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This article is about the historian Tacitus. For the Emperor Tacitus, see Marcus Claudius Tacitus.

Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117), Roman orator, lawyer, and senator, is considered 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's works contain a wealth of information about his day and age, but details on his own life are lacking. Even his praenomen (first name) is uncertain. What little we know comes from scattered hints throughout the corpus of his work, the letters of his friend and admirer Pliny the Younger, an inscription found at Mylasa in Caria, and educated guesswork.

Tacitus was born in 56 or 571.1). The supposition that he descended from a freed slave finds no support apart from his statement, in an invented speech, that many senators and knights were descended from freedmen (Ann. 13.27), and is easily dismissed7.76), implying an early death. This means that this son was not the historian, but his brother or cousin—the senior Cornelius Tacitus may have been an uncle10.20), but not to the more distinguished Tacitus—which, had Tacitus been Spanish, might be unusual, were Martial's light and often scurrilous style not antithetical to Tacitus's grave and serious manner. No evidence exists that Pliny's friends from northern Italy knew Tacitus, nor do Pliny's letters ever hint that the two men shared a common home province2.9), have led some to suggest that he was of Celtic stock: the Celts had occupied Gaul before the Romans, the Celts were famous for their skill in oratory, and the Celts had been subjugated by Rome.1.1), but it was under Titus that he entered political life as quaestor, in 81 or 827.33)

Tacitus is remembered first and foremost as Rome's greatest historian, the equal—if not the superior—of Thucydides, the ancient Greeks' foremost historian; the 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica opined that he "ranks beyond dispute in the highest place among men of letters of all ages". His influence extends far beyond the field of history. His work has been read for its moral instruction, its gripping and dramatic narrative, and its inimitable prose style; it is as a political theorist, though, that he has been (and still is) most influential outside the field of history.9

  1. ^  Pliny, Letters 1.6, 9.10; Benario, 1975, pp. 15, 17; Syme, 1958, pp. 541–542
  2. ^  Syme, 1958, p. 63; Martin, 1981, pp. 26–27
  3. ^  From the Histories (1.1) we learn of his debt to Titus; since Titus's rule was short, these are the only years possible.
  4. ^  In the Annals (11.11) he mentions that he, as praetor, assisted in the Secular Games held by Domitian, which are dated precisely to 88. See Syme, 1958, p. 65; Martin, 1981, p. 27
  5. ^  The Agricola (45.5) indicates that Tacitus and his wife were absent at the time of Julius Agricola's death in 93. For his occupation during this time see Syme, 1958, p. 68; Benario, 1975, p. 13; Dudley, 1968, pp. 15–16; Martin, 1981, p. 28; Mellor, 1993, p. 8
  6. ^  Agricola, 4445: "[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 Manricus 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[. . .] ." For the effects on Tacitus's ideology see Dudley, 1968, p. 14; Mellor, 1993, pp. 8–9
  7. ^  Pliny, Letters, 2.1 (English)
  8. ^  In the Agricola (3) he announces what must be the beginning of his first great project: the Histories. See Dudley, 1968, p. 16
  9. ^  Pliny, Letters 2.11
  10. ^  Annals, 2.61, says that the Roman Empire "now extends to the Red Sea". If by "mare rubrum" he means the Persian Gulf, as is possible, then the passage must have been written after Trajan's eastern conquests in 116, but before Hadrian abandoned the new territories in 117. This may indicate only the date of publication for the first books of the Annals; Tacitus himself could have lived well into Hadrian's reign, and there is no reason to suppose that he did not. See Dudley, 1968, p. 17; Mellor, 1993, p. 9; Mendell, 1957, p. 7; Syme, 1958, p. 473
  11. ^  Augustan History, Tacitus X. Scholarly opinion on this story is divided as to whether it is "a confused and worthless rumor" (Mendell, 1957, p. 4) or "pure fiction" (Syme, 1958, p. 796). Sidonius Apollinaris reports (Letters, 4.14; cited in Syme, 1958, p. 796) that Polemius, a 5th-century Gallo-Roman aristocrat, descended from Tacitus—but this too, says Syme (ibid.) is of little use.
  12. ^  Jerome's commentary on the Book of Zechariah (14.1, 2; quoted in Mendell, 1957, p. 228) says that Tacitus's history was extant triginta voluminibus, 'in thirty volumes'.
  13. ^  Mellor, 1995, p. xvii
  14. ^  Burke, 1969, pp. 162–163


  • Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966)
  • Benario, Herbert W. An Introduction to Tacitus. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1975) ISBN 0820303615
  • Burke, P. "Tacitism" in Dorey, T.A., 1969, pp. 149–171
  • Dorey, T.A. (ed.). Tacitus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) ISBN 0710064322
  • Dudley, Donald R. The World of Tacitus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968) ISBN 0436139006
  • Gordon, Mary L. "The Patria of Tacitus". The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 26, Part 2. (1936), pp. 145–151.
  • Haverfield, F. "Tacitus during the Late Roman Period and the Middle Ages". The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 6. (1916), pp. 196-201.
  • Martin, Ronald. Tacitus (Los Angeles, UC Press, 1981)
  • Mellor, Ronald. Tacitus (London: Routledge, 1993) ISBN 0415906652
  • Mellor, Ronald (ed.). Tacitus: The Classical Heritage (NY: Garland Publishing, 1995) ISBN 0815309333
  • Mendell, Clarence. Tacitus: The Man and His Work. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957) ISBN 0208008187
  • Oliver, Revilo P. "The First Medicean MS of Tacitus and the Titulature of Ancient Books". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 82. (1951), pp. 232–261.
  • Oliver, Revilo P., "The Praenomen of Tacitus". The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 98, No. 1. (Spring, 1977), pp. 64–70
  • Schellhase, Kenneth C. Tacitus in Renaissance Political Thought (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976) ISBN 0226737004
  • Syme, Ronald. Tacitus, Volumes 1 and 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958) (reprinted in 1985 by the same publisher, with the ISBN 0198143273) is the definitive study of his life and works.
  • Syme, Ronald. Ten Studies in Tacitus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) ISBN 0198143583

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04