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Tacitus: Histories

 p. vii  Introduction

Life and Works of Tacitus

Our scanty knowledge of the life of Cornelius Tacitus is derived chiefly from his own works and from the letters of his intimate friend, the younger Pliny. The only certain dates are the following: in 78 A.D. he married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, whose life he later wrote;1 in 88 he was praetor and a member of the college of the XVviri, but he may have been appointed to this sacred office before this year.2 The consulship he obtained in 97 (or 98),3 and between 113‑116 (or 111‑112) he governed the province of Asia as proconsul.4 His earlier political career can be determined with somewhat less  p. viii accuracy from his own words: dignitatem nostram a Vespasiano inchoatam, a Tito auctam, a Domitiano longius provectam non abnuerim.5 According to this we may conjecture that he had been tribunus militum laticlavius, and had held some of the offices of the vigintivirate under Vespasian (69‑79); the quaestorship then would have come to him between 79 and 81.

From the above facts we can believe that Tacitus was born not far from 55‑56 A.D. This date fits the course of his political career; besides, we know that he was only a few years older than his devoted friend, the younger Pliny, who was born in 61 or 62.6 The place of his birth is unknown,a and in fact his praenomen is uncertain; the codex Mediceus I gives it as Publius, but Apollinaris Sidonius, writing in the fifth century, names him Gaius.7 His father may have been a procurator of Belgic Gaul.8 Certainly the historian was descended from well-to‑do, if not wealthy, parents, for he enjoyed the best education of his day, had the full political career of the nobility, and early married well. Moreover, his attitude of mind is always that of a proud and aristocratic Roman, without sympathy or interest in the  p. ix affairs of the lower classes; his occasional admiration for an independent and free spirit in foreigners is prompted by his desire to secure a clear contrast for Roman vices.

The influence of Tacitus's rhetorical studies is clearly seen in all his writings, and he won reputation as an orator.9 It was natural, then, that his earliest extant work, the Dialogus de Oratoribus, should be an inquiry into the reasons for the decay of oratory under the empire. Modelled on Cicero's rhetorical works, it shows in form and style the effects of its author's study. The scene of the dialogue is placed in the year 74‑75 A.D., but the date of composition is unknown; apparently it was not published until after Domitian's death (96). His other works belong to the field of history. Two small volumes preceded his larger studies. The Agricola is an encomiastic biography of his father-in‑law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. A considerable portion of this little book is given to a description of Britain and to an account of the Roman conquest, so that a triple interest — in geography and ethnography, history, and biography — is secured on the reader's part. The book was composed, or at least published, in 98 A.D.10 The Germania, published at about the same time, gives an ethnographic account of Germany, in which the Romans then had an especial interest because of Trajan's projected expedition thither. There is idealization of the Germanic peoples at the expense of the Romans, but also much  p. x sober and valuable matter with regard to the Germanic tribes; the booklet is the earliest significant account that we possess of these peoples, for the chapters dealing with Germany in the sixth book of Caesar's Gallic War are too slight to give us more than a glimpse of the Germanic peoples and their ways.

However, as early as Tacitus was writing his Agricola, he was planning a larger historical work which should deal with his own era.11 But with the passage of time his plan was somewhat changed: he first composed the Histories, a translation of which is here presented. This work began with January 1, 69 A.D., and was carried through to the death of Domitian (96). Then he turned to an earlier time, and wrote a history of the period from the death of Augustus to the end of 68. He seems to have entitled this work Ab excessu divi Augusti, but he refers to it also as Annales, and this is the name by which it is generally known. Our slight evidence shows that Tacitus was working on his Histories between the years 104 and 109; the latest chronological reference in the Annals is to 117. Apparently death prevented him from carrying out his cherished purpose of writing the history of the happy reigns of Nerva and Trajan.

The fourteen books of the Histories covered the period from January 1, 69, to the death of Domitian in 96, as stated above; of those only Books I‑IV are preserved complete, while Book V breaks off with chapter 26, at about August, 70 A.D.

 p. xi  The first book contains an account of the brief reign of Galba, of the adoption of Piso as his successor, and of the revolution that placed Otho in the imperial power and cost Galba and Piso their lives (1‑49). Then follow (50‑90) the story of the uprising of the legions in Germany, where Vitellius was proclaimed emperor, the advance of these troops toward Italy, and Otho's preparations to oppose them.

With the beginning of the second book (1‑10) Tacitus directs our attention to the East, where Vespasian and his son Titus begin to play an important rôle. He then turns back to Italy and to the struggle between the opposing forces of Otho and Vitellius, which ends with Otho's defeat at the battle of Bedriacum and his suicide (11‑50). The rest of the book (51‑101) contains an account of the reign of Vitellius, which is quickly threatened by the proclamation in Egypt and Syria of Vespasian as emperor. The general Mucianus, as chief of Vespasian's forces, advances toward the West. The legions of Moesia, Pannonia, and Dalmatia join Vespasian's cause. The news from the East finally causes Vitellius to despatch some forces to the north of Italy.

The third book gives an account of the struggle between the adherents of Vespasian and those of Vitellius. This finally comes to a close with the defeat of the latter, who meets a miserable end at the hands of a mob of soldiers and civilians.

With the fourth book we find Vespasian supreme. On January 1, 70, the emperor and his son Titus entered on office as consuls, although both were still in the East. The greater part of the book however (12‑37; 54‑79; 85‑86), is taken up with  p. xii an account of the threatening uprising of the Batavians under Civilis; this story is continued in the fifth book (14‑26), although the opening chapters (1‑13) claim a greater interest from the modern reader with their history of the expedition led by Titus against Jerusalem.

In time of composition the Histories lie between the three minor works with which Tacitus began his literary career and the Annals, the maturest product of his mind and pen. As is to be expected, the Histories are written in a style that has not yet fully attained the extreme compression of his last work; but nevertheless examples of the flowing period here are few, and the sentences are frequently overweighted with their content. Connectives are comparatively rare; the reader must often find for himself the connection of thought. In diction Tacitus avoids, when possible, the commonplace and vulgar, without, however, seeking for what is strange and unnatural. He employs poetic turns and phrases, being greatly influenced by his predecessors, especially by Sallust and by Vergil. Yet the poetic eloquence that often marks his style is all his own, as are the sharp epigrammatic sentences that form so striking a characteristic of his pages.

In form the Histories are annalistic, often interrupting the narrative to preserve the order of events. To the modern reader this procedure is disturbing, but we must remember that it was one of the canonical forms of history in antiquity.

Tacitus was a man of deep feeling and strong individuality. Eager as he was to write "sine ira et studio,"12 he was yet unable to do so; we may well  p. xiii conjecture that if we had to‑day his account of the reign of Domitian, we should find that the man mastered the historian there as in his extant accounts of the reigns of Tiberius and of Nero. Conscious that the Empire did not offer him the great themes of the Republic, he sought after the springs of action that are hidden in men's hearts. Human motives interest him so much that he sometimes does not give due weight to the influence of events themselves. He is the most individualistic, the most psychological of ancient historians, and in writing his history of the early empire he has endeavoured to write the history of the human soul.13 Like most historians of antiquity, he is also a moralist, who regards it as his duty to hold vice up to scorn and to praise virtue.14 With his age he is inclined to believe in astrology, prodigies and fate; but on these points he often finds himself puzzled.

We may and must at times doubt Tacitus's interpretation of his facts; but his genius is such that he gives a mordant vividness to his pictures and descriptions. He writes with grim feeling because he is impassioned by his own experiences and knows what a tyrant is. His terse and epigrammatic style, unparalleled before or since, and the manner in which his personality pervades his work have made his fame secure.

 p. xiv  Bibliography


The text of the Histories depends on a single manuscript, the Mediceus II (M), known also as the Laurentianus 68, 2, in which are found as well Annals XI‑XIV and Apuleius, De Magia, Metamorphoses, and Florida. This manuscript was written in the eleventh century in Langobard script at Monte Cassino. It is published in facsimile with an introduction by Enrico Rostagno: Codices Graeci et latine photographice depicti, VII.2, Leiden, 1902. All other manuscripts are copies of the Mediceus and comparatively useless, except to supply the text in two passages that are now missing in the parent manuscript: I.69‑75 and I.86‑II.2.

Printed Editions

The editio princeps brought out by Vindelinus de Spira in Venice in 1470 contained Annals XI‑XVI, Histories, Germania, and Dialogus. The first edition of all the works was by Beroaldus, published at Rome in 1515.

Modern editions are numerous. The text edition  p. xv of Halm, 4th ed., Leipsic, 1884, has long been the standard; but it has now been somewhat replaced for the Histories by that of Van der Vliet, Groningen, 1900, and by C. D. Fisher's in the Oxford Classical Texts, 1910.

Among annotated editions of the Histories the following may be named: E. Wolff, Berlin, 1886, 1888; C. Heraeus, Leipsic5, 1904; A. D. Godley, London, 1887, 1890; and W. Spooner, London, 1891.

For studying the language of Tacitus, Gerber and Greef, Lexicon Taciteum, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1903, is indispensable.


The earliest English translation of the Histories (I‑IV) was made by Sir Henry Savile, London, 1591. The translation of the complete works by Arthur Murphy, London (1793), 1811, long remained the standard English translation.

More modern and better translations are by Church and Brodribb, London (1864), 1905; W. Hamilton Fyfe, Oxford, 1912; and G. G. Ramsay, London, 1915. That by H. W. Quill, London, 1892, 1896, may also be mentioned, but it is inferior to those just named. In French there is an excellent rendering by Burnouf, Paris, 1914. Although the following translation was made in the first draft largely in Italy with none of these renderings at hand, it probably owes more to them all than the translator is aware; for whatever he has taken, consciously or unconsciously, he is sincerely grateful.

It is unnecessary to say anything on the difficulties  p. xvi of translating Tacitus to those who have attempted to render even a small portion of his work; and the experiment is earnestly recommended to all who would entertain a kindly charity toward one who had dared to face the tempting but impossible task.

 p. xvii  Historical Note

To understand the events narrated in the opening chapters of the Histories it is necessary to have in mind the events that led up to the death of Nero and the acceptance of the imperial office by Galba.

As a result of the discontent with Nero, Servius Sulpicius Galba had been proclaimed imperator by his troops in Hither Spain early in April, 68. Galba was now in his seventy-third year. He was of high birth and had been consul thirty-five years before; under Caligula he had distinguished himself when governor of Gaul by repelling the German invasion in 39 A.D., and at Caligula's death he had declined to listen to his friends who urged him to claim the imperial power. Later the Emperor Claudius sent him to govern the province of Africa, then distressed by the poor discipline prevailing among the soldiers and threatened by barbarian raids. After restoring discipline and securing peace, for which accomplishments he was highly honoured, Galba retired from public life, but in 60 he was recalled by Nero, who sent him to govern Hispania Tarraconensis.

Early in the year 68 Galba had been approached by Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, who proposed that they should revolt and that Galba should  p. xviii be emperor. The old man was too cautious to embark then upon so dangerous an enterprise, but after the revolt under Vindex had broken out he began to fear for his own safety; claiming that his life was sought by Nero, he called his troops together and addressed them on the state of the empire. Although they proclaimed him emperor (imperator), Galba styled himself only the representative of the Senate and the people (legatus senatus populique Romani). He was supported by Otho, governor of Lusitania, and Caecina, quaestor of Baetica. After the rebellion under Vindex had been crushed and Vindex himself had committed suicide, Galba's situation seemed desperate, but Nero's hesitation and levity saved him. Finally, Nymphidius Sabinus, prefect of the praetorian guards, embraced Galba's cause for his own purposes; Nero was condemned to death by the Senate, and met his end in the suburban villa of his freedman Phaon on the night of June 9. Seven days later the news reached Galba at Clunia in Spain, whereupon he assumed the imperial name. His progress to Rome was slow; pretenders in Spain and Gaul had to be put down, and claimants from Germany and Africa disposed of; in October he entered Rome, after overcoming the real, or supposed, opposition of some marines at the Mulvian Bridge.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Agric. 9: consul (77 A.D.) egregiae tum spei filiam iuveni mihi despondit et post consulatum collocavit; et statim Britannia praepositus est.

2 Ann. XI.11: is quoque (Domitianus) edidit ludos saeculares, iisque intentius adfui sacerdotio quindecimvirali praeditus ac tunc praetor.

3 Pliny, Epist. II.I.6: laudatus est (Verginius Rufus) a consule Cornelio Tacito; nam hic supremus felicitati eius cumulus accessit, laudator eloquentissimus. The question as to the year obviously depends on the date of the death of Verginius. For the literature on the dispute see Schanz: Geschichte der röm Litteratur, § 427.

4 See an inscription from Mylasa, published in the Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, 1890, p621 f.

5 Hist. I.1.

6 Plin., Epist. VII.XX.3; erit rarum et insigne duos homines aetate dignitate propemodum aequales, non nullius in litteris nominis — cogor enim de te quoque parcius dicere quia de me simul dico — alterum alterius studia fovisse. equidem adulescentulus cum iam tu fama gloriaque floreres, te sequi, tibi 'longo sed proximus intervallo' et esse et haberi concupiscebam. (Written probably in 107.)

7 Epist. IV.14.1; 22.2. Cf. Mommsen, Hermes, III, p108, 1; Studemund, ibid. VIII.232 f.

8 Pliny, N.H. VII.76.

9 Cf. Pliny, Epist. II.I.6, quoted above, and ibid. II.XI.17: respondit Cornelius Tacitus eloquentissime et, quod eximium orationi eius inest, σεμνῶς.

10 Agricola, 3.44.

11 Agric. 3: Non tamen pigebit vel incondita ac rudi voce memoriam prioris servitutis ac testimonium praesentium bonorum composuisse.

12 Ann. I.1.6.

13 Cf. Hist. II.74‑76.

14 Ann. III.65.1: praecipuum munus annalium reor ne virtutes sileantur utque pravis dictis factisque ex posteritate et infamia metus sit.

Thayer's Note:

a Conspicuously absent from the discussion that follows, and properly so, is the notion that Tacitus was from the Umbrian town of Terni. Although many locals pride themselves on the historian's birth there, they have confused him with the 3c emperor by the same name: it is he who was born in Terni, and who by supposedly taking care — according to the account, itself of dubious veracity, in Hist. Aug., Tacitus, 10.3 — to have the works of the historian copied for posterity (possibly believing that he was related to him) inadvertently fueled the misunderstanding: if one of them came from the area, so did the other. There is, unfortunately, no evidence for any of it.

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