Click on the footnote number and you will jump down to that note. Once there and enlightened, then click on that number and you will return to where you were in the text.


From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 257-272.




FROM Livy to Tacitus is somewhat like passing from Herodotus to Thucydides. Tacitus, too, was an artist in history, a consummate artist. His style is the result of the maturity, not only of individual, but also of national achievement. The charm of the naïve is lost. The story-telling power that carries one through interminable detail by making narrative entertaining is no gift of Tacitus. His appeal, like that of Thucydides, is to intelligence. But the intelligence of the age of the Fabians was not the same as that of the age of Pericles; and beyond the general standards which they set themselves, there is little resemblance between the work of the greatest of Greek historians and that of the greatest of the Latins. For both, history was a tribunal, the final one; but where Thucydides was a magistrate, Tacitus was an advocate, — the most brilliant, perhaps, who ever sought to determine the judgment of Time, but an advocate all the same. His client was Rome itself, and the stake was human liberty; but these impersonal ideals were less in evidence in the handling of his case than the dangers they encountered, dangers embodied in real men and women, not envisaged as abstractions. It was the tyrant, not tyranny, that Tacitus attacked; the immoral men or women whom he could name, rather than immorality in general. But however powerfully he drove home his argument, he recognized the dignity of the court in which he was pleading and asked only the judgment which the facts would warrant. Thus, while Thucydides sought to establish the truth alone, Tacitus sought to maintain that truth which would be of service to the world. How far the two methods coincided would depend upon one’s conception both of truth and the pragmatic values of history.

Of the life of Cornelius Tacitus we know very little; our knowledge 258 being confined to what he tells himself — and he is most uncommunicative — and to the letters of the younger Pliny, his intimate friend, who addressed no less than seven epistles to him.1 The date of his birth has been fixed, by a surmise as to his probable age upon appointment to political office, at about 54 A.D.; and he must have lived through approximately the first two decades of the next century. The marked stages of his political career are indicated by him in somewhat enigmatic fashion at the opening of his Histories “My political position was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus and carried still higher by Domitian.”2 This has been taken to mean that Vespasian made him quæstor; that he became ædile or tribune of the people under Titus and prætor under Domitian.3 His marriage with the daughter of Agricola calls out a passing comment,4 but, although he immortalized his wife’s father, he is practically silent about his home life. He indicates that he left Rome for four years upon the completion of his prætorship5 but nowhere does he indicate where he spent this time. Conjecture naturally connects it with his famous monograph on Germany, although it did not appear until some six years later (98 A.D.); and still further surmise, hunting for a suitable post for observation, would give him the governorship of Belgic Gaul.6 However this may be, he was back in Rome in 93 A.D., and there is ample evidence in his Histories that from then till the close of Domitian’s reign, he lived through the very heart of “the terror.”7 He was consul the year after the tyrant’s death; and then began to publish his shorter studies, the Life of Agricola in 97 or 98, and the Germania in 98. His histories, the works of years of study, favored by the quiet resulting from his forced dissimulation under the tyranny of Domitian, were published piecemeal, as he completed 259 them. Boissier has inferred from a letter of Pliny that the Histories probably began to appear about 105 A.D., and that it was because they had taken Rome by storm that Pliny suffered a sudden and sore temptation to try his own hand at history as a means of achieving immortality.8 A chance remark in the Annals, that the Roman Empire “now extends to the Red Sea”9 through Egypt, implies that these words were written about ten years later (c. 115 A.D.), when Trajan had carried the frontiers this far. Finally, an inscription discovered in modern times in Caria indicates that toward the end of Trajan’s reign, Tacitus held the great post of proconsul in Asia.10

Such is the meagre framework for the life of Tacitus, except for the indications furnished in the letters of Pliny, which are less separate facts than a picture of the society in which they moved and of the interests of the two men. Pliny tells us that when he began his career at the Roman bar, Tacitus was “already in the prime of his glory and renown”11 as a celebrated pleader; and he still practised pleading after Domitian’s death, for we know of one important law-suit which he conducted jointly with Pliny. But the eloquence to which Pliny bears generous witness12 awakened even less admiration than the histories. These, he asserts, will live forever; and fortunate is the man who can secure mention in their enduring pages.13 Reading Pliny, one might suppose that Tacitus belonged to those whom contemporaries already have marked out for immortality. But if so, they were content to let him achieve it by his own works, unaided by biographers.

So much for the outlines of Tacitus’ life. But if the external facts are lacking, the more intimate picture of his education and outlook, of the society he frequented and of the influences upon him of its morals, manners and politics, is relatively clear. He was an aristocrat, not of the old nobility of Rome, for they had almost all disappeared; but of the newer gentry, drawn from the provinces 260 or from the official classes.14 It was a wealthy and polite society, like that of the old régime in France; one where wits counted, where literature was a passport to elegant salons and clever repartee might make, or unmake, fortunes. It was more a school for scandal then for history. There was much floating gossip which Tacitus, as a man of the world, could hardly fail to pick up; mostly malicious gossip, concerned with personalities rather than with political movements, spiteful guesses as to what was going on by those who wished to pose as knowing, and who felt aggrieved that they did not, or generally depreciating comments by the politically unemployed. The only thing to recommend this unlovely growth of scandal-mongering was its contrast with the still more unlovely output of adulation on the other side. Fortunately such a school brings its own remedy in the sophisticated skepticism which it breeds in those who indulge in its sensational curriculum, so that its worst effects are attenuated. But the skepticism it breeds is not of that inquiring kind which leads to science; it is more the dulling influence of surfeited sensationalism, tending to bring indifference. It is not a happy soil for scientific history. In a mind like that of Tacitus it bred a sort of saturnine melancholy which pervades all his work.

Tacitus himself belonged by sentiment to the senatorial faction, although in practice accepting office and favor from the emperor. His prejudices are not concealed, the only point in doubt is how far his sense of scientific obligation to historical truth kept him within the restraints of accuracy.15 It is a problem which will probably never be solved, for we have little but Tacitus himself upon which to base our judgment. Moreover, it is the one subject upon which the commentators upon Tacitus have almost invariably concentrated their remarks. Hence we shall not delay here over 261 it, or such related questions as that of the real character of Tiberius; whether the Germania was mainly a moral lesson to the Romans, or other well-worn themes of criticism. The mere fact that such questions do persist in offering themselves to readers of Tacitus is itself an indication of the character of his work as a whole.

The social prejudices of Tacitus were responsible for more than his partiality; they also account for the details as to the fate of prominent citizens, with which he clogs his narrative of imperial history. No one now cares much about these ill-starred victims or unwise plotters. But the audience for which Tacitus wrote had a personal interest as keen as his own in the interminable stories of intrigue. These were something like family tales of one’s ancestors, cherished in a smothered desire for either justification or posthumous vengeance. Tacitus found it hard to make up his mind to omit any of these crimes, and the result was to give to much of his narrative something of that savage flavor which seems most appropriate in a Gregory of Tours. One might almost fancy, reading such a “long succession of horrors,”16 that the scene was at a Merovingian, semi-civilized court, or among Nibelungen heroes, instead of the court and capital of the world. It is rather too much to be convincing; for however true the facts might be, they could hardly be the central theme of history.

Tacitus was aware that all was not right with such a narrative, but could not discover the remedy. He was too close to the scene for that, too much involved in the petty issues of family politics. He knew that the stage was overcrowded and the action a long-drawn-out succession of intrigues or atrocities, and from time to time commented on his embarrassment in being obliged to repeat continually such stories as these. But, on the other hand, since the events had happened, and since in his eyes they had formed the chief content of imperial history, he felt that his obligation to historic accuracy and fulness prevented curtailment. As a historian he was happy to gather all the facts he could, however difficult it made the literary task of exposition. This comes out in such comments as the following:

“Many authors, I am well aware, have passed over the perils and punishments of a host of persons, sickened by the multiplicity 262 of them, or fearing that what they had themselves found wearisome and saddening, would be equally fatiguing to their readers. For myself, I have lighted on many facts worth knowing, though other writers have not recorded them.”17

But if a sense of scholarship tempted him to tell the whole story, how could he retain the interest of his reader? It was Livy’s question over again. And Tacitus, mindful of how well Livy had maintained that interest by digression and incidental matter thrown into the serious content of his work, tried the same devices.18 The narrative of what was happening in the city was varied by constant reference to events in the frontiers or in the provinces. These glimpses of the wider current of imperial affairs in the eyes of the modern historian give meaning to the whole;19 to Tacitus they rather gave relief from the oppressive quality of his chief subject, the fate of men of his class. For instance, after an account of one of the Parthian wars he adds: “I have related in sequence the events of two summer campaigns as a relief to the reader’s mind from our miseries at home.”20 This is hardly the way to conceive history greatly.

Tacitus himself recognized the shortcomings of his work in this regard, without ever quite learning how to overcome them. He fancied that the trouble lay in the subject itself, which is but another way of saying that the subject was too great for him. This comes 263 out in a remarkable passage in which he frankly compares his task with that of Livy, although avoiding mention of his predecessor’s name:

“Much of what I have related and shall have to relate, may perhaps, I am aware, seem petty trifles to record. But no one must compare my annals with the writings of those who have described Rome in old days. They told of great wars, of the storming of cities, of the defeat and capture of kings, or whenever they turned by preference to home affairs, they related, with a free scope for digression, the strifes of consuls with tribunes, land and corn-laws, and the struggles between the commons and the aristocracy. My labours are circumscribed and inglorious; peace wholly unbroken or but slightly disturbed, dismal misery in the capital, an emperor careless about the enlargement of the empire, such is my theme. Still it will not be useless to study those at first sight trifling events out of which the movements of vast changes often take their rise.

“All nations and cities are ruled by the people, the nobility, or by one man. A constitution formed by selection out of these elements, it is easy to commend but not to produce; or, if it is produced, it cannot be lasting. Formerly, when the people had power or when the patricians were in the ascendant, the popular temper and the methods of controlling it, had to be studied, and those who knew most accurately the spirit of the Senate and aristocracy, had the credit of understanding the age and of being wise men. So now, after a revolution, when Rome is nothing but the realm of a single despot, there must be good in carefully noting this period, for it is but few who have the foresight to distinguish right from wrong or what is sound from what is hurtful, while most men learn wisdom from the fortunes of others. Still, though this is instructive, it gives very little pleasure. Descriptions of countries, the various incidents of battles, glorious deaths of great generals, enchain and refresh a reader’s mind. I have to present in succession the merciless biddings of a tyrant, incessant prosecutions, faithless friendships, the ruin of innocence, the same causes issuing in the same results, and I am everywhere confronted by a wearisome monotony in my subject matter. Then, again, an ancient historian has but few disparagers, and no one cares whether you praise more heartily the armies of Carthage or Rome. But of many who endured punishment or disgrace under Tiberius the descendants yet survive; or even though the families themselves may now be extinct, you will find those who, from a resemblance of character, imagine that the evil deeds of others are a reproach to themselves. Again, even honour and virtue make enemies, condemning, as they do, their opposites by too close a contrast. But I return to my work.”21

In so many words Tacitus puts his case; and, as a skilled pleader, he puts it well. But a little examination of the extract shows how, 264 in reality, he simply gives his case away. “Peace wholly unbroken or but slightly disturbed, dismal misery in the capital, an emperor careless about the enlargement of the empire, such is my theme.” Its history is bound to be “circumscribed and inglorious.” These words, however, indicate not its limitations as he imagines, but his own. For just as Thucydides failed to leave us the history of the greatest theme of Greece, Athens at the height of its glory, so Tacitus failed adequately to describe that greatest political creation of antiquity, which for the first time in history was extending a common citizenship throughout the world, building up a common law and policing the routes of commerce for the arts of peace. It was, again, the failure of the pre-scientific mind to appreciate the importance of the commonplace and obscure, — which is the major theme of life and society.22 There is, however, this difference between Thucydides and Tacitus, that the former had personally a keen appreciation of the Athens he took for granted; while Tacitus, in spite of all his insight, seems hardly to have seen the Roman Empire. He saw and traced its external fortunes; and his vivid picture of details, on distant frontiers as well as at home, lend to his work that appearance of reality to which the modern journalist aspires. But the deeper facts of statesmanship escaped him, the living forces of a busy world intent upon the security of its heritage, a world that was something more than a victim of intrigue. Granting that he could not analyze in terms of sciences yet undiscovered, he might at least have brought to the problem more of that antique substitute for science, the open mind. He has seen too much of life to be capable of its greatest gift, — the sense of wonder which, as Plato said, is the beginning of philosophy.23

The more one examines the Histories and Annals the more one feels that such an adverse judgment is justified. Compare the outlook of Tacitus upon the problems of his day with those of even the most mediocre modern historian of the imperial history, and one sees at once what was lacking in the work of the Roman. But again, on the other hand, as we have so often insisted in the course of these studies, the conclusion does not follow that Tacitus’ failure 265 to grasp the essentials of his age is to be judged in the light of our knowledge. If he failed to rise to the full height of the real theme of his age, it was partly because history had not yet learned to deal with generalized and abstract forces. It dealt with men instead; with nations as aggregations of individuals, where character and chance are at grips with destiny; with policies determined by personalities, incidents settled by single appeals or by acts of force. There are passing references here and there in Tacitus to the business side of politics, but they are generally incidental. The most notable exception is the description of “The Panic of the Year 33,”24 as it has been aptly termed by a modern writer. This was too serious a social crisis to be ignored. Moreover, it affected many private fortunes. There are as well references to the dangers of excessive luxury in Rome, as in the case when Tiberius addressed a letter to the senate on the subject.25 But, upon the whole, questions of economics are as few and far between as those of general politics.26 As for the process of social evolution, Tacitus is almost naïvely conservative. In a society so advanced as that in which he lived it almost required a certain wilful ignorance of history to insist, as Tacitus does, that: “Mankind in the earliest age lived for a time without a single vicious impulse, without punishment and constraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits; and as men desired nothing against morality, they were debarred from nothing by fear. When however they began to throw off equality, and ambition and violence usurped the place of self-control and modesty, despotisms grew up and became perpetual among many nations.”27 “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” was the way Rousseau put it, in the ringing challenge of the opening words of the Social Contract. Tacitus, too, was writing an indictment of society; but a 266 misreading of history excusable in a prophet is less easy to pardon in a historian.

Tacitus at least had not much of a generalized conception of historical processes. And that is why he did not know how to manipulate the vast and often obscure interrelation of events so as to show its larger meaning. It is perhaps too much to say that he never saw his history as a whole; but he never saw it in the whole of its setting. He was a great artist rather than a great thinker, a wonderful observer and analyst of motives; but fundamentally a master of detail. In effect his depiction reminds one of the old Dutch masters; of features drawn with minutest care yet deftly and swiftly; of landscapes enriched with everything really there. What makes his greatness as an artist is that he combines this mastery of detail with a freedom and breadth of movement, a grave and sombre power which gives to his work the high quality of tragedy. It always speaks with dignity, however trivial the incident. It never rings false, no matter how strained and rhetorical the phrase. Sentences are compressed into phrases and phrases into single words; but the crabbed text challenges the reader — and remains with him.

Yet, in spite of all this richness of detail, power of depiction, mastery of expression and dignity of spirit, Tacitus remained an annalist, whose narrative was held together by that most primitive of all links, the time nexus. Things are mentioned when they happened, because they happened when they did. There is no such attempt to trace the complex events through cause and effect as we find in the Greeks. To be sure there are common-sense remarks as to why this or that incident arose, but the wider sweep of history, which gives it its meaning, is lacking.28 Year by year, or event by event, the facts are noted as they occur in the sources, and the items jotted down are mostly quite isolated from those 267 which precede or follow. Only the extent of detail on each one prevents the almost mediæval quality of such a plan from appearing at first glance. That it does not do so is due to the skill with which the author used his artistry of expression to cover the defects of his plan.

It is typical of such a historian that his best work should be, in addition to the depiction of character, — as in the marvellous portrayal of Tiberius, — the description of great crises, when events so concentrate in a single time or place as not to involve a problem in perspective. Of these, the most outstanding instance is the opening portion of the Histories, where the revolutionary year 69 is described in such graphic detail, that, as the translator of the text has put it, we know no other year in all antique history as we do this. In the rapid passage of events, the play and counterplay of emotion, the sudden changes of fortune, mob action uncertain yet determining the wavering of its leaders, soldiery in control but not sure of itself, and the empire the prize of the disorder, we have a scene painted with masterful power and scrupulous care. It is Tacitus at his best.

When we turn from the choice and handling of the subject to the more technical problem of the use of his sources, we find Tacitus about as much at sea as in the shaping of his general plan. In the first place there is the question of oral tradition and rumor.29 How can it be tested? What criteria are there for the contemporary historian, by which to substantiate what he hears? Time and again he comes from this problem. For instance, he tells us that the measures taken to avenge the death of Germanicus were “a subject of conflicting rumors, not only among the people then living but also in after times. So obscure are the greatest events, as some take for granted any hearsay, whatever its source, others turn truth into falsehood, and both errors find encouragement with posterity.”30 More flat-footed still is the attack upon such unsupported rumor as had fastened the crime of Drusus’ murder upon Tiberius. After giving the story of that crime as he finds it in the narratives of most of the best historians, in which Tiberius is not 268 implicated, he relates at length the accusing rumor to disprove it, adding:

“My object in mentioning this story, is, by a conspicuous example, to put down hearsay, and to request all into whose hands my work shall come, not to catch eagerly at wild and improbable rumors in preference to genuine history which has not yet been perverted into romance.”31

This seems clear and straightforward; but current history simply cannot ignore current gossip, and Tacitus’ histories are constantly fed by its sediment-bearing stream. Indeed, as the written sources he consulted were themselves often but the composite result of similar rumors, it is not to be wondered at if such phrases as “it was said” or “many say” run through the narrative as substantiating references. Sometimes he definitely admits the importance of such source material, as in connection with the description of Piso’s death at Tiberius’ instigation:

“I remember to have heard old men say that a document was often seen in Piso’s hands the substance of which he never divulged, but which his friends repeatedly declared contained a letter from Tiberius with instructions referring to Germanicus, and that it was his intention to produce it before the Senate and upbraid the emperor, had he not been deluded by vain promises from Sejanus. Nor did he perish, they said, by his own hand, but by that of one sent to be his executioner.

“Neither of these statements would I positively affirm; still it would not be right for us to conceal what was related by those who lived up to the time of my youth.”32

In short, it was inevitable that much of Tacitus’ work would have to depend upon oral testimony. How much this was the case is impossible to state definitely, for except in the matter of official documents and when his sources disagree and he must choose between them, he does not mention them individually.33 However, it should be recalled that he himself had been contemporary with 269 most of his narratives, for he was about fourteen years old when Nero died, and as a boy he must have heard many a reminiscence of the days of Tiberius and events of Augustus. The influence of these experiences upon his histories must extend far beyond single incidents which might be attributed to this or that source; they would largely determine his whole outlook.

As to written sources, Tacitus falls back upon the well-accepted principles which we have seen followed by his predecessors, especially Livy. Where his sources agree, he accepts the narrative — unless denied by more authoritative personal or oral accounts. “Proposing as I do (he says), to follow the consentient testimony of historians, I shall give the difference in their narratives under the writers’ names.”34 But he does not follow these sources blindly. He checks one by another, and does not always adhere to the same one in different parts of his works.35 When there is little to choose between contradictory sources he is plainly at a loss. For instance, take a comment like this:

“I can hardly venture on any positive statement about the consular elections, now held for the first time under this emperor, or indeed subsequently, so conflicting are the accounts we find not only in the historians but in Tiberius’ own speeches.”36

This extract is interesting as indicating Tacitus’ constant use of documentary material, as well as narrative. He consulted the fund of information in the Daily Register,37 and memoirs of notable characters.38 The problem in criticism, however, as to what he most relied upon, whether he simply rewrote some of the more excellent historical accounts before his day, or completely remade the story, will hardly ever be settled, since the authorities he used have practically all perished.39 It is abundantly clear, however, that he spared no pains to get at the truth; and that, lacking a 270 knowledge of the principles of source-criticism which leads the modern scholar to trace the history of his documents before he risks the story of the events they record, he nevertheless made up by genius for the shortcomings of science, in so far as that could well be done.

That with all his handicap Tacitus takes rank still in the forefront of the world’s historians is due not only to his genius as a word painter, or his insight into character, — the two gifts in which he excels, — but also to his idea of history itself. He has a most exalted conception of it. There is small tolerance for the dilettante outlook of those “elderly men who amuse themselves comparing present and past.”40 He holds, in common with all earnest thinkers of antiquity, that it is “history’s highest function to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.”41 This is to be done without bitterness or favor (sine ira et studio).42 There was also more of the poet in his make-up than in any other antique historian. His sense of words, his use of compressed, epigrammatic phrases are genuinely poetical devices.43 And still more poetical than these implements of expression are the wealth of color and variety of action which give the illusion of life to his pages. In a remarkable passage, a great modern Hellenist has described the masterpieces of Greek history as suggestive of bas-reliefs, thin in outline and low in tone.44 They are conceived in one dimension, as it were; lacking in depth and motion. This is just what Tacitus supplies to antique historiography. He is a romanticist as opposed to their classicism; a genius with the creative grasp of a Victor Hugo but holding himself in, consciously, from that “folly of extremes” which is the danger fronting those who can carry their art so far.

Restraint with power behind it; in this respect at least, the genius of Tacitus is a living embodiment of that of Rome.


Tacitus’ works are the early Dialogus de Oratoribus, a treatise of much interest for the study of the influences forming his ideas on history as well as oratory; De Vita et Moribus Julii Agricolae, the biography of his father-in-law written somewhat in the manner of Sallust; Germania, the celebrated description of Germany; Historiae, covering the years 69 to 96, including the reigns of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. It originally extended over some fourteen, or perhaps twelve, books, but only the first four and half of the fifth have been preserved; Ab Excessu Divi Augusti, known generally as the Annales, in sixteen or eighteen books, covering the years 14 to 68 A.D., from the death of Augustus to that of Nero, and hence including the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. The manuscripts upon which our texts rest do not go beyond the tenth or eleventh centuries, and for the first six books of the Annals there is only a single manuscript, discovered in fifteenth century. There has been an attempt to prove it the forgery of the humanist Poggio Bracciolini, but the genuineness of the text is now not questioned. The best edition of the text of the Historiae for English readers is that by W. A. Spooner (1891), of the Annales, that by H. Furneaux (2 vols., 2d ed., 1896-1907), both of which have elaborate notes in English. The standard edition of the text by C. Halm has been brought up to date (2 vols., 5th ed., Teubner, 1913-1914) and that by J. Orelli has been revised and reëdited by H. Schweiger-Sidler, G. Andresen and A. Meiser (2 vols., 2d ed., 1877-1895). Latest editions of the text of the Annales by C. Nipperdey and G. Andresen are those of 1904-1908 and 1915 (2 vols., 1904-1908). (Bks. I-VI, 11th ed., 1915). There is an edition of the Annales by C. D. Fisher (Oxford Library of Classical Authors, 1906). Of translations, that used here, and the most generally known, is by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb (Annals, 1869, Histories, 2d ed., 1872, and frequent reprints). The translation in Everyman’s Library (2 vols., 1908) is that of A. Murphy, first published in 1793. More recent translations are those by G. G. Ramsay (Annals, 2 vols., 1904-1909; Histories, 1915), and by W. Peterson and M. Hutton in the Loeb Classical Library (1914).

The chief work on the style of Tacitus is A. A. Draeger’s Ueber Syntax und Stil des Tacitus (3d ed., 1882). In France the studies of P. Fabia have gained wide recognition, especially his discussion of the sources Tacitus used, Les Sources de Tacite dans les histories et les annales (1893), in which he argues, as does also E. G. Hardy, Studies in Roman History (1910), for the theory that Tacitus relied chiefly upon a work of the elder Pliny. In spite of the careful analysis of text upon which this theory rests, E. Courbaud, in Les procédés d’art de Tacite dans les «Histoires» (1918), very aptly points out that such a conclusion seems incredible in view of the character of the younger Pliny’s comments on Tacitus. Further discussion may be followed in the two works of H. Peter frequently referred to in the text, Die geschichtliche Litteratur über die römische Kaiserzeit bis Theodosius I und ihre Quellen (2 vols., 1897), and Wahrheit und Kunst (1911), and in German dissertations and many articles in classical 272 reviews. For recent bibliographies see the Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, Sup. Vol. CLXV (1913), pp. 224 sqq., and Vol. CLXVII (1914), pp. 201 sqq.; which covers the literature from 1904 to 1912; see also Vol. CLXXIII (1915), pp. 87 sqq., pp. 216 sqq.; Vol. CLXXVII (1916-1918), pp. 87 sq., pp. 251 sqq.. The literature in Tacitus is continually growing, and manuals like Teuffel-Schwabe are inadequate in this case. This continued interest is itself a reason for still further output, since the critical student of historiography has obviously here a problem in the art if not in the science of history developed as seldom elsewhere in historical literature, — that of personality. Pliny was right as to the immortality of such work.


1  Pliny’s letters are a valuable source for the society of the day of Tacitus. There is a good translation based upon the Teubner text, by J. B. Firth (The Letters of the Younger Pliny, 2 vols., 1909-1910).

2  Tacitus, Historiae, Bk. I, Chap.I.

3  This conjecture has been accepted by G. Boissier, Tacitus and Other Roman Studies (translated by W. G. Hutchinson, 1906), p. 26. Cf. discussion by Teuffel-Schwabe, op. cit., Vol. II, Sect. 333, n. 6.

4  Tacitus, Agricola, Chap. IX.

5  Tacitus, Annales, Bk. XI, Chap. XI, and Agricola, Chap. XLV.

6  Cf. G. Boissier, op. cit., p. 28.

7  Tacitus, Agricola, Chaps. III, XLV.

8  Plinius Secundus, Epistulae, Bk. V, Letter 8. Cf. G. Boissier, op. cit., p. 93.

9  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. II, Chap. LXI.

10  Cf. Bulletin de correspondence hellénique, Vol. XIV (1890), pp. 621-623.

11  Plinius Secundus, Epistulae, Bk. VIII, Letter 20.

12  Ibid., Bk. II, Letter 1. Tacitus is “the most eloquent man in Rome.”

13  Ibid., Bk. VI, Letter 16; Bk. VII, Letter 33.

14  The elder Pliny in his Natural History, Bk. VII, Chap. XVI, refers to a Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman knight, who was a financial administrator in Belgic Gaul. It has been conjectured that he was either father or uncle to the historian. Cf. G. Boissier, op. cit., p. 2.

15  Tacitus’ feeling for his class comes out on all occasions. He upholds its dignity even against itself. For instance, when some nobles so far forgot themselves as to go into the imperial Neronian vaudeville, to retrieve their fortunes, he turns the incident against the emperor, who would bring such disgrace upon the victims. As for themselves he comments, “As they have ended their days, I think it due to their ancestors not to hand down their names.” The Annals, Bk. XIV, Chap. XIV.

16  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk IV, Chap. XXXI.

17   Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. VI, Chap. VII. (A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb’s translation). If they were not recorded, they must have been repeated by word of mouth. In any case such a reference shows what vague traces we have as to the sources of Tacitus.

18  Not merely to entertain, however. As he states himself, “he will studiously refrain from embroidering his narrative with tales of fabulous marvels, and from diverting his readers with fictions; that would be unbecoming the dignity of the work he has undertaken.” Tacitus, Histories, Bk. II, Chap. L. Cf. G. Boissier, op. cit., p. 75; H. Furneaux, The Annals of Tacitus (2 vols., 2d ed., 1896-1907), Vol. I, pp. 40-41.

19  The best illustration is of course Mommsen.

20  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. VI, Chap. XXXVIII. The remark is all the more significant since the chapter on the phœnix having been seen again in Egypt occurs just before the account of the Parthian campaigns. One might have thought it was sufficient diversion!

But even foreign wars became monotonous at times. Cf. ibid., Bk. XVI, Chap. XVI. “Even if I had to relate foreign wars and deaths encountered in the service of the State with such a monotony of disaster, I should myself have been overcome by disgust, while I should look for weariness in my readers, sickened as they would be by the melancholy and continuous destruction of our citizens, however glorious to themselves.” This is surely personal history, lacking in perception of larger issues.

21  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. IV, Chaps. XXXII, XXXIII.

22  On Tacitus’ avoidance of trivialities see especially the analysis of H. Peter, Die geschichtliche Litteratur . . ., Vol. II, pp. 45. But this is a different matter.

23  Theætatus, 155 D.

24  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. VI, Chaps. XVI, XVII. Cf. W. Stearns Davis, The Influence of Wealth on Imperial Rome (1910), a stimulating book for careful readers.

25  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. III, Chaps. LII-LV.

26  There is the repetition of old complaints about the decline of Italian farm supplies (ibid., Bk. XII, Chap. XLIII); similarly rather dubious comments on Nero’s proposed reforms in taxation (ibid., Bk. XIII, Chap. LI), with sometimes an interest in the supply of metal, as in the silver mines at Nassau (ibid., Bk. XI, Chap. XX). See, also, references to Nero’s spell of economy, Bk. XV, Chap. XVIII, or his extravagance, Bk. XVI, Chap. III.

27  ibid., Bk. III, Chap. XXVI.

28  This general comment stands in spite of various passages which might be cited against it, as, for instance, the closing words of the second book of the Annals, with reference to Arminius: “He is still a theme of song among barbarian nations, though to Greek historians, who admire only their own achievements, he is unknown, and to Romans not as famous as he should be, while we extol the past and are indifferent to our own times” (ibid., Bk. II, Chap. LXXXVIII). But if Tacitus had been working in the spirit of Herodotus, the Germania would have been incorporated in the history as one of the logoi.

29  “Rome with its love of talking.” Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. XIII, Chap. VI.

30  Ibid., Bk. III, Chap. XIX.

31  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. IV, Chap. XI.

32  Ibid., Bk. III, Chap. XVI.

33  Even this is greatly to his credit. Boissier, commenting on it, says (op. cit., p. 55): “He is the ancient historian who most frequently cites the authors and documents he has consulted. He does not do so out of a kind of erudition run mad, as is so often done nowadays to make a show of being better informed than other people, since . . . no one then deemed it any merit in an author, and since consequently he could reap no glory therefrom.”

34  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. XIII, Chap. XX.

35  Cf. H. Furneaux, The Annals of Tacitus, Vol. I, p. 26.

36  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. XIII, Chap. XX.

37  E.g. ibid., Bk. III, Chap. III. On this see the chapter by Boissier, op. cit., pp. 197 sqq.

38  Cf. Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. IV, Chap. LIII.

39  All studies of Tacitus’ use of source material are much in debt to the various works of Philippe Fabia, especially Les sources de Tacite dans les histoires et les annales (1893). Vide infra, Bibliographical Note.

40  Tacitus, The Annals, Bk. XIII, Chap. III.

41  Ibid., Bk. III, Chap. LXV.

42  Ibid., Bk. I, Chap. I .

43  Cf. H. Furneaux, The Annals of Tacitus, Vol. I, p. 40.

44  A. and M. Croiset, Histoire de la littérature grecque, Vol. II, p. 568.


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