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Revisiting Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote in the early second century, during the reigns of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He wrote several books that have come down to modern times entirely or partially, including Germania, The Annals (about the first dynasty of Roman emperors, minus the founder Augustus, AD 14-68), and The Histories.

My first encounter with Tacitus was an excerpt of The Annals in my tenth-grade literature textbook, describing a fire that devastated the city of Rome in the year 64. As I recall, the passage hadn’t even been assigned for us to read, but I found it while flipping through the book and read it out of curiosity. I was taken by the vivid narrative explaining how the fire had spread through the city while the much-reviled emperor Nero whiled away the hours of the catastrophe singing about the burning of Troy. I was also intrigued by a brief reference to the Christians who were scapegoated for the fire—one of the earliest references to the practitioners of this new religion outside their own scriptures.

In eleventh grade, when my family went to Rome for Christmas and New Year’s, I brought along a Penguin edition of Tacitus’s Annals, translated by Michael Grant. Although there was much I couldn’t understand, I excitedly read the book on the trip to Italy and afterward. There were several episodes that stood out to me in the narrative, and I still remember them clearly. One of them was the assassination of Nero’s step-brother Britannicus, who was offed by putting poison in a cup that had already been tested, ostensibly to cool the too-hot drink down. There were many stories like this, about the intrigues and schemings of nobles in the inner circle of power.

Reading Tacitus corresponded with my own awakening as a scholar late in high school. Now that my days of adolescent apathy were past, I was beginning to see the world with new eyes, and it was turning out to be a big and fascinating place. The Annals was the beginning of an ancient history reading kick that continued with Josephus, Tacitus again (this time The Histories), Herodotus, Thucydides, and a little later (in college), Arrian (The Campaigns of Alexander).

When I read The Annals the first time, I took its content and style very much for granted. I guess I assumed that this was the one way to tell the history of early imperial Rome. By reading Tacitus, I felt that I was learning the true, authoritative history of Rome.

Ten years later, when I was in graduate school, I reread some parts of The Annals for a class about historiography (the history of history-writing). It was unsettling to read Tacitus again, because his writing didn’t seem so worshipful now. The parts that I read this time seemed petty and narrow-minded, as they focused almost completely on a small power-holding elite in a vast empire. There was nothing true or authoritative about any of this. I felt that my teenage self had been naïve to see the endless string of assassinations as the definitive account of Roman history. I now knew that there were many ways to tell the story of a time and place, and Tacitus had only chosen one of them.

I was ready to jettison Tacitus entirely when I reread him in grad school, but I have been assured—both by a friend who is a late-antique historian, and my own reading—that Tacitus is still an important and indispensable resource for early-imperial Roman history. The key is not to read him as the authoritative account and final word on everything, as I did in high school, but to read him critically as a source, much as I would read a project report for an Indian development project or an editorial from the Times of India or Hindustan.

But there is at least one fundamental way in which the work of an ancient historian differs from my own: I don’t have to reconstruct the past. Certain details of events that I am interested in might remain obscure, but the period that I as a modern historian study is very well-documented. That is not the case for Roman history. Most books, including Tacitus’s narrative histories, are missing large parts. Many books have disappeared entirely. Before ancient historians can study why something happened, they first must try to discover what happened. I have the luxury of skipping that step.

Quick thought: Alternate history and historical contingency

In Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers have lost World War II and the former United States is occupied by Nazi Germany (in the east) and Imperial Japan (in the west), with a demilitarized zone in the middle. In this alternate-reality 1962, the Japanese have established their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, while the Nazis have committed genocide in Russia and Africa and are sending space missions to the moon and Mars.

The Man in the High Castle is a story of historical contingency. Although it is often tempting to think of historical events as inevitable, they usually are not. It was not inevitable that the Allies would win World War II, or that they would win in the way that they did. There were many possible outcomes.

Dick shows this by introducing an alternate history novel within his alternate history novel. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by an author in the demilitarized Rocky Mountain States, narrates an Axis defeat, but not what actually happened in our world. President Roosevelt does not seek reelection for an unprecedented third term in 1940 (as he did in real life), but instead he is succeeded by Rexford Tugwell, who cunningly saves the US fleet from destruction in Pearl Harbor and leads the country to victory against the Axis. At the end of the war, Adolf Hitler Is tried and executed (rather than committing suicide in his Berlin bunker).

Some of Dick’s characters doubt the possibility of an Allied victory in World War II, but we the readers know that it was not only possible, it happened in real life.

Remodeling Nehru’s house

In the three years since I did a little of my dissertation research there, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has become the subject of controversy over plans to remodel the museum or its surrounding grounds.

As much as I like NMML, I grant that the museum could use a good remodeling. It is housed in Teen Murti Bhawan, a British-era mansion that was originally built as the Commander-in-Chief’s house before independence, and after independence served as the official residence of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the house was converted into a museum rather than serving as the official residence of subsequent Prime Ministers.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bottom floor of the house has exhibits about Nehru’s life and the independence movement. It is a standard textbook-style narrative, and it is quite unengagingly presented with black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text in English and Hindi. The upper floor has some preserved rooms, including Nehru’s office and the bedroom where he died. The rooms are certainly interesting too look at, but they are not in the best of condition. I remember seeing water damage on the ceiling in one or two of them.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l'oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l’oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum.

The house is located on a large landscaped estate, which also includes a research library, a planetarium, and a medieval hunting lodge that was incorporated into the site plan when the mansion was built.

SLV-3, India's first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

SLV-3, India’s first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

Proposals to remodel NMML go in two different directions. One direction is modernizing the existing displays but keeping the nationalistic, Nehru-centered narrative intact. This is outlined in a document posted on the NMML website, “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” from September 2015. The black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text will go, to be replaced by touchscreens.

The other direction for remodeling the museum is completely overhauling it to honor all prime ministers, not just Nehru. This seems to be favored by the current ruling party, the BJP, which has made it a point to play down the legacy of Nehru.

From what I can tell, the proposals have reached a compromise of sorts, with Teen Murti Bhawan set to stay as it is and a national prime ministers museum to be built somewhere else on the estate.

These proposals to remodel Nehru’s house are at their heart political, but I would like to look at them from a historical perspective—or rather a historiographical perspective, which means how history is interpreted.

I don’t know enough about the national prime ministers museum proposal to comment on it, but from studying the “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” I feel that it has missed an opportunity to reinterpret Nehru and his legacy in an appropriately critical light. As is it now, there is no room in Indian popular discourse for a critical discussion of Nehru. He can be either all good or all bad, and the debates about remodeling NMML fall into these predictable ruts.

Like every leader in the history of this planet, Nehru left a mixed legacy. This legacy should be open for interpretation, but it shouldn’t be inevitably polarized. Like many leaders of his time, Nehru promoted industrial growth and democratization at the expense of minority communities. He proudly trumpeted anti-colonialism but refused to criticize Soviet interventions in eastern Europe. He claimed to believe in democracy and self-determination but took a firm line on Kashmir and brutally suppressed an insurgency in Nagaland. This ambiguity in Nehru’s legacy needs to be taken seriously, not papered over by heroizing or villainizing narratives.

But isn’t it inevitable that a museum dedicated to one man’s legacy would portray him as a hero? I argue that it is not. As an example to the contrary, consider the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, USA. As president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, Johnson had as mixed a legacy as Nehru. He promoted civil rights legislation and social welfare programs known as the Great Society. But he also escalated the the American war in Vietnam, a war that left over a million people dead. The LBJ Library does not softpedal Johnson’s role in escalating the war.

The same approach can and should be taken for a remodeling of NMML. Nehru’s contested legacy should be acknowledged and explored in the museum dedicated to him.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

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