Tacitus, Publius Cornelius (56-120)

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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.

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