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(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...

(The entire section is 2,458 words.)