Ancient and modern

The Russians aren’t the first to rewrite history

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

Historians in Russia have a long and craven record, now going back centuries, of being economical with the truth about their current regime. The Roman historian Tacitus had a fascinating explanation for why such economy was also the case under the early Roman emperors. First, some background.

Livy’s 142-book moral and romantic history of Rome stretched from earliest times to 9 bc, including the end of the republic in 27 bc when Augustus became emperor. Livy saw libertas as a key component of Roman success, and put it down to the way in which, after the expulsion of the kings of Rome (508 bc), a republican system developed in which the top men – consuls, praetors etc, drawn from the elite senate – changed every year, and tribunes of plebs were annually elected by a people’s assembly with powers to veto senatorial decisions and protect individual rights. How could libertas not flourish under such a system?

Livy, who was much admired by Augustus, clearly disapproved of the collapse of the republic, though he still wrote on till 9 bc. So why stop then? Perhaps because he sensed that libertas was becoming more and more restricted, and history therefore less and less easy to write. If so, his judgment was sound. Augustus, having ruthlessly dealt with immediate enemies, was now master of all he surveyed. All state funds were his own property, and anyone with political ambitions of any sort, including writers, had him to deal with.

Here comes Tacitus, writing c. ad 112. His view was that, though Augustus’s reign began fairly liberally and ‘men of intellectual distinction were not lacking to pronounce on the Augustan period’, they were ‘deterred by the rising tide of adulation’ for the man at the top. In other words, what chance for the honest historian to write the truth, when not only the all-powerful emperor would have it in for him, but everyone else too? Censorship slowly crept in, and what history there was, said Tacitus, came from the lying pens of servile sycophants.

And they don’t come sicker (or more servile) than those in Putin’s Russia.

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