Modern statue representing Tacitus
outside the Austrian Parliament Building
|Born||c. 56 AD|
|Died||c. 120 AD (aged c. 64)|
|Genre||History, Silver Age of Latin|
|Subject||History, biography, oratory|
Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus // TASS-it-əs, Latin: [ˈtakɪtʊs] ; c. AD 56 – c. 120) was a Roman historian and politician. Tacitus is considered by modern scholars to be one of the greatest Roman historians. He lived in what has been called the Silver Age of Latin literature, and has a reputation for the brevity and compactness of his Latin prose, as well as for his penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics.(
The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus, in 14 AD, to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War of 66–73. There are substantial lacunae in the surviving texts, including a gap in the Annals that is four books long.
Tacitus' other writings discuss oratory (in dialogue format, see Dialogus de oratoribus ), Germania (in De origine et situ Germanorum), and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain, mainly focusing on his campaign in Britannia ( De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae ).
Details about his personal life are scarce. What little is known comes from scattered hints throughout his work, the letters of his friend and admirer Pliny the Younger, and an inscription found at Mylasa in Caria.
Tacitus was born in 56 or 57 to an equestrian family;but the exact place and date of his birth are not known, and his praenomen (first name) is also unknown; in the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris his name is Gaius, but in the major surviving manuscript of his work his name is given as Publius. One scholar's suggestion of Sextus has gained no approval.
Most of the older aristocratic families failed to survive the proscriptions which took place at the end of the Republic, and Tacitus makes it clear that he owed his rank to the Flavian emperors (Hist. 1.1). The claim that he was descended from a freedman is derived from a speech in his writings which asserts that many senators and knights were descended from freedmen (Ann. 13.27), but this is generally disputed.
His father may have been the Cornelius Tacitus who served as procurator of Belgica and Germania; Pliny the Elder mentions that Cornelius had a son who aged rapidly (NH 7.76), which implies an early death. There is no mention of Tacitus suffering such a condition, but it is possible that this refers to a brother—if Cornelius was indeed his father.The friendship between the younger Pliny and Tacitus leads some scholars to conclude that they were both the offspring of wealthy provincial families.
The province of his birth remains unknown, though various conjectures suggest Gallia Belgica, Gallia Narbonensis or Northern Italy.His marriage to the daughter of Narbonensian senator Gnaeus Julius Agricola implies that he came from Gallia Narbonensis. Tacitus' dedication to Lucius Fabius Justus in the Dialogus may indicate a connection with Spain, and his friendship with Pliny suggests origins in northern Italy. No evidence exists, however, that Pliny's friends from northern Italy knew Tacitus, nor do Pliny's letters hint that the two men had a common background. Pliny Book 9, Letter 23 reports that, when he was asked if he was Italian or provincial, he gave an unclear answer, and so was asked if he was Tacitus or Pliny. Since Pliny was from Italy, some infer that Tacitus was from the provinces, probably Gallia Narbonensis.
His ancestry, his skill in oratory, and his sympathetic depiction of barbarians who resisted Roman rule (e.g., Ann. 2.9) have led some to suggest that he was a Celt. This belief stems from the fact that the Celts who had occupied Gaul prior to the Roman invasion were famous for their skill in oratory, and had been subjugated by Rome.
As a young man, Tacitus studied rhetoric in Rome to prepare for a career in law and politics; like Pliny, he may have studied under Quintilian 35 AD – c. 100). In 77 or 78, he married Julia Agricola, daughter of the famous general Agricola. Little is known of their domestic life, save that Tacitus loved hunting and the outdoors. He started his career (probably the latus clavus , mark of the senator) under Vespasian (r. 69–79), but entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus. He advanced steadily through the cursus honorum , becoming praetor in 88 and a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular games. He gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator; his skill in public speaking ironically counterpoints his cognomen Tacitus ("silent").(c.
He served in the provinces from c. 89 to c. 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He and his property survived Domitian's reign of terror (81–96), but the experience left him jaded and perhaps ashamed at his own complicity, giving him the hatred of tyranny evident in his works. The Agricola, chs. 44–45, is illustrative:
Agricola was spared those later years during which Domitian, leaving now no interval or breathing space of time, but, as it were, with one continuous blow, drained the life-blood of the Commonwealth... It was not long before our hands dragged Helvidius to prison, before we gazed on the dying looks of Mauricus and Rusticus, before we were steeped in Senecio's innocent blood. Even Nero turned his eyes away, and did not gaze upon the atrocities which he ordered; with Domitian it was the chief part of our miseries to see and to be seen, to know that our sighs were being recorded...
From his seat in the Senate, he became suffect consul in 97 during the reign of Nerva, being the first of his family to do so. During his tenure, he reached the height of his fame as an orator when he delivered the funeral oration for the famous veteran soldier Lucius Verginius Rufus.
In the following year, he wrote and published the Agricola and Germania, foreshadowing the literary endeavors that would occupy him until his death.Afterwards, he absented himself from public life, but returned during Trajan's reign (98–117). In 100, he and his friend Pliny the Younger prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile; Pliny wrote a few days later that Tacitus had spoken "with all the majesty which characterizes his usual style of oratory".
A lengthy absence from politics and law followed while he wrote the Histories and the Annals. In 112 to 113, he held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, 113) and Trajan (died 117). It remains unknown whether Tacitus had any children. The Augustan History reports that Emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus (r. 275–276) claimed him for an ancestor and provided for the preservation of his works, but this story may be fraudulent, like much of the Augustan History.recorded in the inscription found at Mylasa mentioned above. A passage in the Annals fixes 116 as the terminus post quem of his death, which may have been as late as 125 or even 130. It seems that he survived both Pliny (died c.
Five works ascribed to Tacitus have survived (albeit with lacunae), the most substantial of which are the Annals and the Histories. This canon (with approximate dates) consists of:
The Annals and the Histories , published separately, were meant to form a single edition of thirty books.Although Tacitus wrote the Histories before the Annals, the events in the Annals precede the Histories; together they form a continuous narrative from the death of Augustus (14) to the death of Domitian (96). Though most has been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era. The first half of the Annals survived in a single manuscript from Corvey Abbey in Germany, and the second half in a single manuscript from Monte Cassino in Italy, and so it is remarkable that they survived at all.
In an early chapter of the Agricola, Tacitus asserts that he wishes to speak about the years of Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. In the Histories the scope has changed; Tacitus says that he will deal with the age of Nerva and Trajan at a later time. Instead, he will cover the period from the civil wars of the Year of Four Emperors and end with the despotism of the Flavians. Only the first four books and twenty-six chapters of the fifth book survive, covering the year 69 and the first part of 70. The work is believed to have continued up to the death of Domitian on September 18, 96. The fifth book contains—as a prelude to the account of Titus's suppression of the First Jewish–Roman War—a short ethnographic survey of the ancient Jews, and it is an invaluable record of Roman attitudes towards them.
The Annals, Tacitus' final work, covers the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in 14 AD. He wrote at least sixteen books, but books 7–10 and parts of books 5, 6, 11 and 16 are missing. Book 6 ends with the death of Tiberius and books 7 to 12 presumably covered the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. The remaining books cover the reign of Nero, perhaps until his death in June 68 or until the end of that year to connect with the Histories. The second half of book 16 is missing, ending with the events of 66. It is not known whether Tacitus completed the work; he died before he could complete his planned histories of Nerva and Trajan and no record survives of the work on Augustus Caesar and the beginnings of the Roman Empire, with which he had planned to finish his work. The Annals is one of the earliest secular historical records to mention Christ, which Tacitus does in connection with Nero's persecution of the Christians.
Tacitus wrote three works with a more limited scope. Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola; the Germania, a monograph on the lands and tribes of barbarian Germania; and the Dialogus, a dialogue on the art of rhetoric.
The Germania (Latin title: De Origine et situ Germanorum) is an ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire. The Germania fits within a classical ethnographic tradition which includes authors such as Herodotus and Julius Caesar. The book begins (chapters 1–27) with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the various tribes. Later chapters focus on descriptions of particular tribes, beginning with those who lived closest to the Roman empire, and ending with a description of those who lived on the shores of the Baltic Sea, such as the Fenni. Tacitus had written a similar, albeit shorter, piece in his Agricola (chapters 10–13).
The Agricola (written c. 98) recounts the life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an eminent Roman general and Tacitus' father-in-law; it also covers, briefly, the geography and ethnography of ancient Britain. As in the Germania, Tacitus favorably contrasts the liberty of the native Britons with the tyranny and corruption of the Empire; the book also contains eloquent polemics against the greed of Rome, one of which, that Tacitus claims is from a speech by Calgacus, ends by asserting that Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace. —Oxford Revised Translation).
There is uncertainty about when Tacitus wrote Dialogus de oratoribus. Many characteristics set it apart from the other works of Tacitus, so that its authenticity has at various times been questioned. It is likely to be early work, indebted to the author's rhetorical training, since its style imitates that of the foremost Roman orator Cicero. It lacks (for example) the incongruities that are typical of his mature historical works. The Dialogus is dedicated to Fabius Iustus, a consul in 102 AD.
Tacitus's writings are known for their dense prose that seldom glosses the facts, in contrast to the style of some of his contemporaries, such as Plutarch. When he writes about a near-defeat of the Roman army in Ann. I, 63 he does so with brevity of description rather than embellishment.
In most of his writings he keeps to a chronological narrative order, only seldom outlining the bigger picture, leaving the readers to construct that picture for themselves. Nonetheless, where he does use broad strokes, for example, in the opening paragraphs of the Annals, he uses a few condensed phrases which take the reader to the heart of the story.
Tacitus's historical style owes some debt to Sallust. His historiography offers penetrating—often pessimistic—insights into the psychology of power politics, blending straightforward descriptions of events, moral lessons, and tightly focused dramatic accounts. Tacitus's own declaration regarding his approach to history (Annals I,1) is well known:
|"inde consilium mihi ... tradere ... sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo."||my purpose is to relate ... without either anger or zeal, motives from which I am far removed.|
There has been much scholarly discussion about Tacitus' "neutrality". Throughout his writing, he is preoccupied with the balance of power between the Senate and the Emperors, and the increasing corruption of the governing classes of Rome as they adjusted to the ever-growing wealth and power of the empire. In Tacitus's view, Senators squandered their cultural inheritance—that of free speech—to placate their (rarely benign) emperor.
Tacitus noted the increasing dependence of the emperor on the goodwill of his armies. The Julio-Claudians eventually gave way to generals, who followed Julius Caesar (and Sulla and Pompey) in recognizing that military might could secure them the political power in Rome.(Hist.1.4 )
Welcome as the death of Nero had been in the first burst of joy, yet it had not only roused various emotions in Rome, among the Senators, the people, or the soldiery of the capital, it had also excited all the legions and their generals; for now had been divulged that secret of the empire, that emperors could be made elsewhere than at Rome.
Tacitus's political career was largely lived out under the emperor Domitian. His experience of the tyranny, corruption, and decadence of that era (81–96) may explain the bitterness and irony of his political analysis. He draws our attention to the dangers of power without accountability, love of power untempered by principle, and the apathy and corruption engendered by the concentration of wealth generated through trade and conquest by the empire.
Nonetheless, the image he builds of Tiberius throughout the first six books of the Annals is neither exclusively bleak nor approving: most scholars view the image of Tiberius as predominantly positive in the first books, and predominantly negative after the intrigues of Sejanus. The entrance of Tiberius in the first chapters of the first book is dominated by the hypocrisy of the new emperor and his courtiers. In the later books, some respect is evident for the cleverness of the old emperor in securing his position.
In general, Tacitus does not fear to praise and to criticize the same person, often noting what he takes to be their more-admirable and less-admirable properties. One of Tacitus's hallmarks is refraining from conclusively taking sides for or against persons he describes, which has led some to interpret his works as both supporting and rejecting the imperial system (see Tacitean studies, Black vs. Red Tacitists).
His Latin style is highly praised.His style, although it has a grandeur and eloquence (thanks to Tacitus's education in rhetoric), is extremely concise, even epigrammatic—the sentences are rarely flowing or beautiful, but their point is always clear. The style has been both derided as "harsh, unpleasant, and thorny" and praised as "grave, concise, and pithily eloquent".
A passage of Annals 1.1, where Tacitus laments the state of the historiography regarding the last four emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, illustrates his style: "The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred",or in a word-for-word translation:
|Tiberiī Gāīque et Claudiī ac Nerōnis rēs|
flōrentibus ipsīs—ob metum—falsae,
postquam occiderant—recentibus ōdiīs—compositae
|Tiberius', Gaius' and Claudius' as well as Nero's acts|
while flourishing themselves—out of fear—counterfeited,
after they came to fall—resulting from new-found hate— related
|(interpunction and linebreaks added for clarity)|
Compared to the Ciceronian period, where sentences were usually the length of a paragraph and artfully constructed with nested pairs of carefully matched sonorous phrases, this is short and to the point. But it is also very individual. Note the three different ways of saying and in the first line (-que, et, ac), and especially the matched second and third lines. They are parallel in sense but not in sound; the pairs of words ending "…-entibus …-is" are crossed over in a way that deliberately breaks the Ciceronian conventions—which one would however need to be acquainted with to see the novelty of Tacitus' style. Some readers, then and now, find this teasing of their expectations merely irritating. Others find the deliberate discord, playing against the evident parallelism of the two lines, stimulating and intriguing.
His historical works focus on the motives of the characters, often with penetrating insight—though it is questionable how much of his insight is correct, and how much is convincing only because of his rhetorical skill.He is at his best when exposing hypocrisy and dissimulation; for example, he follows a narrative recounting Tiberius's refusal of the title pater patriae by recalling the institution of a law forbidding any "treasonous" speech or writings—and the frivolous prosecutions which resulted (Annals, 1.72). Elsewhere (Annals 4.64–66) he compares Tiberius's public distribution of fire relief to his failure to stop the perversions and abuses of justice which he had begun. Although this kind of insight has earned him praise, he has also been criticised for ignoring the larger context.
Tacitus owes most, both in language and in method, to Sallust, and Ammianus Marcellinus is the later historian whose work most closely approaches him in style.
Tacitus makes use of the official sources of the Roman state: the acta senatus (the minutes of the sessions of the Senate) and the acta diurna populi Romani (a collection of the acts of the government and news of the court and capital). He also read collections of emperors' speeches, such as those of Tiberius and Claudius. He is generally seen[ by whom? ] as a scrupulous historian who paid careful attention to his sources. The minor inaccuracies in the Annals may be due to Tacitus dying before he had finished (and therefore before he had proof-read) his work.
Tacitus cites some of his sources directly, among them Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus and Pliny the Elder, who had written Bella Germaniae and a historical work which was the continuation of that of Aufidius Bassus. Tacitus also uses collections of letters (epistolarium). He also took information from exitus illustrium virorum. These were a collection of books by those who were antithetical to the emperors. They tell of sacrifices by martyrs to freedom, especially the men who committed suicide. While he places no value on the Stoic theory of suicide and views suicides as ostentatious and politically useless, Tacitus often gives prominence to speeches made by those about to commit suicide, for example Cremutius Cordus' speech in Ann. IV, 34–35.
Domitian was Roman emperor from 81 to 96. He was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, his two predecessors on the throne, and the last member of the Flavian dynasty. During his reign, the authoritarian nature of his rule put him at sharp odds with the Senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.
The 90s ran from 90 AD to 99 AD.
Lucius Aelius Sejanus, commonly known as Sejanus, was an ambitious soldier, friend and confidant of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. An equestrian by birth, Sejanus rose to power as prefect of the Roman imperial bodyguard, known as the Praetorian Guard, of which he was commander from AD 14 until his death in AD 31.
The gens Julia was one of the most ancient patrician families at ancient Rome. Members of the gens attained the highest dignities of the state in the earliest times of the Republic. The first of the family to obtain the consulship was Gaius Julius Iulus in 489 BC. The gens is perhaps best known, however, for Gaius Julius Caesar, the dictator and grand uncle of the emperor Augustus, through whom the name was passed to the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty of the first century AD. The nomen Julius became very common in imperial times, as the descendants of persons enrolled as citizens under the early emperors began to make their mark in history.
The Flavian dynasty was a Roman imperial dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between 69 AD and 96 AD, encompassing the reigns of Vespasian (69–79), and his two sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96). The Flavians rose to power during the civil war of 69, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. After Galba and Otho died in quick succession, Vitellius became emperor in mid 69. His claim to the throne was quickly challenged by legions stationed in the Eastern provinces, who declared their commander Vespasian emperor in his place. The Second Battle of Bedriacum tilted the balance decisively in favour of the Flavian forces, who entered Rome on December 20. The following day, the Roman Senate officially declared Vespasian emperor of the Roman Empire, thus commencing the Flavian dynasty. Although the dynasty proved to be short-lived, several significant historic, economic and military events took place during their reign.
The Germania, written by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus around 98 AD and originally entitled On the Origin and Situation of the Germans, was a historical and ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.
Publius Pomponius Secundus was a distinguished statesman and poet in the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. He was suffect consul for the nundinium of January to June 44, succeeding the ordinary consul Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus and as the colleague of the other ordinary consul, Titus Statilius Taurus. Publius was on intimate terms with the elder Pliny, who wrote a biography of him, now lost.
The Annals by Roman historian and senator Tacitus is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, the years AD 14–68. The Annals are an important source for modern understanding of the history of the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD; it is Tacitus' final work, and modern historians generally consider it his greatest writing. Historian Ronald Mellor calls it "Tacitus's crowning achievement,” which represents the "pinnacle of Roman historical writing".
Histories is a Roman historical chronicle by Tacitus. Written c. 100–110, it covers c. 69–96, a period which includes the Year of Four Emperors following the downfall of Nero, as well as the period between the rise of the Flavian Dynasty under Vespasian and the death of Domitian.
Tacitean studies, centred on the work of Tacitus the Ancient Roman historian, constitute an area of scholarship extending beyond the field of history. The work has traditionally been read for its moral instruction, its narrative, and its inimitable prose style; Tacitus has been most influential as a political theorist, outside the field of history. The political lessons taken from his work fall roughly into two camps : the "red Tacitists", who used him to support republican ideals, and the "black Tacitists", those who read his accounts as a lesson in Machiavellian realpolitik.
Titus Vestricius Spurinna was a Roman senator, consul, and a friend and role model of Pliny the Younger. He was consul at least twice, the first time possibly in 72, and the second in the year 98 as the colleague of the emperor Trajan. Spurinna is one of the correspondents in Pliny's Letters, and had literary interests of his own, including writing lyric poetry. Pliny says dinner parties at his home were often enlivened by scenes from Roman comedy.
Roman historiography is indebted to the Greeks, who invented the form. The Romans had great models to base their works upon, such as Herodotus and Thucydides. Roman historiographical forms are different from the Greek ones however, and voice very Roman concerns. The Roman style of history was based on the way that the Annals of the Pontifex Maximus, or the Annales Maximi, were recorded. The Annales Maximi include a wide array of information, including religious documents, names of consuls, deaths of priests, and various disasters throughout history. Also part of the Annales Maximi are the White Tablets, or the "Tabulae Albatae", which consist of information on the origin of the republic.
Germania ( was a short-lived Roman province for the duration of 16 years under Augustus, from 7 BC to AD 9. The possible capital of this province was Marktbreit -a recently discovered castrum with a nearby Canabae from the period of Emperor Augustus- located 70 km east of the "Limes Germanicus" on the River Main
Nerva was Roman emperor from 96 to 98. Nerva became emperor when aged almost 66, after a lifetime of imperial service under Nero and the rulers of the Flavian dynasty. Under Nero, he was a member of the imperial entourage and played a vital part in exposing the Pisonian conspiracy of 65. Later, as a loyalist to the Flavians, he attained consulships in 71 and 90 during the reigns of Vespasian and Domitian, respectively.
Sulpicia Praetextata was an ancient Roman noblewoman who lived in the Roman Empire in the 1st century.
The gens Helvidia was a plebeian family at Rome. Members of this gens are first mentioned in the final decades of the Republic. A century later, the Helvidii distinguished themselves by what has been called their "earnest, but fruitless, patriotism."
The gens Norbana was a plebeian family at Rome. Members of this gens are first mentioned toward the beginning of the first century BC, and from then to the end of the second century AD they filled a number of magistracies and other important posts, first in the late Republic, and subsequently under the emperors.
Marcus Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatius Maternus was a Roman senator and general during the reign of Domitian. He was suffect consul during the nundinium of September to October AD 83 with Lucius Calventius Sextius Carminius Vetus. Although some experts consider him a rival with Trajan as heir apparent to the emperor Nerva, he is primarily known from inscriptions.
Aulus Bucius Lappius Maximus was a Roman senator who flourished during the Flavian dynasty; Brian W. Jones considers him one of Domitian's amici or advisors. He held the consulate twice.
Marcus Aquilius Regulus was a Roman senator, and notorious delator or informer who was active during the reigns of Nero and Domitian. Regulus is one of the best known examples of this occupation, in the words of Steven Rutledge, due to "the vivid portrait we have of his life and career in Pliny, Tacitus, and Martial." Despite this negative reputation, Regulus was considered one of the three finest orators of Roman times. Rutledge points to the judgment of Martianus Capella, who ranked him with Pliny the Younger and Fronto as the greatest Roman orators after Cicero. However, none of his speeches have survived from ancient times.
Cornelius Tacitus is generally considered the greatest Roman historian [...].
The Silver Age produced two outstanding historians. Cornelius Tacitus (c. A.D. 55-120), through his Histories and the Annals, is the major source for the history of the empire in the first century.
Seniority brought him the governorship of the province of Asia as proconsul in 112–113.
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Works by Tacitus
Quintus Glitius Atilius Agricola,
and Lucius Pomponius Maternus
as Suffect consuls
| Suffect consul of the Roman Empire |
with Marcus Ostorius Scapula
and Trajan II
as Ordinary consuls