Peter Jones

From Tacitus to Justin Welby

The sort of rhetoric being used to besmirch his reputation has a history stretching back to the historian Tacitus

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Many are still questioning the enthusiasm with which newspapers have implicated Archbishop Justin Welby, as a young man, in the abusive activities of a Christian camp leader for whom he was working. This line from the Daily Telegraph is typical: ‘Archbishop Welby is said to have gained much of his early grounding in Christian doctrine from the Iwerne holiday camps, where boys were recruited for John Smyth’s sadomasochistic cult.’

The Roman historian Tacitus (d. c. AD 117) was a master of this sort of insinuation, in which ‘is said’ (as used above) exculpates the writer from responsibility for the statement, and the relative clause ‘where…’ associates the young Welby with a cult of sadomasochism as if ‘recruitment’ to that ‘cult’ (note the religious implication) were the camp’s real purpose. Consider how Tacitus wrote about the death of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. All his previous choices for successor had died. That left only Tiberius, son of his wife Livia by her previous husband, to inherit — an outcome Livia would not want jeopardised…

‘Augustus’ health deteriorated. Some suspected Livia of foul play, since rumour had it that’ Augustus was making an approach to Postumus, a previously disfavoured adopted son. Postumus’ grandfather Maximus told his (own) wife, who told Livia. ‘When Maximus died soon afterwards, perhaps by his own hand’, his widow blamed herself for his death. ‘Whatever the truth about this, Tiberius was urgently summoned by Livia… but it is not known whether he found Augustus alive or dead, since Livia had the streets sealed off. Upbeat reports were published — until the necessary steps had been taken, and the news of Augustus’ death and Tiberius’ accession jointly announced.’

So Livia had Augustus murdered, did she? That is the overwhelming impression left by Tacitus (and wholly implausible). But he covers his back with rumours, disclaimers and knowing winks (‘until the necessary steps…’). What we have here is, in fact, a treacherous form of ‘post-truth’. The same can be said of the contemptible insinuations against Welby.