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Tacitus: Annals

 p227  Introduction

Since the life of Tacitus has already been sketched in Mr. Moore's introduction to the Histories, a brief account may suffice here. Brevity, indeed, is a necessity; for the ancient evidence might almost be compressed into a dozen lines, nor has even the industry or imagination of modern scholars been able to add much that is of value to the exiguous material.

For the parentage of the greatest of Roman historians no witness can be called, nor was the famous name Cornelius, vulgarized by Sulla's numerous emancipations, a patent of nobility in the first century of the Christian era. The elder Pliny, however, was acquainted with a Roman knight, Cornelius Tacitus, who held a procuratorship in Belgic Gaul,1 and  p228 obviously there is a faint possibility that this may have been the father or an uncle of the historian. Be that as it may, a certain standard of inherited wealth and consequence is presupposed alike by his career and by his prejudices. The exact date of his birth is equally unknown, but he was senior by a few years to his intimate friend and correspondent, the younger Pliny; who states in a letter to him that he was in his eighteenth year at the time of the great eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum, and his uncle, in the late summer of 79 A.D. Certainty is out of the question, yet the provisional date of 55 A.D., which harmonizes with the ascertainable facts of his life, can hardly be far wide of the mark.

Of his early youth nothing can be gathered but that he studied rhetoric "with surprising avidity and a certain juvenile fervour"; his principal heroes and instructors being Marcus Aper and Julius Secundus, two of the characters in the Dialogus de Oratoribus.2 We have Pliny's testimony to his mastery of the spoken word,3 and throughout his works, quite apart from the "Dialogue," his unabated interest in the art is noticeable.4

The first certain date is 77 A.D., the consulate of Cn.º Julius Agricola; who was sufficiently impressed by the character and prospects of the young Tacitus to select him for the husband of his daughter, the marriage taking place on the expiry of his term of  p229 office (78 A.D.).5 Matters are less clear when we come to his official career, which he describes as "owing its inception to Vespasian, its promotion to Titus, and its further advancement to Domitian."6 The question is whether the first step mentioned was the quaestorship or a minor office, but the balance of probability seems to be that he was tribunus militum laticlavius under Vespasian, and quaestor under Titus:7 under Domitian, by his own statement, he took part in the celebration of the Secular Games (88 A.D.), in the double capacity of praetor and quindecimvir.8 Between the quaestorship and the praetorship, however, must have lain — still in the principate of Domitian — either a tribunate or an aedileship, which may be assigned roughly to 84 A.D.

Some two years after the praetorship, Tacitus with his wife left Rome, and in 93 A.D., when Agricola passed away — felix opportunitate mortis — they were still absent. Service abroad is a natural explanation: that the service consisted in the governorship of a minor imperial province, a highly plausible conjecture. In any case, the return to the capital followed shortly: for the striking references to the three last and most terrible years of Domitian are too clearly that of an eye-witness. He emerged from the Terror with life, also with the indelible memories of the few who "had outlived both others and themselves."9 In the  p230 happier age of Nerva and Trajan, all — or virtually all — of his literary work was accomplished. His public life was crowned by the consulate in 97 or 98 A.D.,10 when he pronounced the funeral panegyric on Verginius Rufus, who some thirty years before had crushed Vindex and refused the throne proffered by his legions. In 100 A.D. he conducted with Pliny the prosecution of the extortionate governor of Africa, Marius Priscus.11 This constituted the last recorded fact of his biography until it was revealed by an inscription from the Carian town of Mylasa12 that he had attained the chief prize of the senatorial career by holding the proconsulate of Asia (probably between 113 and 116 A.D.). The year of his death is unknown, but it is improbable that he long survived the publication of the Annals in 116 A.D.

So much for the man: as to the author, little space can be given here to the three minor works — the Dialogus de Oratoribus, the Agricola, and the Germania. The first of these ostensibly reproduces a conversation held in the house of Curiatius Maternus in the sixth year of Vespasian (74‑75 A.D.), the discussion turning on the relative merits of the republican and imperial types of oratory: the author himself — described as admodum adulescens — is assumed to be present. The work, written in the neo-Ciceronian style, offers so sharp a contrast to the later manner of Tacitus that its authenticity was early called into question, first  p231 by Beatus Rhenanus, then by Justus Lipsius, with the full weight of his great name. Only in 1811 were the doubts dispelled by Lange's discovery that a letter from Pliny to Tacitus alludes unmistakably to the Dialogue.13 The date of composition presents one of those tempting, though ultimately insoluble problems, which hold so great a fascination for many scholars: the years proposed range from 81 A.D. (Gudeman) to 98 A.D. (Schanz), with Norden's 91 A.D. as a middle term.

For the fifteen years of Domitian historical composition had ranked as a dangerous trade,14 but in 98 A.D., in the early days of Trajan, Tacitus broke silence with the biography, or panegyric, of his father-in‑law, Agricola. Ample justice, to say the least, is measured out to the virtues of the hero; and since he was numbered with those who declined to "challenge fame and fate" under Domitian,15 the light is naturally enough centred upon his administrative and military achievements in Britain. The brilliant, though perhaps too highly coloured, style shows already the influence of Sallust; and the work is described by its author as the precursor of one which "in artless and rough-hewn language shall chronicle the slavery of the past and attest the felicity of the present."16

But before this undertaking was at least partially fulfilled, the Agricola was followed, still in 98 A.D., by  p232 the Germania, a monograph whose fate has been, in Gibbon's words, "to exercise the diligence of innumerable antiquarians, and to excite the genius and penetration of the philosophic historians of our own times." Its more immediate raison d'être is probably to be sought in the fact that the German question was, at the time, pressing enough to keep Trajan from the capital during the whole of the period between the death of Nerva and 99 A.D. Judged from the standpoint of the geographer and the ethnologist, the Germania must be pronounced guilty of most of the sins of omission and commission to be expected in a work published before the dawn of the second century; but the materials, written and verbal, at the disposal of the writer must have been considerable, and the book is of equal interest and value as the first extant study of early Teutonic society.

The foundation, however, on which the fame of Tacitus rests, is his history of the principate from the accession of Tiberius to the murder of Domitian. It falls into two halves, the Annals and the Histories (neither of which has descended to us intact), and the chronological order is reversed in the order of composition.17 To follow the latter, the Histories — as the name, perhaps, indicates18 — comprise a chronicle of the author's own time: they are, in fact, the redemption of the promise made in the Agricola; though the incondita ac rudis vox may be sought in  p233 vain, and the period there announced for treatment is in part expanded, in part contracted. For the praesentia bona, the golden years of Nerva and Trajan, are now reserved by the writer to be the "theme of his age,"19 while the proposed account of Domitian's tyranny swells into the history, first, of the earthquake that upheaved and engulfed Galba, Otho, and Vitellius; then, of the three princes of the Flavian dynasty. Between what years the work was written, when it was published, and whether by instalments or as a whole, the evidence is as inadequate to determine as it is to resolve the endlessly debated question of the relationship between the narrative of Tacitus and that of Plutarch in the Lives of Galba and Otho.20 Pliny, writing perhaps in 106 A.D., answers the request of his friend for details of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.;21 and elsewhere, on his own initiative, suggests for inclusion in the book an incident of the year 93 A.D.22 The exact number of books into which the Histories were divided is not certain, but is more likely to have been twelve than fourteen:23 the first four survive in entirety, together with twenty-six chapters of the fifth; the rest are known only by a few citations, chiefly from Orosius. The events embraced in the extant part are those of the twenty crowded months from January, 69 A.D., to August, 70 A.D.: we have lost, therefore, virtually the principate of Vespasian, that of Titus, and that of Domitian. The language is now completely "Tacitean."

 p234  The Histories were followed in 116 A.D.24 by the Annals (libri ab excessu divi Augusti); which, after a short introduction, open with the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., and closed in 68 A.D., not, however, at the dramatically appropriate date of Nero's suicide (June 8), but, in accordance with the annalistic scheme, at the year's end. The probable distribution of the books was hexadic, Tiberius claiming I‑VI, Caligula and Claudius VII‑XII, and Nero (with Galba) XIII‑XVIII.25 Of these there remain I‑IV complete,  p235 the first chapters of V, VI without the beginning, and XI‑XVI.35. Thus our losses, though not so disastrous as in the case of the Histories, include none the less, about two years of Tiberius' reign, the whole of that of Caligula, the earliest and best days of Claudius, and the latter end of Nero. Fate might perhaps have been blinder; yet posterity might well renounce something of its knowledge of Corbulo's operations, could it view in return the colouring of two or three of those perished canvases — Sejanus forlorn in the Senate, hope rising and falling with every complex period of the interminable epistle from Capreae — Cassius Chaerea, with his sword and his hoc age in the vaulted corridor — Sporus, Epaphroditus, and the last heir of the Julian blood, in the villa at the fourth milestone. Still, what has been spared — how narrowly spared may be read in Voigt — constitutes, upon the whole, a clear title to immortality: an amazing chronicle of an amazing era, brilliant, unfair, and unforgettable. The Annals are not as Galba was — magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus. But the virtues are virtues for all time; the vices, those of an age. Exactitude, according to Pindar, dwelt in the town of the Zephyrian Locrians, but few of the ancients worshipped steadfastly at her shrine: they wrote history as a form of literature, and with an undissembled ambition to be read. It would have been convenient, doubtless, had the Annals been equipped with a preliminary dissertation  p236 on the sources, a select bibliography, footnotes with references to the roll of Aufidius Bassus or the month and day of the Acta Publica: but the era of those blessings is not reckoned Ab Vrbe Condita; and, with rare exceptions, we must acquiesce in the vague warranty of a plerique tradidere or a sunt qui ferant, or, if here and there belief is difficult, then suspend our judgment. In the main, however, it is not the facts of Tacitus, but his interpretations, that awaken misgiving. "I know of no other historian," said a latter-day consul and emperor, "who has so calumniated and belittled mankind as he. In the simplest transactions he seeks for criminal motives: out of every emperor he fashions a complete villain, and so depicts him that we admire the spirit of evil permeating him, and nothing more. It has been said with justice that his Annals are a history, not of the Empire, but of the Roman criminal tribunals — nothing save accusations and men accused, persecutions and the persecuted, and people opening veins in baths. He speaks continually of denunciations, and the greatest denouncer is himself."26 That a streak of truth runs through the wild exaggeration can hardly be denied. Tacitus had not, and could not have, a charity that thinks no evil: Seneca, in words  p237 prophetic of his style, spoke of abruptae sententiae et suspiciosae,º in quibus plus intelligendum est quam audiendum; and never, perhaps, has that poisoned weapon be used more ruthlessly. Yet, of conscious disingenuity a dispassionate reader finds no trace: the man, simply, has overpowered the historian. To write sine ira et studio even of the earlier principate, was a rash vow to be made by one who had passed his childhood under Nero and the flower of his manhood under Domitian. Nor, in any case, is it given to many historians — to none, perhaps, of the greatest — to comply with the precept of Lucian (repeated almost to the letter by Ranke):— Τοῦ συγγραφέως ἔργον ἕν, ὡς ἐπράχθη εἰπεῖν. For not the most stubborn of facts can pass through the brain of a man of genius, and issue such as they entered. — One charge, it is noticeable, Napoleon does not make: it was reserved for Mommsen to style Tacitus "the most unmilitary of historians" — a verdict to which Furneaux could only object that it was unjust to Livy. Both, it is true enough, lack the martial touch, and betray all too clearly that βυβλιακὴ ἕξις which Polybius abhorred. Yet even here they have one merit, generally withheld from the authentic military historian, that, when they describe a battle, the reader is somehow conscious that a battle is being described. Mox infensius praetorianis "Vos" inquit, "nisi vincitis, pagani, quis alius imperator, quae castra alia excipient? Illic signa armaque vestra sunt, et mors victis: nam ignominiam consumpsistis." Vndique clamor, et orientem solem (ita in Syria mos est) tertiani salutavere — the hues are not the wear, but it is possible to find them striking.

It is usual to enumerate a few of the peculiarities  p238 of Tacitus and his diction: on the one hand, for example, his trend to fatalism, his disdain of the multitude, his Platonic affection for the commonwealth, his Roman ethics, and his pessimism; on the other, his brachylogy, his poetical and rhetorical effects, his dislike of the common speech of men, his readiness to tax to the uttermost every resource of Latin in the cause of antithesis or innuendo. Here no such catalogue can be attempted; nor, if it could, would the utility be wholly beyond dispute. The personality of the author and his style must be felt as unities; and it is a testimony to the greatness of both that they can so be felt after the lapse of eighteen centuries. How long they will continue to be felt, one must at whiles wonder. There was a time when, as Victor Hugo sang of another Empire,

"On se mit à fouiller dans ces grandes années,

Et vous applaudissiez, nations inclinées,

Chaque fois qu'on tirait de ce sol souverain

Ou le consul de marbre ou l'empereur d'airain."

That fervour of the pioneers is no more; the sovereign soil has rendered up its more glittering treasures, and the labourers, and their rewards, are already fewer. Yet, so long as Europe retains the consciousness of her origins, so long — by some at least — must the history of Rome be read in the Roman tongue, and not the least momentous part of it in the pages of Tacitus.

The text of the first six books of the Annals depends entirely on the Mediceus primus (saec. IX); for the remainder, the authority is the Mediceus  p239 secundus (saec. XI); both are now in the Laurentian Library. For the details of their discovery the reader may be referred to Voigt (Wiederbelebung u.s.w. I p249 sqq.). The text of this edition is eclectic. In the first book the variations from the manuscript are recorded with some fulness; afterwards, in order to economize space, obvious and undisputed corrections, especially of the older scholars, are seldom noticed.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 H.N. VII.16.76. The passage is characteristic enough to deserve transcribing:— Invenimus in monumentis Salamine Euthymenis filium in tria cubita triennio adolevisse, incessu tardum, sensu hebetem, puberem etiam factum voce robusta, absumptum contractione membrorum subita triennio circumacto. Ipsi non pridem vidimus eadem fere omnia praeter pubertatem in filio Corneli Taciti, equitis Romani, Belgicae Galliae rationes procurantis. — The fact that the emperor M. Claudius Tacitus (276 A.D.) claimed kinship with the historian may well be the sole reason that his works have survived. See Vopisc. Tac. 10:— Cornelium Tacitum, scriptorem historiae Augustae, quod parentem suum eundem diceret, in omnibus bibliothecis conlocari Iussit, et ne lectorum incuria deperiret, librum per annos singulos deciens scribi publicitus in cunctis archiis iussit et in bibliothecis Poni.

2 Dial. 2.

3 E.g.Ep. II.11.17, respondit Cornelius Tacitus eloquentissime et, quod eximium orationi eius inest, σεμνῶς.

4 For instance, in his scattered obituary notices of famous orators.

5 Agr. 9 fin.

6 Hist. I.1.

7 A curious statement is made by Petrarch's friend Guglielmo da Pastrengo, de orig. rerum, fol. 18:— Cornelius Tacitus, quem Titus imperator suae praefecit bibliothecae, Augusti gesta descripsit atque Domitiani (Voigt, Wiederbelebung d. class. Altertums, I.249).

8 Ann. XI.11.

9 Agr. 2‑3.

10 Plin. Ep. II.1.6. He was consul suffectus, and the year depends on the question whether the senator, who had been three times consul when Trajan refused a third consulate (Plin. Pan. 58), was or was not Verginius Rufus.

11 See Mayor on Juv. I.49.

12 Published in the Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, 1890.

13 Plin. Ep. IX.10: itaque poemata quiescunt, quae tu inter nemora et lucos commodissime perfici putas, as compared with Dial. 9: adice quod poetis . . . in nemora et lucos . . . secedendum est (also ib. 12: nemora vero et luci e.q.s.).

14 Agr. 2; Suet. Dom. 10; D. Cass. LXVII.13.

15 Agr. 42.

16 Agr. 3.

17 The fact, obvious in itself, is explicitly stated in Ann. XI.11.

18 Gell. V.18. — That Historiae was the author's title may be fairly inferred from Tertull. Apol. 16: Annales, on the other hand, has no authority.

19 Hist. I.1.

20 The fullest English account (though supporting a thesis) is that in E. G. Hardy's edition of the Lives in question (Introd. ix‑lx).

21 Ep. VI.16 and 20.

22 Ep. VII.33.

23 See later.

24 Between the extension of the Empire to the Persian Gulf, under Trajan (115 A.D.), and the retrocession under Hadrian (117 A.D.).

25 It is known from Jerome (Comm. in Zach. III.4: Cornelius Tacitus, qui post Augustum usque ad mortem Domitiani vitas Caesarum XXX voluminibus exaravit) that the combined books of the Annals and Histories amounted to thirty. The manuscript tradition of the former breaks short rather than less than half-way through the sixteenth book, which it is still usual to reckon as the last — fourteen books being thus assigned to the Histories. On this assumption, the last book as a whole contained the events 65 A.D. in part and 66‑68 A.D. in full; the lost portion (about fifty chapters at most), those of 66 A.D. in part and 67‑68 A.D. in full. But it is beyond all question that, upon the scale observed in the surviving part of the book, fifty chapters are a totally inadequate allowance for the dramatic and momentous period still to be dealt with. Hence the probability of the symmetrical arrangement (Annals, 6 + 6 + 6; Histories, 6 + 6) advocated by Ritter, Hirschfeld, and Wölfflin. The objection, that even more than three and a half years have elsewhere been compressed by Tacitus into a single book, rests on the naïve assumption that to the historian all years are periods of twelve months apiece. Indeed, to be convinced of the untenability of the traditional view, a man has only to read XVI.21‑35, and then to reflect that the self-same pen has yet to record the insurrection in Judaea with the rise of Vespasian and Titus, the imperial tour in Greece, the execution of Corbulo, the rebellion of Vindex, the victory and great refusal of Verginius Rufus, the pronunciamiento of Galba, those scenes of Nero's fall and death which fire even the frigid pages of Suetonius, the leisurely progress of Galba's litter to the capital, the massacre of the marines, and the gathering of the clouds in November and December, 68 A.D.

26 Schanz cites the passage in German (from Fröhlich's Napoleon I, und seine Beziehungen zum klassischen Altertum, 1882), and I am unable to refer to the French. — It may be noted in passing, however, that in this case, too, the uncle's views were piously adopted by the nephew: for during his imprisonment at Ham, the future Napoleon III, "speaking low" (to Louis Blanc) "lest the winds carry the words to the gaoler," took the part of the "tyrants branded on the shoulders for ever by Tacitus." See Simpson, Rise of Louis-Napoleon, p218.

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