Nationality: Ancient Roman
Died At Age: 64
Also Known As: Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Born Country: Roman Empire
Born in: Gallia Narbonensis
Famous as: Historian
Ancient Roman Men
Spouse/Ex-: Julia Agricola
Died on: 120
place of death: Roman Empire
Who was Tacitus?
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was an orator, writer, historian, consul, senator, and governor in the Roman Empire. Generally regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians, his popularity derives from the brevity and compactness of his Latin prose, as well as his piercing comprehension of the psychology of power politics. He was alive in a period that has come to be known as the Silver Age of Latin literature and witnessed the reigns of ten different emperors. Five works that are believed to written by Tacitus have survived, though not in their entirety. Among them, the two major works, the ‘Annals’ and the ‘Histories’, deal with the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus, in 14 AD, to the years of the First Jewish–Roman War, in 70 AD, and especially focuses on the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and the four emperors of 69 AD. While there are considerable lacunae in the texts that remain, the books are without equal in their thorough, dissective analysis of Ancient Rome. In his other writings, Tacitus delves into public speaking, Germania, and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, a general who conquered much of Britannia.
Childhood & Early Life
The information available about his life is meagre. Most of the details that the scholars now know come from sporadic hints throughout his work, correspondences of his friend and admirer Pliny the Younger, and an inscription discovered at Mylasa in Caria.
Born in 56 or 57, Tacitus hails from an equestrian family. However, the precise date and place of his birth remain unknown. His exact first name (praenomen) is not known either. In the correspondence of Sidonius Apollinaris, he is referred to as “Gaius”, but according to the major surviving manuscript of his work, his name was “Publius”. One scholar has suggested “Sextus”, but it has garnered little momentum.
Most of the older aristocratic families did not make it through the proscriptions which happened at the end of the Republic, and Tacitus does not hide the fact that he gained his social rank with the help of the Flavian emperors.
One possible candidate for his father is Cornelius Tacitus, who was appointed as procurator in Belgica and Germania. Pliny the Elder writes about a son of Cornelius that aged rapidly, insinuating that this child had an early death. There is no material available where it is mentioned that Tacitus was afflicted with such illness. However, it may have been a brother, if the presumption that Cornelius was his father is correct.
The camaraderie between Tacitus and the younger Pliny has made many scholars think that both of them belonged to affluent families. The province of his birth is also a matter of debate. Some scholars believe it was Gallia Belgica. Others think it was Gallia Narbonensis or northern Italy.
His exceptional oratory abilities, his lineage, and somewhat positive portrayals of the barbarians that repeatedly spurned Rome’s attempts to subjugate them, have made many scholars conclude that he was a Celt. This idea originates from the fact that the Celts who ruled over Gaul before the coming of Romans were well-known orators.
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Education & Career
In his youth, Tacitus was a student of rhetoric. This helped him get ready for a career in law and politics. He, like Pliny, was probably taught by Quintilian. In the early days of his career, he worked under Vespasian.
In 81 or 82, he joined active politics as a quaestor. He gradually rose through the cursus honorum before he was appointed praetor in 88. He was also made a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college that looks after the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.
Tacitus found considerable popularity as a lawyer as well as an orator. His skill as a public speaker interestingly contradicts his cognomen Tacitus (Silent).
Between 89 and 93, he was in the provinces, likely serving as a commander of a legion or holding a civilian post. Tacitus managed to make it through Domitian's reign of terror (81-96), retaining the entirety of his property. However, the ordeal turned him more cynical and maybe even made him feel guilty due to complicity. He became one of the most ardent critics of tyranny in his works.
In 97, he was elected suffect consul from his seat in the senate. During his service in that position, he gave a highly memorable funeral oration for the famous veteran soldier Lucius Verginius Rufus, which helped him secure his legacy as an orator.
In 98, he put out ‘Agricola’ and ‘Germania’, signalling the literal endeavours that were to come later. He then took a break from public life. During the reign of Emperor Trajan, he came back.
In 100, he and Pliny served as prosecutors on the case of Marius Priscus, who had been the proconsul of Africa and was accused of corruption. Priscus was ultimately convicted and exiled. According to Pliny, Tacitus delivered his speeches during the trial "with all the majesty which characterizes his usual style of oratory".
As he subsequently began writing the ‘Histories’ and the ‘Annals’, he went on a long break from politics and law. Between 112 and 113, he served as the governor of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, the highest civilian governorship at the time.
One of his early works was ‘De vita Iulii Agricolae’, a book about the life of his father-in-law, Gallo-Roman General Gnaeus Julius Agricola. It predominantly centres around Agricola’s campaign in Britannia.
In ‘Germania’, he paints a sympathetic picture of the Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire. In that ethnographic work, Tacitus gives a detailed account of the lands, laws, and customs of the various tribes.
Although ‘Dialogus de oratoribus’ is yet another book ascribed to Tacitus, its authenticity has been doubted over the years. While it was published in 102, it was probably written earlier than that. Tacitus dedicated the book to a consul named Fabius Iustus.
The ‘Histories’ was published in 105. The ‘Annals’, his final book, was put out in 117. Together, they are supposed to be a single edition of 30 books. While he authored the ‘Histories’ before the ‘Annals’, the latter comes chronologically before the former. The narrative begins at the death of Augustus in 14 AD and supposedly concludes with the death of Domitian in 96 AD. With most of the text being lost, the narrative ends in the years of the First Jewish–Roman War in 70 AD.
Family & Personal Life
Tacitus married Julia Agricola, the daughter of the famous general Agricola and Domitia Decidiana, in 77 or 78. Julia was 14 years old when the marriage took place. Not much is known about their domestic life, except that Tacitus had a deep passion for hunting and the outdoors. At the time of Tacitus’ father-in-law’s death in 93, both his wife and mother-in-law were alive.
It is not known if Tacitus fathered any children. According to the Augustan History, Emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus (reigned 275–276) thought himself as a descendant of Tacitus and ordered the preservation of his works. However, like any other tale appearing in the Augustan History, this may not be true.
As with most major events of his life, the exact date of his death is unknown. A passage in the ‘Annals’ indicates 116 as the “terminus post quem” of his death, which means his death could have occurred as late as the 120s or even the early 130s.