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 or Gaius. His family probably came from the south of France or from northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul). If so, Tacitus – like other leading Latin writers – may not have been of wholly Italian ancestry. But we have no conclusive evidence. His father may have been an imperial agent at Trier or at Cologne, and paymaster-general for the armies on the Rhine; but again we are not certain.
At all events, Tacitus was born in about A.D. 56 or 57 (when Nero was emperor),1 and was a member of the provincial upper class who found new prospects of careers open to them under the imperial regime. He lived and worked until the end of the emperor Trajan’s reign (A.D. 98–117), and probably for some years into the reign of Hadrian (117–138). Much of the official career of Tacitus as a senator took place in a time of unhappiness and even terror for high officials, the black years of Domitian (A.D. 81–96). But Tacitus survived to enjoy the highest metropolitan post, the consulship, in A.D. 97 (during the short reign of Nerva, 96–8), and the governorship of the great province of western Anatolia (‘Asia’) – the climax of a senator’s career – some fifteen years later.
He had received a careful Roman education. In his day that meant, particularly, an elaborate series of exercises in different kinds of public speaking, studied in the remarkable detail which we learn about from the treatises of Cicero and Quintilian; for advocacy in the courts was traditionally the most respected civil career. As a young man, Tacitus evidently studied at Rome with the leading orators of the day. He himself became one of the best known speakers of his time, and a lifelong interest in oratory emerges clearly from his writings.1 Indeed, one of them – if, as is highly probable, Tacitus is its author – deals explicitly with the subject. This is the Dialogue on Orators, in which four historical characters, two lawyers and two literary men, very interestingly discuss the claims of oratory against those of literature, and the reasons why eloquence had declined during the century and more that had elapsed since Cicero’s death. One reason of course – as is pointed out – was that this sort of impassioned disputation had much less part to play under emperors than amid the clashes of the outgoing Republic.
The Dialogue is dedicated to a consul of A.D. 102, and is likely to have been published then or soon after. Meanwhile, however, Tacitus had already begun to make it clear to the world that, even if oratory could never achieve its past glories again, the same was by no means true of history. The monographs with which he initiated his career as historian, the Agricola and Germania, were published within a short time of one another in c. A.D. 98. The Agricola to some extent recalls a familiar Greek tradition – that of the semi-biographical, moral eulogy of a personage;2 here the personage is his own father-in-law. But Tacitus, giving the work an original structure of its own, inserts history and includes descriptive material about Britain. The Cermania is an ethnographical study of Central Europe. Its purpose is not completely understood. But it does seem to contain recurrent moral contrasts, or implied contrasts, between the decadence of Rome and the crude vigour of the teeming, and potentially threatening, peoples beyond the Rhine. And indeed, eventually, these Germanic peoples played a large part in the eclipse of the Roman Empire in the West. But that was not until many years later.
Next followed Tacitus’ two principal historical works. They told the story of the Roman emperors from A.D. 14 to 96. The Histories, which cover the later part of this epoch (from the death of Nero in A.D. 68), were written first. We have about a third of them, describing the terrible civil wars with which the period began.3 Tacitus’ last and greatest creation was his Annals, translated in this book. The Annals tell of the Julio-Claudian emperors from just before the death of Augustus (A.D. 14) to the death of Nero. That is to say, they deal with the reigns of Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Claudius, and Nero. Not everything has survived; we lack more than two years of Tiberius, the whole of the short reign of Gaius, half of the reign of Claudius, and the last two years of Nero. We have lost some of the highlights. But we have kept forty years out of fifty-four; by far the greater part of the Annals has come down to us.
The period with which they deal is still of infinite significance. For the first and last time in world history, the entire Mediterranean region belonged to the same unit. The Roman Republic had begun to acquire overseas territories in the third century B.C. From its first two Punic Wars against Semitic Carthage (264–201) Rome had emerged as the strongest Mediterranean power; and it spent the next 150 years extending its dominion in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The other great empire of the world at this time, China of the Han dynasty, was too far away for any rivalry to occur. Besides, they were separated – and, later, for commercial reasons, jealously separated – by Parthia. That loose feudal empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the Hindu Kush, receives frequent attention in the pages of Tacitus. For its rulers were the only foreign monarchs with whom Rome had to compete on anything like equal terms; and Rome had received a shock when its armies were heavily defeated by Parthian cavalry at Carrhae (Haran) in 53 B.C.
But this was only one of many problems in the century preceding the period considered by Tacitus. It had already, in that last century before our era, become clear that in various ways Rome’s small-town Republican constitution was – for all its famous ‘balance’ between the classes, stressed by the Greek historian Polybius–unfitted for imperial responsibilities. The solution which imposed itself was the autocracy of the dictators Sulla (81–79 B.C.) and Julius Caesar (48–44 B.C.). This autocracy was stabilized by Augustus, forcibly but with decorous façade, as the Principate; and his Roman peace and reorganization enormously increased the prosperity of his vast realms. The present book begins at the end of his long life, and tells us of the able and bizarre men who took on this immense task from him, and continued to lay the foundations of modern Europe.
Tacitus’ story is the earliest account of this decisive period that has come down to us. Indeed it is almost the only Latin account. Our other main literary sources are the far less serious Latin biographies of his contemporary Suetonius, and the Greek history of Dio Cassius who wrote a whole century later. As an artistic and spiritual achievement his work eclipses theirs. Dio is pedestrian, and Suetonius, for all his vividness, accepts the traditional assumption that biography is a less important genre than history and falls infinitely short of the unique qualities of Tacitus. If we leave literature out of it and concentrate on that elusive commodity the historical ‘fact’, the situation is a little different. Suetonius was an imperial secretary and amassed much curious and irreplaceable material, and Dio lived close to the imperial court of his day and possessed more personal experience of exalted affairs than Tacitus. Yet Suetonius is often no sort of a critic of his material, and Dio lacks the imagination to grasp the affairs of the early empire. Tacitus is more dependable than either. He is the best literary source for the events of the early principate that we possess. There are, of course, other significant sources, provided by archaeology, and coins, and papyri, and art. But it is chiefly upon Tacitus that we have to rely for our knowledge of a critical epoch in the history of western civilization.