As part of my recent Roman history binge, I have been reading a lot of Tacitus. Tacitus is best known for his rather grim view of the Empire. One of his chief complaints about the Empire was that the concentration of power in the Emperor encouraged flattery on a disgusting scale. This observation is really just common sense. What makes Tacitus’ insight original, however, is that he realized how closely connected flattery is to treachery.
At the very beginning of his History, Tacitus draws a connection between flattery and treachery, and explains how they harm truth:
After the battle of Actium, when it became essential to peace that all power should be centered in one man…the truthfulness of history was impaired in many ways; at first, through men’s ignorance of public affairs, which were now wholly strange to them, then, through their passion for flattery, or, on the other hand, their hatred of their masters. And so between the enmity of the one and the servility of the other, neither had any regard for posterity. But while we instinctively shrink from a writer’s adulation, we lend a ready ear to detraction and spite, because flattery involves the shameful imputation of servility, whereas malignity wears the false appearance of honesty. (History I.1)
The most remarkable point of this introduction is that Tacitus presents flattery and treachery (“detraction, spite, malignity”) as two sides of the same coin. This relationship between flattery and treachery becomes even clearer in Tacitus’ account of the death of Vitellius. Tacitus certainly did not like Vitellius (who was Emperor for a few months in 69 A.D., the Year of the Four Emperors), but he did at least give him credit for insight and a sharp wit just before his death.
One speech was heard from [Vitellius] showing a spirit not utterly degraded, when to the insults of a tribune he answered, “Yet I was your Emperor.” Then he fell under a shower of blows, and the mob reviled the dead man with the same heartlessness with which they had flattered him when he was alive. (History III.85)
This theme really struck me when I saw the word “heartlessness” (pravitas) being used to describe flattery. Normally we associate heartlessness with insults and other forms of treachery, but not with flattery. Yet for Tacitus, flattery and treachery are very closely related. What is so heartless about flattery, and what connects it to treachery? What connects them is that both the flatterer and the detractor are lying; they deceive their enemy for their own personal gain, whether about the state of affairs, or about himself. Flattery may appear relatively innocuous, but it always involves one person using another person. Often flattery prepares the groundwork for treachery; the flatterer lulls his enemy into a false sense of security.
In short: If someone is willing to flatter you, he’s probably also willing to stab you in the back. And if you need any proof of this, just pick up Tacitus.