Last reviewed: June 2018
Roman orator, historian, and public official.
Probably Rome (now in Italy)
The life of Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (TAS-uht-uhs) is known only from autobiographical allusions in the extant parts of his works and from eleven letters written to him by Pliny the Younger. This remarkable republican lived through the reign of ten emperors, from Nero to Hadrian. As a brilliant lawyer, senator, and consul, he was a close observer of public affairs, and his dismay at the degeneration of his age and his fear of tyranny are expressed in pithy language. Tacitus
Tacitus was born into a prosperous provincial family. He studied rhetoric as an adolescent and came to public notice as a skilled orator. His career took a notable advance when he married the daughter of the future Roman governor of Britain, Julius Agricola. He was appointed to high offices by the cruel Emperor Domitian, then reached the pinnacle of his civil career when he was named to the important governorship of Asia by Emperor Trajan in 112.
Tacitus's A Dialogue Concerning Oratory laments the decay of education and eloquence; The Life of Agricola is a fine biography of his father-in-law, with a sketch of Britain under the Romans. The Description of Germanie (also called Germania or Concerning the Geography, the Customs and Manners, and the Tribes of Germany), a valuable classic despite its errors, contrasts the free barbarians with the servile Romans. The Histories includes an unforgettable account of rebellion and civil war throughout the vast Roman terrain as well as a fascinating, prejudiced account of the Jews. The Annals provides a rich, almost novelistic account of the pivotal reign of the emperors Tiberius and Claudius as well as a philosophy of history. Tacitus is memorable as a chronicler of what it is like to live under tyranny in a nation that still remembers its own freedom. His experience under the persecution launched by Domitian permitted him to take a moral reckoning of the ethics and responsibilities of individual behavior of people enduring such a regime.
Despite the "singularly blessed time" of his last years, Tacitus could never shake off the morbid effects of Domitian’s reign of terror. Nevertheless, although convinced of Rome’s corruption, he served loyally and well, receiving in 99 a special vote of thanks from the Roman Senate. He recorded the society more than he cured it, and his works collectively provide a vivid, panoramic view of the empire in the first century. Many modern historians still subscribe to his dictum that "history’s highest function is to rescue merit from oblivion, and to hold up as a terror to base words and actions the reprobation of posterity."