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A Statue of the Roman historian Tacitus, by the Austrian sculptor Rudolf Weyr, stands outside the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria. (b201735 / Adobe Stock)

SCIENCE & TECH: Tacitus: The Master Chronicler of Ancient Rome

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Publius Cornelius Tacitus, better known as just Tacitus, is arguably one of the most illustrious figures in Roman historiography. His writings cast a profound light on the intricacies and nuances of ancient Rome, establishing him as a historian of great significance.

Born around 56 or 57 AD into a distinguished provincial family, Tacitus rose to prominence as a senator, orator, and historian during the reigns of the Roman emperors Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. His enduring legacy resides primarily in his monumental works, which include the Annals and the Histories, along with his lesser-known but equally significant treatises such as Agricola and Germania. Thanks to these monumental historic works, we now know a lot more about ancient Europe.

A Statue of the Roman historian Tacitus, by the Austrian sculptor Rudolf Weyr, stands outside the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria. (b201735 / Adobe Stock)

The Writings of Tacitus Provide a Window into Ancient Europe

Not much is known about the early life of Tacitus. We know that he was born around 57 AD into an equestrian family, which means that they were the second of the property-based classes in ancient Rome. But what knowledge we lack about his early life is made less important than the magnificent written works that Tacitus left behind. These include Germania, Agricola, Annals, Dialogus de oratoribus and Histories.

In approaching Tacitus’s writings, one is immediately struck by his distinctive style characterized by its conciseness, precision and penetrating analysis. His prose is marked with a sense of gravity and sobriety, reflecting his deeply held convictions about the moral decay and political turbulence of his era.

Tacitus’s work serves as a rich repository of historical narratives, political commentary and moral reflection, offering readers invaluable insights into the dynamics of power, the complexities of human nature and the mechanisms of ancient Rome. With all this said, it is certain that Tacitus was well ahead of his time, in both his style and his thought.

At the heart of Tacitus’s literary work lie the Annals and the Histories, two monumental works that chronicle the tumultuous period spanning from the death of Augustus in 14 AD to the accession of Nerva in 96 AD. The Annals narrate the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors with meticulous detail, focusing particularly on the intrigues, scandals and betrayals that characterized their rule.

Tacitus’s vivid portrayals of figures such as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero not only provide a compelling account of their actions but also offer profound reflections on the nature of tyranny, corruption and moral degeneration. Without them, we would lack a lot of knowledge about these famed emperors.

Nero Views the Burning of Rome, by Carl Theodor von Piloty. Tacitus provides a detailed account of Nero's response to the Great Fire of Rome in his work "Annals." Tacitus portrays Nero as indifferent to the suffering caused by the fire and exploiting it for his own political gain. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nero Views the Burning of Rome, by Carl Theodor von Piloty. Tacitus provides a detailed account of Nero’s response to the Great Fire of Rome in his work “Annals.” Tacitus portrays Nero as indifferent to the suffering caused by the fire and exploiting it for his own political gain. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tacitus As Chronicler of His Own Era

In contrast, the Histories delve into the chaotic aftermath of Nero’s death and the Year of the Four Emperors, a period marked by civil war, political upheaval and social unrest. Tacitus’s narrative prowess shines brightly in his vivid descriptions of military campaigns, political machinations and the shifting alliances of competing factions.

Through his meticulous reconstruction of events, Tacitus offers a penetrating analysis of power dynamics and the fragility of political order, shedding light on the underlying tensions that threatened to tear the fabric of Roman society apart. It is a true insight into how ruthless ancient Rome could be.

Beyond his influential historical works, Tacitus’s smaller treatises provide further insight into his intellectual breadth and moral vision. The Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, offers a poignant meditation on the virtues of Roman imperialism and the moral responsibilities of governance. Tacitus’s portrayal of Agricola as a paragon of integrity, courage and wisdom serves as a testament to his belief in the transformative potential of virtuous leadership.

“The appeal of Tacitus’ Germania to Englishmen as an account of their ancestors was to be a lasting one; its influence is still obvious in the high-Victorian scholarship of Stubbs, Freeman and Green… As a piece of ethnography, Tacitus’ work has much charm, sowing in the mind images from heroic life: the lightly dressed warriors, bound by a touching loyalty to their chief, urged on in battle by their chaste wives; the assemblies, held in the open at new or full moon, clashing weapons as a sign of assent; the investiture of the young warrior with shield and spear; the villages of scattered houses, each surrounded by a clearing; everywhere the surrounding forest. Tacitean society is not one of absolute equality; there are important hereditary distinctions of rank. But the general impression is one of a hard, in some respects savage, but simple, spacious and independent life, and a society essentially transparent and free, bound together by intelligible, strong, yet largely voluntary loyalties” (J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past)

Similarly, the Germania stands as a fascinating ethnographic study of the Germanic tribes inhabiting the frontier regions of the Roman Empire. Tacitus’s ethnographic inquiry into the customs, traditions and social organization of these tribes not only provides valuable historical data but also offers implicit comparisons with Roman society.

Tacitus’s portrayal of the Germanic peoples as embodying virtues such as simplicity, honesty and martial prowess serves as a subtle critique of the decadence and moral decay afflicting Roman civilization. Reading this work, we understand that ancient Germanic peoples were far from simple “barbarians.”

Tacitus chronicled this tumultuous period of civil war and imperial succession after the death of Nero. This included the rise of the four Roman emperors of 69 AD—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian—depicted in the aurei above. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tacitus chronicled this tumultuous period of civil war and imperial succession after the death of Nero. This included the rise of the four Roman emperors of 69 AD—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian—depicted in the aurei above. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tacitus: The Father of All Historians

Even centuries later, Tacitus remains a towering figure in the annals of Roman literature and historiography, his writings continuing to captivate and inspire readers across generations. Of course, all historians have to pass through his works before “earning their stripes.” Through his profound insights, meticulous scholarship and moral clarity, Tacitus shows us the complexities of power, the frailties of human nature and the enduring quest for justice and virtue.

Likewise, Tacitus’s influence unarguably extends far beyond his own time, shaping the course of historical writing and political thought for centuries to come. During the Middle Ages, his works were preserved and studied by monastic scribes, who recognized their value as sources of historical knowledge and moral instruction. Renaissance humanists, such as Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolò Machiavelli, admired Tacitus for his penetrating analysis of politics and power, finding in his works a mirror to their own tumultuous age.

“If Juvenal is supreme over the poets of his time, Tacitus is as clearly monarch of the prose-writers. He was continuing the work of Livy and writing from the same republican standpoint. But for history-writing he had certainly discovered a finer style of rhetoric. Both are rhetoricians first and historians a long way after, but the packed epigrams of Tacitus say more in a line than Livy is capable of thinking in a chapter. In describing a battle, a riot, or a panic, or in painting some tragic scene, such as the death of Vitellius, Tacitus is unequaled. The freedom that was permitted to him and Suetonius in depicting the crimes and follies of the earlier Caesars affords remarkable evidence of the freedom of letters under Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. Here, again, it is necessary, as in the case of Juvenal, to beware of accepting too literally the severity of his criticisms upon the preceding generation. To praise the past at the expense of the present was one of the traditions of Roman literature. But Tacitus was the last of Rome’s great historians and his loss was irreparable” (J. C. Stobart, The Grandeur That Was Rome: A Survey of Roman Culture and Civilization)

Moreover, Tacitus’s emphasis on the role of individuals in shaping historical events and his skepticism toward official propaganda anticipated modern historiographical approaches. His use of sources, rhetorical techniques and narrative devices set a high standard for historical writing, inspiring generations of historians to strive for accuracy, objectivity and analytical rigor. Scholars such as Edward Gibbon, Theodor Mommsen and Ronald Syme have praised Tacitus for his mastery of the historical craft and his ability to penetrate the veil of myth and legend to uncover the underlying truths of history.

Map “Germaniae veteris typus (Old Germany),” 1645, edited by Willem and Joan Blaeu, based on Tacitus and Pliny, depicting Germanic tribes mentioned in Tacitus's “Germania.” (Public domain)

Map “Germaniae veteris typus (Old Germany),” 1645, edited by Willem and Joan Blaeu, based on Tacitus and Pliny, depicting Germanic tribes mentioned in Tacitus’s “Germania.” (Public domain)

A Pragmatic and Morally Stout Writer: The Legacy of Tacitus

In the modern era, Tacitus continues to be a subject of intense scholarly interest and debate. Historians and classicists analyze his works not only for their historical content but also for their literary merits, rhetorical strategies and ideological underpinnings.

Tacitus’s portrayal of imperial power, resistance to tyranny and the complexities of human motivation have sparked lively discussions about the nature of political authority, the ethics of governance and the dynamics of historical change. After all, it is through Tacitus that we learn so much about Rome and its emperors. And incredibly, we learn all that through the lens of a positively biased, anti-dynastic writer.

“His bias against the dynastic system is plain; yet his accuracy, though severely probed by modern criticism, can rarely be impugned. Though sometimes an unfavorable interpreter of his facts, he will not blacken even Tiberius or Nero by crediting stupid rumors about them (Ann. 4. 1 1; 16. 6). His picture of capital and court is terrible, but its general truth is incontestable. His gaze is focused upon Rome; when he looks farther he approves the sturdy simplicity of North Italy and the provinces (Ann. 16. 5), and can pen a moving appeal for the preservation of the Empire (Hist. 4. 74). Though mistrustful of “civilization” and of its debilitating effects, he never despairs of human nature: even the Civil War produced examples of heroism, loyalty, and friendship (Hist. I. 3), and virtue is not confined to past ages (Ann. 3. 55). Napoleon called Tacitus a “traducer of humanity”: from one who spent his powers in annihilating humanity this verdict is interesting, but simply untrue. In independent research and judgment, in essential truth, in the dramatic power and nobility of an enthralling style, Tacitus claims his place among the greatest historians.” (Martin Charlesworth, ‘Tacitus’ in The Oxford Classical Dictionary)

Furthermore, Tacitus’s reception in popular culture reflects his enduring relevance and cultural resonance. His works have inspired countless adaptations in literature, theater, film and television, attesting to their enduring appeal and timeless relevance. From Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Tacitus’s characters and themes continue to captivate audiences and provoke reflection on the nature of power, ambition and morality.

A Writer for All Times

In the end, Tacitus’s legacy transcends the boundaries of time, leaving an indelible mark on the historical imagination of humanity. His writings not only provide invaluable insights into the past but also challenge us to confront the perennial questions of justice, virtue and the human condition. As we navigate the complexities of our own age, Tacitus’s voice echoes down through the corridors of time, reminding us of the enduring power of truth, wisdom, and moral integrity.

Top image: Engraving of Cornelius Tacitus from a drawing by Brooke. Source: Public domain

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Berge, B.L.H. 2023. Writing Imperial History: Tacitus from Agricola to Annales. University of Michigan Press.

Burrow, J. W. 1981. A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past. Cambridge University Press1

Charlesworth, M. 1949 [1957] ‘Tacitus’ in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Pagan, V. E. 2017. Tacitus. Bloomsbury Academic.

Pagan, V. E. 2012. A Companion to Tacitus. John Wiley & Sons.

Stobart, J. C. 1912. The Grandeur That Was Rome: A Survey of Roman Culture and Civilization. Forgotten Books.





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