Tacitus Essay - Critical Essays



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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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

Germania [translated by J. B. Rives] 1999

Agricola and Germany [translated by Anthony R. Birley] 1999


Duane Reed Stuart (essay date 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 4978 words.)

Moses Hadas (essay date 1942)

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...

(The entire section is 5514 words.)

Ronald Syme (lecture date 1952)

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...

(The entire section is 4576 words.)

Ronald Syme (essay date 1958)

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 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,...

(The entire section is 16022 words.)

F. R. D. Goodyear (essay date 1970)

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 entire section is 5854 words.)

Herbert W. Benario (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 8206 words.)

Anthony J. Woodman (lecture date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 8233 words.)

Ronald Mellor (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 11441 words.)

Michael Grant (essay date 1996)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 8509 words.)

A. J. Woodman (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 8320 words.)

Ellen O'Gorman (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 8783 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 339 words.)