I think the passage shows Tacitus at his absolute best in displaying the courage of a historian in the face of an oppressive tyranny. It is a passage which reflects down the ages and is as relevant now as it was under the Principate. Tacitus’ claim that the atrocities committed by tyrants and their ilk will always memorialise the heroism of those who oppose them could refer to events in the world today as much as Rome in the 1st Century. The trial and death of Cremutius Cordus reveals the power of history and the nobility of those who resist oppression.
Cornelio Cosso Asinio Agrippa consulibus Cremutius Cordus postulatur novo ac tunc primum audito crimine, quod editis annalibus laudatoque M. Bruto C. Cassium Romanorum ultimum dixisset. accusabant Satrius Secundus et Pinarius Natta, Seiani clientes. id perniciabile reo et Caesar truci vultu defensionem accipiens, quam Cremutius relinquendae vitae certus in hunc modum exorsus est: ‘verba mea, patres conscripti, arguuntur: adeo factorum innocens sum. sed neque haec in principem aut principis parentem, quos lex maiestatis amplectitur: Brutum et Cassium laudavisse dicor, quorum res gestas cum plurimi composuerint, nemo sine honore memoravit. Titus Livius, eloquentiae ac fidei praeclarus in primis, Cn. Pompeium tantis laudibus tulit ut Pompeianum eum Augustus appellaret; neque id amicitiae eorum offecit. Scipionem, Afranium, hunc ipsum Cassium, hunc Brutum nusquam latrones et parricidas, quae nunc vocabula imponuntur, saepe ut insignis viros nominat. Asinii Pollionis scripta egregiam eorundem memoriam tradunt; Messala Corvinus imperatorem suum Cassium praedicabat: et uterque opibusque atque honoribus perviguere. Marci Ciceronis libro quo Catonem caelo aequavit, quid aliud dictator Caesar quam rescripta oratione velut apud iudices respondit? Antonii epistulae Bruti contiones falsa quidem in Augustum probra set multa cum acerbitate habent; carmina Bibaculi et Catulli referta contumeliis Caesarum leguntur: sed ipse divus Iulius, ipse divus Augustus et tulere ista et reliquere, haud facile dixerim, moderatione magis an sapientia. namque spreta exolescunt: si irascare, adgnita videntur.
Non attingo Graecos, quorum non modo libertas, etiam libido impunita; aut si quis advertit, dictis dicta ultus est. sed maxime solutum et sine obtrectatore fuit prodere de iis quos mors odio aut gratiae exemisset. num enim armatis Cassio et Bruto ac Philippensis campos optinentibus belli civilis causa populum per contiones incendo? an illi quidem septuagesimum ante annum perempti, quo modo imaginibus suis noscuntur, quas ne victor quidem abolevit, sic partem memoriae apud scriptores retinent? suum cuique decus posteritas rependit; nec deerunt, si damnatio ingruit, qui non modo Cassii et Bruti set etiam mei meminerint.’ egressus dein senatu vitam abstinentia finivit. libros per aedilis cremandos censuere patres: set manserunt, occultati et editi. quo magis socordiam eorum inridere libet qui praesenti potentia credunt extingui posse etiam sequentis aevi memoriam. nam contra punitis ingeniis gliscit auctoritas, neque aliud externi reges aut qui eadem saevitia usi sunt nisi dedecus sibi atque illis gloriam peperere.
In the year of the consulship of Cornelius Cossus and Asinius Agrippa, Cremutius Cordus was arraigned on a new charge, now for the first time heard. He had published a history in which he had praised Marcus Brutus and called Caius Cassius the last of the Romans. His accusers were Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta, creatures of Sejanus. This was enough to ruin the accused; and then too the emperor listened with an angry frown to his defence, which Cremutius, resolved to give up his life, began thus:—
“It is my words, Senators, which are condemned, so innocent am I of any guilty act; yet these do not touch the emperor or the emperor’s mother, who are alone comprehended under the law of treason. I am said to have praised Brutus and Cassius, whose careers many have described and no one mentioned without eulogy. Titus Livius, pre-eminently famous for eloquence and truthfulness, extolled Cneius Pompeius in such a panegyric that Augustus called him Pompeianus, and yet this was no obstacle to their friendship. Scipio, Afranius, this very Cassius, this same Brutus, he nowhere describes as brigands and traitors, terms now applied to them, but repeatedly as illustrious men. Asinius Pollio’s writings too hand down a glorious memory of them, and Messala Corvinus used to speak with pride of Cassius as his general. Yet both these men prospered to the end with wealth and preferment. Again, that book of Marcus Cicero, in which he lauded Cato to the skies, how else was it answered by Cæsar the dictator, than by a written oration in reply, as if he was pleading in court? The letters of Antonius, the harangues of Brutus contain reproaches against Augustus, false indeed, but urged with powerful sarcasm; the poems which we read of Bibaculus and Catullus are crammed with invectives on the Cæsars. Yet the Divine Julius, the Divine Augustus themselves bore all this and let it pass, whether in forbearance or in wisdom I cannot easily say. Assuredly what is despised is soon forgotten; when you resent a thing, you seem to recognise it.”
“Of the Greeks I say nothing; with them not only liberty, but even license went unpunished, or if a person aimed at chastising, he retaliated on satire by satire. It has, however, always been perfectly open to us without any one to censure, to speak freely of those whom death has withdrawn alike from the partialities of hatred or esteem. Are Cassius and Brutus now in arms on the fields of Philippi, and am I with them rousing the people by harangues to stir up civil war? Did they not fall more than seventy years ago, and as they are known to us by statues which even the conqueror did not destroy, so too is not some portion of their memory preserved for us by historians? To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.”
He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.
Chosen by Jonathan Eaton, Lecturer in Classics & Archaeology, Newcastle College.