Life of Cornelius Tacitus
• We do not know who his parents where,
year of birth or death or praenomen
• Born c. A.D. 56 of Gallic or North Italian
• Began his official career under Vespasian
(69-79 A.D.)
• Married Agricola’s daughter in 77 and
became praetor in 88
Life of Cornelius Tacitus continued
• Away from Rome when Agricola died in 93
• Returned to witness last years of Domitian’s
• Consul suffectus in 97
• Delivered funeral oration over Verginius
• In 100 led Pliny in prosecuting Marius
Priscus for extortion
Life of Cornelius Tacitus continued
• May have governed a military province
• Was proconsul in Asia (Turkey) in 112/113
• Not known whether he lived to finish the
• Died sometime after 115 A.D.
From MS. of Agricola
Tacitus’ Writings: Agricola
• Agricola published in 98 A.D. describes life
of his father-in-law
• Most of it concerns Agricola’s achievements
in Britain
• A laudatio of Agricola and an apology for
the loyal administrator under Domitian
Tacitus’ Writings: Germania
• Also published in 98 A.D.
• Description of the tribes north of the Rhine and
the Danube
• An ethnological treatise
• Themes include that of the noble savage,
contrasting the Germans with the corrupt Romans
• Also writes of the constant threat to the Empire
that they pose
Tacitus’ writings: Dialogus
• Discusses decline of
Roman oratory
• Shows mastery of
argument and
• May be dated to
around 100
Tacitus’ Writings: Histories
• No manuscript title
• Begins in 69 and presumably ends with
Domitian’s assassination in 96 A.D.
• Four books and parts of fifth survive
• Give a comprehensive picture of Civil War,
full of intrigue and incompetent rulers
Tacitus’ Writings: Annales
• History of the Julio-Claudian emperors after death
of Augustus (14 A.D.)
• We know of 16 books
• Arranged annalistically by year
• Each year contains sections on home and
provincial affairs
• Tacitus used as his sources historical works now
lost, on public records, and on own experience
Tacitus’ Writings: Annales
• Tacitus reacts against the Principate and
looks back longingly at “free” institutions
of the Republic
• Power centered in one man blunted the
moral sense of even experienced rulers
• The Emperors neglected military glory
• Laments lack of independence and courage
of most nobles and senators
Portrait Bust of Nero
Annales continued
• Views wrath of the gods working to punish
• “His task is gloomy, to record the
suspicions of Tiberius, played upon by
informers; Claudius the helpless tool of
freedmen or wives; the vanity and vice of
Nero - all resulting in baseless accusations
and judicial murders.” OCD
Tacitus’ Style
Vocabulary large and varied
Words grouped in strange and striking order
Uses new word forms and echoes of poetry
Prefers shortness of sentences and rapidity
to periodic structure
• Omits verbs, compresses
• Intensity and brevity are characteristic of
his style
Tacitus’ Style continued
• Employs an elevated style, powerful style
• Suits his belief in dignity and moral effect
of history
• Keen sense of irony
The Manuscript Tradition
• Hangs on a slender thread
• Was little read in succeeding centuries
• Reappears in 9th Century among monks at
• We depend upon one manuscript for Annals
1-6 (discovered about 1510)
• And one for Annals 11-16 and Histories 1-5
A Short Biography of the Emperor Nero
Nero’s Reign
• Emperor Claudius had married his niece
• She persuaded him in 50 to adopt her son
• Claudius died in 54, probably poisoned by
• Nero succeeded him and reigned until 68
Nero’s Reign
• Seneca was appointed tutor to young Nero
and Burrus made prefect of Praetorian
• With Nero’s succession in 54 Seneca
became political advisor
• First 8 years empire enjoyed good
• Death of Burrus and retirement of Seneca in
62 left Nero uncontrolled
Nero and Agrippina in an unflattering
19th century engraving
Nero’s Reign
• Otho, friend of Nero, encouraged him to
free himself from his imperious mother
• Poppea, Otho’s ambitious wife, wished to
marry Nero
• She planned to eliminate both Agrippina
and Nero’s wife, Octavia
• In 59 A.D. Nero had Agrippina murdered
Portrait Bust of Poppea A.D. 54-68
Nero’s Reign continued
• Octavia was divorced and murdered
• Poppea married Nero and in 63 she married him
and bore him a daughter who soon died
• Poppea died in 65
• Conspiracy to assassinate him and make
Calpurnius Piso emperor was betrayed in 65
• Piso and his accomplices were executed or
committed suicide
• This included Seneca and Petronius
Peter Paul Rubens. The Death of Seneca.
Nero’s death in 68 A.D.
• Praetorians proclaimed Galba emperor and
deserted Nero
• He fled from Rome and committed suicide