Tacitus’ oeuvre: opera minora and maiora

From the very beginning of Roman historiography in the late third century BC political achievement and authoritative prose about historical events or figures had gone hand-in-hand. The composition of historical narratives in a range of genres was very much the domain of senators. As Ronald Syme puts it:22

In the beginning, history was written by senators (first a Fabius, and Cato was the first to use the Latin language); it remained for a long time the monopoly of the governing order; and it kept the firm imprint of its origins ever after. The senator came to his task in mature years, with a proper knowledge of men and government, a sharp and merciless insight. Taking up the pen, he fought again the old battles of Forum and Curia. Exacerbated by failure or not mollified by worldly success, he asserted a personal claim to glory and survival; and, if he wrote in retirement from affairs, it was not always with tranquillity of mind.

It is thus telling that Tacitus’ literary career begins in earnest only after he had reached the pinnacle of public life: the Agricola or De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae appeared in the year after he held the consulship (AD 98). His literary debut also coincided with a major upheaval at the centre of power. AD 96 saw the end of the Flavian dynasty through the assassination of Domitian and the crowning of Nerva as emperor at the age of 65, after years of loyal service under Nero and the Flavians. Pressure from the Praetorian Guard and the army more generally soon compelled Nerva to adopt Trajan as his eventual successor, and Tacitus’ first literary activities fall within this period of transition and change, which he himself marks out as a watershed in politics and culture. In fact, he explicitly links the demise of Domitian (and his oppressive regime) to the renaissance of creative efforts in the literary sphere.23 His writings in and of themselves thus advertise the current system of government as a good one (or at least an improvement over what had come before) and signal Tacitus’ (new) political allegiances. (Much of the bad press that has come down to us on the last Flavian comes from writers in the reign of Trajan – Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, above all – keen to paint the past in black and the present in white, thereby promoting both the reigning emperors and themselves.)

The Agricola is difficult to classify in generic terms. Prima facie, it is a ‘biography’ of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola; but it also sports striking affinities with various forms of historiographical writing, not least the works of Sallust (the last ‘republican’ historiographer) or, in its year-by-year account of Agricola’s governorship of Britain, annalistic history. It also includes a brief ethnographic excursion on the British (10–12). But arguably the most striking features are the three chapters of prologue (1–3) and epilogue (44–46) that Tacitus devotes almost exclusively to an attack on the principate of Domitian, which had just come to a violent end.24 The historical material, the overall outlook, and the timing of the publication all reek of a republican ethos.

Tacitus’ next work builds on the ethnographic pilot paragraphs in the Agricola. His Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum is an ethnographic treatise on the German tribes, which he uses as a mirror to reflect on contemporary Rome.25 Soon thereafter Tacitus published the so-called Dialogus (Dialogus de oratoribus), in which he employed yet another genre (the dialogue) to explore whether or not the quality of public oratory had deteriorated under the principate – a traditional preoccupation going back to Cicero who already diagnosed the rise of autocracy as fatal for high-quality speech in the civic domain owing to a disappearance of freedom of expression. These three works are often labelled Tacitus’ opera minora, his ‘minor works.’ They are all ‘historical’ in one way or another and thus set the stage for the two major pieces of historiography: the Histories and the Annals.

The Histories

The opening paragraph of the Histories contains the most detailed self-positioning of Tacitus as a writer of history and is worth a detailed look. Already the opening sentence – Initium mihi operis Servius Galba iterum Titus Vinius consules erunt: ‘I begin my work with the second consulship of Servius Galba, when Titus Vinius was his colleague’ – is jaw-dropping. What makes it so, is not so much what’s in it but what isn’t. At the beginning of AD 69, when Tacitus begins his Histories, Galba was not just consul for the second time – he was also emperor! As Nero’s successor he had already been in power since 6 June 68. Tacitus, however, blithely glosses over this not entirely insignificant fact, preferring instead to give a historiographical shout-out to Galba in his role as ‘republican’ high magistrate. This programmatic keynote sets the tone for the rest of the work – and the remainder of the opening paragraph (Histories 1.1):26

nam post conditam urbem octingentos et viginti prioris aevi annos multi auctores rettulerunt, dum res populi Romani memorabantur pari eloquentia ac libertate: postquam bellatum apud Actium atque omnem potentiam ad unum conferri pacis interfuit, magna illa ingenia cessere; simul veritas pluribus modis infracta, primum inscitia rei publicae ut alienae, mox libidine adsentandi aut rursus odio adversus dominantis: ita neutris cura posteritatis inter infensos vel obnoxios. sed ambitionem scriptoris facile averseris, obtrectatio et livor pronis auribus accipiuntur; quippe adulationi foedum crimen servitutis, malignitati falsa species libertatis inest. mihi Galba Otho Vitellius nec beneficio nec iniuria cogniti. dignitatem nostram a Vespasiano inchoatam, a Tito auctam, a Domitiano longius provectam non abnuerim: sed incorruptam fidem professis neque amore quisquam et sine odio dicendus est. quod si vita suppeditet, principatum divi Nervae et imperium Traiani, uberiorem securioremque materiam, senectuti seposui, rara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet.

[Many historians have treated of the earlier period of eight hundred and twenty years from the founding of Rome, and while dealing with the Republic they have written with equal eloquence and freedom. But after the battle of Actium, when the interests of peace required that all power should be concentrated in the hands of one man, writers of like ability disappeared; and at the same time historical truth was impaired in many ways: first, because men were ignorant of politics as being not any concern of theirs; later, because of their passionate desire to flatter; or again, because of their hatred of their masters. So between the hostility of the one class and the servility of the other, posterity was disregarded. But while men quickly turn from a historian who curries favour, they listen with ready ears to calumny and spite; for flattery is subject to the shameful charge of servility, but malignity makes a false show of independence. In my own case I had no acquaintance with Galba, Otho, or Vitellius, through either kindness or injury at their hands. I cannot deny that my political career owed its beginning to Vespasian; that Titus advanced it; and that Domitian carried it further; but those who profess inviolable fidelity to truth must write of no man with affection or with hatred. Yet if my life were to last, I have reserved for my old age the history of the deified Nerva’s reign and of Trajan’s rule, a richer and less perilous subject, because of the rare good fortune of an age in which we may feel what we wish and may say what we feel.]

Tacitus here takes us on a flash journey through Roman history, from the foundations of Rome way back when down to his own times, with Actium and Augustus, AD 69 (the year of the four emperors), and the Flavian dynasty as major pit stops. Onto this chronological skeleton, Tacitus hangs systematic comments on the (changing) political regimes, which he matches to the (changing) outlook of Latin historiography. His basic thesis of an inextricable link between the political environment and the quality of writing it sponsors raises some awkward questions about his own literary efforts. Tacitus confronts this challenge head-on by scripting a mini-autobiography into his opening salvo that outlines his political career and his approach to historical writing. If we extrapolate the information Tacitus has packed into his opening paragraph and present it in the form of a table we get the following:

Period Regime/ emperor in charge Characteristics The quality of historiography and historiographers Tacitus (54/56 – c. 120) Tacitus’

751–31 BC [founding of Rome – Actium]

res populi Romani *

libertas, eloquentia, veritas

Very high: cf. magna ingenia

Before his birth

30 BC – 68 AD [Augustus – Nero] Julio-Claudian dynasty - veritas infracta
- libido adsentandi
- odium adversus dominantes
Rather low, falling into two flawed types: one motivated by hatred; the other by subservience: neither cares for posterity
ambitio scriptoris (a turn-off) 
obtrectatio et livor (lurid fascination)
Before his birth; childhood (to be covered later, in the Annals)
69 AD [The year of the four emperors] Galba, Otho, Vitellius; Vespasian ? ? mihi Galba Otho Vitellius nec beneficio nec iniuria cogniti; Histories 1–3
69 – 96 [Vespasian – Domitian] Flavian dynasty:
Vespasian (69–79)
Titus (79–81)
Domitian (81–96)
? ? Stellar public career (cf. dignitas nostra); this won’t compromise his commitment to incorrupta fides & absence of amor and odium in his writings Hist. 4 (21 December 69 – 1 January 70), beginning of 5 (70); the rest of the work is lost, but covered events till the death of Domitian
96 – ‘Adopted emperors’:
Nerva (96–98),
Trajan (98–117),
Hadrian (117–138)
uberior securiorque materia; rara temporum felicitas;
freedom of thought and speech
Tacitus seems to imply that the political situation enables: veritas
This would seem to entail that Tacitus could be a magnum ingenium in the republican mould
? What was/ is his status/ career under Nerva and Trajan?
Looking towards the future: retirement (senectus)
Writing about this period a task for retirement

* Unlike the opening of the Annals (for which see below), Tacitus here glosses over the fact that initially Rome was ruled by kings, in the process playing down the traditional assumption that primeval monarchy was simply ‘natural’.

In his history of Rome and Roman historiography, Tacitus posits two key watersheds: 31 BC and AD 96. This generates a tripartite scheme. In republican times, the political set-up produced and enabled outstanding authors. By contrast, the period from Actium until the death of Domitian, dominated as it was by the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, was not conducive to literary talents: contemporary accounts are marred by various flaws to do with the wider political milieu. With the rise to power of a new type of princeps committed to republican norms in the wake of Domitian, could historiography, too, regain its former heights and produce an account of the previous epoch that avoids the inevitable deficiencies of contemporary voices? Without being too explicit about it, Tacitus seems to be answering this question in the affirmative: only now, under Trajan, so he seems to be saying, has the time come for writing the history of the earlier emperors, thereby advertising the job he is minded to take on himself.

Tacitus approaches his task in inverse chronological order: in the Histories, he revisits the year of the four emperors and the rise and fall of the Flavian dynasty (AD 69 –96); in the subsequent Annals, he covers the period from the death of the first to the death of the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, that is, Augustus to Nero.

The Annals

As in the Histories, Tacitus uses the opening sentence of the Annals for a grand sweep through Roman history from the very beginning down to imperial times (Annals 1.1):

Urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit. dictaturae ad tempus sumebantur; neque decemviralis potestas ultra biennium, neque tribunorum militum consulare ius diu valuit. non Cinnae, non Sullae longa dominatio; et Pompei Crassique potentia cito in Caesarem, Lepidi atque Antonii arma in Augustum cessere, qui cuncta discordiis civilibus fessa nomine principis sub imperium accepit. sed veteris populi Romani prospera vel adversa claris scriptoribus memorata sunt; temporibusque Augusti dicendis non defuere decora ingenia, donec gliscente adulatione deterrerentur. Tiberii Gaique et Claudii ac Neronis res florentibus ipsis ob metum falsae, postquam occiderant, recentibus odiis compositae sunt. inde consilium mihi pauca de Augusto et extrema tradere, mox Tiberii principatum et cetera, sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo.

[Rome at the outset was a city state under the government of kings: liberty and the consulate were institutions of Lucius Brutus. Dictatorships were always a temporary expedient: the decemviral office was dead within two years, nor was the consular authority of the military tribunes long-lived. Neither Cinna nor Sulla created a lasting despotism: Pompey and Crassus quickly forfeited their power to Caesar, and Lepidus and Antony their swords to Augustus, who, under the title ‘princeps’, gathered beneath his empire a world outworn by civil conflicts. But, while the glories and disasters of the old Roman commonwealth have been chronicled by famous writers, and intellects of distinction were not lacking to tell the tale of the Augustan age, until the rising tide of sycophancy deterred them, the histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified through cowardice while they flourished, and composed, when they fell, under the influence of still rankling hatreds. Hence my design, to treat a small part (the concluding one) of Augustus’ reign, then the principate of Tiberius and its sequel, without anger and without partiality, from the motives of which I stand sufficiently removed.]

And, as in the Histories, he stakes a claim to superiority over previous accounts: his history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, written in retrospect, surpasses earlier, contemporary sources in veracity by virtue of his dispassionate handling of the subject matter. In the one manuscript that preserved the opening books of the Annals the text is presented under the title Ab excessu divi Augusti. Our conventional label Annals has therefore ‘no ancient authority’, but it is nevertheless ‘a happy choice in that it reminds the reader that Tacitus, most original of Roman historians, wrote within the traditional framework of year-by-year narrative’ (more annalysis on this to come in a moment).27 In fact, at one point Tacitus himself refers to ‘the Annals’ as ‘his annals’ (Annals 4.32.1):28

Pleraque eorum quae rettuli quaeque referam parva forsitan et levia memoratu videri non nescius sum: sed nemo annalis nostros cum scriptura eorum contenderit qui veteres populi Romani res composuere.

[I am not unaware that very many of the events I have reported, and shall report, may perhaps seem little things, trifles too slight for record; but no parallel can be drawn between these annals of mine and the work of the men who composed the affairs of the Roman people of old.]

What are annals? This type of historiography, which originated in the second centry BC, gets its name from its policy of year-by-year recording (annus = year).29 Notable features include dating of the years with reference to the two high magistrates who entered into office at the beginning of the year (‘when x and y were consuls...’ is the most conspicuous annalistic tag) and attention to signs of interaction between the res publica and the supernatural sphere (such as prodigies). As such, the genre came with certain formal expectations and under the principate carried a potentially built-in political ideology: it was a distinctively republican mode of writing.

Tacitus felt by no means bound to a strictly chronological presentation of his material. There is evidence that he even re-ordered material across year-boundaries – in violation of his own principle suum quaeque in annum referre (4.71: ‘to record each event in its year of occurrence’). And within the year, he operates freely to generate special effects, not least through the striking juxtaposition of distinctive narrative blocks. The set text offers a superb example: Nero’s decision not to proceed with his plan to visit the East and in particular Egypt (15.36) segues seamlessly into an orgy that turns Rome into Egyptian Alexandria (15.37), which is followed abruptly by the Great Fire of Rome (15.38) as if moral chaos entails physical destruction.30 The sequence owes itself to Tacitus’ selection and arrangement of the material, and the order in which he narrates these events hints at – even if it does not expressly articulate – an interpretation of Nero’s world and the historical forces at work therein.

Yet, however much he was free-lancing generically, his commitment to annalistic history remains fundamental to the politics of his prose – and literary originality.31 One could argue that Tacitus generated a new generic hybrid – ‘imperial annals’ – insofar as he superimposed an annalistic structure on imperial history, thereby integrating a republican way of ordering time with another ordering principle, the reigns of individual emperors.32 To write imperial history in annalistic form was a choice that ensured a paradoxical tension in the very make-up of his text. Or, in the words of John Henderson:33

The annalistic form of ‘our Annals’ (4.32) binds the work to the politics of the res publica, consular figureheads leading a yearly change of the guard to link human with solar time. Annals are the voice of the tribune, the censor, the consul, of that Rome, they can speak no other language. It was not possible to write Annals before (in the myth of respublica libera) Brutus expelled the Tarquins. ... What Tacitus documents under the flag of dispassion (so: laments, protests, contemns?) is collapsed into the reigns of emperors, as Livian history of Rome Ab urbe condita is ousted by Tacitean history of the Caesars’ re-foundation Ab excessu divi Augusti.

Only parts of the Annals, which, on the most plausible reconstruction, originally added up to 18 Books, have survived. Here is what we have (and what we haven’t):

Book Years Covered Emperor(s)
1 14 – 15 Augustus, Tiberius
2 16 – 19 Tiberius
3 20 – 22 Tiberius
4 23 – 28 Tiberius
5 29 Tiberius
6 31 – 37 Tiberius
[Lost: 7 – 10 37 – 47 Caligula, early years of Claudius]
11 47 – 48 (first part) Claudius
12 48 (rest) – 54 (first part) Claudius; book ends with Nero’s ascent to the throne
13 54 (rest) – 58 Nero
14 59 – 62 (first part) Nero
15 62 (rest) – 65 (first part) Nero
16 (breaks off in ch. 35 with the death of Thrasea Paetus) 65 (rest) – 66 (first part) Nero
[Lost ? 17 – 18 ? 66 (rest) – 68 (till the death of Nero) ? Nero]

One conspicuous aspect of the Annals that the table illustrates nicely is a change in policy after the Tiberius-narrative in how Tacitus distributed his material across books. Throughout his account of Tiberius’ reign, a new book coincides with a new year and hence new consuls – in traditionally annalistic fashion. In the Claudius- and Nero-narratives, Tacitus abandons this practice. As a result the beginnings and ends of books – always marked moments – foreground imperial themes. Consider:

End of Book 11: execution of Claudius’ wife Messalina

Beginning of Book 12: choice of Agrippina (Nero’s mother) as new wife

End of Book 12: death of Claudius and Nero’s ascent to the throne

Beginning of Book 13: murder of Junius Silanus

End of Book 13: the death – and revival (!) – of the arbor ruminalis, the tree that 830 years ago gave shadow to Romulus and Remus when they were babies34

Beginning of Book 14: Annalistic opening (‘under the consulship of Gaius Vipstanus and C. Fonteius’, i.e. AD 59), followed by the failed and successful murder of Agrippina35

End of Book 14: Exile and murder of Nero’s first wife Octavia; preview of the conspiracy of Piso

Beginning of Book 15: War in the East

End of Book 15: Honours for Nero in the wake of the conspiracy of Piso

Beginning of Book 16: the ‘treasure of Dido’ (a hare-brained idea to solve a financial crisis)


22 Syme (1970) 1–2.

23 See Agricola 2, where Tacitus envisions all the pursuits (such as the writing of history) that were traditionally located in aristocratic otium exiled from Rome during the reign of Domitian.

24 See further Ash (2006) 20 and, for a close reading of the preface, Woodman (2012).

25 There was a sinister side to the treatise’s history of reception as it inspired many a German nationalist after it was rediscovered in the Renaissance: see Krebs (2012).

26 We cite the text and translation by C. H. Moore in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1925).

27 Martin (1981) 104.

28 Much like Livy 43.13.2: meos annales.

29 See Gotter and Luraghi (2003).

30 Woodman (1992).

31 Ginsberg (1981) 100: ‘Tacitus has rejected traditional annalistic history, but he has not rejected its form. There is a good reason. The annalistic form was traditionally associated with the republican past, and Tacitus wanted to evoke that past, if only to deny its application to the present. ... In rejecting traditional annalistic history, Tacitus rejects also an interpretation of history.’

32 Griffin (2009) 182: ‘The structure of the Annals as a whole combines an annalistic principle, which applies to the smaller organisation within each book, and a regnal principle, which groups the books according to the reigns of emperors and which ensures that the reigns of Tiberius and Claudius (and doubtless of Caligula) each close with the end of a book.’ As Griffin goes on to show, the relative dominance of the two principles throughout the narrative varies from emperor to emperor – one of the formal means by which Tacitus generates meaning.

33 Henderson (1998) 257–58.

34 Spot the odd one out (Annals 13.58): Eodem anno Ruminalem arborem in comitio, quae octingentos et triginta ante annos Remi Romulique infantiam texerat, mortuis ramalibus et arescente trunco deminutam prodigii loco habitum est, donec in novos fetus reviresceret (‘In the same year, the Ruminal tree in the Comitium, which 830 years earlier had sheltered Remus and Romulus in their infancy, through the death of its boughs and the withering of its stem reached a stage of decrepitude which was regarded as a portent – until it revived with fresh shoots’). A portent such as the withering of a sacred tree may well have been entered in the annalistic record – but also if it then consumes itself? Is Tacitus pulling our leg here, with an unexpected, yet deconstructive, gesture to a formal device of annalistic writing?

35 This return to a coincidence of beginning of the year and beginning of the book also receives instant and ironic qualification: right after the dating, Tacitus drops the acid remark that the length of his reign (vetustate imperii – a dark-humoured hyperbole that mockingly asserts the dominance of the imperial principle) had finally rendered Nero sufficiently audacious to go through with the long-plotted matricide.