1902 Encyclopedia > Tacitus

(full name: Publius [or Gaius] Cornelius Tacitus)
Roman historian
(c. 55-120)

TACITUS. The famous Roman historian Tacitus, who ranks beyond dispute in the highest place among men of letters of all ages, lived in the latter half of the first and in the early part of the 2s century of our era, through the reigns of the emperors Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan. All we know of his personal history is from allusions to himself in his own works, and from eleven letters addressed to him by his intimate friend the younger Pliny. The exact year of his birth is a matter of inference, but it may be approximately fixed near the close of the reign of Claudius, form 52 to 54 A.D. Pliny indeed speaks of Tacitus and himself as being "much of an age"1 (propemodum aequales), though himself born in 61 or 62, but he must have been some years junior to his friends, who began, he tells us,2 his official life with a quaestorship under Vespasian in 78 or 79, at which time he must have been twenty-five years of age at least. Of his family and birthplace we know nothing certain; we can infer nothing from his name Cornelius, which was then very widely extended; but the fact of his early promotion seems to point to respectable antecedents, and it may be that his father was one Cornelius Tacitus, who had been a procurator in one of the divisions of Gaul, to whim allusion is made by the elder Pliny in his Natural History (vii. 76). But it is all matter of pure conjecture, as it also is whether his "praenomen" was Publius or Caius. He has come down to us simply as Cornelius Tacitus. The most interesting facts about him to us are that he was an eminent pleader at the Roman bar, that he was an eyewitness of the "reign of terror" during the last three years of Domitian, and that he was the son-in-law of the great and good Julius Agricula, the humane and enlightened governor of Britain. This honourable connexion, which testifies to his high moral character, may very possibly have accelerated his promotion, which he says3 was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian, under whom we find him presiding as praetor at the celebration of the secular games in 88, and a member of one of the old priestly colleges, to which good family was an almost indispensable passport. Next year, it seems, he left Rome, and was absent till 93 on some provincial business, and it is possible that in these four years he may made the acquaintance of Germany and its peoples. His father-in-law died the year of his return to Rome. In the concluding passage of his Life of Agricola he tells us plainly that he witnessed the judicial murders of many of Rome’s best citizens from 93 to 96, and that being himself a senator he felt almost a guilty complicity in them. "Our hands," he says, "dragged Helvidius to prison; we were steeped in Senecio’s innocent blood."4 With the emperor Nerva’s accession his life became bright and prosperous, and so it continued through the reign of Nerva’s successor, Trajan, he himself, in the opening passage of his Agricola, describing this as a "singularly blessed time" (beatissimum speculum); but the hideous reign of terror has stamped itself ineffaceably on his soul, and when he sat down to write his Hisytory he could see little but the darkest side of imperialism. To his friend the younger Pliny we are indebted for all we know (and this is but trifling) about his later life. He was advanced to the consulship in 97, in succession to a highly distinguished man, Virginius Rufus, on whom he delivered in the senate a funeral eulogy. "The good fortune of Virginus," says Pliny,5 "was crowned by having the most eloquent of panegyrists." In 99 he was associated with Pliny in the prosecution of great political offender, Marius Priscus, under whom the provincials of Africa had suffered grievous wrongs. The prosecution was successful, and we have Pliny’s testimony6 that Tacitus spoke with his characteristic dignity. Both received a special vote of thanks from the senate for their conduct of the case. Of his remaining years we know nothing, and we may presume that he devoted them exclusively to literary work. It would seem that he lived to the close of Trajan’s reign, as he seems7 to hint at that emperor’s extension of the empire by his successful Eastern campaigns from 115 to 117. Whether he outlived Trajan is matter of conjecture. It is worth noticing that the emperor Tacitus in the 3d century claimed descent from him, and directed that ten copies of his works should be made every year and deposited in the public libraries. He also had a tomb built to his memory, which was destroyed by order of Pope Pius V. in the latter part of the 16th century. Tacitus, as we gather from one of Pliny’s letters,8 had a great reputation during his lifetime. On one occasion a Roman knight, who sat by his side in the circus at the celebration of some games, asked him, "Are you from Italy or from the provinces?" His answer was, "You know me from your reading." To which the knight replied, "Are you then Tacitus or Pliny?"

Pliny, as we see clearly from several passages in his letters, had the highest opinion of his friend’s ability and worth. He consults him about a school which he thinks of establishing at Comum (Como), his birthplace, and asks him to look out for suitable teachers and professors. And he pays1 him the high compliment, "I know that your Histories will be immortal, and this makes me the more anxious that my name should appear in them."

The following is a list of Tacitus’s remaining works, arranged in their probable chronological order, which may be approximately inferred from internal evidence:—(1) the Dialogue on Orators, about 76 or 77; (2) the Life of Agricola, 97 or 98; (3) the Germany, 98, published probably in 99; (4) the Histories (Historiae0, completed probably by 115 or 116, the last years of Trajan’s reign (he must have been at work on them for many years); (5) the Annals, his latest work probably, written in part perhaps along with the Histories, and completed subsequently to Trajan’s reign, which he may very well have outlived.

The Dialogue on Orators discusses, in the form of a conversation which Tacitus professes to have heard (as a young man) between some eminent men at the Roman bar, the causes of the decay of eloquence under the empire. There are some interesting remarks in it on the change for the worse that have taken place in the education of Roman lads.

The life of Agricola, short as it is, has always been considered an admirable specimen of biography. The great man with all his have of the history of our island under the Romans gives a special interest to this little work.

The Germany, the full title of which is "Concerning the geography, the manners and customs, and the tribes of Germany," describes with many suggestive hints the general character of the German peoples, and dwells particularly on their fierce and independent spirit, which the author evidently felt to be a standing menace to the empire. The geography is its weak point; this was no doubt gathered from vague hearsay.

The Histories, as originally composed in twelve books, brought the history of the empire from Galba in 69 down to the close of Domitian’s reign in 97. The first four books, and a small fragment of the fifth, giving us a very minute account of the eventful year of revolution, 69, and the brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, are all that remain to us. In the fragment of the fifth book we have a curious and interesting account of the Jewish nation, of their character, customs, and religion, form a cultivated Roman’s point of view, which we see at once was a strongly prejudiced one.

The Annals—a title for which there is no ancient authority, and which there is no reason for supposing Tacitus have distinctively to the work—record the history of the emperors of the Julian line from Tiberius to Nero, comprising thus a period from 14 A.D. to 68. of these, nine books have come down to us entire; of books v., xi., and xvi. we have but fragments, and the whole of the reign of Caius (Caligula), the first six years of Claudius, and the last three years of Nero are wanting. Out of a period of fifty-four years we thus have the history of forty years.

An attempt has been made recently to prove that the Annals are a forgery by Poggio Brancciolini, an Italian scholar of the 15th century, but their genuineness is confirmed by their agreement2 in various minute details with coins and inscriptions discovered since that period. Another important fact has been brought to light. Ruodolphus, a monk of a monastery at Fulda in Hesse-Cassel, writing in the 9th century, says that Cornelius Tacitus speaks of the river known to moderns as the Weser as the Visurgis. In the Annals as they have come down to us we find the Visurgis mentioned five times in the first two books, whence we may conclude that a manuscript of them was in existence in the 9th century. Add to this the testimony of Jerome that Tacitus wrote in thirty books the lives of the Caesars, and the evidence of style, and there cannot be much doubt that in the Annals we have a genuine work of Tacitus.

Much of the history of the period described by him, especially of the earlier Caesars, must have been obscure and locked up with the emperor’s private papers and memoranda. As we should expect, there was a vast amount of floating gossip, which an historian would have to sift and utilize as best he might. Tacitus, as a man of good social position, no doubt had access to the best information, and must have talked matters over with the most eminent men of the day. There were several writers and chroniclers, whom he occasionally cites but nit very often; there were memoirs of distinguished persons—those, for example of the younger Agrippina, of Thrasea, and Helvidius. There were several collections of letters, like those of the younger Pliny; a number, too, of funeral orations; and the "acta senatus" and the "acta populi’ or "acta diurnal," the first a record of proceedings in the senate, the latter a kind of gazette or journal. Thus there were the materials for history in considerable abundance, and Tacitus was certainly a man who knew how to turn them to good account. He has given us a striking, and on the whole doubtless a true, picture of the empire in the 1st century. He wrote, it may be admitted, with a political bias and a decided turn for satire, but he assuredly wrote with a high aim, and we may accept his own account of it: "I regard3 it as history’s highest function to rescue merit from oblivion, and to hold up as a terror to base words and actions the reprobation of posterity." Amid great evils he recognized the existence of truly noble virtues even in is own degenerate age. Still for the most part he writes as a man who felt deeply that the world was altogether "our of joint"; the empire was in itself in his view a huge blunder, and answerable more or less directly for all the diseases of society, for all the demoralization and corruption of the great world of Rome, though as to the provinces he admits that they were better off in many ways under the emperors than they had been in the last days of the republic. But his political sympathies were certainly with the old aristocratic and senatorian régime, with the Rome of the Scipios and the fabii; for him the greatness of his country lay in the past, and, though he felt her to be still great, her glory was, he thought, decidedly on the wane. He was, in fact, a political idealists, and could hardly help speaking disparagingly of his own day. In his Germany he dwells on the contrast between barbarian freedom and simplicity on the one had and the servility and degeneracy of Roman life on the other, yet he had a strong and sincere patriotism, which invariably made hum minimize a Roman defeat and the number of Roman slain. There seems to have been a strange tinge, too, of superstition about him, and he could not divert himself of some belief4 in astrology and revelations of the future through omens and portents, though he held these were often misunderstood and misinterpreted by charlatans and impostors. On the whole he appears to have inclined to the philosophical theory of ‘necessitarianism," that every man’s future is fixed from his birth; but we must not fasten on him any particular theory of the world or of the universe. Sometimes he speaks as a believer in a divine overruling Providence, and we may say confidently that with the Epicurean doctrine he had no sort of sympathy.

His style, whatever judgment may be passed on it, is certainly that of a man of genius, and cannot fail to make a deep impression on the studious reader. Tacitean brevity has become proverbial, and with this are closely allied an occasional obscurity and a rhetorical affectation which his warmest admirers must admit. He has been compared to Carlyle, and there are certainly resemblances between the two both in style and tone of thought. Both affect singularity of expression; both incline to an unhopeful and cynical view of the world. Tacitus was probably never a popular author; to be understood and appreciated he must be read again and again, or the point of some of his acutest remarks will be quite missed. He has been several times translated, but it has always been felt that he presents very great, if not insuperable, difficulties to the translator.

Murphy’s translation (a paraphrase we should call it) is perhaps one of the best known; it was published early in the present century. On this was based the so-called Oxford translation, published by Bohn in revised edition. The latest translation is that by Messrs Church and Bordribb. There is one the whole a good French translation by Louandre. The editions of Tacitus are very numerous. Among more recent editions, the best and most useful are Orelli’s (1859); Ritter;s (1864); Nipperdey’s (1879); Furneaux’s (Annals, i-vi.), vol. i., Clarendon Press, 1884. (W. J. B.)


FOOTNOTES (page 19)

(1) Pliny, Epp., vi. 20.

(2) Hist., i. 1.

(3) Hist., i. 1.

(4) Agricola, 45.

(5) Epp., ii. 1.

(6) Epp., ii. 11.

(7) Ann., ii. 61; iv. 4

(8) Epp., ix. 23.

FOOTNOTES (page 20)

(1) Epp., vii. 33.

(2) See Introduction to vol. i. of Furneaux’s edition of the Annals of Tacitus, Clarendon Press Series, 1884.

(3) Ann., iii. 65.

(4) Ann., vi. 21, 22.

The above article was written by: Rev. William Jackson Brodribb, M.A., late Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge; Rector of Wootton-Rivers, Wiltshire from 1860; part author of Constantinople: a Sketch of its History to 1453.

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