Historical Figures


Despite being an influential man in Rome at the end of the first century AD, we do not have much biographical material about the life of Tacitus. Even his name is subject to controversy, although in recent decades this seems to have been resolved with the discovery of what some have wanted to recognize as his funerary inscription. His full name would be P. Cornelius Tacitus Caecina Paetus.

Most of the information that has come down to us about Tacitus comes from his works, from his correspondence with Pliny the Younger, from some epigraphic source in Asia Minor and from the cited fragment of funerary inscription. According to them, we know that his father belonged to the equestrian order (he held the position of procurator Augustii in Gaul Belgium) and his mother to an influential Roman family.

Tacitus was born in the mid-50s AD. presumably in Gaul Narbonensis (Pliny the Younger highlights his peculiar accent). We don't know anything about his childhood and we only hear from him when he begins the cursus honorum in Rome. In the year 77 AD he married the daughter of Julius Agricola (an important figure in the Roman political elite, consul and governor of Britain) and held the position of military tribune in one of his father-in-law's legions. In the year 81 AD he accedes to the position of quaestor, which in turn would allow him access to the Senate, and in the following years he will ascend in the Roman administration (tribune of the plebs, praetor and quindecinviral priest).

In the year 93 A.D., the date of his father-in-law's death, he was in office outside of Rome and until 97 A.D. he won't come back. In this year he will be appointed consul effectus . It is not ruled out that at the beginning of the new century he received a provincial government (perhaps Germania Superior or Inferior). From the last years of his life we ​​know only that he was appointed proconsul in Asia between the years 112-113 AD. The date and circumstances of his death are unknown.

Tacitus is born into turbulent times. The Empire is already consolidated, he himself makes clear in the Annals that after the death of Augustus the dynastic system settled down and closed the doors to any attempt to restore the Republic. Regime change was not, however, without conflict. From the second third of the century, Rome was going to be shaken by civil wars and great instability (it is enough to cite the year 69 and the Dominician terror as proof of this). Tacitus will survive all these events, which will mark him deeply and will be reflected in his works. Through his texts we observe the contempt he feels towards tyrannical power and the yearning for republican freedom and equality.

Tacitus, like most ancient historians, played an active role in politics, was a member of the Senate and held the highest positions in the administrative hierarchy. His work as a historian is nothing more than the extension of his political life.

Historiography has classified his works into two groups:minor and major. The minor ones, composed at the end of the century, are Julio Agricola (biography of his father-in-law, as a funeral tribute), Germania (ethnographic treatise on the region of Germania) and Discourse on the speakers (whose authorship is questioned and is closer to a treatise on oratory with Ciceronian influence). The major works, probably written at the beginning of the new century, are the most relevant and the ones that have made him a historical reference. There are two:Stories which recounts the events that occurred in the Roman Empire between the convulsive years 69 to 96, until the victory of Vespasian and the rule of the Flavian dynasty; and Annals (perhaps the most important) that dates back to the death of Augustus and includes the history of the emperors of the Julia-Claudia dynasty.

Tacitus, following the ancient historiographical tradition, does not detail the sources from which he obtains information. Given the proximity of the events that he narrates, it is presumable that he obtained the data that he uses from official documents (acts of the Senate, for example) and from the mouths of direct witnesses. Not being the first to deal with those events, he could well rely on the work of other historians who had previously dealt with them. Regardless of how he obtained the information, the truth is that he rarely references his sources and, when he does, he uses a generic and informal nomenclature.

Those who have studied in depth the work of Tacitus highlight two fundamental characteristics:the deep psychological analysis of the characters he portrays and his literary style, close to poetry.

The methodology used by Tácitus to develop his work is analytical, that is, it tells the story year by year just as the republican historians did. This method, especially in Stories , it fades and the characters involved become more important. If traditional Roman historiography placed Rome as the main character, Tacitus is going to bring individuals to the fore. He goes from a collective story to an individual story (although this statement is not fully agreed today), a transformation that will be accompanied, in turn, by a substantial change in the treatment of the protagonists' behavior.

For Tacitus history is what the agents and participants in past events believed it to be. Therefore, the way to approach these characters will consist of capturing the possible internal conditioning factors of their behavior when making decisions, since "emotions" are the driving force behind behavior. For this purpose, he uses portraits that, generally included after narrating the character's death, highlight his virtues and / or vices and allow him to pronounce an ethical or moral judgment of the deceased.

The work of Roman historians differs from the conception we have today about what a historian should be. Their function consisted of objectively reporting the facts, without being truthful, but at the same time offering examples of good or bad behavior to the audience that was listening to them, trying at all times to attract their attention and entertain them. This pedagogical work forced the Roman historian to use stylistic resources that made his prose more pleasant and attractive.

Tacitus, whom many consider to be more of a tragic poet than a historian, stands out for the visual presentation of the narrative scenes he recounts, close to the current cinematographic technique. To achieve this effect he resorts to a wide range of rhetorical figures and exploits the richness of Latin like no one else. His works are characterized by a short and concise language, by the flight from symmetry in the structure of sentences and by drama. With Tacitus, a poeticization of prose is produced, especially significant in the speeches and in the narrations of the battles.

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