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Tacitus (b. ca. A.D. 56; d. ca. 120) was a Roman orator, lawyer, public official,
and historian. He is considered to be among the greatest prose stylists to write
in the Latin language. Tacitus wrote descriptive works (Germania and
De Vita Julii Agricolae), a work on oratory (Dialogus de oratoribus),
and historical works (Historiae and Annales). He was a prominent
public servant whose various positions enabled him to compile firsthand information
about his chosen subjects. His involvement with the government gave him the
opportunity to observe and evaluate the rule of the emperors, forming the basis
for his historical work.
Tacitus was a critic of the Roman Empire because he held the emperors responsible
for the deterioration of public morality and the decline of Roman political
freedom. De Vita Julii Agricolae is an account of his father-in-law's
career and persecution under Emperor Domitian (A.D. 51-96). Through the exemplary
conduct of Julius Agricola, this work emphasizes the possibility of living a
virtuous life even when governed by an evil ruler. Germania is an ethnographical
study of the Germanic tribes of Europe. In addition to being a valuable source
of information about the ancient Germans, the book contrasts the simple virtues
(as well as some vices) of these peoples against the general moral laxity of
the Roman population. The oldest of his works, the Dialogue on Oratory,
concerns the decline observable in oratory since Cicero. Oratory served a valuable
purpose during the Republic, but the erosion of political freedom under the
empire was coincident with an erosion of eloquence in public affairs.
The historical works of Tacitus cover many of the same themes. In their final
form, the Histories and Annals comprise a complete history of
the period from A.D. 14 to 96 in thirty volumes. Although many of the works
were lost (only books 1-5 of the Histories and 1-6 and 11-16 of the Annals
survive), enough remains to provide a good sense of Tacitus's political and
moral philosophy. He recognized the necessity for strong rulers but argued that
more should be done to manage the succession of power and allow for the ascension
of talent. Tacitus asserted that it was the dynastic ambitions of Rome's many
emperors that caused the decline of moral and political life and precluded the
possibility of recruiting leaders of real ability. Moreover, the dynastic temptation
caused political instability because military force was now required for political
change. His works point to the necessity of systematic institutional restraints
on power for the preservation of liberty.
Works by the Author
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Complete Works of Tacitus. Translated by Alfred
J. Church and William Jackson Brodribb. New York: Modern Library Edition for
Random House, 1942.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. 5 vols. Translated by Clifford H.
Moore. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925-37.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Annals. 5 vols. Translated by John Jackson.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925-37.
Tacitus, Cornelius. Germania & Agricola. 4 vols. Translated by Maurice
Hutton. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.
Tacitus, Cornelius. Dialogus. Translated by William Peterson. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1914.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.