(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”