25: Aulus Cremutius Cordus

Add comment February 9th, 2020 Tacitus

(Thanks for the guest post to Roman Senator and historian Tacitus. It originally appeared in Book IV, Chapter 34 of his Annals, and concerns the undated death of a historian some 30 years before Tacitus’s birth, Aulus Cremutius Cordus — accused of treasonable historying during the oppressive reign of Tiberius.)

In the year of the consulship of Cornelius Cossus and Asinius Agrippa, Cremutius Cordus was arraigned on a new charge, now for the first time heard. He had published a history in which he had praised Marcus Brutus and called Caius Cassius the last of the Romans. His accusers were Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta, creatures of Sejanus. This was enough to ruin the accused; and then too the emperor listened with an angry frown to his defence, which Cremutius, resolved to give up his life, began thus: —

Then is there one Cremutius
Cordus, a writing fellow, they have got
To gather notes of the precedent times,
And make them into Annals; a most tart
And bitter spirit, I hear; who, under colour
Of praising those, doth tax the present state,
Censures the men, the actions, leaves no trick,
No practice unexamined, parallels
The times, the governments; a profest champion
For the old liberty.

-The Sejanus character from the 1603 Ben Jonson play Sejanus His Fall. Shakespeare himself appeared in this play when it was performed; however, it was not performed for long and its author was menaced by the Privy Council … seemingly because authorities believed that it “tax[ed] the present state” of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean politics as veiled comment on purged English elites like the Earl of Essex or Walter Raleigh.

It is my words, Senators, which are condemned, so innocent am I of any guilty act; yet these do not touch the emperor or the emperor’s mother, who are alone comprehended under the law of treason. I am said to have praised Brutus and Cassius, whose careers many have described and no one mentioned without eulogy. Titus Livius [Livy], pre-eminently famous for eloquence and truthfulness, extolled Cneius Pompeius in such a panegyric that Augustus called him Pompeianus, and yet this was no obstacle to their friendship. Scipio, Afranius, this very Cassius, this same Brutus, he nowhere describes as brigands and traitors, terms now applied to them, but repeatedly as illustrious men. Asinius Pollio‘s writings too hand down a glorious memory of them, and Messala Corvinus used to speak with pride of Cassius as his general. Yet both these men prospered to the end with wealth and preferment. Again, that book of Marcus Cicero, in which he lauded Cato to the skies, how else was it answered by Caesar the dictator, than by a written oration in reply, as if he was pleading in court? The letters of Antonius, the harangues of Brutus contain reproaches against Augustus, false indeed, but urged with powerful sarcasm; the poems which we read of Bibaculus and Catullus are crammed with invectives on the Caesars. Yet the Divine Julius, the Divine Augustus themselves bore all this and let it pass, whether in forbearance or in wisdom I cannot easily say. Assuredly what is despised is soon forgotten; when you resent a thing, you seem to recognise it.

Of the Greeks I say nothing; with them not only liberty, but even license went unpunished, or if a person aimed at chastising, he retaliated on satire by satire. It has, however, always been perfectly open to us without any one to censure, to speak freely of those whom death has withdrawn alike from the partialities of hatred or esteem. Are Cassius and Brutus now in arms on the fields of Philippi, and am I with them rousing the people by harangues to stir up civil war? Did they not fall more than seventy years ago, and as they are known to us by statues which even the conqueror did not destroy, so too is not some portion of their memory preserved for us by historians? To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.

He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Other Voices,Roman Empire,Starved,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1944: Marc Bloch, French historian

2 comments June 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Gestapo shot French historian Marc Bloch among a batch of Resistance members.

When war broke out between France and Germany in 1939, the 52-year-old professor spurned advice to get out of the country. Driven by his love of France, he resigned his post at the Sorbonne to join the reserves.

I was born in France, I have drunk the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

(Bloch had won the Legion of Honor for his brilliance and bravery in World War I, “always ready to March and give example.”)

High-profile intellectuals of Resistance proclivities and Jewish extraction, needless to say, had a problem in those terrible years.

The remarkable Bloch almost made it through the whole of the war in the French Resistance, but was arrested a few weeks before the Allied landing at Normandy, tortured, and shot. Comrades in arms remembered his death as an unusually sobering loss.

We couldn’t, no we couldn’t bear that image: Marc Bloch, our “Narbonne” of clandestine life, turned over to the Nazi beasts; this perfect exemplar of French dignity, of exquisite and profound humanism, this spirit become a prey of flesh in the vilest hands. We were there, a few of us, in Lyons, his friends, his comrades in the clandestine struggle, when we learned of the arrest, when we were immediately told that, “They tortured him.” A detainee had seen him in the offices of the Gestapo, bleeding from the mouth (that bloody trail in the place of the last malicious smile he had left me with on a street corner before being caught up in the horror). I remember: at those words, “He was bleeding,” we broke out in tears of rage. The most hardened lowered their heads despondently, as we do when things are just too unfair.

For months we waited, hoped. Deported? Still in Montluc? Transferred to another city? We didn’t know anything until the recent day when we were told, “There’s no more hope. He was executed at Trévoux on June 16, 1944. His clothes and papers were recognized.” They killed him, alongside a few others who he inspired with his courage.

For we know how he died. A kid of sixteen trembled not far from him. “This is going to hurt.” Marc Bloch affectionately took his hand and simply said, “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” and fell first, crying out: “Vive La France!”

Marc Bloch, commemorated at this French site, bequeathed 20th century scholarship one of its great intellectual legacies. His The Historian’s Craft,* a composition halted short of completion by the Nazi firing squad, was posthumously published and remains one of the classic texts of historiography; the journal he co-founded in 1929 gave its name to a whole school of thought in the field. (Bloch’s own name also adorned a school in a more literal sense, the Marc Bloch University, now subsumed by the University of Strasbourg.)

Works By and About Marc Bloch

* The blog To The Roots is in the midst of a series of posts exploring The Historian’s Craft.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture,Wartime Executions

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