Ancient and modern

Tacitus and the hypocrisy of cancel culture

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

The delicious hypocrisy at the heart of today’s cancel fraternity is that it is strongly opposed to censorship. Romans grappled with the issue; the historian Tacitus nailed it.

Since the Roman republic sprang from the expulsion of a tyrant-king (509 bc), anti-monarchic views became standard fare in legal and political debate whenever anyone suspected tyranny. Julius Caesar, seen by some, and slain, as a tyrant, was well aware of such republican sympathies and ‘bore with good nature’ abuse of himself.


So did his successor Augustus (27 bc). True, he ended publication of senatorial minutes, but senators still had their say. Vitriolic pamphlets directed against him were initially met with written rebuttals. When this proved pointless, he moved to prosecute anonymous critics, though penalties were mild. Timagenes, however, a famous Syrian historian, who made savage personal attacks on the emperor and his family, was still a welcome guest, though eventually disinvited. Enraged, he burned his own books. (Actual conspiracy against the emperor was, of course, a different matter.)

Eventually, problems in Rome created such a flood of pamphlets calling for revolution that Augustus felt he had no option but to extend the law of treason to cover written works. So books could now be destroyed, but no death penalty was involved. When Labienus, a fierce critic of Augustus, his works incinerated, committed suicide, a furious Cassius Severus said they had better burn him too because he knew all of Labienus’s work by heart.

But Rome’s next emperor Tiberius enacted the death penalty. When Cremutius Cordus’s history was burned just because he praised Caesar’s killers and did not respect the emperors enough, Tacitus commented: ‘It did in fact survive and was published. All the more, then, should we mock those dimwits who believe that today’s despotism can erase tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, repress talent and its influence grows; the only thing that fly-by-night tyrants or suchlike have achieved is ignominy for themselves and glory for their victims.’

Verb. sap. for all those cancelling saps.

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