Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus)

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus) (ca. A.D. 56-ca. 117) Roman historian, biographer, and essayist

A brilliant successor to the essayist SENECA the Younger, the statesman and chronicler Tacitus mirrored the compression and conciseness of the Greek historian THUCYDIDES. Believed to have been born in northern Italy or in southern Gaul, he was the son of the governor of Belgic Gaul. Tacitus enjoyed the privileged education of the knight class, but he was not too gentrified to be unsympathetic toward barbarian tribes who suffered under the control of imperial Rome. He served as a mentor and friend to the essayist PLINY THE YOUNGER and, at age 22, married Julia, daughter of General Gnaeus Julius Agricola. After studying rhetoric and law, Tacitus exhibited the influence of the orator Cicero on his dignified speaking style. By age 32, he achieved a judgeship and membership in a priestly college and advanced within the year to a provincial governorship.

The jurist's worst experience with imperialism occurred after A.D. 93, when Emperor Domitian executed at least 20 senators. In the BIOGRAPHY De vita et moribus Julii Agricolae (On the life and character of Julius Agricola, A.D. 98), Tacitus, then a consul, accused the emperor of squeezing the life's blood from the nation. That same year, he raised questions of Roman moral and cultural differences with tribal Germans in “De origine et situ Germanorum” (“On the Origin and Situation of the Germans,” A.D. 98). He retired to write for pleasure but returned to his law practice at age 44 during Trajan's term to join Pliny in the joint prosecution of Marius Priscus, a corrupt proconsul in Lepcis, Africa (present-day Al Khums, Libya). At age 56, Tacitus accepted appointment to the governorship of western Anatolia (present-day Turkey).

History as Critique

Tacitus excoriated the decline of Roman nobility into imperial squalor. Set in the reign of Vespasian, the 14-book Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Orators, ca. A.D. 105), is a paean to the quality and high moral tone of public oratory during the last years of the Roman Republic. In an attack on imperial high-handness, he decried the loss of civil rights and freedom of speech during Rome's previous generations. In the quick-paced Histories (A.D. 107), he critiqued imperial failings over a half century from the reign of Nero to Domitian by focusing on A.D. 69, the year of four rulers—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. The narrative reminds the reader that hereditary monarchy lacks assurance of quality. Of Nero, Tacitus charges, “It was his own profligacy, his own brutality, and that, though there had been before no precedent of an emperor condemned by his own people” (Tacitus 1876, 9). In the quick succession of three despots followed by the election of Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty, the historian acknowledged that the army had more power over selection of an emperor than did the senate or citizenry. Tacitus particularized the dangers of selling official posts for money and the calamity of mob uprisings and bloodbaths climaxing with heads hoisted on poles for public viewing. He raged at the destruction of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, a longstanding emblem of Roman piety.

A broader scan in Tacitus's 16-book Ab excessu divi Augusti (Annals, A.D. 116) covered the entire empire to A.D. 116. An ambivalent text, the narrative recognizes the precarious state of Rome's line of succession by cataloguing a series of scandals, conspiracies, and crimes. Tacitus commended Augustus for making the transition from civil war to empire but held out little hope that succeeding emperors would maintain the quality of life and justice of the previous century. The history depicts Tiberius, Augustus's successor, as a sexual libertine and the puppet of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, an officer of the Praetorian Guard whom the Roman mob dismembered in A.D. 31. Of the much flaunted successes of the popular general Germanicus, Mark Antony's grandson, in central Europe, Tacitus strips the myth of glitter by balancing victories with losses. Rather than praise Roman achievements against the Germani, the chronicler concludes that the Germani made the Rhine an unyielding northern boundary of Rome's aspirations.


Haynes, Holly. The History of Make-believe: Tacitus on

Imperial Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Tacitus. Annals of Tacitus. Translated by Alfred John

Church and William Jackson Brodribb. London: Macmillan, 1906.

----- . The History of Tacitus. Translated by Alfred John Church. London: Macmillan, 1876.