Tacitus: life and career


At the outset of his Annals, which was his last work, published around AD 118, Tacitus states that he wrote sine ira et studio (‘without anger or zeal’), that is, in an objective and dispassionate frame of mind devoted to an uninflected portrayal of historical truth. The announcement is part of his self-fashioning as a muckraker above partisan emotions who chronicles the sad story of early imperial Rome: the decline and fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (AD 14–68) in the Annals and the civil war chaos of the year of the four emperors (AD 69) followed by the rise and fall of the Flavian dynasty (AD 69–96) in the (earlier) Histories. But his narrative is far from a blow-by-blow account of Roman imperial history, and Tacitus is an author as committed as they come – a literary artist of unsparing originality who fashions his absorbing subject matter into a dark, defiant, and deadpan sensationalist vision of ‘a world in pieces’, which he articulates, indeed enacts, in his idiosyncratic Latinity.1 To read this Latin and to come to terms with its author is not easy: ‘No one else ever wrote Latin like Tacitus, who deserves his reputation as the most difficult of Latin authors.’2

This introduction is designed to help you get some purchase on Tacitus and his texts.3 We will begin with some basic facts, not least to establish Tacitus as a successful ‘careerist’ within the political system of the principate who rose to the top of imperial government and stayed there even through upheavals at the centre of power and dynastic changes (1). A few comments on the configuration of power in imperial Rome follow, with a focus on how emperors stabilized and sustained their rule (2). In our survey of Tacitus’ oeuvre, brief remarks on his so-called opera minora (his ‘smaller’ – a better label would be ‘early’ – works) precede more extensive consideration of his two great works of historiography: the Histories and, in particular, the Annals. Here issues of genre – of the interrelation of content and form – will be to the fore (3). We then look at some of the more distinctive features of Tacitus’ prose style, with the aim of illustrating how he deploys language as an instrument of thought (4). The final two sections are dedicated to the two principal figures of the set text: the emperor Nero (and his propensity for murder and spectacle) (5); and the senator Thrasea Paetus, who belonged to the so-called ‘Stoic opposition’ (6). None of the sections offers anything close to an exhaustive discussion of the respective topic: all we can hope to provide are some pointers on how to think with (and against) Tacitus and the material you will encounter in the set text.

Tacitus: life and career

Cornelius Tacitus was born in the early years of Nero’s reign c. AD 56/58, most likely in Narbonese or Cisalpine Gaul (modern southern France or northwestern Italy). He died around AD 118/120.4 His father is generally assumed to have been the Roman knight whom the Elder Pliny (AD 23 – 79) identifies in his Natural History (7.76) as ‘the procurator of Belgica and the two Germanies.’ We do not know for sure that Tacitus’ first name (praenomen) was Publius, though some scholars consider it to be ‘practically certain.’5 His nomen gentile Cornelius may derive from the fact that his non-Roman paternal ancestors received citizenship in late-republican times ‘through the sponsorship of a Roman office-holder called Cornelius.’6 Our knowledge of his life and public career is also rather sketchy, but detailed enough for a basic outline. If we place the information we have or can surmise from his works on an imperial timeline, the following picture emerges:

Dates Reigning Emperor Tacitus
54 – 68 Nero Born c. 56
68 – 69 (January) Galba
69 (January – April) Otho
69 (April – 22 December) Vitellius
69 – 79 Vespasian In Rome from 75 onwards (if not earlier)
77/78: marriage to Julia Agricola, daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (dates: 40–93; governor of Britain 77–85)
79 – 81


80s (or even earlier): Membership in the priestly college of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis 
c. 81: Quaestor Augusti (or Caesaris)?
81 – 96 Domitian 88: Praetor
89–93: Absence from Rome, perhaps on official appointments
96 – 98 Nerva 97: Suffect consul (after the death of Verginius Rufus)
98: Publication of the Agricola and the Germania
98 – 117 Trajan c. 101/2: Publication of the Dialogus
c. 109–10: Publication of the Histories
112–13: Proconsulship of Asia
117 – 138 Hadrian Died not before 118, c. 120?
? Shortly before: Publication of the Annals

Overall, we are looking at an impressive career both in Rome and in provincial government, which he entered at an early age and sustained throughout his life. As Birley notes with respect to one of his earliest appointments: ‘His membership of the XVviri, prestigious enough at any stage in a man’s career, had come early. Often senators did not get into this élite priestly college or one of the other three of equal status until after being consul. Further, in 88 the XVviri had a particularly important role: supervising the Secular Games.’7 Tacitus managed to remain active in public life through several regime changes: he seems to have done equally well under emperors he excoriates in his writings (in particular Domitian) and under emperors he deems worthy of praise (Nerva, Trajan). This raises an interesting, and potentially awkward, question, well articulated by A. J. Woodman: ‘Tacitus’ smooth progression from office to office – and in particular his relatively early acquisition of a major priesthood and his culminating proconsulship of Asia – bespeak of someone who was more than happy to take advantage of the political opportunities which the system had to offer and whose debt to the emperors listed in the preface to the Histories [on which see below] was not inconsiderable. It is thus all the more curious that, as usually interpreted, his treatment of the early empire in the Annals represents a general indictment of the system from which he had derived such personal benefit.’8 Curious indeed. Does Tacitus just indict specific emperors? Or certain dynasties? Or the entire system of the principate? Or only variants thereof? And why? The scholarly verdict is divided...


1 Henderson (1998).

2 Woodman (2004) xxi.

3 We are not trying to compete with general introductions to Tacitus and his works, of which there are plenty. We particularly recommend Ash (2006) and the two recent companions to Tacitus edited by Woodman (2009a) and Pagán (2012). See also, more generally, the companions to (Greek and) Roman historiography edited by Marincola (2007) and Feldherr (2009).

4 This paragraph is based on Birley (2000) and Martin and Woodman (2012).

5 Birley (2000) 231 n. 4 with reference to Oliver (1977).

6 Birley (2000) 233–34.

7 Birley (2000) 234. Tacitus himself records his involvement at Annals 11.11.1: Isdem consulibus ludi saeculares octingentesimo post Romam conditam, quarto et sexagesimo quam Augustus ediderat, spectati sunt. utriusque principis rationes praetermitto, satis narratas libris quibus res imperatoris Domitiani composui. nam is quoque edidit ludos saecularis iisque intentius adfui sacerdotio quindecimvirali praeditus ac tunc praetor; quod non iactantia refero sed quia collegio quindecimvirum antiquitus ea cura et magistratus potissimum exequebantur officia caerimoniarum. [Under the same consulate (= 47 AD), eight hundred years from the foundation of Rome, sixty-four from their presentation by Augustus, came a performance of the Secular Games. The calculations employed by the two princes I omit, as they have been sufficiently explained in the books which I have devoted to the reign of Domitian (= the closing books, now lost, of the Histories). For he too exhibited Secular Games, and, as the holder of a quindecimviral priesthood and as praetor at the time, I followed them with more than usual care: a fact which I recall not in vanity, but because from of old this responsibility has rested with the Fifteen, and because it was to magistrates in especial that the task fell of discharging the duties connected with the religious ceremonies.]

8 Woodman (2004) xi.