Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus1 (c. 55–c. 117), Roman orator, lawyer, and senator, is today remembered as one of antiquity's greatest historians. His major works—the Annals and the Histories—took for their subject the history of the Roman Empire's first century, from the accession of the emperor Tiberius to the death of Domitian.
Tacitus, like many other literary figures of his age, was born to a provincial equestrian family, probably in northern Italy or southern Gaul. As a young man he studied rhetoric in preparation for a career in law and politics. In his early 20s he married Julia Agricola, daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola. In 81, under Titus, he began his political career as quaestor. He advanced steadily through the cursus honorum, gaining acclaim as a lawyer and orator; his skill in public speaking gave a marked irony to his cognomen Tacitus (silent). He survived Domitian's reign of terror—that he was serving in the provinces from c. 89 to c. 93 doubtless helped—and from a senator he advanced to the consulship in 97. In the same year he reached the height of his fame as an orator when he delivered the funeral oration for the famous old soldier Verginius Rufus. In the following year he wrote and published his three minor works, after which he returned to practicing law. In 100 he, along with his old friend Pliny the Younger, successfully prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption; Pliny wrote a few days later (Letters, 2.11) that Tacitus had spoken "with all the majesty which characterizes his usual style of oratory". After a lengthy absence from politics, during which time he wrote his two major works, he held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, in 112. He is thought to have died around 117; it is unknown whether he was survived by any children, though the emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus falsely claimed him as an ancestor.
His two major works are a continuous history of the first century in the Roman Empire, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian; though parts have been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era.
The Annals (ab excessu Divi Augusti) was Tacitus' final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in the year 14. He wrote at least 16 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 7-12 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. We do not know whether Tacitus completed the work or whether he finished the history of Augustus's reign by which he had planned to complete his work as an historian.
Of the Histories only the first four books and 26 chapters of the fifth book have survived, 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.
He also wrote three minor works on various subjects: the 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.
In the Germania (written c. 98), Tacitus surveys the lands, customs, and governments of the Germanic peoples. His treatment of the tribes outside the empire is of mixed value to historians: he uses what he reports of the German character as a kind of 'noble savage' as a comparison to contemporary Romans and their (in his eyes) 'degeneracy'. Thanks to this portrayal, the work was popular in Germany -- especially among German nationalists and German Romantics -- from the sixteenth century on.
Despite this bias, he does supply us with many names for tribes with which Rome had come into contact. Tacitus' information was not, in general, based on first-hand knowledge, and more recent research has shown that many of his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, contemporary historians debate whether all these tribes were really Germanic in the sense that they spoke a Germanic language - some of them, like the Batavii, may have been Celts. He is also to blame for the misnaming of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which did not quite take place in the saltus Teutoburgiensis, as he claimed in the Germania.
Agricola (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae)
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 contrasted the liberty of the native Britons to the corruption and tyranny of the Empire; the book also contains eloquent and vicious polemics against the rapacity and greed of Rome.
Approach to history
Tacitus' historical style, which would strongly influence Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall, combines various approaches to history into a method of his own (owing some debt to Sallust); seamlessly blending straightforward descriptions of events, pointed moral lessons, and tightly-focused dramatic account, his histories contain deep and pessimistic insight into the workings of the human mind and the nature of power.
Tacitus was primarily concerned with the balance of power between the Roman senate and the Roman Emperors. His writings are filled with tales of corruption and tyranny in the governing class of Rome as they failed to adjust to the new imperial régime; they squandered their cherished cultural traditions of free speech and self-respect as they fell over themselves to please the often bemused (and rarely benign) emperor. One well-known passage from his writings mentions the death of Christ (Annals, xv 44).
The factual accuracy of his work is occasionally questioned: his Annals are based in part on secondary sources of unknown reliability, and his own experience of Domitian's tyrannical reign gave an unfairly bitter and ironic cast to his portrayal of the Julio-Claudian emperors. His History, written from primary documents and his intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, is thought to be more accurate, though Tacitus' hatred of Domitian has colored its tone and interpretations.
Tacitus' political career was largely spent under the emperor Domitian; his experience of the tyranny, corruption, and decadence prevalent in the era (81–96) may explain his bitter and ironic political analysis. He warned against the dangers of unaccountable power; of the love of power untempered by principle; and against the popular apathy and corruption, engendered by the wealth of empire, which allowed such evils to flourish.
His work gained popularity during the Early Modern era, when it was a favorite of Niccolò Machiavelli, among others. His criticisms of tyranny and love of republicanism earned him the love of the French Revolutionaries and the hatred of Napoleon, who tried (unsuccessfully) to discredit his work as a forgery. One of his polemics against the evils of empire, from his Agricola (biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ch. 30) was often quoted during the United States invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (see for example ) by those who found its warnings as applicable to the modern era as to the ancient. It reads, in part:
Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, iam mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit. . . . Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
(Punctuation follows the Loeb Classical Library edition; ellipsis is added.) In translation, it reads:
Brigands of the world, after the earth has failed their all-devastating hands, they probe even the sea; if their enemy be wealthy, they are greedy; if he be poor, they are ambitious; neither the East nor the West has glutted them. . . . They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.
Tacitus' skill with written Latin is unsurpassed; no other author is considered his equal, except perhaps for Cicero. His style differs both from the prevalent style of the Silver Age and from that of the Golden Age; though it has a calculated grandeur and eloquence (largely thanks to Tacitus' education in rhetoric), it is extremely concise, even epigrammatic -- the sentences are rarely flowing or beautiful, but their point is always clear. The same style has been both derided as "harsh, unpleasant, and thorny" and praised as "grave, concise, and pithily eloquent".
His historical works focus on the psyches and inner motivations 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' 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' public distribution of fire relief to his failure to stop the perversions and abuses of justice which he had begun. Though this kind of insight has earned him praise, he has also been criticized for ignoring the larger context of the events which he describes.
- The letters of Sidonius Apollinaris call him "Gaius"; one of the two extant manuscripts of his works gives his name as "Publius". (See Syme, Tacitus, p. 59, note 1)
- Ronald Martin, Tacitus (Los Angeles, UC Press, 1981)
- Clarence Mendell, Tacitus: The Man and His Work (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1957) ISBN 0208008187
- Ronald Syme, Tacitus, Volumes 1 and 2 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985) (the definitive study of his life and works) ISBN 0198143273
- Ronald Syme, Ten Studies in Tacitus (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1970) ISBN 0198143583
- Various authors, Tacitus (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) ISBN 0710064322
- Asteroid 3097 Tacitus, named after the historian