Tacitus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

ph_0111205890-Tacitus.jpg Tacitus Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman historian{$I[g]Roman Empire;Tacitus} Combining a successful career in the Roman civil service with a lifelong interest in his nation’s past, Tacitus devoted his mature years to exploring the many facets of history. His portraits of the famous and the infamous, especially during the early years of the Roman Empire, are among the most vivid and influential descriptions in all Roman literature.

Early Life

Cornelius Tacitus (TAS-ih-tuhs), considered by many scholars to be Rome’s greatest historian, is an enigma. Neither the exact date of his birth nor that of his death is known. His praenomen, that name that distinguished each Roman from his relatives, is a mystery, as is his birthplace. Tacitus never mentioned his parents or any siblings in any of his writings. He imparts to his readers much information about his contemporaries and a number of historical personages, but he never reveals a single solid fact about himself.

Almost everything that is known about Tacitus has been gleaned from the writings of his close friend Pliny the Younger, an author in his own right and the nephew of the great scientist and historian Pliny the Elder. The friendship seems to have been of long duration, a fact that has led authorities to speculate that Tacitus was actually the son of one Cornelius Tacitus, who served as a financial agent of the government in Gallia Belgica and was a friend of Pliny the Elder. The public career of Tacitus is a matter of record, and by carefully noting the dates of his terms of office in each position it is possible to place his birth early in the reign of Nero, probably the year 56.

Clearly, Tacitus received an excellent education with special emphasis on rhetoric, because he was recognized in later life as a fine public speaker and an outstanding lawyer. He may have studied with the great Quintilian, who taught Pliny the Younger, but Tacitus never mentions his teachers or his fellow students. The elegance of his prose and his reputation denote one of good birth who received all the advantages belonging to his class, but the actual details must remain speculative. From natural modesty, Tacitus may have thought it unnecessary to repeat facts well known to his readers, or he may have done so out of caution. Most of his youth was spent during troubled times when the slightest notoriety might mean death.

In his late teens Tacitus probably had the opportunity to hold his first public offices. Usually, young men were assigned minor posts in one of the four minor magistracies. During these brief terms of service it was possible to judge their preparation as well as their potential for success in government service. Having tested his mettle as a civilian, a young man then entered the military for a brief time to experience the rigor and discipline of the Roman army. This tour of duty was usually performed under a relative or close friend of the family. If a career in the military were not his choice, a young Roman of good birth reentered civilian life by selecting a wife and offering himself for a place in the civil service. Because a candidate with a wife was given priority, marriage at an early age was not unusual. In 77 Tacitus, his military service completed, was betrothed to the daughter of the noted general Gnaeus Julius Agricola.

Life’s Work

Tacitus took the first step in the cursus honorem, or the Roman civil service, in 82, when he was chosen a quaestor. He was one of twenty young men who for a year had the opportunity to prove their potential for a political career by fulfilling the duties of the lowest regular position in the civil service. If the quaestor’s command of the law earned for him the commendation of the consul under whom he served, he might be offered another year under a proconsul in one of the Imperial provinces.

For Tacitus, the next rung in the ladder of preferment was probably the position of aedile. These magistrates might perform any number of duties in Rome. Some of them saw to the care of the city and supervised the repair of public buildings. Others were responsible for regulating traffic within the capital. The organization of public games or the supervision of the morals of the populace might prove more difficult than the checking of weights and measures, but all these duties could fall to an aedile during his term of office, and each was a test of his ability. Tacitus obviously succeeded, because he was elected a praetor in 88.

By the time of the Roman Empire, the office of praetor, originally a military title, had essentially become a legal position. The experience gleaned during his term as an aedile would prepare the praetor for dealing with offenses from oppression and forgery to murder and treason. During his term as praetor, Tacitus was elected to the priesthood of one of the sacerdotal colleges, quite an honor for one so young. This election may have indicated not only his aristocratic birth but also the patronage of the influential and the powerful, including the emperor. The following year Tacitus left for a tour of duty somewhere in the provinces.

He probably spent the next three years serving in the army, and he may have commanded a legion. During his last year abroad, Tacitus may have served as a proconsul in one of the lesser provinces of the Empire. In 93, the year that he returned to Rome, his father-in-law, Agricola, died. Requesting permission to write a biography of Agricola, Tacitus was rebuffed by Domitian, who had already begun the judicial murder of anyone who he believed threatened his position or his life. While many of his friends and colleagues were slaughtered, Tacitus buried himself in his research and the subsequent writing of the forbidden biography, which he finished in 96, the year in which Domitian was assassinated.

De vita Julii Agricolae (c. 98; The Life of Agricola, 1591) was more than a simple biography. While...

(The entire section is 2458 words.)