Tacitus the Great

For a man who delved into the lives of others, not all that much is known about the life of Cornelius Tacitus, historian of Rome under the empire. He was born in 56 or 57 a.d. and is thought to have died around 125 a.d. His family came from Narbonensis (the modern Provence), or possibly from Northern Italy, and so he was not Roman by birth. He was what the Romans called a novus homo, or new man. He married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman general, a man of the provincial nobility who conquered and brought under Roman suzerainty large swaths of Britain. Apart from birth, skillful oratory was one of the main avenues to advancement in Rome, and Tacitus’ brilliance as an orator, attested in a number of letters by his contemporary Pliny the Younger, was of the highest order.

Tacitus was made quaestor (one of the lower magistrates), aedile (concerned with the care of the city, its corn supply, water, and games), and praetor (young men put in charge of important administrative tasks). He may have led a Roman legion and governed a province, possibly in Germany, and was later suffect consul, and then proconsul, in Asia. He sat for many years in the Roman senate, an institution much reduced in importance by Augustus, subsequently shredded of its dignity by later emperors—"Men ready to be slaves," Tiberius called Roman senators of his time—and all but emasculated in Tacitus' day by the emperor Domitian. He was close to 45 before he turned to the writing of history.

In an infrequent insertion of himself into his historical work, Tacitus, in his Histories, wrote: "I must not deny that my public career was launched by Vespasian, promoted by Titus, and advanced by Domitian." The odd locution—"I must not deny"—is owing to the fact that his rise under these men, especially under the vicious Domitian, was not something of which a man could be unequivocally proud. The disclaimer was also meant to imply that this would in no way render him intellectually hostage to those who had promoted his career.

In the Agricola, his panegyrical monograph on the career of his father-in-law, Tacitus wrote:
There can be great men even under bad emperors, and that duty and discretion, if coupled with energy and a career of action, will bring a man to no less glorious summits than are obtained by perilous paths and ostentatious deaths that do not benefit the Commonwealth.
True, this, of Agricola; less true, probably, of his son-in-law. Only the rule of the benevolent emperor Trajan allowed Tacitus the freedom to speak and write as he wished. "Modern times are indeed happy, as few others have been," Tacitus wrote of life under Trajan, "for we can think as we please, and speak as we think." As Pliny the Younger put it of the reign of Trajan, under which he had himself flourished: "Now at last men's merits bring them official recognition instead of the danger of the past."

Tacitus has had his critics, among them Voltaire and Napoleon; the latter saw nothing wrong with imperial rule in which the emperor answers to no one. Racine, though, called Tacitus "the finest painter of antiquity." Edward Gibbon, known to slay fellow historians in acidulous footnotes, spoke with unremitting praise of Tacitus, referring to "the discerning eye" and "masterly pencil" and calling him "the first of historians who applied the science of philosophy to the study of facts." Gibbon added that "the expressive conciseness of his descriptions has deserved to exercise the diligence of innumerable antiquarians, and to excite the genius and penetration of the philosophic historians of our own times." High marks, these, from the toughest of all historical graders. 

Great swaths of Tacitus' writing have gone missing. What parts of his two major works have been lost is a subject of scholarly speculation. Donald R. Dudley, author of The World of Tacitus, has asserted that Tacitus' original plan was to cover the years between the principate of Augustus (begun in 27 b.c.) to the last year of Domitian (96 a.d.). This would have accounted for both the Julio-Claudian and the Flavian dynasties.

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