to be written
Approach to history
Tacitus' historical style, which would strongly influence Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall, combines various approaches to history into a method of his own (owing some debt to Sallust); seamlessly blending straightforward descriptions of events, pointed moral lessons, and tightly-focused dramatic account, his histories contain deep and pessimistic insight into the workings of the human mind and the nature of power.
Tacitus was primarily concerned with the balance of power between the Roman senate and the Roman Emperors. His writings are filled with tales of corruption and tyranny in the governing class of Rome as they failed to adjust to the new imperial régime; they squandered their cherished cultural traditions of free speech and self-respect as they fell over themselves to please the often bemused (and rarely benign) emperor. One well-known passage from his writings mentions the death of Christ (Annals, xv 44).
The factual accuracy of his work is occasionally questioned: his Annals are based in part on secondary sources of unknown reliability, and his own experience of Domitian's tyrannical reign gave an unfairly bitter and ironic cast to his portrayal of the Julio-Claudian emperors. His History, written from primary documents and his intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, is thought to be more accurate, though Tacitus' hatred of Domitian has colored its tone and interpretations.
Tacitus' political career was largely spent under the emperor Domitian; his experience of the tyranny, corruption, and decadence prevalent in the era (81–96 AD) may explain his bitter and ironic political analysis. He warned against the dangers of unaccountable power; of the love of power untempered by principle; and against the popular apathy and corruption, engendered by the wealth of empire, which allowed such evils to flourish.
His work gained popularity during the Early Modern era, when it was a favorite of Niccolò Machiavelli, among others. His criticisms of tyranny and love of republicanism earned him the love of the French Revolutionaries and the hatred of Napoleon, who tried (unsuccessfully) to discredit his work as a forgery. One of his polemics against the evils of empire, from his Agricola (biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ch. 30) was often quoted during the United States invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (see for example
) by those who found its warnings as applicable to the modern era as to the ancient. It reads, in part:
Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, iam mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit. . . . Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
(Punctuation follows the Loeb Classical Library edition; ellipsis is added.) In translation, it reads:
Brigands of the world, after the earth has failed their all-devastating hands, they probe even the sea; if their enemy be wealthy, they are greedy; if he be poor, they are ambitious; neither the East nor the West has glutted them. . . . They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.
Tacitus' skill with written Latin is unsurpassed; no other author is considered his equal, except perhaps for Cicero. His style differs both from the prevalent style of the Silver Age and from that of the Golden Age; though it has a calculated grandeur and eloquence (largely thanks to Tacitus' education in rhetoric), it is extremely concise, even epigrammatic -- the sentences are rarely flowing or beautiful, but their point is always clear. The same style has been both derided as "harsh, unpleasant, and thorny" and praised as "grave, concise, and pithily eloquent".
His historical works focus on the psyches and inner motivations of the characters, often with penetrating insight -- though it is questionable how much of his insight is correct, and how much is convincing only because of his rhetorical skill. He is at his best when exposing hypocrisy and dissimulation; for example, he follows a narrative recounting Tiberius' refusal of the title pater patriae by recalling the institution of a law forbidding any "treasonous" speech or writings -- and the frivolous prosecutions which resulted (Annals, 1.72). Elsewhere (Annals 4.64–66) he compares Tiberius' public distribution of fire relief to his failure to stop the perversions and abuses of justice which he had begun. Though this kind of insight has earned him praise, he has also been criticized for ignoring the larger context of the events which he describes.
Tacitus owes the most, both in language and in method, to Sallust; Ammianus Marcellinus is the later historian whose work most closely approaches him in style.
- The letters of Sidonius Apollinaris call him "Gaius"; one of the two extant manuscripts of his works gives his name as "Publius". (See Syme, Tacitus, p. 59, note 1)
- Ronald Martin, Tacitus (Los Angeles, UC Press, 1981)
- Clarence Mendell, Tacitus: The Man and His Work (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1957) ISBN 0208008187
- Ronald Syme, Tacitus, Volumes 1 and 2 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985) (the definitive study of his life and works) ISBN 0198143273
- Ronald Syme, Ten Studies in Tacitus (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1970) ISBN 0198143583
- Various authors, Tacitus (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) ISBN 0710064322
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