Tacĭtus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
Publius Cornelius. (The praenomen, Publius, is given in the best MS. [Med. I.]; and in an inscription.) One of the greatest of
the Roman writers of history. The time and place of his birth are unknown. He was a little older than the younger Pliny , who was
born A.D. 61. His father was probably Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman eques, who is mentioned as a procurator in Gallia Belgica, and
who died in 79 (Pliny , Epist. vii. 76). Tacitus was first promoted by the emperor Vespasian, and he received other favours from
both Titus and Domitian ( Hist. i. 1). The most probable account is that Tacitus was appointed tribunus militum laticlavius by
Vespasian, quaestor by Titus, and praetor by Domitian. In 78 he married the daughter of the famous general, C. Iulius Agricola,
to whom he had been betrothed in the preceding year, while Agricola was consul. In the reign of Domitian, and in 88, Tacitus was
praetor, and he assisted as one of the quindecimviri at the Ludi Saeculares which were celebrated in that year ( Ann. xi. 11).
Agricola died at Rome in 93, but neither Tacitus nor the daughter of Agricola was then with him. It is not known where Tacitus
was during the last illness of Agricola. In the reign of Nerva, 97, Tacitus was appointed consul suffectus, in the place of T.
Virginius Rufus, who had died in that year, and whose funeral oration he delivered. We know that Tacitus had attained oratorical
distinction when the younger Pliny was commencing his career. He and Tacitus were appointed in the reign of Nerva (A.D. 99) to
conduct the prosecution of Marius, proconsul of Africa. Tacitus and Pliny were most intimate friends. In the collection of the
letters of Pliny there are eleven letters addressed to Tacitus. The time of the death of Tacitus is unknown, but he appears to
have survived Trajan, who died 117. Nothing is recorded of any children of his, though the Emperor Tacitus claimed a descent from
the historian, and ordered his works to be placed in all public libraries.
Extant works of Tacitus
1. Vita Agricolae
The life of Agricola, which was written after the death of Domitian (A.D. 96), as we may probably conclude from the introduction,
which was certainly written after Trajan's accession. This life is justly admired as a specimen of biography. It is a monument to
the memory of a noble man and an able commander and administrator, by an affectionate son-in-law, who has portrayed, in his
peculiar manner and with many masterly touches, the virtues of one of the most illustrious of the Romans.
These were written after the death of Nerva (A.D. 98) and before the Annales. They comprehended the period from the second
consulship of Galba (A.D. 68) to the death of Domitian (A.D. 96), and the author designed to add the reigns of Nerva and Trajan.
The first four books alone are extant in a complete form, and they comprehend only the events of about one year. The fifth book
is imperfect, and goes no further than the commencement of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, and the war of Civilis in Germany. It
is not known how many books of the Historiae there were, but it must have been a large work if it was all written on the same
scale as the first five books.
These commence with the death of Augustus (A.D. 14), hence ab excessu divi Augusti, and comprise the period to the death of Nero
(A.D. 68)-a space of fifty-four years. The greater part of the fifth book is lost, and also the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth,
the beginning of the eleventh, and the end of the sixteenth, which is the last book. These lost parts comprised the whole of
Caligula's reign, the first five years of Claudius, and the last two of Nero.
4. De Moribus et Populis Germaniae
Usually called the Germania, a treatise describing the Germanic nations. It is of little value as a geographical description; the
first few chapters contain as much of the geography of Germany as Tacitus knew. The main subject is the description of the
political institutions, the religion, and the habits of the various tribes included under the name Germani. The value of the
information contained in this treatise has often been discussed, and its credibility attacked; but we may estimate its true
character by observing the precision of the writer as to those Germans who were best known to the Romans from being near the
Rhine. That the hearsay accounts of more remote tribes must partake of the defects of all such evidence is obvious; and we cannot
easily tell whether Tacitus embellished that which he had heard obscurely told. But to consider the Germany as a fiction, or as a
purely political tract, is one of those absurdities which need only be recorded, not refuted.
Dialogus de Oratoribus.
If this dialogue is the work of Tacitus, and it probably is, it must be his earliest work, for it was written in the sixth year
of Vespasian. The style is more easy than that of the Annales-more diffuse, less condensed; but there is an obvious difference
between the style of the Dialogus and the Historiae-nothing so striking as to make us contend for a different authorship. Besides
this, it is nothing unusual for works of the same author, which are written at different times, to vary greatly in style,
especially if they treat of different matters. The oldest MSS. also attribute the Dialogus to Tacitus. (See Gudeman's
introduction to his edition of the work.) The treatise is an essay, in the form of a dialogue, giving an account of the decay of
oratory under the Empire.
The Annales of Tacitus, the work of a mature age, contain the chief events of the period which they embrace, arranged under their
several years. There seems no peculiar propriety in giving the name of Annales to this work, simply because the events are
arranged in the order of time. In the Annales of Tacitus, the Princeps or Emperor is the centre about which events are grouped.
Yet the most important public events, both in Italy and the provinces, are not omitted, though everything is treated as
subordinate to the exhibition of imperial power. The Historiae, which were written before the Annales, are in a more diffuse
style, and the treatment of the extant part is different from that of the Annales. Tacitus wrote the Historiae as a contemporary;
the Annales as not a contemporary. They are two distinct works, not parts of one, which is clearly shown by the very different
proportions of the two works: the first four books of the Historiae comprise about a year, and the first four books of the
Annales comprise fourteen years.
The moral dignity of Tacitus is impressed upon his works; the consciousness of a love of truth, of the integrity of his purpose.
His great power is in the knowledge of the human mind, his insight into the motives of human conduct; and he found materials for
its exercise in the history of the emperors, and particularly Tiberius, whose strange career and enigmatical personality
fascinated him. The Annales are filled with dramatic scenes and striking catastrophes. He laboured to produce effect by the
exhibition of great personages on the stage; but as to the mass of the people we learn little from Tacitus. The style of Tacitns
is peculiar, though it bears some resemblance to In the Annales it is concise, vigorous, and pregnant with meaning; laboured, but
elaborated with art, and stripped of every superfluity. A single word sometimes gives effect to a sentence; and if the meaning of
the word is missed, the sense of the writer is not reached. Such a work is probably the result of many transcriptions by the
author. Tacitus is generally brief and rapid in his sketches; but he is sometimes almost too minute when he comes to work out a
dramatic scene; and he displays all the conscious rhetoric of his age. The condensed style of Tacitus sometimes makes him
obscure, but it is a kind of obscurity that is dispelled by careful reading. Yet a man must read carefully and often, in order to
understand him; and it cannot be supposed that Tacitus was ever a popular writer. He is often intensely epigrammatic, and
exhibits the qualities of style that are found in the typical writers of the Silver Age. Many of his pregnant phrases have passed
into the world's anthology of quotations, such as Omne ignotum pro magnifico and Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. In his
view of the condition of Roman society he is thoroughly pessimistic, and by contemplating only one section of it he is led into
an unconscious exaggeration which the reader should correct by the reading of the contemporary and friend of Tacitus, Pliny the
Younger, whose more pleasing picture of the time is a wholesome check upon any too sweeping condemnation of the imperial period
of Rome's social history.
The manuscripts of Tacitus are few and unsatisfactory. For the first six books of the Annales only one source exists-the Codex
Mediceus (I.) of the ninth century, and found about 1520. From this bks. vii.-ix. are lost, as are Historiae v.-xiv. For what
remains of these, a second Codex Mediceus (II.) of the eleventh or twelfth century is the only authority. The Germania and
Dialogus are found in two manuscripts-one at Leyden (Codex Leidensis [Perizonianus]), and the other in the Vatican. The Agricola
is found in two transcriptions of an earlier MS. Both of these are in the Vatican. On the codices of Tacitus, see the
introduction to the edition of the Dialogus by Michaelis (1868), and Gudeman (1894), and in Ritter's edition (1864).
Editions of the complete works of Tacitus are the editio princeps by Puteolanus (Milan, c. 1476); Lipsius (Antwerp, 1574);
Gronovius (Amsterdam, 1672); Bekker, with variorum notes, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1831); Ritter (last ed. Bonn, 1864); Döderlein, 2
vols. (Halle, 1841-47); Orelli, 2 vols. (Zürich, 1846, variously revised and republished, 1859, 1877); and texts by Halm (1884);
and Müller (Prague, 1885).
Separate editions with English notes are those of the Annales by Furneaux, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1891- 92); Allen (Boston, 1890); of
the Historiae by Simcox (London, 1876), Godley (London, 1887-90), and Spooner (London, 1891); of the Agricola and Germania by
Frost (London, 1861), Church and Brodribb (London, 1889), by Haverfield (announced), and by Hopkins (New York and Boston, 1893);
of the Dialogus by Peterson (Oxford, 1893), and especially by Gudeman (New York and Boston, 1894), a most exhaustive and
elaborate work, with extremely valuable prolegomena; also a compact and convenient edition by Bennett (New York and Boston,
1894). There are English translations of Tacitus by Gordon (London, 1728-31), Murphy (London, 1793), and by Church and Brodribb
(London, 1876- 77). There is a fine lexicon to Tacitus by Gerber and Greef, still appearing in parts. An older lexicon (complete)
is that of Boetticher (1832).
On Tacitus, see Urlichs, De Taciti Vita (Würzburg, 1879); J. Müller, Philos. und relig. Anschau-
ungen des Tacitus (Feldkirch, 1874); and Schiller, Geschichte d. röm. Kaiserzeit, i. 586 (Gotha, 1883). On his diction, etc., see
Dräger, Ueber Syntax und Stil des Tacitus (3d ed. Leipzig, 1882); Wolff, Die Sprache des Tacitus (Frankfurt, 1879); Gericke, De
Abundanti Dicendi Genere Tacitino (Berlin, 1882), and the numerous monographs cited in Teuffel-SchwabeWarr, ii. 333, 16. See also
the short studies by Donne (1873) and Church and Brodribb (1881).