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Tacitus: A Modern Perspective

Updated on December 16, 2017

Biography


Gaius Cornelius Tacitus is primary source for the history of Imperial Rome. The historian Tacitus was born to an equestrian family in Romanized Gaul. Equestrian families were the growing middle class of the Roman world. They are called equestrian because they could afford to own a horse and serve as officers in the army and city militias. Tacitus combined good fortune with natural skill to become a famous historian.

His early life allowed him to receive the education that was necessary for a politician. Most leading men of the Roman world held office as a mark of power. Tacitus was no exception to this rule. Tacitus was a governor in Gallia Belgica, in modern Belgium, and in his later life was a leader in the Senate. Throughout his life Tacitus was able to meet people that helped his career improve.

As a young man Tacitus befriended Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younget was to also become a Roman historian. Pliny the younger was an adopted son of Pliny the Elder, yet another leading historian of the period. Imperial Rome was not good for ambitious people. Those who expressed too much ambition in Imperial Rome were generally exiled or executed. The reigns of Nero, Caligula and Domitian were an especially dangerous times for the Senators, but Tacitus was an exception. Rather than losing life or property, Tacitus benefited from the rule of the bloody leaders of Imperial Rome.

Annals (text copied by a monk in the 11th century)
Annals (text copied by a monk in the 11th century)

Historical Works


Tacitus was a prolific writer. Tacitus wrote two major historical works, The Annals and The Histories. He also wrote three smaller works Germania, Dialogue on Oratory, and Agricola.

The Annals are a history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from the reign of Tiberius until the end of the reign of Nero. Many historical sources conflict with the story presented in the Annals. Tacitus wrote his historical sources to represent Roman vices and virtues for future leaders, and in doing so presented emperors Nero and Tiberius as horrible, villainous leaders that should not be emulated.

The Histories is the first work that Tacitus finished, even though it occurred later chronologically than the Annals. In the Histories Tacitus reviews the reign of the four emperors and the Flavian dynasty. Within this tome is a time gap with the period of the reign of Domitian conspicuously missing. This may be in part a result of something Tacitus had done during the period, something he didn’t want recorded, as he comes out the deranged reign of Domitian in better condition than he entered the period, while many of his contemporaries were murdered.

The three smaller works that Tacitus wrote are all focused on specific topics. Germania is a short work on the culture and history of the early German people. Tacitus uses this work to show the glory of Roman values and the danger of barbarism and tyranny. Agricola is a biography of Tacitus’s father in law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Agricola governed Britain and fought in the legions there. The Dialogue on Oratory was a philosophical piece of literature that looked at the decay of the Roman tradition of Oration.

Historiography

Tacitus has been received with varying acceptance throughout the ages, as many of his writings survived the fall of the Roman Empire. This was a result of the actions of a later Roman Emperor that was also name Tacitus. The Emperor Tacitus claimed the historian Tacitus as one of his ancestors and had the historians works copied and placed in libraries. Despite this Tacitus was not well received by his contemporaries. They disliked the flowery prose used by Tacitus.

Similar to the orators that Tacitus admired, his historical works painted life in a more magnificent light then the real gritty world. When the field of history was becoming a scientific endeavor in the early 20th century Tacitus was also received poorly. This was due to a technique used by some classical historians known as inventio.

The inventio technique was used by writers to develop story for their histories based on what they knew. The writers would develop speeches and create details in a battle. Oftentimes the information they wrote about they could never have known firsthand. This was the case for a major battle in the Annals. Tacitus describes a battle in Armenia, then a Roman vassal state, that occurred between the Romans and the Parthians, an Iranian based people. In his writing Tacitus describes the waves of battle as the forces clash, and he gives the Roman officers speeches, something he could not have known as he never left Western Europe. This technique was not well received by historians in the early 20th century because it was viewed as unscientific.

More recently Tacitus has begun to receive more positive reviews as historians now have more tools available to research ancient battlefields, and events.

Tacitus wrote excellent historical works. His standards were proper for the time he was writing in, and they left the reader with an entertaining and valuable source of history. Many of the works of Tacitus can be found online, at places like google books or the Gutenberg project.

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    • GerardNielsen profile image

      GerardNielsen 6 years ago

      Interesting hub! I'm off to download his stuff to my Kindle now...