Cornelis Tacitus

Cornelius Tacitus (AD 55 - 117)

THE little that is known about the life of Tacitus is provided by allusions in his own writings and the letters addressed to him by his intimate friend, Pliny the Younger. When Tacitus began his "Histories", somewhere about his forty-fifth year, he related his life to the empire that was to be the burden of his narrative:

"I myself knew nothing of Galba, of Otho, or of Vitellius, either from benefits or from injuries. I could not deny that my elevation was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian.... I have reserved as an employment for my old age, should my life be long enough, a subject at once more fruitful and less anxious in the reign of the Divine Nerva and the empire of Trajan, enjoying the rare happiness of times, when we may think what we please, and express what we think."

The influential part of Tacitus' education took place during the early part of Vespasian's reign. It is possible that, like his friend, Pliny, he was trained in rhetoric by Quintillian, for whom Vespasian had founded the first public chair of eloquence at Rome. Tacitus himself records how zealous he was for achievement and how diligently he pursued and studied the leading orators. It is not known on what occasion he began his own political career, but he won renown quickly. Pliny, only a few years his junior, recalls in a famous letter that in his youth Tacitus seemed of all the eminent men then active the most worthy of imitation.

Tacitus' success as an orator was followed by marriage to the daughter of Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain, whose biography he later wrote, and by rapid attainment under successive emperors of the offices of quaestor, aedile, and praetor. During the four years from 89 to 93 he was absent from Rome in some administrative capacity, possibly a provincial governorship in Belgic Gaul, where he could have acquired the knowledge of German manners and customs he later used in his "Germania".

By the time Tacitus returned to Rome the full force of Domitian's tyranny had developed. He later declared his father-in-law fortunate in death since he thereby escaped the sight of these last three years during which Domitian

"leaving now no interval or breathing space but, as it were, with one continuous Flow, drained the life-blood of the Commonwealth."

Tacitus was at the height of his powers and a consulship was due him in the normal course of advancement. Yet, unless he could risk his life, he could not abandon his office, seek advancement, or absent himself. The orator chose silence, broken only when Domitian demanded flattery as an accompaniment to his acts of terror. The Emperor enforced full attendance in the Senate when honourable men were being judicially murdered, so that he could "see plainly whether you have any affection for me." Tacitus wrote of this experience:

"Even Nero turned his eyes away, and did not gaze upon the atrocities which he ordered; with Domitian it was the chief part of our miseries to see and to be seen, to know that our sighs were being recorded."

The assassination of Domitian in 96 brought unexpected release from this tyranny, which Tacitus said left some of the living no more than "survivors of themselves." There can be no doubt of the effect upon him:

"We witnessed the extreme of servitude when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well its voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence."

That he vowed to maintain memory during that period of unnatural silence seems probable, since the opening pages of his Life Of Agricola (98) refer to his Histories as having been begun shortly after the death of Domitian. It would hold, he said, the memory of past servitude and then give testimony to present happiness. As he worked on this book, and later on the Annals, he extended his memory past the emperors of his childhood, the four who succeeded one another within fourteen months after the death of Nero, to the death of Augustus.

Tacitus was not out of public office during the rule of Nerva and Trajan. He advanced to the consulship in 97. With Pliny he conducted, in 99, a famous trial before the Senate. He is known, from a recently discovered inscription, to have held, in 112, the important office of Proconsul of Asia. It is not known whether he survived the emperor Trajan, in whose reign his histories were brought out. He did not fulfil his intention of celebrating Nerva and Trajan and the happiness of their times.