Life and Writings of Tacitus

[[NB. Footnote numbers (in square brackets) differ from those in the print edition, where a new series begins on each page. References to ancient texts are given here in modern form. Lower case Roman numerals (in round brackets) indicate the page number in the print edition.]]

Life. — P. Cornelius Tacitus seems to have been born of an equestrian family in northern Italy.[1] The date of his birth can be only approximately determined from a reference in the correspondence of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus's intimate and lifelong friend. In a letter addressed to Tacitus (Epist. VII.20.3) we are told that the latter, though propemodum aequalis, had already achieved a great oratorical reputation, while he himself was still adulescentulus. The allusion is quite vague, but as Pliny was born in 62 A.D., having reached his eighteenth year at the time of the destruction of Pompeji in 79 A.D., Tacitus cannot well have been born earlier than 54/55 A.D., a date which agrees with what little other biographical information we possess of him. He seems to have received his education in Rome, for it is all but certain that he was, like Pliny, a pupil of Quintilian. At all events, his earliest extant work, the Dialogus de oratoribus, published not later than the reign of Titus (79-81 A.D.), exhibits many clear traces of the influence of that great teacher.[2] According to his own statement, he served his forensic apprenticeship under two (vi) of the most illustrious advocates of the time, M. Aper and Julius Secundus, whom he has immortalized in the treatise referred to, being then about twenty years of age.

In 77 A.D., the already renowned orator was betrothed to the daughter of Agricola, the marriage[3] taking place shortly after, on the departure of his father-in-law for Britain.

About the same time began his official career. The passage in which Tacitus refers to this is tantalizingly brief and indefinite,[4] but it is probable that he first held the office of a tribunus militum, serving also as one of the viginti viri, a lower magistracy, given to men possessing the census senatorius, and usually the direct stepping-stone to the quaestorship. To this office he seems to have been appointed by Titus, about 80 A.D., the legal age being twenty- five. The dates of his tribuneship or aedileship are unknown, but in 88 A.D. he was present as praetor and quindecimvir sacris faciundis at the ludi saeculares.[5] In the following year Tacitus was absent from Rome, very probably in the capacity of propraetor of some minor province, possibly Belgium.[6] He did not return till after the death of Agricola, in 93 A.D.[7] The strained relations between Domitian and Agricola doubtless retarded Tacitus's further promotion, and he did not reach the consulship till 97 A.D., under Nerva. In 100 A.D. Tacitus and Pliny were associated in the impeachment of Marius Priscus, the proconsul of Africa. Some dozen or more years later he was (vii) proconsul of Asia, as we learn from an inscription.[8] The date of his death is altogether unknown, but it cannot have been earlier than 116 A.D., as may be inferred from an allusion to the conquests of Trajan.[9]

Writings. — If we except the youthful but brilliant Dialogus and numerous speeches which the distinguished orator doubtless published from time to time, according to the prevailing custom, Tacitus's illustrious career as a writer begins with the Agricola, which appeared shortly after the death of Nerva (Jan. 27, 98 A.D.), although the entire work, with the exception of the prooemium (1-3) and one passage at the close,[10] may well have been composed immediately after the death of Domitian.

In the same year there followed the Germania, the date being fixed by ch. 37.2. of that work.

The Histories, announced as in contemplation in the Agricola (ch. 3.3), appeared between 105-109. They comprised the story of the reigns of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, but only the first four books and a fragment of the fifth, dealing with the year 69-70, have survived.

The Annals began with the death of Augustus, and concluded with the assassination of Nero in 68 A.D. Only bks. I. -IV., portions of V. and VI., and bks. XI.-XVI. are preserved, the entire narrative of the reign of Caligula, the beginning of that of Claudius, and the end of Nero's being lost.

(viii) His design of writing the history of Augustus[11] and of Nerva and Trajan[12] seems to have been frustrated by his death; at least no such works existed in the time of St. Jerome (fourth century).


[1] It is a most curious fact that not a single great writer in Latin literature was a native Roman.

[2] See my Introd. to the Dial., pp. xiii.f.

[3] Agr. 9.6.

[4] Hist. 1.1.3, dignitatem nostram, a Vespasiano (69-79) incohatam, a Tito (79-81) auctam, a Domitiano (81-96) longius provectam non abnuerim.

[5] See Ann. 11.11.1.

[6] Plin. NH 7.76 speaks of Corneli Taciti equitis Romani Belgicae Galliae rationes procurantis. This may well have been the historian's father.

[7] Agr. 45.4.

[8] See below.

[9] Ann. 2.61.2; 4.4.3.

[10] Agr. 44.5 has all the appearance of an afterthought, it being in the nature of a vaticinium post eventum, and ch. 45.1, non vidit, etc., it seems, would very appropriately have followed immediately after potest ... effugisse. The absence of the epithet divus in ch. 3.1 need not imply that Nerva was still living when these words were penned. See note ad loc.

[11] Ann. 3.24.3.

[12] Hist. 1.1.4.