Friday, November 6, 2009

...Where they make a desert, they call it peace.

This quote from Tacitus' Agricola is one of my favourites from the whole classical corpus.

I suppose the reason is two fold. Firstly, Tacitus is rallying against the nature of Empire - greed begot by violently enforced tyranny. He's a deeply Republican man, and one of the main themes of the Agricola is a defence of how a man can still be a noble servant to his country even under despotic rulers (in this case Domitian). The idea that the Romans would militarily crush their opposition and then call it "peace" (Pax) never registered as righteous with Tacitus.

Is it truly peace if it only exists because of an oppression carried out by the military? Probably not, thinks Tacitus (and me!).

The second reason I adore the quote is that it is more complex that it initially seems. Our word "peace" has it's roots in the Latin word "pacificare", which means to make peace or to pacify. Now the notion of "peace" and "pacification" are quite different, and what the Romans called "peace" is vastly different to our more modern conception.

For them, "peace" was something that was achieved under the boot of the Roman military, and so this is the idea that Tacitus is against. He's making a mockery of the Roman notion of "peace" and how they concieve of it.

All in all, it's a wonderful quote, and like many such words from Tacitus is highly relevant now (this is as much reading into him as what he actually says), because it also applies, to an extent, to American foreign policy since the 2nd World War. The current military operations in Iraq are dubbed "Operation Freedom", and one must ask, if we decontruct the notion of "freedom" is it being used in a similar manner to the Roman's "peace"? Is it truly freedom, or just how the powerful define it? "The Empire Never Ended" to quote Philip K. Dick.

As ever, the ancients are as vital to understanding ourselves and the modern world. Tacitus especially is almost a rent-a-quote for those of us a little distraught at the state of the world, but it's absolutely essential to remember who he was - a member of the Roman elite rather peeved that his class could no longer rule their Empire - and never to imagine him as the proto-"liberal" commentator that he never can be.

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