Cornelius Tacitus - Roman Historian

Publius, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, AD 56 - AD 120, senator and a historian of the Roman Empire
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Name: Cornelius Tacitus
Dates: c. A.D. 56 - c. 120
Occupation: Historian
Importance: Source on Imperial Rome, Roman Britain, and Germanic Tribes

"It is the rare fortune of these days that a man may think what he likes and say what he thinks."
Histories I.1


Little is known for certain about the origins of Tacitus, although he is believed to have been born, around A.D. 56, into a provincial aristocratic family in Gaul (modern France) or nearby, in the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul. We don't even know if his name was "Publius" or "Gaius Cornelius" Tacitus. He had a successful political course, becoming a senator, consul, and eventually governor of the Roman province of Asia. He probably lived and wrote into Hadrian's reign (117-38) and may have died in A.D. 120.

Despite a political situation that had provided for his personal success, Tacitus was unhappy with the status quo. He lamented the previous century's reduction of aristocratic power, which was the price of having a princeps 'emperor'.

A Challenge to Latin Students

As an iconoclastic Latin student, I thought it a blessing that so much of the prolific historian Livy's Roman history, Ab Urbe Condita 'From the Founding of the City', had been lost. Tacitus poses an even greater challenge than volume to the Latin student because his prose is difficult to translate. Michael Grant acknowledges this when he says, "the more prudent translators have prefaced their efforts by apologetic reminders that 'Tacitus has never been translated and probably never will be'...."

Tacitus comes from the Greco-Roman tradition of history writers whose purpose is as much to promote a rhetorical flourish-filled moral agenda as it is to record facts. Tacitus studied oratory at Rome, including the writing of Cicero, and may have written oratorical treatises before his 4 best-known writings, the historical/ethnographic pieces.

Major Works:

The Annals of Tacitus

We are missing about 2/3 of the Annales (an account of Rome year-by-year), but still have 40 out of 54 years. Annales isn't the only source for the period, either. We have Dio Cassius from about a century later, and Suetonius, a contemporary of Tacitus, who, as court secretary, had access to imperial records. Although Suetonius had important information and wrote a very different account, his biographies are considered less discriminating than Tacitus' Annales.

Tacitus's Agricola, written in about A.D. 98, is described by Michael Grant as "semi-biographical, moral eulogy of a personage"-- in this case, his father-in-law. In the process of writing about his father-in-law, Tacitus provided a history and description of Britain.

Germania and the Histories of Tacitus

Germania is an ethnographic study of Central Europe in which Tacitus compares the decadence of Rome with the virility of the barbarians. Historiae 'Histories', which Tacitus wrote before Annales, treats the period from Nero's death in A.D. 68 to A.D. 96. The Dialogus De Oratoribus 'Dialogue on Orators' pits Marcus Aper, who favors oratorical eloquence, against Curiatius Maternus, who favors poetry, in a discussion (set in A.D. 74/75) of the decline in oratory.

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Cornelius Tacitus - Roman Historian." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). Cornelius Tacitus - Roman Historian. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Cornelius Tacitus - Roman Historian." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).