Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born in the middle of the 50s CE to an equestrian family. His exact location of birth is unknown, though it is likely he was from Gallia Narbonensis. Even his praenomen is conjecture, with Publius being favored as it is given in the manuscripts, but as Gaius in certain letters by Sidonius Apollinaris, and even Sextus as championed by Mattingly, whose reconstruction of Mylasa inscription, which contains his nomen and cognomen, is dubious.
He was likely related to a Cornelius Tacitus who was procurator of Belgica and Germania.
Tacitus studied rhetoric in Rome under the Quintilian, and his skill in speaking set him up for fame. He married Julia Agricola, daughter of the famed general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, which placed him in considerable social standing. He rose up the cursus honorum, having been made a quaestor under Titus, praetor in 88, and the honorary position of quindecemviri sacris faciundis, one of fifteen priests who kept the Sibylline Books and the ludi saeculares. He served in the military in the early 90s, and miraculously survived Domitian’s purges to be made consul under Nerva in 97, the year after Domitian’s death.
He returned to law in 100 in order to, along with Pliny the Younger, prosecute Marius Priscus for corruption for his tenure as proconsul of Asia Minor.
From the Mylasa inscription, it can be assumed that he himself was proconsul of Asia Minor in 116. It is unknown when or how he died.
For works of Tacitus survive: the Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Historiae, and Annales.
There is some debate on the chronology of the works, especially concerning the Dialogus de Oratoribus. As its name suggests, the Dialogus is a dialogue set in the late 70s in which the speakers discuss the decline of oratory and good rhetorical education. It was dedicated to L. Fabius Iustus, who was consul suffectus in 102 CE, which leads some scholars to posit a date around then, though that is by no means a given.
The work differs greatly in style from Tacitus’ other works, which has generated doubt as to whether it is even his. The work bears the hallmarks of a balanced, hierarchical Neo-Ciceronian style, and Tacitus’ historical works follow Sallust and Thucydides in its use of inconcinnitas. Others point out that Tacitus was a student of Quintilian, who strongly advocated for the Neo-Ciceronian style, and the date of publication does not have to match up with the date of composition. Moreover, since the Dialogus and Tacitus’ historical works are in two separate genres, Tacitus could have used different styles to fit different conventions.
In 98, the year after his consulship, Tacitus published De Vita Iulii Agricolae (“On the Life of Julius Agricola”), a biography of his father-in-law, and De Origine et Situ Germanorum (“On the Origin and Location of the Germans”, commonly just called the Germania), a history and ethnography of the German tribes.
He then returned to writing, composing the Historiae (“Histories”) and the Ab Excessu Divi Augusti, commonly referred to as the Annales (“Annals”), in 30 books altogether.
The Historiae are a detailed history in the style of Thucydides covering the year of the four emperors (69 CE) to Domitian’s death (96 CE), though only five books survive, narrating events down to the beginning of 70. The attention to just one year is highly irregular. Even if all thirty books were of the Historiae, at that pace Tacitus would only have written on four years (up to 74). From the preface of the Agricola, Tacitus had at least intended to cover the period up to the ascension of Nerva, but it is possible that he never finished that project. It also possible (perhaps more so) that the events of 69 demanded extraordinary attention, and the rest of the books are dedicated to the Flavians.
The Annales cover the events from the death of Augustus up to the death of Nero, though the last years of Nero’s reign are lost. Books 1-6 cover the reign of Tiberius, which almost all of book 5 and a large chunk of book 6 missing. Books 7-10 are also missing, but covered the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, the latter of which is finished in 11 and 12. The rest is dedicated to Nero’s reign.
As a senator, Tacitus has no love for the worst excesses of the “bad” emperors like Tiberius, Nero (towards the end of his reign), and Domitian.
- …They made a desert and called it peace.
- Ronald H. Martin. Tacitus. University of California Press, 1981.