Historical Figures

Tacitus, Roman historian (55 - 120 AD) - Biography

Among the Latin historians of antiquity, Tacitus is probably one of the most famous. However, his life is little known, apart from what he gave us of himself in his works and correspondence. Tacitus exercised relatively important functions in the Empire, until becoming a senator. He is thus in line with a Sallust, senator historian of the 1st century BC. J-C. Tacitus' work is valuable both as a source for Roman history and for his remarkable prose. In his Annals , he tells the story of the first century of the Empire, from the accession of Augustus to the fall of Nero. The Stories that he has previously written cover, for their part, the period of the Flavians.

Tacitus, a senator

The origins of Tacitus are little known, except through his work and the testimony of Pliny the Younger, but his gentile is widespread. Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born in Gaul around AD 58. J-C; the emperor at this time is Nero. Tacitus came from a patrician family, the Cornelii , who held important positions in Rome. His cognomen, on the other hand, are rarer. Historians thus think that Tacitus could be the son of a homonymous procurator from Belgian Gaul, even if the future historian was born in Narbonnaise.

Its equestrian origin is in any case beyond doubt. Through his marriage to the daughter of the Gallo-Roman senator C. Iulius Agricola, he was able to begin his career under the reign of Vespasian, at the age of twenty. He was thus quaestor under Titus (81), aedile or tribune of the plebs (84-85) then praetor in 88, under Domitian.

After spending several years outside Rome, and thus escaping the turbulent end of Domitian's reign, he became consul suffect under his short-lived successor, Nerva, in 97. Finally, he was proconsul in Asia in 112-113 (Trajan was emperor), and died a few years later, at the beginning of Hadrian's reign.

The work of Tacitus

His personal journey leads Tacitus to adopt a discourse that can be described as "pro-Senate", which is obviously found in his work. This was essentially constituted during the crisis period of the Empire, at the end of the reign of Domitian (96). Tacitus therefore publishes a Life of Agricola (his father-in-law) in 98, Germania probably the same year, and a The Orators' Dialogue Dialogus de oratoribus . At the beginning of the reign of Trajan, the historian wonders about the monarchical drifts which marked the preceding periods, and he publishes his Histoires , which cover the period from 69 to the end of the Flavians. He relies for his sources on Pliny the Elder, among others.

From 110, he tackled his great work, the Annals , a pessimistic critique of the principate through the study of Julio-Claudian from Tiberius (14-37), which has come down to us incompletely.

His success and immediate posterity should be put into perspective, despite the efforts of his friend Pliny the Younger. Apart from the dubious Auguste History in the 4th century, very little mention is made of it as a source by his historian successors.

Tacitus was finally rediscovered during the Renaissance by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), and his pessimism, as well as his reflection on the principate, inspired by the Stoics, brought him success increasing. He is today, with Quinte-Curce, Suetonius and Titus Live, an essential source for Roman history, also hailed for his remarkable prose, celebrated until Racine.


- P. Grimal, Tacite, Fayard, 1990.

- X. Darcos, Tacitus, his truths are ours, Plon, 2007.

- Complete Works of Tacitus. Robert Laffont, 2014.