowing gifts on favourite slaves and wandering around a bit. Then gave himself to sleep. He wanted his death to be as casual as possible.
A leaf from Petronius’s unwritten book became Montaigne’s. No matter what sort of life you have lead, if you are in a good humour on your deathbed it has been justified. Montaigne, unlike Petronius, was in a position to let nature take it course. His Nero was fate, a lowercase notion that applies to everybody. Something to look into but not too deeply. You read yourself to sleep with it.