ca. A.D. 55-ca. 120

Roman historian

Cornelius Tacitus, whose first name may have been Gaius or Publius, was one of the most famous historians of ancient Rome. He is best known for his two masterpieces, the Histories and the Annals, which describe in detail the political history of the Roman Empire. These two works are among the greatest achievements in Roman historical writing. Written shortly after A.D. 100, they also marked the end of serious historical writing in Rome for 250 years. In addition to his work as a historian, Tacitus was a distinguished orator*, and he had an outstanding political career. He became consul* before the age of 50, and he later served as governor in Asia.

* orator public speaker of great skill

* consul one of two chief governmental officials in Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year

Life and Political Career Tacitus was born in either southern France or northern Italy to a family with a tradition of governmental service, a tradition that Tacitus continued throughout his own life. He studied in Rome with the leading orators of his day. Tacitus married the daughter of a senator from Gaul named Julius Agricola. Agricola became the governor of Britain and was the subject of Tacitus’s first book.

Once Tacitus entered government service, he received regular promotions. After rising to the rank of senator, he quickly passed through the normal sequence of political positions. By A.D. 88, when he was still in his early thirties, Tacitus was praetor* and held a prestigious priesthood. For the next several years, he held positions in provincial* government. In A.D. 97 he became consul, and he was named proconsul* in A.D. 112.

Many of the historical events that Tacitus later wrote about he experienced firsthand. He spent his youth during the reign of the emperor Nero, and he began his political career under Vespasian. He served in important governmental positions under the emperors Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan. Tacitus lived into the reign of Hadrian, probably dying around A.D. 120.

* praetor Roman official, just below the consul in rank, in charge of judicial proceedings and of governing overseas provinces

* provincial referring to a province, an overseas area controlled by Rome

* proconsul governor of a Roman province

Tacitus the Historian. Like other historians of ancient Rome, Tacitus tried to do more than just record facts. He had two other aims as well. One was to write good literature. The other was to render moral and political judgments on the people and events he was describing. Tacitus believed that the future could be shaped by the lessons learned from the past.

As literature, Tacitus’s works have a striking style all their own. Because he was trained as an orator, many passages can be fully appreciated only when they are read aloud. The sentences are short and concise, and the writing is full of aphorisms—catchy phrases that sum up basic principles or beliefs. The pace of the writing is fast and intense, and details are vividly described. The tone is often mocking, and the historian’s view of his subject is pessimistic.

Tacitus fully developed the character of the individuals he wrote about, often exploring the underlying motives for their decisions and behavior. Many of the psychological and political questions he addressed are still of interest today, such as how power affects the individuals who hold it. Tacitus wanted to know whether power makes good people turn bad, or whether it simply brings out the worst in people.

In passing judgment on the people and events he described, Tacitus revealed his own moral and political views. He was very critical of the institution of the principate, as the Roman imperial* government was first known. He strongly supported the work of the members of his own class—Roman senators. He often deplored their loss of freedom and power, which was the inevitable outcome of imperial rule.

Tacitus believed that it was wrong to flatter or to defy the emperors openly. He advocated a middle course of passive acceptance while continuing to do one’s own job as well as possible. Both he and his father-inlaw, Agricola, had taken such a passive position in their own government service under the harsh emperor Domitian. It was during Domitian’s reign that Tacitus removed himself from Rome to serve in government positions in the provinces.

Tacitus had access to the documents and letters in the imperial archives for his historical research, and he was very careful about verifying his facts. However, he sometimes distorted the facts to support his own point of view. For example, he often repeated rumors that had little or no factual basis and wrote about them so convincingly that they seemed more than likely to be true.

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

* eulogy speech in praise of a person, often delivered at a funeral

Writings. Tacitus wrote three shorter works before he wrote his historical masterpieces. The first was the Agricola, published in A.D. 98, the year after Tacitus was appointed consul. This work is about his father-inlaw and is part biography, part eulogy*, and part history. The historical passages are Tacitus’s first experiments in historical writing. In the same year, he published Germania, a study of the German tribes of central Europe. The last of the early works is Dialogue on the Orators, which he published just a few years later. In this book, Tacitus analyzed the reasons why the skills of orators had declined since the days of the Roman Republic*. In his view, the loss of liberty that came about because of the loss of the republic led directly to a decline in oratory itself.

Tacitus wrote his two masterpieces, the Histories and the Annals, between A.D. 105 and A.D. 120. These two works cover the period from A.D. 14 to A.D. 96, or from the beginning of the reign of the emperor Tiberius to the death of Domitian. Both works focus on the politics of the courts of the emperors. Thcitus never intended his works to be a complete history of the Roman Empire, and he devoted relatively few pages to military and legal history, geography, and events in the provinces.

The Histories covers the years A.D. 69 to A.D. 96. Only about one- third of the work survives. Those sections provide a detailed treatment of the period from the death of Nero to late A.D. 70, a period of fewer than two years. The Annals covers the years A.D. 14 to A.D. 68. About half of this work survives. The existing books cover the reign of Tiberius and most of the reigns of the emperors Claudius and Nero. (See also Rome, History of.)

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials


Tacitus was virtually unknown during the Middle Ages, and he would still be unknown today if it were not for two manuscripts that were discovered in the 1300s. One of the manuscripts, which dates to around A.D. 850, contained the first six books of the Annals. The other manuscript contained Books 11 to 16 of the Annals and Books 1 to 5 of the Histories. Because the two manuscripts were discovered, Tacitus has gained prominence as one of the most important sources of historical information about the Roman Empire.

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