Cornelius Tacitus, one of Rome's great historians was born into the age of Rome's ''tyrant
emperors'', circa 55. His early childhood was contemporary with the disastrous rule of Nero.
His formative years were spent attending an academy to ready himself for public
office, the beginning years of his career as a public official were split between the genial rule of
Vespasian, and later the return to tyranny marked by Domitian.
During the reign of
Vespasian, Tacitus published his first major work, Dialogue on Oratory in which he hearkens
back to an older style, which he sees as being corrupted by new trends toward flashiness and exuberance. This first
work reveals reservations, and some resistance toward the current age. During the reign of Domitian, these impulses transformed into a generally anti imperial mindset. When Tacitus'
father in law, Julius Agricola was removed from his post as governor of Britain by Domitian,
Tacitus inferred foul play, Agricola's subsequent death was likewise attributed by Tacitus to
Domitian. Following the death of Agricola, and the continued oppression under Domitian,
Tacitus was wholly against the imperial system. Almost immediately after Domitian was gone, Tacitus let his contempt be known, publishing a biography of Agricola in which he elevates his deceased father in law and bitterly criticizes Domitian and the imperial system which he embodied.
The biography of Agricola not only exhibits Tacitus' distinct political views, but also
his literary talents. His writing is concise, subtle, and insightful, securing Tacitus a reputation for literary merit even if his historical judgments are heavily biased. While Tacitus did not outright lie, his skill as a lawyer is obvious in his ability to blur lines and persuade his audience
of the validity of his statements.
Following this, Tacitus wrote, Germania, an account of
the Germanic wars, and a description of the German tribes. His account tends toward
condescension, but makes a generally favorable portrayal of the Germans, used by Tacitus to contrast and illustrate his frustration with modern Rome.
Tacitus' marked dissatisfaction with imperial rule, and personal leanings toward
antiquarianism are two components in explaining his motivations for his next work, called simply The Histories. This work describes the years from Nero's demise in 68 to the near
present in 96, though sadly only the first four and a half books have survived to this day. The form is a
traditional "book per year" account, and attempts to find the underlying causes for the present with which Tacitus is so dissatisfied in the events of the past. This notion of causal evolution is sophisticated and modern, marking Tacitus as a great historian, in addition to a skilled writer.
His next work, The Annals follows the subject of The Histories further into the past. Despite his intentions to write his next work on events following 96, Tacitus turned farther to the past, taking
on the era from 14-68. Significant causes of this decision were the impulse to go deeper into the
causes of Rome's decline, all the way to the beginning of the imperial era, and also a practical wariness of writing a potentially unflattering work involving the emperor Trajan, who was then still in power.
Tacitus denounces the early
Roman Emperors in The Annals, and though general consensus agreed with Tacitus' attitudes, his extreme bitterness and implied indictment of the imperial system were considered somewhat subversive.
Perhaps as a guarantee, Tacitus was careful to temper his obvious republican views with an admission that free speech was flourishing under the benevolent rule of Trajan. Tacitus
distinguishes himself in both works by remaining mostly secular in his interpretations. The gods are certainly present, but are not held responsible for events. His careful analysis of historical cause and effect would lead Gibbon, centuries later to observe that Tacitus was the first historian to use philosophy to guide his inquiries.
In a classic historical irony, Tacitus died around 117, exactly the time at which The Roman
Empire reached its greatest extent in territory, and left a legacy which would endure to the
present day. His work continued to be copied until the 4th century, at which time it went dormant like so much of the Greco-Roman heritage. During the 17th and 18th centuries Tacitus made his greatest impact upon artists, political theorists and philosophers of the enlightenment with his
vivid accounts of the dangers of absolutism and his profound aphorisms regarding the human
condition in general. His works were studied as a guide to Latin prose in addition to the practical
and philosophical elements contained therein. Machiavelli used Tacitus' descriptions of Roman
Emperors when composing 'The Prince' and Chateaubriand used Tacitus to furnish analogy when criticizing Napoleon in
the early 19th century, comparing himself to Tacitus and Napoleon to Nero.
Tacitus again went
dormant in the later 19th century when utilitarian thought dominated European society, but found revival following the disastrous world wars, with his pessimistic evaluation of authority and society. Today Tacitus is generally forgiven his subjectivity and bias, as very few historians hold faith in 'objective history'. Even now his disdain for the Roman Emperors shapes our culture's view of Rome as one of a tyrannical emperor opposite a group of powerless yet decent senators. The most significant contribution of his work however, may not be the practical historical information it contains, or its effect on our perception of Imperial Rome, but its insistence on artistry and self expression in historical writing combined with an approach to history as a method of understanding
the present by examining the past.
Encyclopaedia Americana, Tacitus.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tacitus.
Martin, Ronald, Tacitus. London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd, 1981.
Mellor, Ronald, Tacitus. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Syme, Ronald, Tacitus. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.