‘They believed that worse was still to come’: 2016 in Roman historiography

I’ve had a lot of new experiences since I left academic life a couple of years ago. One has been the realisation that the ancient historians I used to research and their presentation of politics and politicians are not as far removed from the contemporary world as they sometimes used to seem. One question I kept asking myself in 2016 was ‘how would Tacitus [the subject of my thesis] and his peers have described the year’s events?’ Over Christmas, I decided to ‘reconstruct’ one possible answer – in English and Latin.

(For anyone whose Latin is a bit rusty: plays on words in the Latin version are highlighted – unfortunately it’s all but impossible to translate these exactly, but I’ve marked what they literally mean in English.)

natio Belgarum divisa est in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Flandrici, aliam Wallones, tertiam Bruxellani. urbem eorum, sicut ego accepi, condidere atque habuere initio pauci Germanorum Gallorumque quod, compluribus bellis gestis, quandam concordiam in varietate petebant. hi postquam in una moenia convenere, dispari genere, dissimili lingua, alii alio more viventes, incredibile memoratu est quam facile coaluerint. sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, nationes magnae sine bello consociatae, aemula pactio Varsoviae ab stirpe interiit, decretum denique omnes eodem auro uti, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit.

The country of the Belgians is divided into three parts, one inhabited by the Flemish, one by the Walloons, and the third by the people of Brussels. Their city, I hear, was initially founded and occupied by a few Germans and Gauls, since after several wars they were seeking a kind of unity in diversity. After they had come together in one place, with their divergent origins, different languages and individual ways of life, the story of how easily they became unified is incredible. But when their state had grown through hard work and fair dealing, great nations had joined them without any fighting, their rival the Warsaw Pact had been completely obliterated, and finally it had been decided that everyone should use the same currency, fortune began to rage and to throw everything into confusion.

itaque tempus adgredior dirum casibus, atrox proeliis, discors seditionibus, ipsa etiam in pace saevum. multa bella civilia, praesertim apud miserrimos Syriacos (rex eorum, primo aequabilis in suos, mox superbiam in externos, saevitiam in populares sumpserat), plura externa ac plerumque permixta; adversae in Oriente, vix prosperae in Occidente res. plenum exiliis mare, infecti caedibus scopuli; nam permulti agros tranquilliores Bruxellanorum petebant. qui, donec femina illa e Germanis memor misericordiae magis quam mercedis iter aperuit, nequaquam apti erant ad tantam multitudinem recipiendam – vel poterant sed nolebant.

Therefore I am dealing with a time that was terrible in its vicissitudes, awful in its battles, disrupted by civil unrest, and even in peace unforgiving. There were many civil conflicts, especially amongst the poor Syrians (their king, who had initially been fair towards his citizens, then turned arrogant towards outsiders and harsh to his own people), more foreign ones, and even more that had elements of both. The situation was bad in the East and scarcely good in the West. The sea was full of refugees and cliffs were stained with blood, as great numbers made for the calmer lands of the people of Brussels. They, until a German woman more mindful of pity than profit showed them the way, were in no way prepared to receive such a great multitude – or they were able but unwilling.

etenim pavor internus occupaverat animos. isdem diebus nonnulli cives crudeliter occisi sunt ab manibus coniuratorum qui, cum se deo suo devovere praetenderent, nihil aliud quam homines nocentissimi erant. Graeci praeterea, semper tributi (quod modicum erat pro angustia rerum suarum) impatientes, pacem exuere minabantur. tamen e Britannis (haud scio an ‘Brittunculis’ dicam) ortus turbator rerum praebebat quasi farraginem eloquentiae. nam apud contractas multitudines res novas poscentes in hunc modum locutus fertur:

This was because they were gripped with inward-looking fear. In the same period a number of citizens were cruelly killed by bands of conspirators who, although they claimed to be pledging themselves to their god, were merely the worst of criminals. Moreover, the Greeks, who were still unwilling to pay their tribute (which was small, in proportion to the scarcity of their resources), threatened to break the peace. But it was from the Britons (or should I say ‘little Britons’?) that an agent of discord emerged, offering a kind of hash of eloquence. He is said to have spoken to crowds demanding change as follows:

‘quotiens causas belli et necessitatem nostram intueor, magnus mihi animus est hodiernum diem consensumque vestrum initium libertatis toti Britanniae fore. iam regimen nobis recuperandum, nam superbiam Bruxellanorum frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias. raptores Europae: si locuples subiectus est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit. soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscent: auctoritatem auferunt, pacem appellant.’

‘When I consider the reasons for this struggle and our dire situation, I am confident that the fact you have come together today will mark the beginning of freedom for all Britain. Now we must take back control, since there is no point trying to escape the arrogance of the people of Brussels by doing as they say and making no trouble. They have ravaged Europe: if their subjects are rich, they are acquisitive, if they are poor, they want to control them, and neither the East nor West has been enough for them. They alone of all peoples are equally greedy towards wealth and poverty: they are removing our sovereignty and calling it peace.’

quem, cui libertatem praeferenti consilium altius erat regendi, Britanni alacres exceperunt et ut foedus cum Bruxellanis abrumperetur consciverunt. statim res publica erat sine capite, neque hoc neque duce electo Britannorum se obferente (tantus erat eis amor patriae), et mox ambitio exarsit populo trepidante. posterum ducem specie bovis flavi, libidinosum, studiosiorem feminarum quam foederum futurum, an callidum atque frigidissimum (sed ego vetustiorem aspectum eius non infitior)? hoc in certamine solum id scires, deteriorem fore qui vicisset.

The Britons’ response to this man, who, despite championing freedom, had a longer-term plan to win personal power, was enthusiastic, and they voted to break off their treaty with Brussels. Immediately the state foundered, as neither he nor the elected leader of the Britons put himself forward (so great was their patriotism), and soon political rivalry flared up, which alarmed the people: would their next leader be bovine and blond, capricious, and more interested in women than the WTO, or cunning and lacking all charisma (although I acknowledge his rather old-fashioned appearance)? In the contest only one thing was certain: the person who won would be worse.

cum tamen hi mutuis ictibus cecidissent, femina quaedam cuncta discordiis civilibus fessa nomine principis sub imperium accepit. ubi scriptores bracis, populum calceis, cunctos dulcedine otii pellexit, insurgere paulatim, munia senatus magistratuum legum in se trahere, nullo adversante, nam multi nobiles, quanto quis servitio promptior, novis ex rebus aucti tuta et praesentia quam vetera et periculosa malebant. ‘nonne Brexitus Brexitus est?,’ inquit. ‘referendum erat; nunc est Brexeundum.’ speciosa verbis, re inania aut subdola, quantoque maiore libertatis imagine tegebantur, tanto eruptura ad infensius servitium.

But when these two had brought each other down, in the name of ‘leader’ a woman took under her command everything, worn out as it was by domestic strife. Once she had won over journalists with her trousers, ordinary people with her shoes, and everyone with the attraction of doing nothing, she gradually proceeded to take upon herself the functions of the parliament, magistrates and laws. No one stopped her, as many high-ranking individuals, in proportion to their readiness to be obsequious, had benefited from the change and preferred the security of what they had to the dangers of the past. ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ she said. ‘We had to put this to a vote; now we must Brexit.’ This was mere talk, empty of substance (or misleading), and the more it was covered in a façade of freedom, the worse was the servitude into which it was poised to break out.

at urbem Bruxellanorum trepidam ac simul atrocitatem recentis suffragii, simul veteres feminae Britannicae mores paventem novus insuper de Americanis nuntius exterruit. triste. verso enim illae civitatis statu nihil usquam prisci et integri moris, nihil hilari: omnes exuta aequalitate pipatus principis aspectare. equidem triumpho obtento quis posset princeps augustior esse? iam ei domus aurea (permutanda aedibus albis), filii consortes potestatis, subsidia dominationi, consilium denique coercendi intra terminos imperii. itaque etiam hostes Americae magne gavisi talem virum mox rerum potitum iri. Bruxellani tamen in incerto erant procul an coram atrocior haberetur. deterius credebant quod eventurum.

However, Brussels, which was already concerned both by the adverse outcome of the recent vote and the British woman’s backward-looking attitude, was then panicked by news from the Americans. Sad. For that country had been completely shaken up and there was nothing remaining of its old, upstanding ways, nothing cheerful: equality was no more and everyone looked to the president’s tweets. Indeed, once he had triumphed, who could be a more august president? He already had a golden house (to be exchanged for a white one), sons to share his power, assistance for his rule, and the intention of keeping the empire within its boundaries. Accordingly, even America’s enemies rejoiced – bigly – that such a man would soon be in charge. The people of Brussels, however, did not know whether to think him more awful at a distance or close by. They believed that worse was still to come.


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