From Stuart, Duane Reed. 1909. Tacitus: The Agricola. New York: Macmillan. Pp. ix-xiv.
The books of Tacitus show vividly what manner of man he was. The works of no other ancient historian are so impregnated with the author's personality. By reading the writings of Tacitus between the lines it is easy to find out what he thought of the world in which he lived, what his convictions and what his prejudices were.
On the other hand, the information that he gives us directly about his life is very meager. No biography of Tacitus has come down to us from ancient times. It is possible, therefore, to reconstruct his career only in a bare outline in which much rests upon conjecture and surmise.
According to the more reliable tradition our author's full name was Publius Cornelius Tacitus. The year of his birth was probably 55 A.D. His boyhood thus coincided closely with the reign of Nero, 54-68 A.D. We do not know whether Tacitus was a native of Rome or whether he was born outside of the city, as were the other great figures of Roman literature. As to his station in the world there is good reason to believe that his father was a Cornelius Tacitus of the preceding generation, a Roman knight who served as procurator in Belgic Gaul. If this identification be correct, Tacitus came from equestrian stock — an inference which fits what we know about his education, his marriage, and his social connections. As he himself tells us, he was a disciple of M. Aper and Julius Secundus, the (x) leaders of the bar in the time of Vespasian, 69-79 A.D. He thus had a place as a youth in that distinguished coterie of literary men of whose intercourse he gives a typical sketch in the Dialogus de Oratoribus. In the year 78 he married the daughter of Julius Agricola, one of the consuls of the previous year and a man who had already made his mark as a soldier and an administrator. Evidently this match bespeaks for Tacitus the approval of social position and official prestige. Throughout his life Tacitus was on terms of intimacy with the foremost men of the time, notably with the younger Pliny. Of this engaging type of Roman gentility Tacitus was the model and the constant admiration. Eleven of the published letters of Pliny have come down to us with the superscription C. Plinius Tacito suo salutem.
At a comparatively early age Tacitus established for himself a reputation as a pleader and an orator. During the reign of Vespasian he entered his official career by serving as military tribune and as a member of the board of vigintiviri so-called. Under the rules governing preferment at the time he thus became eligible for the higher state offices which marked the successive steps in a senatorial career. The first of these posts, the quaestorship, Tacitus held either in 80 or in 81 A.D. under the emperor Titus. During the reign of Domitian, 81-96 A.D., Tacitus for some years must have enjoyed the favor of the emperor whom, as we shall see, he was afterwards to portray in such dark colors. At least he reached the praetorship in the year 88 A.D. and therefore as a necessary preliminary must have served as tribune of the people or as aedile. In accordance with the system of Roman provincial administration he was sent, at the expiration of (xi) his praetorship, to fill some one of the posts that fell to the lot of the ex-praetors. He may have commanded a legion or may have governed a province. We do not know where this post was located. He spent some four years in this service, for, as we learn from chapter 44 of the Agricola, he was still absent from Rome when his father-in-law died in August 93.
Agricola undoubtedly carried with him the members of his household in his fall from favor. During the closing years of Domitian's principate Tacitus was persona ingrata at the palace. After his return to Rome he found it necessary to order his conduct with care if he were not to court what seemed to him a useless martyrdom. Therefore in the deliberations of the Senate he frankly assumed with the crowd an attitude of non-resistance. We may well believe that on many occasions only the tactful application of the doctrine of conformity which he preaches in the Agricola saved him from the fate which overtook those colleagues of his who dared openly to brave imperial displeasure. For the time being the path of official advancement was blocked.
With the murder of Domitian came better times for the senatorial party. In 97 the emperor Nerva raised Tacitus to the consulship. One incident in the historian's tenure of the office has been handed down to us, namely, his delivery of a eulogy of Verginius Rufus, the guardian of Pliny. Verginius had rendered distinguished service to the Empire in the Gallic revolt of 68, and if he had cared to accept the proffered support of his army, might possibly have been emperor. The speech of Tacitus, says Pliny, added the crowning touch to Verginius's good fortune.
Two more events in the life of Tacitus as a public man (xii) are known to us. In the year 100, together with his friend Pliny, he acted for the inhabitants of Africa in proceedings instituted against Marius Priscus, a governor of the province, who was accused of malfeasance in office. Tacitus reached the culmination of his political career before he was sixty years old. In 112-113 the proconsulship of Asia fell to his lot. This post and the corresponding position in Africa were the highest honors that could be conferred on a senator. Therefore, Tacitus, more fortunate than Agricola, whom Domitian had forced to relinquish claim on the proconsulship of Africa, obtained his due of recognition from the state.
At the expiration of his year of office Tacitus presumably returned to Rome and began the composition of the Annals. Apparently he outlived Trajan and died sometime after 117 A.D., the year in which Hadrian began to rule. He died without completing the work which he had reserved for his old age, a history of the principates of Nerva and Trajan.
Tacitus was a man of tremendous earnestness. He took his work seriously and tried in good faith to meet the self-imposed obligation of narrating the history of the empire sine ira et studio. When he failed, as we know he sometimes did, to live up to his promise to preach the "gospel of things as they were," it was from no desire to falsify. His judgments were at the beck and call of a masterful individuality which confronts us everywhere and insists on leaving its subjective impress on the narrative. His view of things was pessimistic. He was unable to repress his prejudices in dealing with such emperors as Tiberius and Domitian. As a result their characters appear before us with proportions distorted.
(xiii) A critical historian in the modern sense he was not. Nevertheless he towers above the historians of Rome as Thucydides towers above those of Greece. Owing to the loss of the sources on which he tells us he drew, it is a well-nigh impossible task to discover his literary methods in detail. Compilation was in his day the accepted process of historical composition. The obeisance paid to the authority of a predecessor amounted often to the reproduction — without acknowledgment — of the written word. Tacitus did not hesitate to appropriate phraseology as well as facts; hence he sometimes shines with a luster not his own. Tested, however, by the standards of his age, he handled his sources scientifically. He did not slavishly follow one work for a given period, but he utilized several at a time, comparing them among themselves and occasionally checking their testimony by recourse to public documents.
It has been well said that whatever Tacitus was it is through his eyes that we must see the first century of the Empire. This, however, does not constitute his sole claim to a hearing nowadays. Although there was a strong dash of the misanthropist in his make-up, none the less his chief interest in the drama of history was centered on the human actors. Events are to be studied in terms of the human motives underlying them. These motives Tacitus divines with magic insight and sets forth with matchless power. In his hands history is not a mere chronicle of changes of dynasty, wars, and rumors of wars. It is a record of the ability of human virtues to make and human passions to mar. This story Tacitus elected to tell to his world that posterity might draw the moral. It would seem, therefore, that, as long as "the proper study (xiv) of mankind is man," the writings of Tacitus should hold a message.