Tacitus c. 56-c. 117
(Full name Publius Cornelius Tacitus; also known as Gaius Cornelius Tacitus) Roman historian.
Considered the greatest historian of Rome and a singularly innovative stylist, Tacitus is best known for his Annals (c. 109-17) and Histories (c. 100-09). Over the course of thirty volumes, these works chronicle the Roman Empire from 14 to 96. A powerful and wealthy senator himself, Tacitus was highly critical of the lack of freedom under the tyrannical state and wrote fondly of earlier days of the Roman Republic and its ideals. But while he despised the corruption and decadence of Rome's newer leaders, he also hated the civil strife and anarchy that could result from a weak government. He also recognized that the time of the Republic had passed and that notable achievements had also been made in his own time. Imbued with a keen sense of responsibility to promote high morals, Tacitus wrote in the Annals: “It seems to me a historian's foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil words and deeds with the fear of posterity's denunciations.” Unlike traditional historical works, Tacitus’s Annals stressed events that represented ordinary, everyday happenings. According to him, it is these trivialities that most often give rise to great events. Tacitus had a rich collection of facts from which to draw, including Senate records and other official reports now lost, as well as memoirs, and oral accounts of eyewitnesses. He wrote in the consciously grand old style of the Golden Age, but he did not use its parallelism, favoring instead unusual syntax and word choice and a brevity that often reached the point of terseness. Tacitus's work influenced many writers and historians including Niccolò Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, John Milton, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “Tacitus I consider the first writer in the world without a single exception. His book is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.”
No ancient biography of Tacitus exists, nor did Tacitus write about himself, so little is known of his life. He was born in about 56, probably in the region of Gaul. Although a fifth-century writer reported his first name as Gaius, manuscript evidence supports the name Publius. His family was wealthy and provided him with an excellent education in rhetoric as well as access to the greatest orators of the time. He achieved the rank of senator in 75 or 76, under the rule of Vespasian, and in 77 married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola. In 88 Tacitus became a praetor. Agricola died in 93 and became the subject of what is believed to be Tacitus's first work, the Agricola (c. 98). Under the emperor Nerva, who ruled from 96 to 98, Tacitus held the office of consul and became one of Rome's leading orators. He published the Germania, a geographical and ethnographical study on the tribes of central and eastern Europe, in about 98. Around 112 he became proconsulate of the wealthy Roman province of Asia, an area now roughly corresponding to Turkey. Tacitus is generally believed to have died sometime after 117.
Although it is possible that writing for the Agricola started in 93, shortly after the death of Tacitus's father-in-law, the work was not published until about 98. Beyond its interest as biography, it is an invaluable source for information on the Celts in Britain before the island fell to Roman command. The Germania is a treatise on the customs and traits of the ancient peoples who inhabited the areas north of the Rhine and Danube rivers and is notable as one of the earliest presentations of the image of the Noble Savage, a type Tacitus contrasts to the morally wanting, upper class, modern Roman. The Dialogus (c. 102) consists of discussions between two lawyers and two men of literature concerning the decline of eloquence since the demise of the Republic and the relative merits of oratory and literature. It expresses Tacitus's belief that public speaking had become little more than clever trickery designed to entertain the crowd. The date of the work’s publication is subject to some dispute, with at least one scholar arguing that it appeared in 97. The Histories and the Annals are recognized by all critics as Tacitus's masterworks. The Histories as written comprised twelve or fourteen volumes; four books and part of a fifth are extant today. The original work is presumed to have chronicled, year by year, the period from 69 to the end of Domitian's reign in 96; only the coverage of the years 69 and 70 now exists, which includes the emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. In the Histories Tacitus deplores the loss of political freedom. The Annals, though written after the Histories, covers the years preceding it, from the final days of Augustus in 14 to Nero's forced suicide in 68. Originally the work contained eighteen or sixteen books; the first four books survive, parts of Books V and VI and XI, all of Books XII to XV, and part of XVI, totaling about forty years. Tiberius is the focus of the first six books, including his campaign against Germany, launched in 15, and his turn to violence in 23. Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius are treated in books VII to XII, and Nero in the remainder. It is not certain whether Tacitus completed the Annals by the time of his death.
Although popular in his time, Tacitus had fallen into obscurity by the fifth century and was scarcely mentioned in print for the next thousand years. The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio rediscovered him in the fourteenth century and by the sixteenth century, when his works were translated into English, Tacitus commanded the attention of countless political writers. Translators emphasize the difficulty of rendering adequately Tacitus's complex style and meaning in English. Michael Grant quotes other translators who have attempted the job but declared the task impossible. Grant discusses some of the problems: textual ambiguities and possible errors, with no alternate manuscripts to cross-check; antiquated terms; complex genealogies; and how best to convey the complexity of Tacitus's writing without making it unnatural and unreadable for modern readers. Two major areas of critical interest in Tacitus concern his style and his reliability as an historian. F. R. D. Goodyear contends that a fuller appreciation is gained through analysis of Tacitus's historical method, an assertion supported by Anthony J. Woodman, who explains that ancient historians differed considerably from modern ones, and that what the ancient historians wrote is better served by reading it as literature. Woodman suggests that Tacitus should be read as a poet and is openly skeptical that some of the events reported by him actually occurred. He notes that the Annals is quite different than the Histories. Woodman contends that the Annals demonstrates the obsolescence of conventional historiography, that although Tacitus understandably did not write like a modern historian, he also did not write like ancient historians. Tacitus chose to “pervert the norms of history in order properly to reflect the perversion” which occurred when the republic became an empire. Ellen O'Gorman agrees and contends that, when reading Tacitus, it is bad policy to focus solely on either his politics or his style, for “Tacitus conveys to his readers his conception of imperial politics by enmeshing them in ambiguous and complicated Latin sentences.” Ronald Mellor describes Tacitus's style as having “a tone of the utmost gravity with intimations of melancholy and violence lurking just under the surface. It carries a moral and political authority that impresses, even intimidates the reader.” His “remarkable combination of nobility and intimacy, of gravity and violence is enormously effective at conveying the underlying sense of fear that pervades the Histories and the Annals.” Duane Reed Stuart contends that Tacitus, in his zeal for succinctness, sometimes went too far and rendered his meaning obscure. Stuart stresses, however, that Tacitus typically kept “within artistic bounds and did not overreach himself in an effort to sparkle in every sentence. Hence, he escaped the pitfalls which caught many of his contemporaries in whom the sententious too often degenerates into the banal, the original into the overwrought.” Moses Hadas explains that for Tacitus, principals, movements, and great achievements were subordinate to people: “And not humanity in general but individual humans. Always Tacitus strives to penetrate into the thoughts and motives of the actors in his drama. It is Tacitus' skill in delineating characters, particularly intense and theatrical Roman characters, that is apt to strike the reader as his outstanding achievement.”
Agricola (biography) c. 98
Germania (history) c. 98
Histories (history) c. 100-09
Dialogus (fictional dialogues) c. 102
Annals (history) c. 109-17
The Histories [translated by W. H. Fyfe and D. S. Levene] 1912; revised 1997
Annals: Books XIII-XVI [translated by John Jackson] 1937
The Complete Works of Tacitus [translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb] 1942
The Annals of Imperial Rome [translated by Michael Grant] 1956; revised 1996
Annals: Books IV-VI, XI-XII [translated by John Jackson] revised 1960
Histories: Books IV-V, Annals: Books I-III [translated by Clifford H. Moore and John Jackson] revised 1960
Histories [translated by Kenneth Wellesley] 1964
Tacitus' Agricola, Germany, and Dialogue on Orators [translated by Herbert W. Benario] 1967; revised 1991
Agricola, Germania, Dialogus [translated by M. Hutton, W. Peterson; R. M. Ogilvie, E. H. Warmington, and M. Winterbottom] revised 1970
The Agricola and the Germania [translated by H. Mattingly and S. A. Handford] revised 1971
The Histories: Books I-III [translated by C. H. Moore] 1985
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SOURCE: Stuart, Duane Reed. Introduction to The Agricola, by Tacitus, pp. ix-xxvi. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923.
[In the following essay, Stuart provides a biographical sketch of Tacitus and discusses the purpose, form, and style of the Agricola.]
The books of Tacitus show vividly what manner of man he was. The works of no other ancient historian are so impregnated with the author's personality. By reading the writings of Tacitus between the lines it is easy to find out what he thought of the world in which he lived, what his convictions and what his prejudices were.
On the other hand, the information that he gives us directly about his life is very meager. No biography of Tacitus has come down to us from ancient times. It is possible, therefore, to reconstruct his career only in a bare outline in which much rests upon conjecture and surmise.
According to the more reliable tradition our author's full name was Publius Cornelius Tacitus. The year of his birth was probably 55 a.d. His boyhood thus coincided closely with the reign of Nero, 54-68 a.d. We do not know whether Tacitus was a native of Rome or whether he was born outside of the city, as were the other great figures of Roman literature. As to his station in the world there is good reason to believe that his father was a Cornelius Tacitus of the preceding generation, a Roman...
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SOURCE: Hadas, Moses. Introduction to The Complete Works of Tacitus, by Tacitus, edited by Moses Hadas, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, pp. ix-xxii. New York: The Modern Library, 1942.
[In the following essay, Hadas discusses Tacitus's life, career, and artistry and evaluates his trustworthiness as an historian.]
The apparent insensitivity of the Romans to their greatest historian is an exasperating accident of our faulty tradition or a melancholy commentary upon their civilization. Until the end of the fourth century when Ammianus Marcellinus, an Antiochene Greek, undertook to write a continuation of Tacitus' histories no writer other than his own friend Pliny makes mention of him. It is true that the Emperor Tacitus (275-276 a.d.) is reported, not improbably though the authority is dubious, to have ordered that ten copies of his putative ancestor's works be made annually and that these be deposited in various libraries. In any case the story would indicate that Tacitus had fallen into oblivion; and it is in fact only through a single mutilated manuscript that Tacitus' greatest work has survived the Middle Ages.
The Younger Pliny was associated with Tacitus in important legal pleading and has left us eleven letters addressed to him. These and a single inscription from Asia Minor are the only evidence for Tacitus' life and works we possess outside those...
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SOURCE: Syme, Ronald. “Tacitus on Gaul.” In Ten Studies in Tacitus, pp. 19-29. London: Clarendon Press, 1970.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1952, Syme discusses Tacitus's treatment of the problems posed to Rome by Gaul.]
Tacitus on Gaul. The title seems paradoxical, for the name of the historian of imperial Rome is linked for ever with a small work he composed concerning the land of Germany, its tribes and their habits.
The Germania is a precious opuscule. It is unique—yet it is not original. The Germania of Tacitus belongs to a recognizable type, the ethnographical excursus or essay, and it had models and precursors. As one would expect, the Germania exhibits various defects of the genre, especially the use of conventional and inherited motifs. Furthermore, not all of the historical information is up to date. It looks as though Tacitus recorded what he had read in books, not what he had seen and observed. It seems pretty clear that he followed his source very closely, not adding many details.
Much has been written about the Germania of Tacitus, perhaps too much. It has appealed to students of literature, and to historians, to researchers in European origins, to patriots and to politicians. It may be a change and a relief to turn instead and enquire what Tacitus has to say about Gaul. Something may...
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SOURCE: Syme, Ronald. “The Technique of Tacitus” and “Roman Oratory in the Annales.” In Tacitus, Vol. I, pp. 304-39. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
[In the following excerpt, Syme analyzes Tacitus's handling of such literary devices as digressions and speeches, praising his skill in portraying assorted Roman orators as individuals.]
THE TECHNIQUE OF TACITUS
The matter was heterogeneous—both literary and documentary, stylized with elegance or baldly prosaic, removed by three generations or recent and personal. How was Cornelius Tacitus to evince his mastery, blending and transmuting? His principal devices are structure, digression, comment, and speeches. And not least, omission—which more recent exponents of imperial Rome have seldom skill or courage to emulate.
The exordium of the Historiae exhibited a technique firm, confident, and mature. The Annales from the opening words go to the limit of brevity and intensity. The prologue falls into two parts, first the vicissitudes of governmental power at Rome, in summary from the Kings to Caesar Augustus, next the character of history-writing and the author's design.1 In the Historiae Tacitus was impelled to say something about his own career in the State, and his relation towards the rulers of Rome, nor could he avoid a senator's tactful homage to Nerva and...
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SOURCE: Goodyear, F. R. D. “Tacitus and the Writing of History.” In Tacitus, pp. 22-34. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
[In the following essay, Goodyear explores Tacitus's complex narrative layout and arrangement of historical events, investigating the argument that many of his reports are unreliable.]
Various analogies have been used to describe Tacitus' way of writing in his historical works. Racine called him ‘le plus grand peintre de l'Antiquité’. The analogy of painting is often pertinent, for Tacitus has supreme skill in presenting scenes visually, in catching and highlighting details of gesture and movement, not least so with crowd scenes, as in the mutinies narrated in Ann. [Annals] 1, and with night scenes, as at Ann. 1. 65 and 14. 8. This kind of approach has been used and developed by E. Courbaud in his sensitive and imaginative book Les Procédés d'art de Tacite dans les Histoires,1 and aspects of visual presentation are further explored by H. Hommel.2 The analogy of drama is more influential still. Moriz Haupt said Tacitus ‘was born to be a tragic poet’, and later critics have taken up the idea variously.3 F. Leo, in his fine characterization of Tacitus,4 argues that for a writer of his time and personality the distinction between poetry and history was blurred, that he is a great ‘prose-poet’. More...
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SOURCE: Benario, Herbert W. “The Minor Works.” In An Introduction to Tacitus, pp. 22-42. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975.
[In the following essay, Benario examines the themes of the Agricola, the Germania, and the Dialogus de oratoribus.]
Early in 98, Tacitus published his first work. It was a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Agricola was a remarkable man, as great, it might be said, as a private citizen could be in this age. He was born in a.d. 40. His political career is marked by a steady advance through the cursus honorum, culminating in the consulship at an age some five years before the normal or customary year, although it is difficult to speak of a norm during the principate when a man could advance by as many as ten years depending upon the prestige of his family and the number of children whom he sired, since each child brought remission of one year from the minimum age.
Agricola's first public duties were in Britain as military tribune in 60, followed by the quaestorship in 64, when he served in Asia, a tribunate of the plebs in 66, and a praetorship in 68. That year saw the beginning of the upheaval of civil war, and before long he cast his lot with the party of Vespasian, a wise choice as later events proved. In 70 he was returned to Britain as commander of legio XX Valeria Victrix, and followed this tour of...
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SOURCE: Woodman, Anthony J. “Tacitus and Tiberius: The Alternative Annals.” In Tacitus and Tiberius: The Alternative “Annals,” pp. 1-22. Durham, North Carolina: University of Durham, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture, Woodman explores Tacitus's motives for defying expectations—particularly the rules of traditional historiography—while writing the Annals.]
At the age of eleven I went to a school where boys who came top in Latin were automatically placed top of their class. Although I personally had no objection to this endearing custom, I do not expect everyone to accept the proposition that an aptitude for Latin presupposes an aptitude for other subjects too. But I hope that any disquiet will be somewhat appeased if I admit that the school was Ushaw College, which long ago abandoned its teaching of Latin altogether before entering upon the association with this University which it now enjoys.
At Ushaw I had the great good fortune to be taught by Father Ronald Fox, whose name will be familiar to at least some of my audience. Mr. Fox, as he was known, not only had an expert command of the Greek and Latin languages; he was also enviably gifted at interpreting Greek and Latin as literature—and in a way which his pupils could readily understand and appreciate. It is, I believe, no coincidence that the subjects which he taught me...
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SOURCE: Mellor, Ronald. “The Impact of Tacitus.” In Tacitus, pp. 137-62. New York: Routledge, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Mellor presents a survey of readers’ responses to Tacitus over the last five centuries.]
Your histories will be immortal
Pliny Letter (7, 33) to Tacitus
Though Tacitus was the greatest Roman historian, it was not among Romans, nor even among historians, that he had his greatest impact. In early modern Europe Tacitus's political vision, dramatic images, and incisive moral aphorisms left their mark on poets and philosophers, princes and popes, painters and political theorists. He was regarded not as a mere chronicler of events but as a moralist worthy to be ranked with Plato and Aristotle, as a political thinker whose influence vied with Machiavelli. His vivid portrayal of the tyranny, brutality, and political paranoia of the Roman Empire seemed disturbingly familiar in the absolutist monarchies and the papal states. His histories lent themselves to varied, and sometimes conflicting, interpretations. Republicans and courtiers alike learned from him; German Reformation humanists and English Puritans used him to forward their own agendas; French and American revolutionaries drew inspiration from him. Since the Renaissance Tacitus has occupied a central place in the evolution of political...
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SOURCE: Grant, Michael. “Translator's Introduction.” In The Annals of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant, pp. 7-28. 1956. Revised. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
[In the following essay, Grant examines the tradition of historiography that preceded Tacitus, his moral sense and how it influenced his writing, and the difficulties a translator faces in trying to do justice to his Latin.]
1. THE LIFE AND WORKS OF TACITUS
The powerful personality of Cornelius Tacitus has survived in his writings, but we know extremely little of his life or his origin. Indeed, we are not even sure whether the first of his three names was Publius or Gaius. His family probably came from the south of France or from northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul). If so, Tacitus—like other leading Latin writers—may not have been of wholly Italian ancestry. But we have no conclusive evidence. His father may have been an imperial agent at Trier or at Cologne, and paymaster-general for the armies on the Rhine; but again we are not certain.
At all events, Tacitus was born in about a.d. 56 or 57 (when Nero was emperor),1 and was a member of the provincial upper class who found new prospects of careers open to them under the imperial regime. He lived and worked until the end of the emperor Trajan's reign (a.d. 98-117), and probably for some years into the reign of...
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SOURCE: Woodman, A. J. “Introduction: The Literature of War.” In Tacitus Reviewed, pp. 1-20. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Woodman suggests that Tacitus is better read as a poet than a traditional historian.]
It was on the last Monday in January exactly fifty years ago that Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The event has been described by Alan Bullock in his celebrated book:1
During the morning a silent crowd filled the street between the Kaiserhof and the Chancellery. … At a window of the Kaiserhof, Röhm was keeping an anxious watch on the door from which Hitler must emerge. Shortly after noon a roar went up from the crowd: the Leader was coming. He ran down the steps to his car and in a couple of minutes was back in the Kaiserhof. As he entered the room his lieutenants crowded to greet him. The improbable had happened: Adolf Hitler, the petty official's son from Austria, the down-and-out of the Home for Men, the despatch-runner of the List regiment, had become Chancellor of the German Reich.
This account is not without its drama. There is a brief reference to the waiting crowd and its reaction to Hitler's appearance; and there is a poignant contrast, which Bullock underlines by the word ‘improbable’, drawn between Hitler's sudden eminence and three of the...
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SOURCE: O'Gorman, Ellen. “Introduction: Irony, History, Reading.” In Irony and Misreading in the “Annals” of Tacitus, pp. 1-22. Cambridge, U. K: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, O'Gorman contends that the very structure of Tacitus's sentences in the Annals conveys meaning and that he deliberately uses complex and ironic passages to force readers to engage in reflection.]
The ironist aspires to be somebody who gets in on some redescription, who manages to change some parts of the vocabularies being used. The ironist wants to be a strong poet.
Michael Roth, The Ironist's Cage
SENTENCE STRUCTURE AND HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION
Tacitus is a notoriously difficult writer; the central theme of this study is what the difficulty of Tacitus means and what are the possible ways a reader can respond to this difficulty. Examining what a difficulty means is a rather different action to examining what a difficulty is: in the latter case, we identify difficulty, overcome and disregard it; in the former case we bring it with us, as it were, entering into an ongoing relationship with difficulty. I will argue in this study that what is difficult and obscure in Tacitus' style of writing, what seems to call out for clarification, is central to Tacitus' modality of...
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Allott, Terence. “Tacitus and Some Late Plays of Corneille.” Journal of European Studies 10, no. 1 (March 1980): 32-47.
Discusses several later plays of Pierre Corneille and their indebtedness to Tacitus.
Benjamin, Edwin B. “Bacon and Tacitus.” Classical Philology 60, no. 2 (April 1965): 102-10.
Examines Tacitus's influence on Francis Bacon's ideas regarding statecraft and literary style.
———. “Milton and Tacitus.” In Milton Studies, Vol. IV, edited by James D. Simmonds, pp. 117-40. Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
Explores John Milton's use of Tacitus.
Bertland, Alexander U. “The Significance of Tacitus in Vico's Idea of History.” Historical Reflection/Reflexions Historiques 22, no. 3 (fall 1996): 517-35.
Examines Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico's understanding of Tacitus and what it reveals about Vico's conception of history.
Ginsburg, Judith. “Selection of Subject Matter.” In Tradition and Theme in the “Annals” of Tacitus, pp. 80-95. New York: Arno Press, 1981.
Examines Tacitus's decisions regarding inclusion and exlusion of material from the Annals.
Gudeman, Alfred. “Prolegomena: The Dramatic Structure...
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