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Gaius Cornelius Tacitus

This article is about the historian Tacitus. For his descendant, the Emperor Tacitus, see Marcus Claudius Tacitus.

Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (born around AD 56 - died around AD 120), was a Roman historian. His major works - the Annals and the Histories - took for their subject the history of the Roman Empire.

The Annals (ab excessu Divi Augusti) was Tacitus' final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in AD 14. He wrote at least 16 books, but books 7-10 and parts of books 5, 6, 11 and 16 are missing. Book 6 ends with the death of Tiberius and books 7-12 presumably covered the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. The remaining books cover the reign of Nero, perhaps until his death in June 68 or until the end of that year, to connect with the Histories. The second half of book 16 is missing. We do not know whether Tacitus completed the work or whether he wrote any further associated books.

Of the Histories only the first four books and 26 chapters of the fifth book have survived, covering the year 69 and the first part of 70. The work is believed to have continued up to the death of Domitian on September 18, 96.

Tacitus also wrote three shorter works: the Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola; the Germania; and the Dialogus.

Tacitus was primarily concerned with the balance of power between the Roman senate and the Roman Emperors. His writings are filled with tales of corruption and tyranny in the governing class of Rome as they failed to adjust to the new imperial régime; they squandered their cherished cultural traditions of free speech and self-respect as they fell over themselves to please the often bemused (and rarely benign) emperor. One well-known passage from his writings mentions the death of Christ (Annals, xv 44)'.

His treatment of the Germanic peoples outside the empire is of mixed value to historians. Tacitus uses what he reports of the German character as a kind of 'noble savage' as a comparison to contemporary Romans and their (in his eyes) 'degeneracy'. Despite this bias, he does supply us with many names for tribes with which Rome had come into contact. Tacitus' information was not, in general, based on first-hand knowledge, and more recent research has shown that many of his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, contemporary historians debate whether all these tribes were really Germanic in the sense that they spoke a Germanic language - some of them, like the Batavii, may have been Celts. He is also to blame for the misnaming of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which did not quite take place in the saltus Teutoburgiensis, as he claimed in the Germania.

Tacitus survived a reign of terror and from a senator he advanced to the consulship in AD 97. Fifteen years later he held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia. Tacitus was a friend of Pliny the Younger and was greatly admired by him. His wife was the daughter of Julius Agricola, who governed in Roman Britain and was the subject of one of his works.


The following polemic, from his Agricola (ch. 30), was used by commentators on the United States campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (see [1], for example). The speech, supposedly delivered by the British chieftain Calgacus, is more probably a rhetorical composition by Tacitus himself, as the compact style is similar to his other writing, and the tone fully reflects his views of Roman imperialism.

Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, iam mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit. . . . Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

(Punctuation follows the Loeb Classical Library edition; ellipsis is added.) In translation, it reads:

Brigands of the world, after the earth has failed their all-devastating hands, they probe even the sea; if their enemy be wealthy, they are greedy; if he be poor, they are ambitious; neither the East nor the West has glutted them. . . . They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.

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