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Rewarding Even For The Non-Classicist
on May 4, 2004
A rewarding surprise. Sheer chance dropped this book into my hands. Found it lying in mint condition (with a fair number of other volumes) in the alley behind my building, abandoned and unread by some student who will never recognize his loss. A bit obscure, not being a classicist or an historian, even by my somewhat obscure tastes, but I picked it up, started the introduction, and soon found myself spending an evening intriguingly engaged in a world very different from my own. Whether it be the excellence of the translation or Tacitus' own abilities as a writer, the prose is pleasantly crisp and renders reading the straightforward observations presented here into something not unlike receiving a letter sent a long, long, time ago which has only just finally managed to arrive. While I certainly wouldn't take any of Tacitus' observations of Roman era Britain and Germany for fact; it is the fact of his very attempt to try to describe these foreign peoples and what he sees in them and how they make him reflect on his own people that comes through as honest and true. A great portrait of virtue in the midst of a bankrupt society -- it is hard not to make contemporary parallels, or to try and take away lessons. Technocrats v. tyrants, assimilation v. tribalism, decadent civilization v. noble barbarism, terrorism v. occupation: Tacitus faces all these issues and can still be surprising after 1900 years.
The late Harold Mattingly's introduction is excellent in its own right, providing a clear picture of the Roman Empire of Tacitus' time, and one of the best short overviews of Rome's imperial management and military that I have ever read. After reading it, I had a better understanding of Rome's First Century Legions than I do of the United States' current forces in Iraq. If his monographs on Roman coinage are as good as this, I'd want to read them.