Tacitus /

edited by Cynthia Damon

Life of Tacitus

From Pearce, J. W. E. 1901. The Agricola of Tacitus. London: George Bell and Sons. Pp. ix-xi.

We know but few certain facts in the life of the greatest Roman historian. Occasional scanty autobiographical notices in his works, some letters of his friend Pliny the Younger, and an inscription lately found at Mylasa in Caria, and accepted by good authorities as referring to our Tacitus, form the bulk of our information as to the man apart from his writings.

The Mylasa inscription has enabled us to give his full name as P. Cornelius Tacitus; previous to its discovery the praenomen was doubtful. His birthplace is conjecturally put at Interamna (Terni) in Umbria from the connexion of this town with the Emperor Tacitus (A.D. 275), who claimed descent from the historian. A better argument for assuming his home to have been in Northern Italy would be his intimate relation to Agricola, Pliny, and Verginius Rufus. Possibly he was of knightly family, and his father the Cornelius Tacitus mentioned by the elder Pliny as procurator of Belgic Gaul. His grandfather may have been a freedman of the gens Cornelia.

The passage in the Histories 1.1, in which he briefly sums up his obligations to the Flavian dynasty, helps us to fix the date of his birth. It is as follows: — dignitatem nostram a Vespasiano inchoatam, a Tito auctam, a Domitiano longius provectam non abnuerim. That is, under Vespasian he was (probably) a member of the Vigintivirate, which formed a preparatory step to the higher offices; under Titus he attained the quaestorship which gained him admission to the Senate (hence the term augere dignitatem); and under (x) Domitian in  A.D. 88 the praetorship, with which a high priestly office was combined. As praetor he presided at the secular games.

If the quaestorship then was gained in 80 or 81, the years of Titus' short rule, Tacitus must have been at least twenty-five years old, and have been born at latest in  A.D. 55.

In 78 he married the daughter of Agricola, who was consul in that year. It is conjectured that Tacitus had served as military tribune under his father-in-law during the Aquitanian command of the latter ( A.D. 74-77).

Soon after his praetorship he left Rome as legatus of a proconsul, or governor of a praetorian province. He was still absent with his wife when Agricola died in A.D. 93.

On his return later in this year, Tacitus seems to have settled down quietly to his duties as senator, indistinguishable from the other senators who submitted themselves to the increasing tyranny of Domitian. He received no further preferment from this emperor, but Nerva, who succeeded in A.D. 95, raised him to the consulship in 97. In 100 he was associated with Pliny in the impeachment of Marius Priscus for misgovernment in his province of Africa, and delivered, we are told, an impressive speech.

It would have been hard to believe that a man of Tacitus' character and abilities should have remained without employment under Trajan. The Mylasa inscription points almost with certainty to his having obtained the proconsul- ship of Asia. It is true the inscription is mutilated, but it belongs to a well-known type, so that its reconstruction leaves room for the minimum of doubt. Tacitus, then, as a consul of 97 probably held the high appointment of pro consul of Asia – the fit crown of an honourable career – in A.D. 111 or 112.

We do not know when he died. An allusion in the Annals (2.61) to Trajan's later conquests proves that he was alive towards the end of Trajan's reign (A.D. 117).

We must form our judgement of Tacitus as a man from his writings and his friendships. The Agricola itself gives (xi) us the principles by which he regulated his public conduct. Tacitus owed his whole success to the imperial system. He did not belong by birth to the ruling caste of the old regime, and it is very unlikely that his genius would have found adequate recognition under the jealous government of the Republican Senate. While, therefore, he deplored the evils of Domitian's times, it is the accidents and not the essential character of the Empire with which he found fault. He wished for a more humane ruler and a less servile Senate — an ideal he realized later in the tempered despotism of Nerva and Trajan. Until that time came he must have acted on the principle for which he claims praise for Agricola — the principle of loyal submission even to a bad sovereign; and if his example was not heroic, it was at least useful in an age which required to be shown how to live, as well as how to die, honourably.

The private virtues of Tacitus are sufficiently revealed in his happy family life, and in the affectionate admiration felt for him by the best of his contemporaries, such as the younger Pliny.

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