Tacitus

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Tacitus (c55-c120 CE) - his full name in Latin was Publius Cornelius Tacitus - was one of the greatest of the Roman historians. The name Tacitus is pronounced in English with a soft 'c' and the stress on the first syllable (TA-si-ters, IPA: /'tæsɪtəs/). The adjective from Tacitus is Tacitean (pronounced ta-si TEE-ern, IPA: /tæsɪ'tiːən/).

Nothing is known about Tacitus' parentage or his date and place of birth, but he must have come from a family of high social status since in 77 he married the daughter of Agricola, one of the consuls for that year and subsequently governor of Britain. Tacitus was not only an historian; he pursued a career as a lawyer, was admired as an orator, and held public office under the emperors Vespasian (69-79), Nerva (96-98), and Trajan (98-117). (In 112-113, e.g., he was govermor of the province of Asia).

In 98 Tacitus published two short monographs. The first, Agricola, is a biography of his father-in-law Agricola, with a particular focus on the years Agricola spent in Britain as its governor. The second, De origine et situ Germanorum (On the Origin and Situation of the Germans), is an account of the tribes which lived on the northern borders of the Roman empire in the regions to the north of the rivers Rhine and Danube.

However, Tacitus' fame as an historian rests primarily on two later and much longer works, which deal with the history of Rome from the accession of the second emperor Tiberius in 14 CE to the death of Domitian in 96. The Histories, which was written first, covers the period from 69 to 96, while the later Annales (Annals) begins in the year 14 and breaks off in 66 in the reign of Nero, two years before the emperor's suicide. Neither of these works has survived in its entirety: the greater part (about three quarters) of the Annales has survived, but only about one third of the Histories.

Tacitus is a careful and sophisticated historian, and the factual accuracy of his (sometimes lurid) account of this period of Roman history is only rarely open to doubt. The account is, however, shaped by Tacitus' Republican sympathies - he regrets the loss of the freedom which he takes to have characterised political life under the Roman Republic, and believes that the concentration of political power in the hands of a single person, the emperor, has deprived senators and the nobility of their independence of mind and reduced most of them to a state of sycophantic servility. Tacitus writes with irony and mordant wit; and the emperors themselves are for the most part - and not unreasonably - portrayed in an unfavourable light.

Tacitus' works are as famous for their language as for their content. His Latin is memorably idiosyncratic, its distinctive features being terseness of expression, a sometimes poetical vocabulary, unusual word order, and an epigrammatic or aphoristic quality.

Here are a few examples of Tacitus' aphoristic style:

  • Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset (Histories I 49) ('By general consent, capable of ruling if he had not ruled' or (more loosely) 'an emperor with a brilliant future behind him') - Tacitus' verdict on the emperor Galba (who ruled for a few months in 68-69).
  • Mansit tamen incolumis oblivione magis quam clementia (Annales VI, 14) ('He remained alive and well, however, more through forgetfulness (on the part of the emperor) than thorough clemency.') - said of Rubrius Fabatus, who had been arrested on suspicion of treasonable activity.
  • Acerrima proximorum odia (Histories IV, 70) ('Our bitterest hatreds are those we feel for our nearest and dearest.')
  • Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris (Agricola 42) ('It is a mark of human nature to hate the person you have harmed.')
  • Haud ignarus summa scelera incipi cum periculo, peragi cum praemio (Annales XII, 67) ('He was well aware that the greatest crimes begin with risk, but end with reward.')