At Work in the Ruins of Morality

Heiner Müller about Tacitus' "Annals"

17 Apr 1989
Ten to Eleven
Heiner Müller
Heiner Müller


Quoting from historian Tacitus' Annals, Alexander Kluge and Heiner Müller delve into the Roman Iron Age, talk about the modern style of Tacitus' prose, and debate borderline cases of legally sanctioned injustice. After Müller reads a passage about Tiberius' death (37 AD) and his successor Caligula Caesar, Kluge and Müller discuss Tacitus' conception of "history's highest function" as a teacher of virtues and admonisher of "evil words and deeds". More than in the historical aspects of his historiography, Müller is interested in Tacitus' style, which Müller defines as "transition from chronicle to historiography", in comparison to the Roman chronist Livius: According to Müller, the condensation of language, the short paragraphs, the omission of information (elliptical narration), and his "laconicism and manierism", are stylistic devices that allow for the verbalization of experiences that would otherwise render one speechless. The metaphor plays an important role in this respect, as a means of tying together conflicting experiences, or experiences that are impossible to understand. Kluge and Müller then turn to the issue of politics and law by discussing another passage from Tacitus' Annals that deals with the cruel strangulation of Sejan's (Tiberius' chief advisor) underage children: Is there legal injustice? Sejan's daughter is a virgin and cannot be sentenced to death, according to Roman law. Therefore, the executioner rapes her before strangulating her, thus complying with the law and at the same time violating it. Müller talks about an episode from the first chapter of Aleksandr Bek's novel "Volokolamsk Highway" as an example for another remarkable legal case: "the punishment of a non-crime". Müller is convinced that politics is – in a negative sense – a practice of selective interpretation of the law; in Kluge's opinion, the real political would be "to tell everything".