Reading the Romans

This morning I ordered three books by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, not merely to add to my collection, but to replace three books I lent and forgot to whom. I imagine it’s rather odd for someone living in this sleek and superfast 21st Century world to be reading dusty old writers from a bygone age. I trust you would be wrong if you thought that.

First off ‘ancient’ is a mere convenience we use to describe something that happened in the long-ago, dimly remembered past. The ground each of us stands on is ancient; one, two, three thousand years in the past is yesterday … and we haven’t much changed since then. We may surround ourselves with the creature comforts and gadgetry of this modern era, but can be plunged back to the Stone Age by something  as natural as a hurricane to sweep away the very thin veneer of civilization, happening this very moment in the Caribbean.

I read the Romans and they teach me something every time. Tacitus especially, casting a cold, judgmental eye on the shenanigans of the various emperors and their sycophants of his day. It’s like reading today’s New York Times or Washington Post, or so I should imagine. I get a warm familial feeling when he writes about the exploits and self-restraint of his father-in-law Agricola in his book by that name. We should all be honored, remembered thus.

No, I never received a classical education. Others rattle off the Latin they learned in seminary and I envy them their exposure to it. I applied to a certain college decades ago but was refused entry for my inability to pay for the privilege. Still, I wouldn’t trade my education at UMFK for anything. I couldn’t anyway, though I am grateful for having met and studied under some extraordinary people. Some of them shaped my view of the world for whatever it’s worth.

I came into reading the Romans on my own. Perhaps it was out of conceit, perhaps simple curiosity…..who are these guys? To paraphrase Butch Cassidy.

I admit, there’s a lot I don’t know and somehow I chanced upon three heavy profusely illustrated volumes by the English historian Edward Gibbon titled, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and realized I hadn’t the required background to dive into it. So I started small: Tacitus, Suetonius, Livy, Plutarch (he’s actually Greek) and haven’t stopped. The Gibbon still sits on the shelf of my boat shop, 100 or so pages into the thing, patiently waiting for me to plunge into the next installment.

Tacitus and other Roman writers changed my perspective of where I live and choose to be. The title of my column even suggests it, this being a border outpost of the provinces, in what I am beginning to consider the American Empire. And I am grateful (again) for being far, far away from the rotten, venal heart of the modern Rome that is Washington, D.C. This is no exile. I consider myself a provincial, one of that peasant tribe who look on the capitol with suspicion and a ‘wee dram’ of contempt.

I am made mindful of civil wars by Roman history and ours for that matter. For whatever it’s worth, this Republic won’t survive the next one, so we’d all better get right with one another and stop trash-talking our way into a scrape thinking it’s the way to get out of one. Our history proves we are not exempt from the lessons of history. So sayeth and so went the Romans.

Back to Tacitus who helped make me aware of the gifts I’ve been given by my ancestors: a hatred of slavery and authority in all its forms, a belief that conscience is all that matters, a love of this place that made me …. and hopefully, like the Romans, a little stoicism to endure whatever comes next.

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.

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