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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles E. Bennett (1858–1921)

By Tacitus (56–c. 120 A.D.)

PUBLIUS CORNELIUS TACITUS (the prænomen Publius, long a matter of dispute, is now definitely assured) was born 56 A.D. The place of his birth is quite uncertain: by some scholars this honor has been assigned to the Umbrian town Interamna, by others to Rome; but neither of these views rests upon any adequate foundation. Of the details of his life we are but scantily informed. In his ‘Dialogus de Oratoribus’ he tells us that when a youth he attached himself to Marcus Aper and Julius Secundus, the forensic leaders of his day. Whether he also enjoyed the instruction of Quintilian, the famous rhetorician, is a matter of doubt. In the year 78 he married the daughter of Agricola, governor of Britain. Subsequently he filled the offices of quæstor under Titus, of prætor under Domitian, and of consul (year 97) under Nerva. From the year 100 on, he appears to have held no public trust, but to have devoted himself exclusively to his literary labors. His death probably occurred shortly after the publication of the ‘Annals’ (115–117 A.D.).


1. The ‘Dialogus de Oratoribus.’ Tacitus’s earliest work was probably published about 81 A.D., and gives an account of a discussion at which the writer represents himself as having been present some seven years previously. The chief disputants are Aper and Messalla; the theme is the quality of contemporary eloquence. Aper maintains that the new oratory really marks a great advance upon that of preceding epochs: it is brilliant and attractive, where the earlier oratory was dull and tedious. An audience of to-day, Aper declares, would not tolerate such speakers. Even Cicero, with all his fame, was not free from the faults of his day; and was worthy of admiration only in his later speeches.

In reply to Aper, Messalla vigorously defends the oratory of the Ciceronian era, and arraigns contemporary eloquence as disfigured by meretricious embellishment. To Messalla’s mind the prime cause of this decadence is neglect in the training of the young. Formerly the mother personally superintended the education of her children; now these are given over to irresponsible slaves and nurses. Again, in the earlier days, a young man preparing himself for the profession of oratory was wont to attach himself to some eminent advocate or jurist; and so to acquire the mastery of his art by practical experience. To-day, Messalla complains, it is the fashion merely to declaim artificial show-pieces in the schools.

Secundus and Maternus, who share in the discussion, urge also changed political conditions as another important reason for the decline of eloquence. Under the republic there had been an active political life and keen strife of parties; under the empire the fortunes of the State were directed by a single head. What wonder then that eloquence had declined, when the causes that created it were no longer in existence!

In its fine dramatic setting, its profound grasp of the moving causes in Roman civilization, and in its elevated diction, the ‘Dialogus’ is a consummate literary masterpiece; Wolf well recognized its merits and its charm when he characterized it as an aureus libellus (golden little book).

2. The ‘Agricola.’ Between the publication of the ‘Dialogus’ and of the ‘Agricola’ seventeen years intervened. Of this period fifteen years were occupied by the reign of Domitian, under whom freedom of speech had been rigorously suppressed. The accession of Nerva, however, in 96 A.D., followed by that of Trajan at the beginning of 98, was the augury of a new era; and encouraged Tacitus to publish his ‘Life of Agricola’ in the latter year. Agricola, Tacitus’s father-in-law, had died in 93; and it is quite possible that Tacitus’s account of his life was written in the months immediately following that event, and then withheld from publication until the dawn of a more auspicious period. How keenly Tacitus had felt the intellectual and moral servitude enforced upon his countrymen by Domitian’s rule is made clear by a passage of remarkable power contained in the preface to this work (here quoted).

The best years of Agricola’s life had been spent in the service of his country, and for the most part in the field. His most conspicuous successes were achieved in Britain. He had been appointed governor of that province in 78, and remained there seven years. In the course of his administration he had not only reduced the entire island to subjection, as far north as the highlands of Scotland, but had also established the Roman civilization among the Britons. All these achievements are pictured in glowing colors and with signal affection by the writer. Tacitus’s apostrophe to his departed father-in-law (here quoted), is a lofty and impressive illustration of the writer’s genius.

3. The ‘Germania.’ This was published in 98 A.D., the same year as the ‘Agricola.’ It is a brief treatise on the geography, peoples, and institutions of the Germans. The larger portion of the work—and by far the most interesting—is devoted to a consideration of those customs and institutions which are common to the Germans as a whole; such as their political organization, their military system, the courts, religion, dwellings, clothing, marriage, amusements, slavery, and industrial occupations. The remainder of the work treats of the location of the separate tribes, and of the institutions peculiar to each.

The purpose of the ‘Germania’ has been differently conceived by different critics. Some have thought that Tacitus’s object was, by holding before his countrymen a picture of the Germans, to mark the contrast between the two civilizations, German and Roman, and to commend the rugged simplicity of the one as opposed to the degeneracy of the other. Others have regarded the treatise as a political pamphlet, written in support of Trajan, and intended to justify the attention which that prince was then bestowing upon the problems presented by the tribes of the North. Yet others have thought that the work was prepared as an introduction to the extensive historical writings which Tacitus had already projected.

But there are serious objections to each of these views; moreover, it seems improbable that the ‘Germania’ was written with any “tendency” or purpose beyond the natural and obvious one of acquainting its readers with accurate details of German geography and institutions. The German people had long been known to the Romans, and for a century and a half had furnished a more or less constant opposition to the Roman arms. Nor was the subject new: Cæsar, Livy, Pliny, and others, had given detailed accounts of this interesting and important race. That Tacitus, therefore, should have undertaken a fresh presentation of their situation and customs, seems perfectly natural, without resort to the theory of a special extraneous motive. Whatever its original purpose, the ‘Germania’ must be recognized as a mine of authentic information concerning the ancient Germans, and as a source of the first importance for all modern study of Germanic institutions.

4. The ‘Histories.’ In the preface to the ‘Agricola,’ Tacitus had already announced his purpose of writing the history of the reigns of Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan. Later, this plan was modified. The new project embraced the history of the imperial period from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian,—a space of eighty-two years. This period naturally fell into two eras: the former that of the Julian-Claudian dynasties (from the accession of Tiberius to the death of Nero), the latter that of the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian to Domitian), including the transition period of turmoil during the brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. It was the latter of these two eras that Tacitus treated first, giving to the work the title ‘Historiæ.’ The events he describes had all occurred within his own memory, and many within the range of his own observation and experience. The entire work consisted probably of twelve books, published at intervals between 104 and 109 A.D. Of these twelve books only the first four, and half of the fifth, have come down to us. The preserved portions begin with the accession of Galba, and carry the history only to the beginning of the reign of Vespasian. A vivid picture is given in this narrative of the stormy events of the years 68 and 69; including the murder of Galba, the defeat and suicide of Otho, the overthrow of Vitellius, the accession of Vespasian, along with the formidable insurrection of the Batavians under Civilis. But the descriptions are almost exclusively military. There is less of the fine psychological analysis which appears later as a striking characteristic of the ‘Annals.’ Doubtless this feature may have been more prominent in the lost books of the ‘Histories’ (6–12), which covered the reigns of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. One of the most interesting portions of the extant books is the account of the Jews, given at the beginning of Book v. The description of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by Titus is unfortunately lost.

5. The ‘Annals.’ The second part of Tacitus’s programme embraced a history of the earlier period, from the accession of Tiberius to the death of Nero (14–68 A.D.). The exact title of this work was ‘Ab Excessu Divi Augusti’ (From the Decease of the Divine Augustus); but owing to the treatment of events year by year, Tacitus himself alludes to his work as ‘Annals,’ and this designation has become the current one. The ‘Annals,’ like the ‘Histories,’ was probably published in installments, about 115–117 A.D. The entire work in all likelihood consisted of eighteen books. These eighteen seem to have been devoted, in groups of six, to three epochs: the first six to the reign of Tiberius; the next six to the reigns of Caligula and Claudius; the concluding six to the reign of Nero. Large portions of the work have been lost. Books 7–10, along with 17 and 18, have disappeared completely; while extensive gaps occur in several of the others. The portions which we still have, deal with the reign of Tiberius, the concluding years of the reign of Claudius, and the reign of Nero down to 66 A.D. The account of Caligula is entirely lost.

The ‘Annals’ is universally regarded as Tacitus’s ripest and greatest work. While nominally a history of the times, it is in reality a series of masterly character sketches of figures of commanding interest and importance: the emperors, their advisers, their opponents, the members of the imperial family.

In his psychological analyses, Tacitus can hardly be regarded as free from prejudice and partisanship; in the case of most of the emperors and their consorts, he sees no good trait, recognizes no worthy motive. On the other hand, he is at times guilty of undue idealization; as in the case of Germanicus, who, though popular with the soldiers and the people, seems to have been deficient both in force of character and in military genius.

Tacitus’s pictures, however, while overdrawn, give us in the main an accurate view of the imperial court: they exhibit the tyranny, cruelty, and wantonness of successive sovereigns, the servility of the courtiers, the degradation of the Senate, and the general demoralization of the aristocracy, in colors as powerful as they are somber. It is greatly to be regretted that none of the ameliorating influences and tendencies of the imperial régime receive recognition at Tacitus’s hands. The contemporary social, industrial, and commercial prosperity are completely ignored: it is the dark side only that is revealed in his pages.

TACITUS’S STYLE.—The artistic form in which Tacitus clothed the products of his genius is not only unique in itself, but also exhibits a striking development from his earliest work to his latest. In the ‘Dialogus’ he is manifestly under the influence of Cicero. The ‘Agricola’ and ‘Germania,’ published seventeen years later, show an almost complete emancipation from this early model. The strong individuality of the writer now reveals itself in greater condensation, in frequent boldness of word and phrase, and in somber earnestness of thought; Sallust’s influence is particularly noticeable at this stage. In the ‘Histories’ and in the ‘Annals’ we note the fullest culmination of Tacitus’s stylistic development. What in the ‘Agricola’ and ‘Germania’ was a tendency, has become in the ‘Histories,’ and especially in the ‘Annals,’ a pervading characteristic. Short incisive sentences follow each other in quick succession: a single phrase or a single word is often as pregnant with meaning as a paragraph in another writer; poetic expressions abound (Virgil’s influence being particularly noticeable); while a lofty moral earnestness dominates the whole.

This striking contrast of style between Tacitus’s earliest and latest work is unparalleled in Roman literature; and for a long time tended to cast doubt on the authenticity of the ‘Dialogus.’ It is not, however, without a parallel in other literatures; and the difference between Carlyle’s ‘Life of Schiller’ and his ‘Frederick the Great’ has been aptly compared with that between the ‘Dialogus’ and the ‘Annals.’

BIBLIOGRAPHY.—The best editions of the works of Tacitus are,—for the ‘Dialogus,’ ‘Agricola,’ and ‘Germania,’ Gudeman (Leipzig), and Peterson and Hutton (Loeb Classical Library, 1914); for the ‘Agricola,’ ‘Germania,’ and ‘Annals,’ Furneaux (Oxford); for the ‘Histories,’ Spooner (Oxford). The best English translation is by Church and Brodribb (London, 1885, 1888).