There is no worse fault in criticism than to blame a work of art for lacking qualities to which it makes no pretension. Tacitus is not a ‘bad military historian’. He is not a ‘military’ historian at all. Botticelli is not a botanist, nor is Shakespeare a geographer. It is this fault which leads critics to call Tacitus ’a stilted pleader at a decadent bar’, and to complain that his narrative of the war with Civilis is ’made dull and unreal by speeches’—because they have not found in Tacitus what they had no right to look for. Tacitus inserts speeches for the same reason that he excludes tactical details. They add to the human interest of his work. They give scope to his great dramatic powers, to that passionate sympathy with character which finds expression in a style as nervous as itself. They enable him to display motives, to appraise actions, to reveal moral forces. It is interest in human nature rather than pride of rhetoric which makes him love a good debate.
The supreme distinction of Tacitus is, of course, his style. That is lost in a translation. ‘Hard’ though his Latin is, it is not obscure. Careful attention can always detect his exact thought. Like Meredith he is ‘hard’ because he does so much with words. Neither writer leaves any doubt about his meaning. It is therefore a translator’s first duty to be lucid, and not until that duty is done may he try by faint flushes of epigram to reflect something of the brilliance of Tacitus’ Latin. Very faint indeed that reflection must always be: probably no audience could be found to listen to a translation of Tacitus, yet one feels that his Latin would challenge and hold the attention of any audience that was not stone-deaf. But it is because Tacitus is never a mere stylist that some of us continue in the failure to translate him. His historical deductions and his revelations of character have their value for every age. ‘This form of history,’ says Montaigne, ’is by much the most useful ... there are in it more precepts than stories: it is not a book to read, ’tis a book to study and learn: ’tis full of sententious opinions, right or wrong: ’tis a nursery of ethic and politic discourses, for the use and ornament of those who have any place in the government of the world.... His pen seems most proper for a troubled and sick state, as ours at present is; you would often say it is us he paints and pinches.’ Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton and Provost of Eton, who translated the Histories into racy Elizabethan English at a time when the state was neither ‘troubled’ nor ‘sick’ is as convinced as Montaigne or the theorists of the French Revolution that Tacitus had lessons for his age. ’In Galba thou maiest learne, that a Good Prince gouerned by evill ministers is as dangerous as if he were evill himselfe. By Otho, that the fortune of a rash man is Torrenti similis, which rises at an instant, and falles in a moment. By Vitellius, that he that hath