Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 56–ca. 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 death of the emperor Augustus in 14 A.D. to the death of the emperor Domitian in 96 A.D.
Tacitus's works contain a wealth of information about his world, 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 Caria1, and educated guesswork.
Tacitus was born in 56 or 572 to an equestrian family; like many other Latin authors of the Golden and Silver Ages, he was from the provinces, probably northern Italy, Gallia Narbonensis, or Hispania. The exact place and date of his birth are nowhere made explicit. Nor is his praenomen: in some letters of Sidonius Apollinaris and in some old and unimportant writings his name is Gaius, but in the major surviving manuscript of his work his name is given as Publius3. (One scholar's suggestion of Sextus has gained no traction4).
Descent and place of birth
His scorn for the social climber has led to the supposition that his family was from an unknown branch of the patrician gens Cornelia, but no Cornelii had ever borne the cognomen Tacitus, the older aristocratic families had largely been destroyed in the chaos surrounding the end of the Republic, and Tacitus himself is clear that he owes his rank to the Flavian emperors (Hist. 1.1). The supposition that he descended from a freedman 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 dismissed5.
His father was probably the Cornelius Tacitus who was procurator of Belgica and Germania. A son of this Cornelius Tacitus is cited by Pliny the Elder as an example of abnormally rapid growth and aging (N.H. 7.76), 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 uncle6. From this connection, and from the well-attested friendship between the younger Pliny and the younger Tacitus, scholars draw the conclusion that the two families were of similar class, means, and background: equestrians, of significant wealth, from provincial families7.
The exact province of his origin is unknown. His marriage to the daughter of the Narbonensian senator Gnaeus Julius Agricola may indicate that he, too, came from Gallia Narbonensis. The possibly-Spanish origin of the Fabius Iustus to whom Tacitus dedicates the Dialogus suggests a (family?) connection to Hispania. His friendship with Pliny points to northern Italy as his home8. None of this evidence is conclusive. Gnaeus Julius Agricola could have known Tacitus from elsewhere. Martial dedicates a poem to Pliny (10.20), 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 province9. The opposite, in fact: the strongest piece of evidence is in Book 9, Letter 23, which reports how Tacitus was asked if he were Italian or provincial, and upon giving an unclear answer, was further asked if he were Tacitus or Pliny. Since Pliny was from Italy, Tacitus must have been from the further provinces, and Gallia Narbonensis is the most likely candidate.10
His ancestry, his skill in oratory, and his occasional sympathy for barbarians who resisted Roman rule (e.g., Ann. 2.9), 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.11
Public life, marriage, and literary career
As a young man he studied rhetoric in Rome as preparation for a career in law and politics; like Pliny, he may have studied under Quintilian.12 In 77 or 78 he married Julia Agricola, daughter of the famous general Agricola13; we know nothing of their marriage or their home life, save that Tacitus loved hunting and the outdoors.14 He owed the start of his career (probably meaning the latus clavus, mark of the senator15) to Vespasian, as he tells us in the Histories (1.1), but it was under Titus that he entered political life as quaestor, in 81 or 8216. He advanced steadily through the cursus honorum, becoming praetor in 88 and holding a position among the quindecemviri sacris faciundis, members of a priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.17 He gained acclaim as a lawyer and orator; his skill in public speaking gave a marked irony to his cognomen Tacitus ('silent').
He served in the provinces from ca. 89 to ca. 93, perhaps in command of a legion, perhaps in a civilian post.18 His person and property survived Domitian's reign of terror (93–96), but the experience left him jaded and grim, perhaps ashamed at his own complicity, and gave him the hatred of tyranny so evident throughout his works.19 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 old soldier Verginius Rufus.20
In the following year he wrote and published his Agricola and Germania, announcing the beginnings of the literary endeavors that would occupy him until his death.21 Afterwards he disappears from the public scene, to which he returns during Trajan's reign. In 100, he, along with 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".22
A lengthy absence from politics and law followed, during which time he wrote his two major works: first the Histories, then the Annals. He held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, in 112 or 113, as evidenced by 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 12523. It is unknown whether he was survived by any children, though the Augustan History reports that the emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus claimed him as an ancestor and provided for the preservation of his works—but like so much of the Augustan History, this story is probably fraudulent.24Works
Five works ascribed to Tacitus have survived (or at least: large parts thereof). Years are approximate, and the last two (his "major" works), took probably more than a few years to write.
(98) De vita Iulii Agricolae (The Life of Julius Agricola)
(98) De origine et situ Germanorum (The Germania)
(102) Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Oratory)
(105) Historiae (Histories)
(117) Ab excessu divi Augusti (Annals)
The two major works, originally published separately, were meant to form a single edition of thirty books25, with the Annals preceding the Histories. This inverted the chronological order in which they were written, but formed a continuous narrative of the era from the death of Augustus (14) to the death of Domitian (96). Though parts have been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era.
In one of the first chapters of the Agricola, Tacitus said that he wished to speak about the years of Domitian, of Nerva, and of Trajan. In the Historiae the project has been modified: in the introduction, Tacitus says that he will deal with the age of Nerva and Trajan at a later time. Instead, he will cover the period that started with the civil wars of the Year of Four Emperors and ended with the despotism of the Flavians. Only the first four books and twenty-six 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. The fifth book contains—as a prelude to the account of Titus's suppression of the Great Jewish Revolt—a short ethnographic survey of the ancient Jews and is an invaluable record of the educated Romans' attitude towards that people.
The Annals was Tacitus's final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in the year 14. 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 7-12 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 the year 66). We do not know whether Tacitus completed the work or whether he finished the other works that he had planned to write; 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 Empire with which he had planned to finish his work as a historian.
Tacitus 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.
The Germania (Latin title: De Origine et situ Germanorum) is an ethnographic work on the diverse set of Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire. Ethnography had a long and distinguished heritage in classical literature, and the Germania fits squarely within the tradition established by authors from Herodotus to Julius Caesar. Tacitus himself had already written a similar, albeit shorter, piece in his Agricola (chapters 10–13). The book begins with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the Germans (chapters 1–27); it then segues into descriptions of individual tribes, beginning with those dwelling closest to Roman lands and ending on the uttermost shores of the Baltic Sea, with a description of the primitive and savage Fenni and the unknown tribes beyond them.
Agricola (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae)
The Agricola (written ca. 98) recounts the life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an eminent Roman general and Tacitus's 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.
When the Dialogus de oratoribus was written remains uncertain, but it was probably written after the Agricola and the Germania. Many characteristics set it apart from the other works of Tacitus, so much so that its authenticity may be questioned, even if it is always grouped with the Agricola and the Germania in the manuscript tradition. The way of speaking in the Dialogus seems closer to Cicero's proceedings, refined but not prolix, which inspired the teaching of Quintilian; it lacks the incongruities that are typical of Tacitus's major historical works. It may have been written when Tacitus was young; its dedication to Fabius Iustus would thus give the date of publication, but not the date of writing. More probably, the unusually classical style may be explained by the fact that the Dialogus is a work dealing with rhetoric. For works in the rhetoric genre, the structure, the language, and the style of Cicero were the usual models.
The sources of Tacitus
Tacitus was able to consult the official sources of the Roman state: the acta senatus (the minutes of the session 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 could read the collections of speeches by some emperors, such as Tiberius and Claudius. Generally, Tacitus was a scrupulous historian who paid careful attention to his historical works. The minor inacurracies occurring in the Annals might be due to the fact that Tacitus died before completely finishing (and supposedly final proofreading) of this work. He used a great variety of historical and literary sources as well; he used them with freedom and he chose from varied sources of varied tendency.
Tacitus cites some of his sources directly, among them Pliny the Elder, who had written Bella Germaniae and an historical work which was the continuation of that of Aufidius Bassus. Tacitus could use some collections of letters (epistolarium) and various notes. He also took some information from the works of the historical genre named exitus illustrium virorum. These were a collection of books on and by those who opposed the emperors. They tell of the sacrifice of the martyr to freedom, especially the men who committed suicide, following the theory of the Stoics. Tacitus used these materials to give a dramatic tone to his stories, while he placed no value on the theory of the suicides. These suicides seem, to him, ostentatious and politically useless, while, on the other hand he is sometimes over the hill about the "swansong" speeches of some of those about to commit suicide, for example Cremutius Cordus' speech in Ann. IV, 34-35.
Tacitus's writings are known for their instantly deep-cutting and dense prose, seldom glossy, in contrast with the more placable style of some of his contemporaries, like Plutarch.
When he describes a near-to-defeat of the Roman army in Ann. I, 63 this is one of the rare occasions where he applies some kind of gloss, but then still rather by the brevity with which he describes the end of the hostilities, than by embellishing phrases.
In most of his writings he keeps to a strictly chronological ordering of his narration, with only seldom an outline of the bigger picture, as if he leaves it to the reader to construct that "bigger picture" for himself.
Nonetheless, when he sketches the bigger picture, for example in the opening paragraphs of the Annals, summarizing the situation at the end of the reign of Augustus, he needs no more than a few condensed phrases to take the reader to the heart of the story.
Approach to history
Tacitus's historical style 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 accounts, his history writing contains deep, and often pessimistic, insights into the workings of the human mind and the nature of power.
Tacitus's own declaration regarding his approach to history is famous (Ann. I,1):
inde consilium mihi .. tradere ... sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo. Hence my purpose is to relate ... without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives to which I am far removed.
Although this is probably as close as one can get to a neutral point of view intention in antiquity, there has been much scholarly discussion about Tacitus's alleged "neutrality" (or "partiality" to others, which would make the quote above no more than a figure of speech).
Throughout his writings, Tacitus appears 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.
Another important recurring theme is the role of having the sympathy of the army in the coming to power (and staying there) of an Emperor: throughout the period Tacitus is describing, the leading role in that respect sways between (some of) the legions defending the outer borders of the Empire, and the troops residing in the city of Rome, most prominently the Praetorian Guard.
Tacitus's 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, against the love of power untempered by principle, and against the popular apathy and corruption, engendered by the wealth of the empire, which allowed such evils to flourish. The experience of Domitian's tyrannical reign is generally also seen as the cause of the sometimes unfairly bitter and ironic cast to his portrayal of the Julio-Claudian emperors.
Nonetheless the image he builds of Tiberius throughout the first six books of the Annals is neither exclusively bleak nor approving: most scholars analyse the image of Tiberius as predominantly positive in the first books, becoming predominantly negative in the following books relating the intrigues of Sejanus. Even then, the entrance of Tiberius in the first chapters of the first book is a crimson tale dominated by hypocrisy by and around the new emperor coming to power; and in the later books some kind of respect for the wisdom and cleverness of the old emperor, keeping out of Rome to secure his position, is often transparent.
In general Tacitus does not fear to give words of praise and words of rejection to the same person, often explaining openly which he thinks the commendable and which the despicable properties. Not conclusively taking sides for or against the persons he describes is his hallmark, and led thinkers in later times to interpret his works as well as a defense of an imperial system, as a rejection of the same (see Tacitean studies, Black vs. Red Tacitists). A better illustration of Tacitus's "sine ira et studio" is scarcely imaginable.
Tacitus's 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's 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.
Tacitus owes the most, both in language and in method, to Sallust; Ammianus Marcellinus is the later historian whose work most closely approaches him in style.
Studies and reception history
From Pliny the Younger's 7th Letter (to Tacitus), §33:
Auguror nec me fallit augurium, historias tuas immortales futuras. I predict, and my predictions do not fail me, that your histories will be immortal.
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 Encyclopædia 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.26 The political lessons taken from his work fall roughly into two camps (as identified by Giuseppe Toffanin): the "red Tacitists", who used him to support republican ideals, and the "black Tacitists", those who read him as a lesson in Machiavellian realpolitik.27
Though his work is the most reliable source for the history of his era, its factual accuracy is occasionally questioned: the Annals are based in part on secondary sources of unknown reliability, and there are some obvious minor mistakes (for instance confusing the two daughters of Mark Antony and Octavia Minor, both named Antonia). The Histories, written from primary documents and intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, is thought to be more accurate, though Tacitus's hatred of Domitian seemingly colored its tone and interpretations.
1. OGIS 487, first brought to light in Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, 1890, pp. 621–623.
2. Since he was appointed to the quaestorship during Titus's short rule (see note below), and twenty-five was the minimum age for the position, the date of his birth can be fixed with some accuracy.
3. See Oliver, 1951, for an analysis of the manuscript from which we take the name Publius; see also Oliver, 1977, which examines the evidence for each suggested praenomen (the well-known Gaius and Publius, the lesser-known suggestions of Sextus and Quintus) before settling on Publius as the most likely.
4. Oliver, 1977, cites an article by Harold Mattingly in Rivista storica dell'Antichità, 2 (1972) 169–185.
5. Syme, 1958, pp. 612–613; Gordon, 1936, pp. 145–146
6. Syme, 1958, p. 60, 613; Gordon, 1936, p. 149; Martin, 1981, p. 26
7. Syme, 1958, p. 63
8. Syme, 1958, pp. 614–616
9. Syme, 1958, pp. 616–619
10. Syme, 1958, p. 619; Gordon, 1936, p. 145
11. Gordon, 1936, pp. 150–151; Syme, 1958, pp. 621–624
12. That he studied rhetoric and law we know from the Dialogus, ch. 2; see also Martin, 1981, p. 26; Syme, 1958, pp. 114–115
13. Agricola, 9
14. Pliny, Letters 1.6, 9.10; Benario, 1975, pp. 15, 17; Syme, 1958, pp. 541–542
15. Syme, 1958, p. 63; Martin, 1981, pp. 26–27
16. From the Histories (1.1) we learn of his debt to Titus; since Titus's rule was short, these are the only years possible.
17. 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
18. 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
19. Agricola, 44–45: "[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
20. Pliny, Letters, 2.1 (English)
21. In the Agricola (3) he announces what must be the beginning of his first great project: the Histories. See Dudley, 1968, p. 16
22. Pliny, Letters 2.11
23. 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
24. 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.
25. 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'.