Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Tacitus, C. Cornelius
TA′CITUS, C. CORNE′LIUS, the historian. The time and place of the birth of Tacitus are unknorwn. He was nearly of the same age as the younger Plinius (Plin. Ep. vii. 20) who was born about A. D. 61 [C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus], but a little older. His gentile name is not sufficient evidence that lie belonged to the Cornelia Gens ; nor is there proof of his having been born at Interamna (Terni), as it is sometimes affirmed. Some facts relative to his biography may be collected from his own writings and from the letters of his friend, the younger Plinius.
Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman eques, is mentioned by Plinitus (H. N. vii. 16, note, ed. Hardouin) as a procurator in Gallia Belgica. Plinius died A. D. 79 , and the procurator cannot have been the historian; but he may have been his father. In an inscription of doubtful authority he is named Cornelius Verus Tacitus. Tacitus was first promoted by, the emperor Vespasian (Hist. i. l). and he received other favours from his sons Titus and Domitian. C. Julius Agricola, who was consul A. D. 77, betrothed his daughter to Tacitus in that year. but the marriage did not take place until the following year. In the reign of Domitian, and in A. D. 88 Tacitus was praetor, and he assisted as one of the quindecemviri at the solemnity of the Ludi Seculares which were celebrated in that year, the fourteenth consulship of Domitian (Annal. xi. 11.)
Agricola died at Rome A. D. 93, but neither Tacitus nor the daughter of Agricola was then with him. It is not known where Tacitus was during the last illness of Agricola, for the assumption that he ever visited either Britain or Germany cannot be proved. He appears to say that he was himself a witness of some of the atrocities of Domitian (Agricola, c. 45). In the reign of Nerva. A.D. 97. Tacitus was appointed consul suffectus, in the place of T. Virginius Rufus, who had died in that year. Tacitus pronounced the funeral oration of Rufus, "and it was," says Plinius, "the completion of the felicity of Rufus to have his panegyric pronounced by so eloquent a man." (Plin. Ep. ii. 1.) Tacitus had attained oratorical distinction when Plinius was commencing his career. He and Tacitus were appointed in the reign of Nerva (A. D. 99) to conduct the prosecution of Marius, proconsul of Africa, who had grossly misconducted himself in his province. Salvius Liberalis, a man of great acuteness and eloquence, was one of the advocates of Marius. Tacitus made a most eloquent and dignified reply to Liberalis.
Tacitus and Plinius were most intimate friends. In the collection of the letters of Plinius, there are eleven letters addressed to Tacitus. In a letter to his friend Maximus (ix. 23), Plinius shows that he considered his friendship with Tacitus a great distinction, and he tells the following anecdote : -- On one occasion, when Tacitus was a spectator at the Ludi Circenses, he fell into conversation with a Roman eques, who, after they had discoursed on various literary subjects for some time, asked Tacitus if he was an Italian or a provincial; to which Tacitus replied, "You are acquainted with me, and by my pursuits." "Are you," rejoined the stranger, "Tacitus or Plinius?" The sixteenth letter of the sixth book, in which Plinius describes the great eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, is addressed to Tacitus; and for the purpose of enabling him to state the facts in his historical writings. Among other contemporaries of Tacitus were Quintilian, Julius Florus, Maternus, M. Aper, and Vipsanius Messala.
The time of the death of Tacitus is unknown, but we may perhaps infer that he survived Trajan, who died A. D. 117. (Hist. i. l.) Nothing is recrded of any children of his, though the emperor Tacitus claimed a descent from the historian, and ordered his works to be placed in all (public) libraries; and ten copies to be made every year at the public expense, and deposited in the Archeia. (Vopiscus, Tacitus Imp. c. 10.) Sidonius Apollinaris mentions the historian as an ancestor of Polemius, who was a prefect of Gaul in the fifth century.
The extant works of Tacitus are, the Life of Julius Agricola, a treatise on the Germans, Annals, Histories, and a Dialogue on the Causes of the Decline of Eloquence. It is not certain if Tacitus left any orations : no fragments are extant. (Meyer, Oratorum Roman. Fragm. p. 604. 2d ed.)
The life of Agricola was written after the death of Domitian, A. D. 96, as we may probably conclude from the introduction, which was certainly written after Trajan's accession. This life is justly admired as a specimen of biography, though it is sometimes very obscure; but this is partly owing to the corruption of the text. It is a monument to the memory of a good man and an able commander and administrator, by an affectionate son-in-law, who has portrayed in his peculiar manner and with many masterly touches, the virtues of one of the most illustrious of the Romans. To Englishmen this life is peculiarly interesting, as Britain was the scene of Agricola's great exploits, who carried the Roman eagles even to the base of the Grampian mountains. It was during his invasion of Caledonia that Britain was first circumnavigated by a Roman fleet. (Agricola, c. 38.) The Agricola, is not contained in the earliest edition of Tacitus; and it was first edited by Puteolanus.
The Historiae were written after the death of Nerva, A. D. 98, and before the Annales. They comprehended the period from the second consulship of Galba, A. D. 68, to the death of Domitian, and the author designed to add the reigns of Nerva and Trajan (Hist. i. l). The first four books alone are extant in a complete form, and they comprehend only the events of about one year. The fifth book is imperfect, and goes no further than the commencement of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, and the war of Civilis in Germany. It is not known how many books of the Histories there were, but it must have been a large work, if it was all written on the same scale as the first five books.
The Annales commence with the death of Augustus, A. D. 14, and comprise the period to the death of Nero, A. D. 68, a space of four and fifty years. The greater part of the fifth book is lost ; and also the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, the beginning of the eleventh, and the end of the sixteenth, which is the last book. These lost parts comprised the whole of Caligula's reign, the first five years of Claudius, and the two last of Nero. The imperfections of the Annals and the Histories are probably owing to the few copies which were made during the later empire; for the care of the emperor Tacitus to have them copied seems to imply that without it these works might have been forgotten. If they had been as popular as some other works, copies would have been multiplied to satisfy the demand. The first five books of the Annals were found, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, in the Abbey of Corvey in Westphalia, and they were first published at Rome, by Philippus Beroaldus, in 1515.
The treatise entitled De Moribus et Populis Germaniae treats of the Germanic nations, or of those whom Tacitus comprehended under that name, and whose limits he defines by the Rhine and the Danube on the west and south, the Sarmatae and Daci on the east, and on the north-west and north by the sea. It is of no value as a geographical description; the first few chapters contain as much of the geography of Germany as Tacitus knew. The main matter is the description of the political institutions, the religion, and the habits, of the various tribes included under the denomination of Germani. The sources of the author's information are not stated, but as there is no reason to suppose that he had seen Germany, all that he could know must have been derived from the Roman expeditions east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, and from the accounts of traders, who went at least as far as the Roman eagles, and perhaps farther. The value of the information contained in this treatise has often been discussed, and its credibility attacked ; but we may estimate its true character by observing the precision of the writer as to those Germans who were best known to the Romans from being near the Rhine. That the hearsay accounts of more remote tribes must partake of the defects of all such evidence, is obvious; and we cannot easily tell whether Tacitus embellished that which he heard obscurely told. But to consider the Germany as a fiction, is one of those absurdities which need only be recorded, not refuted. Much has been written as to the special end that Tacitus had in view in writing this work; but this discussion is merely an offshoot of ill-directed labour; a sample of literary intemperance. [Seneca, p. 782.]
The dialogue entitled De Oratoribus, if it is the work of Tacitus, and it probably is, must be his earliest work, for it was written in the sixth year of Vespasian (c. 17). The style is more easy than that of the Annals, more diffuse, less condensed ; but there is no obvious difference between the style of this Dialogue and the Histories, nothing so striking as to make us contend for a different authorship. Besides this, it is nothing unusual for works of the same author which are written at different times to vary greatly in style, especially if they treat of different matters. The old MSS. attribute this Dialogue to Tacitus. One of the speakers in the dialogue attributes the decline of eloquence at Rome to the neglect of the arduous study of the old Roman orators, to which Cicero has left his testimony; but another speaker, Maternus, has assigned a direct and immediate cause, which was the change in the political constitution. Oratory is not the product of any system of government, except one in which the popular element is strong.
The Annals of Tacitus, the work of a mature age, contain the chief events of the period which they embrace, arranged under their several years (Annal. iv. 71). There seems no peculiar propriety in giving the name of Annales to this work, simply because the events are arranged in the order of time. The work of Livy may just as well be called Annals. In the Annals of Tacitus the Princeps or Emperor is the centre about which events are grouped, a mode of treating history which cannot be entirely thrown aside in a monarchical system, but which in feeble hands merges the history of a people in the personality of their ruler. Thus in Tacitus, the personal history of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero, fill up a large space. Yet the most important public events, both in Italy and the provinces, are not omitted, though every thing is treated as subordinate to the exhibition of imperial power. The Histories which were written before the Annals, are in a more diffuse style, and the treatment of the extant part is different from that of the Annals. Tacitus wrote the Histories as a contemporary; the Annals as not a contemporary. They are two distinct works, not parts of one; which is clearly shown by the very different proportions of the two works : the first four books of the Histories comprise about a year and the first four books of the Annals comprise fourteen years.
It was his purpose in the Annals to show the general condition of the empire of which Rome was the centre, and the emperor the representative : not only to show the course of events, but also their causes (Hist. i. 4); for this remark, which is made in the Histories, may be applied also to the Annals. But the history of despotism in any form does not convey the political instruction that is derived from the history of a free people. Tacitus claims the merit of impartiality (Annal. i. 1), because he lived after the events that he describes; but a writer who is not a contemporary may have passions or prejudices as well as one who is. In his Histories (i. 1) he states that neither to Galba, nor to Otho, nor to Vitellius, did he owe obligations, nor had he received from them any wrong. From Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, he had received favours; yet, in the commencement of his life of Agricola, he has recorded the horrors of Domitian's reign; nor can we suppose that in the lost books of the Histories, he allowed the tyrant to escape without merited chastisement.
The history of the empire presents the spectacle of a state without any political organisation, by which the tyranny of a ruler could be checked when it became insupportable. The only means were assassination; and the only power that either the emperor could use to maintain himself, or a conspirator could employ to seize the power or secure it for another, was the soldiery. From this alternate subjection to imperial tyranny and military violence, there were no means of escape, nor does Tacitus ever give even the most distant hint that the restoration of the republic was either possible or desirable; or that there were any means of public security, except in the accident of an able emperor to whom a revolution might give the supreme power. Yet this empire, a prey to the vices of its rulers, and to intestine commotion, had its favourable side. The civilised world obeyed a revolution which was accepted in Rome, and the provinces were at peace with one another under this despotic yoke. France did not invade Italy nor Spain; Greece was not invaded by barbarians from the north; Asia Minor and Syria were protected from the worse than Roman despotism, the despotism of Asia; and Egypt and the north of Africa enjoyed protection against invaders, even though they sometimes felt the rapacity of a governor. The political condition of the Roman empire under the Caesars is a peculiar phase of European history. Tacitus has furnished some materials for it; but his method excluded a large and comprehensive view of the period which is comprised within his Annals. The treatment in the Histories has a wider range. The general review of the condition of the empire at the time of Nero's death is a rapid, but comprehensive sketch (i. 1, &c.).
The moral dignity of Tacitus is impressed upon his works; the consciousness of a love of truth, of the integrity of his purpose. His great power is in the knowledge of the human mind, his insight into the motives of human conduct; and he found materials for this study in the history of the emperors, and particularly Tiberius, the arch-hypocrite, and perhaps half madman. We know men's intellectual powers, because they seek to display them : their moral character is veiled under silence and reserve, which are sometimes diffidence, but more frequently dissimulation. But dissimulation alone is not a sufficient cloke; it merely seeks to hide and cover, and, as the attempt to conceal excites suspicion, it is necessary to divert the vigilance of this active inquisitor. The dissembler, therefore, assumes the garb of goodness; and thus he is hypocrite complete. The hypocrite is a better citizen than the shameless man, because by his hypocrisy he acknowledges the supremacy of goodness, while the shameless man rebels against it. The hypocritical is the common character, or society could not exist. In the Annals of Tacitus we have all characters; but the hypocritical prevails in a despotic government and a state of loose positive morality. There may be great immorality and also great shamelessness, but then society is near its dissolution. Under the empire there was fear, for the government was despotic; but there was not universal shamelessness, at least under Tiberius : there was an outward respect paid to virtue. The reign of Tiberius was the reign of hypocrisy in all its forms, and the emperor himself was the great adept in the science; affectation in Tiberius of unwillingness to exercise power, a lesson that he learned from Augustus, and a show of regard to decency; flattery and servility on the part of the great, sometimes under the form of freedom of speech. To penetrate such a cloud of deception, we must attend even to the most insignificant external signs; for a man's nature will show itself, be he ever so cautious and cunning. In detecting these slight indications of character lies the great power of Tacitus : he penetrates to the hidden thoughts through the smallest avenue. But the possession of such a power implies something of a suspicious temper, and also cherishes it; and thus Tacitus sometimes discovers a hidden cause, where an open one seems to offer a sufficient explanation. Tacitus employed this power in the history of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Suetonius tells us of a man's vices simply and barely; Tacitus discovers what a man tries to conceal. His Annals are filled with dramatic scenes and striking catastrophes. He laboured to produce effect by the exhibition of great personages on the stage; but this is not the business of an historian. The real matter of history is a whole people; and their activity or suffering, mainly as affected by systems of government, is that which the historian has to contemplate. This is not the method of Tacitus in his Annals; his treatment is directly biographical, only indirectly political. His method is inferior to that of Thucydides, and even of Polybius, but it is a method almost necessitated by the existence of political power in the hands of an individual, and modern historians, except within the present century, have generally followed in the same track from the same cause.
Tacitus knew nothing of Christianity, which, says Montaigne, was his misfortune, not his fault. His practical morality was the Stoical, the only one that could give consolation in the age in which he lived. The highest example of Stoical morality among the Romans is the emperor Aurelius, whose golden book is the noblest monument that a Roman has left behind him. Great and good men were not wanting under the worst emperors, and Tacitus has immortalised their names. Germanicus Caesar, a humane man, and his intrepid wife, lived under Tiberius; Corbulo, an honest and able soldier, fell a victim to his fidelity to Nero. The memory of Agricola, and his virtues, greater than his talents, has been perpetuated by the affection of his son-in-law ; and his prediction that Agricola will survive to future generations is accomplished. Thrasea Pactus and Helvidius Priscus were models of virtue ; and Arria, the wife of Paetus, remembered the virtnes of her mother. The jurists of Rome under the empire never forgot the bright example of the Scaevolae of the republic : strange, though true, the great lawyers of Rome were among the best men and the best citizens that she produced. As to the mass of the people we learn little from Tacitus : they have only become matter for history in recent days. The superficial suppose, that when rulers are vicious the people are so too; but the mass of the people in all ages are the most virtuous, if not for other reasons, they are so because labour is the condition of their existence. The Satires of Juvenal touch the wealthy and the great, whose vices are the result of idleness and the command of money.
Tacitus had not the belief in a moral government of the world which Aurelius had; or if he had this belief, he has not expressed it distinctly. He loved virtue, he abhorred vice; but he has not shown that the constitution of things has an order impressed upon it by the law of its existence, which implies a law-giver. His theology looks something like the Epicurean, as exhibited by Lucretius. A belief in existence independent of a corporeal form, of a life after death, is rather a hope with him than a conviction. (Compare Agricola, c. 46, Annals, iii. 18, vi. 22, and the ambiguous or corrupt passage, Hist. i. 4.)
The style of Tacitus is peculiar, though it bears some resemblance to Sallust. In the Annals it is concise, vigorous, and pregnant with meaning; laboured. but elaborated with art, and stripped of every superfluity. A single word sometimes gives effect to a sentence, and if the meaning of the word is missed, the sense of the writer is not reached. He leaves something for the reader to fill up, and does not overpower him with words. The words that he does use are all intended to have a meaning. Such a work is probably the result of many transcriptions by the author; if it was produced at once in its present form, the author must have practised himself till he could write in no other way. Those who have studied Tacitus much, end with admiring a form of expression which at first is harsh and almost repulsive. One might conjecture that Tacitus, when he wrote his Annals, had by much labour acquired the art of writing with difficulty.
The materials which Tacitus had for his historical writings were abundant; public documents ; memoirs, as those of Agrippina; histories, as those of Fabius Rusticus and Vipsanius Messala ; the Fasti, Orationes Principum, and the Acta of the Senate; the conversation of his friends, and his own experience. It is not his practice to give authorities textually, a method which adds to the value of a history, but impairs its effect simply as a work of art. He who would erect an historical monument to his own fame will follow the method of Tacitus, compress his own researches into a narrow compass, and give them a form which is stamped with the individuality of the author. Time will confer on him the authority which the rigid critic only allows to real evidence. That Tacitus, in his Annals, purposely omitted every thing that could impair the effect of his work as a composition, is evident. The Annals are not longer than an epitome would be of a more diffuse history ; but they differ altogether from those worthless literary labours. In the Annals Tacitus is generally brief and rapid in his sketches; but he is sometimes minute, and almost tedious, when he comes to work out a dramatic scene. Nor does he altogether neglect his rhetorical art when he has an opportunity for displaying it : a Roman historian could never forget that a Roman was an orator. The condensed style of Tacitus sometimes makes him obscure, but it is a kind of obscurity that is dispelled by careful reading. Yet a man must read carefully and often, in order to understand him; and we cannot suppose that Tacitus was ever a popular writer. His real admirers will perhaps always be few : his readers fewer still. Montaigne read the history of Tacitus from the beginning to the end. and he has given an opinion of Tacitus in his peculiar way; and his opinion is worth more than that of most people. (Montaigne's Essays, iii. ch. 8 Of the art of discoursing.) Montaigne justly commends Tacitus for not omitting to state rumours, reports, opinions; for that which is generally believed at any time is an historical fact, though it may be fact in no other sense.
The first edition of Tacitus, which is very rare, was printed at Venice, 1470, by Vindelin de Spira : it contains only the last six books of the Annals. the Histories, the Germany, and the Dialogue on Oratory. The edition of P. Beroaldus contains all the works of Tacitus. That of Beatus Rhenanus, Basil, 1533, folio, was printed by Froben. Subsequent editions are very numerous; and for a list of them, such works as Hain's Repertorium and Schweigger's Handbuch der Classischen Biographie, may be consulted. The edition of Ernesti by Oberlin, Leipzig, 1801, 8vo.,is useful. for it contains the notes and excursus of Justus Lipsius. The edition of G. Brotier, Paris, 1771, 4 vols. 4to., has been much praised, and much bought; but it is a poor edition. There is an edition by I. Bekker, Leipzig, 1831, 2 vols. 8vo.; and by Orelli, Zürich, 1846 and 1848, 2 vols. 8vo. The Lexicon Taciteum, of Bötticher, Berlin, 1830, 8vo., is not complete enough, nor exact enough, though it is of some use. The labours of Ruperti on Tacitus are of little value. The modern commentators are in all respects inferior to Lipsius, who did every thing that could be done at the time. Measured by his means, he is infinitely above all other commentators on Tacitus.
There are many editions of the several parts of Tacitus, particularly the Germania, the Agricola, and the Dialogue. The edition of G. L. Walch, Berlin, 1827, 8vo., contains the text and a German translation of the Agricola, with notes. J. Grimm published the text of the Germany, and all other passages relating to Germany, selected from the other parts of Tacitus, Göttingen, 1835, 8vo. The best and most complete edition of the Dialogue is by J. C. Orelli, Zürich, 1830, 8vo.
There are translations of Tacitus, or parts of Tacitus, in almost every European language. The Italian translation of Davanzati is considered to have great merit; and perhaps the Italian language, in able hands, is one of the best adapted for a translation of Tacitus. The French translations have little merit. D'Alembert translated various passages from Tacitus. There are English versions by Greenway, 1598, of the Annals and the Germany, and by Henry Savile. 1598, of the Histories and the Agricola ; also versions by Gordon and by Murphy. Gordon's is a harsh version, but, in the whole, faithful. That of Murphy is excessively diffuse; perhaps it is only a dilution of Gordon. [G. L.]