Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56 - AD 117) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works-the Annals and the Histories-examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to (presumably) the death of emperor Domitian in AD 96. There are substantial lacunae in the surviving texts, including one four books long in the Annals.

Other writings by him discuss oratory (in dialogue format, see Dialogus de oratoribus), Germania (in De origine et situ Germanorum), and the life of his father-in-law Agricola, mainly focusing on his campaign in Britannia (see De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae).

Tacitus is considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians. He lived in what has been called the Silver Age of Latin literature, and as well as the brevity and compactness of his Latin prose, he is known for his penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics.


Details about his personal life are scarce. What little is known comes from scattered hints throughout his work, the letters of his friend and admirer Pliny the Younger, and an inscription found at Mylasa in Caria.

Tacitus was born in 56 or 57 to an equestrian family; like many Latin authors of both the Golden and Silver Ages, he was from the provinces, probably in northern Italy or Gallia Narbonensis. The exact place and date of his birth are not known, and his praenomen (first name) is also unknown; in the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris his name is Gaius, but in the major surviving manuscript of his work his name is given as Publius. One scholar's suggestion of Sextus has gained no traction.

Family and Early Life

Most of the older aristocratic families failed to survive the proscriptions which took place at the end of the Republic, and Tacitus makes it clear that he owes his rank to the Flavian emperors (Hist. 1.1). The claim that he descended from a freedman derives from a speech in his writings that asserts that many senators and knights were descended from freedmen (Ann. 13.27), but this is generally disputed.

His father may have been the Cornelius Tacitus who was procurator of Belgica and Germania; Pliny the Elder mentions that Cornelius had a son who grew and aged rapidly (N.H. 7.76), which implies an early death. If Cornelius was his father, and since there is no mention of Tacitus suffering such a condition, it is possible that this refers to a brother. The friendship between the younger Pliny and Tacitus leads some scholars to conclude that they were both the offspring of wealthy provincial families.

Although the province of his birth is unknown (and has been variously conjectured as Gallia Belgica, Gallia Narbonensis, or northern Italy) his marriage to the daughter of the Narbonensian senator Gnaeus Julius Agricola implies that he came from Gallia Narbonensis. Tacitus' dedication to Fabius Iustus in the Dialogus may indicate a connection with Spain, and his friendship with Pliny suggests that he was born in northern Italy.

No evidence exists however that Pliny's friends from northern Italy knew Tacitus, nor do Pliny's letters hint that the two men had a common background. Pliny Book 9, Letter 23 reports that when he was asked if he was Italian or provincial, he gave an unclear answer, and so was asked if he was Tacitus or Pliny. Since Pliny was from Italy, some infer that Tacitus was from the provinces, probably Gallia Narbonensis.

His ancestry, his skill in oratory, and his sympathetic depiction of barbarians who resisted Roman rule (e.g., Ann. 2.9), have led some to suggest that he was a Celt. This belief stems from the fact that that the Celts occupied Gaul prior to the Roman invasion and were famous for their skill in oratory, and had been subjugated by Rome.

Public Life, Marriage, and Literary Career

As a young man, Tacitus studied rhetoric in Rome to prepare for a career in law and politics; like Pliny, he may have studied under Quintilian.

In 77 or 78 he married Julia Agricola, daughter of the famous general Agricola; although little is known of their home life, save that Tacitus loved hunting and the outdoors.

He started his career (probably the latus clavus, mark of the senator) under Vespasian, but it was in 81 or 82, under Titus, that he entered political life, as quaestor. He advanced steadily through the cursus honorum, becoming praetor in 88 and a quindecimvir, a member of the priest college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular games. He gained acclaim as a lawyer and an orator; his skill in public speaking is ironic given his cognomen: Tacitus ("silent").

He served in the provinces from ca. 89 to ca. 93 either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He (and his property) survived Domitian's reign of terror (81-96), but the experience left him jaded and perhaps ashamed at his own complicity, giving him the hatred of tyranny which is so evident in his works.

Famous Works

Tacitus wrote Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola; the Germania, a monograph on the lands and tribes of barbarian Germania; and the Dialogus, a dialogue on the art of rhetoric.

In De vita Iulii Agricolae written ca. 98 - recounts the life of alchemist Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an eminent Roman general and Tacitus' father-in-law; it also covers, briefly, the geography and ethnography of ancient Britain. As in the Germania, Tacitus favorably contrasts the liberty of the native Britons with the tyranny and corruption of the Empire; the book also contains eloquent polemics against the greed of Rome, one of which, that Tacitus claims is from a speech by Calgacus, ends by asserting that Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Tacitus wrote about Georg Agricola ...

From his seat in the Senate he became suffect consul in 97 during the reign of Nerva, being the first of his family to do so. During his tenure he reached the height of his fame as an orator when he delivered the funeral oration for the famous veteran soldier Lucius Verginius Rufus.

In the following year he wrote and published the Agricola and Germania, announcing the beginnings of the literary endeavors that would occupy him until his death. Afterwards he absented himself from public life, but returned during Trajan's reign. In 100, he, along with his friend Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile; Pliny wrote a few days later that Tacitus had spoken "with all the majesty which characterizes his usual style of oratory".

A lengthy absence from politics and law followed while he wrote the Histories and the Annals. In 112 or 113 he held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, recorded in the inscription found at Mylasa mentioned above. A passage in the Annals fixes 116 as the terminus post quem of his death, which may have been as late as 125 or even 130. It seems that he survived both Pliny and Trajan. It is unknown whether he had any children, because although the Augustan History reports that the emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus claimed him for an ancestor and provided for the preservation of his works, like much of the Augustan History, this story may be fraudulent.

The Annals and The Histories, published separately, were meant to form a single edition of thirty books. Although Tacitus wrote the Histories before the Annals, the events in the Annals precede the Histories; together they form a continuous narrative from the death of Augustus (14) to the death of Domitian (96). Though most has been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era. The first half of the Annals survived in a single copy of a manuscript from Corvey Abbey, and the second half from a single copy of a manuscript from Monte Cassino, and so it is remarkable that they survived at all.

The Annals is Tacitus' final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in 14 AD. It provides a key element of the modern understanding of the history of the Roman Empire during the first century. He wrote at least sixteen 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 (ending with the events of 66). We do not know whether Tacitus completed the work; he died before he could complete his planned histories of Nerva and Trajan, and no record survives of the work on Augustus Caesar and the beginnings of the Empire with which he had planned to finish his work. "The Annals" is one of the earliest secular historical records to mention Christ, which Tacitus does in connection with Nero's persecution of the Christians. Many consider The Annals to be Tacitus' crowning achievement which represents the pinnacle of Roman historical writing.

The Histories was written c. 100-110, which covers the Year of Four Emperors following the downfall of Nero, the rise of Vespasian, and the rule of the Flavian Dynasty (69-96) up to the death of Domitian.

At the beginning of the year AD 69, six months after the death of Nero, Tacitus started working on his Histories. Together the Histories and the Annals amounted to 30 books - about half of which have survived. These thirty books are referred to by Saint Jerome, and about half of them have survived. Although some scholars differ on how to assign the books to each work, traditionally fourteen are assigned to Histories and sixteen to the Annals. Tacitus' friend Pliny referred to "your histories" when writing to him about his earlier work.

By the time Histories had completed it covered Roman history from the death of Nero to the end of the reign of Domitian i.e. the period AD 69-96. The Annals deals with the five decades before Nero, i.e. from reign of Tiberius in AD 14 to the death of Nero in AD 68.

Modern scholars believe that as a Roman senator, Tacitus had access to Acta Senatus, the Roman senate's records, thus providing a solid basis for his work. Although Tacitus refers to part of his work as "my annals", the title of the work Annals as known today was not assigned by Tacitus himself, and derives from the fact that it has a year-by-year structure.

The Dialogus de oratoribus is a short work attributed to Tacitus, in dialogue form, on the art of rhetoric. Its date of composition is unknown, though its dedication to Fabius Iustus places its publication around 102 AD.

The dialogue itself, set in the 70s AD, follows the tradition of Cicero's speeches on philosophical and rhetorical arguments. The beginning of the work is a speech in defence of eloquence and poetry. It then deals with the decadence of oratory, for which the cause is said to be the decline of the education, both in the family and in the school, of the future orator. The education is not as accurate as it once was; the teachers are not prepared and a useless rhetoric often takes the place of the general culture.

After an incomplete section, the Dialogus ends with a speech delivered by Maternus reporting what some believe is Tacitus's opinion. Maternus thinks that great oratory was possible with the freedom from any power, more precisely in the anarchy, that characterized the Roman Republic during the civil wars. It became anachronistic and impracticable in the quiet and ordered society that resulted from the institution of the Roman Empire. The peace, warranted by the Empire, should be accepted without regret for a previous age that was more favorable to the wide spread of literacy and the growth of great personality.

Some believe that at the base of all of Tacitus's work is the acceptance of the Empire as the only power able to save the state from the chaos of the civil wars. The Empire reduced the space of the orators and of the political men, but there is no viable alternative to it. Nevertheless, Tacitus does not accept the imperial government apathetically, and he shows, as in the Agricola the remaining possibility of making choices that are dignified and useful to the state.

The date of publication of the Dialogus is uncertain, but it was probably written after the Agricola and the Germania. Many characteristics set it apart from the other works of Tacitus, so much so that the its authenticity may be questioned, even if it is always grouped with the Agricola and the Germania in the manuscript tradition. The way of speaking in the Dialogus seems closer to the model of Cicero, refined but not prolix, which inspired the teaching of Quintilian; it lacks the incongruities that are typical of Tacitus's major historical works. It may have been written when Tacitus was young; its dedication to Fabius Iustus would thus give the date of publication, but not the date of writing. More probably, the unusually classical style may be explained by the fact that the Dialogus is a work of rhetoric. For this genre the structure, the language, and the style of Cicero were the usual models.

The Germania written around 98 - concerning the origin and situation of the Germanics is an ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire. The Germania begins with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the Germanic people (Chapters 1-27); it then segues into descriptions of individual tribes, beginning with those dwelling closest to Roman lands and ending on the uttermost shores of the Baltic, among the amber-gathering Aesti, the Fenni, and the unknown tribes beyond them.

Tacitus says (Chapter 2) that physically, the Germanic peoples appeare to be a distinct nation, not an admixture of their neighbors, as nobody would desire to migrate to a climate as horrid as that of Germania. They are divided into three large branches, the Ingaevones, the Herminones and the Istaevones, deriving their ancestry from three sons of Mannus, son of Tuisto, their common forefather.

In Chapter 4, he mentions that they all have common physical characteristics, blue eyes (truces et caerulei oculi "sky-colored, azure, dark blue, dark green), reddish hair (rutilae comae = "red, golden-red, reddish yellow") and large bodies, vigorous at the first onset but not tolerant of exhausting labour, tolerant of hunger and cold but not of heat.

In Chapter 7, Tacitus describes their government and leadership as somewhat merit-based and egalitarian, with leadership by example rather than authority and that punishments are carried out by the priests. He mentions (Ch. 8) that the opinions of women are given respect. In Chapter 9, Tacitus describes a form of folk assembly rather similar to the public Things recorded in later Germanic sources: in these public deliberations, the final decision rests with the men of the tribe as a whole.

Tacitus further discusses the role of women in Chapters 7 and 8, mentioning that they often accompany the men to battle and offer encouragement. He says that the men are often motivated to fight for the women because of an extreme fear of their being taken captive. Tacitus says (Chapter 18) that the Germans are mainly content with one wife, except for a few political marriages, and specifically and explicitly compares this practice favorably to other barbarian cultures, perhaps since monogamy was a shared value between Roman and Germanic cultures. He also records (Chapter 19) that adultery is very rare, and that an adulterous woman is shunned afterward by the community regardless of her beauty.

The latter chapters of the books describe the various Germanic tribes, their relative locations and some of their characteristics. Many of the tribes named correspond with other (and later) historical records and traditions, while the fate of others is less clear.


Ethnography had a long and distinguished heritage in classical literature, and the Germania fits squarely within the tradition established by authors from Herodotus to Julius Caesar. Tacitus himself had already written a similar - albeit shorter - essay on the lands and tribes of Britannia in his Agricola (chapters 1013). The work can appear moralizing at points, perhaps implicitly comparing the values of Germanic tribes and those of his Roman contemporaries, although any direct comparison between Rome and Germania is not explicitly presented in the text. In writing the work, Tacitus might have wanted to stress the dangers that the Germanic tribes posed to the Empire.

Tacitus' descriptions of the Germanic character are at times favorable in contrast to the opinions of the Romans of his day. He holds the strict monogamy and chastity of Germanic marriage customs worthy of the highest praise, in contrast to what he saw as the vice and immorality rampant in Roman society of his day (ch. 18), and he admires their open hospitality, their simplicity, and their bravery in battle. All of these traits were highlighted perhaps because of their similarity to idealized Roman virtues. One should not, however, think that Tacitus' portrayal of Germanic customs is entirely favorable; he notes a tendency in the Germanic people for what he saw as their habitual drunkenness, laziness, and barbarism, among other traits.

The ethnonym Germanii as used by Tacitus does not necessarily coincide with the modern linguistic definition of Germanic peoples as any people speaking a Germanic language, and the details of the classification Germanii have been debated in scholarship, e.g. the possibility that the Batavians may therefore have been Celtic-speaking. Tacitus nevertheless shows no lack of precision in stating that the Nervii are not actually Germanic as they claim to be. (Ch. 28) He also notes in Chapter 43 that a certain tribe called the Cotini actually speaks a Gallic tongue, and likewise the Osi speak a Pannonian dialect.

Tacitus himself had never travelled in the Germanic lands; all his information is second-hand at best. Ronald Syme supposed that Tacitus closely copied the lost Bella Germaniae of Pliny the Elder, since the Germania is in some places outdated: in its description of the Danubian tribes, says Syme, "they are loyal clients of the Empire. Which is peculiar. The defection of these peoples in the year 89 during Domitian's war against the Dacians modified the whole frontier policy of the Empire." (p. 128). While Pliny may have been the primary source, scholars have identified others; among them are Caesar's Gallic Wars, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, Aufidius Bassus, and numerous non-literary sources: presumably based on interviews with traders and soldiers who had ventured beyond the Rhine and Danube borders, and Germanic mercenaries in Rome.


All copies of Germania were lost during the Middle Ages and the work was forgotten until a single manuscript as found in Hersfeld Abbey (Codex Hersfeldensis), in present-day Germany, in 1455. It was then brought to Italy, where Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, first examined and analyzed the book. This sparked interest among German humanists, including Conrad Celtes, Johannes Aventinus, and Ulrich von Hutten.

In medieval Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), a self-designation of "Germanii" was virtually never used. The name was only revived in 1471, inspired by the rediscovered text of Germania, to invoke the warlike qualities of the ancient Germans in a crusade against the Turks.

Ever since its discovery, treatment of the text regarding the culture of the early Germanic peoples in ancient Germany remains strong especially in German history, philology, and ethnology studies, and to a lesser degree in Scandinavian countries as well. Beginning in 16th-century German humanism, German interest in Germanic antiquity remained acute throughout the period of Romanticism and nationalism. A scientific angle was introduced with the development of Germanic philology by Jacob Grimm in the 19th century.

Because of its influence on the ideologies of Pan-Germanism and Nordicism, Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano in 1956 described Germania as "among the most dangerous books ever written".

Studies and Reception History

Tacitus was not much read in late antiquity, and even less in the Middle Ages. Only a third of his known work has survived; we depend on a single manuscript for books I-VI of the Annales and on another one for the other surviving half (books XI-XVI) and for the five books extant of the Historiae.

His antipathy towards the Jews and Christians of his time - he records with unemotional contempt the sufferings of the Christians at Rome during Nero's persecution - made him unpopular in the Middle Ages. He was rediscovered, however, by the Renaissance, whose writers were impressed with his dramatic presentation of the Imperial age.

Tacitus is remembered first and foremost as the greatest Roman historian. His work has been read for its moral instruction, dramatic narrative, and for its prose style; but it is as a political theorist that he has been and remains most influential outside the field of history.

Although his work is our most reliable source for the history of his era, its factual accuracy is occasionally questioned. The Annals are based in part on secondary sources, and there are some obvious mistakes, for instance the confusion of the two daughters of Mark Antony and Octavia Minor, who are both called Antonia. The Histories, however are written from primary documents and intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, and are therefore thought to be more accurate.