Authors: Tacitus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Roman orator, historian, and public official.

c. 56


c. 120

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.


(Library of Congress)

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."

Author Works Nonfiction: De vita Julii Agricolae, c. 98 (The Life of Agricola, 1591) De origine et situ Germanorum, c. 98 (also known as Germania; The Description of Germanie, 1598) Dialogus de oratoribus, c. 98-102 (A Dialogue Concerning Oratory, 1754) Historiae, c. 109 (Histories, 1731) Ab excessu divi Augusti, c. 116 (also known as Annales; Annals, 1598) Bibliography Ash, Rhiannon. Ordering Anarchy: Armies and Leaders in Tacitus’ Histories. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Chilver, G. E. F. A Historical Commentary on Tacitus’s Histories I and II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Containing a wealth of information, this work will prove very helpful to students of the period, because the author takes great care to trace each source and reference used by Tacitus. Kraus, Christina Shuttleworth. Latin Historians. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Luce, T. J., and A. J. Woodman. Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. A collection of essays from a symposium on Tacitus, addressing both his major and his minor works as they may originally have been composed and as they survive. Mellor, Ronald. Tacitus. New York: Routledge, 1993. Argues for reclaiming an ironic genius whose cynicism is suited to an analysis of the brutality of the current age. O’Gorman, Ellen. Irony and Misreading in the Annals of Tacitus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Literary analysis and close reading of the language and style of the Annals, in the political context of first and second century Rome. Includes a full translation of the Latin. Sinclair, Patrick. Tacitus the Sententious Historian: A Sociology of Rhetoric in Annales. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Examines Greek and Latin rhetorical and historical culture, centering on Tacitus’s use of aphorisms and maxims (sententiae). Syme, Ronald. Tacitus. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. This superb biography is a remarkable work of scholarship that examines the life and work of Tacitus against the background of Rome in the first century. Its bibliography is an excellent resource for the student. Tacitus, Cornelius. Agricola. Translated by Anthony R. Birley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. With the original Latin as well as line-by-line English translations. Enriched with excellent notes and scholarly essays. Tacitus, Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Contained in these volumes are books 4 through 6 and books 11 through 14 of the Annals. Also included is an index to the other volumes in the Loeb Classical Library containing parts of the Histories and the Annals. With excellent maps. Tacitus, Cornelius. Histories. Translated by W. H. Fyfe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. This bilingual text contains an excellent introductory essay to the life and works of Tacitus. Woodman, A. J. Tacitus Reviewed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Collects the great Tacitus scholar’s thoughts on the historian over twenty-five years, with emphasis on the Annals.

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