Caius Cornelius Tacitus.

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[Transcriber's note: Footnotes have been renumbered; all references
to them use the new numbers. Spellings in the original are sometimes
inconsistent. They have not been changed.]







'The cause of undertaking a work of this kind was a good will in
this scribling age not to do nothing, and a disproportion in the
powers of my mind, nothing of mine owne invention being able to
passe the censure of mine owne judgement, much less, I presumed, the
judgement of others....

'If thy stomacke be so tender as thou canst not disgest Tacitus in
his owne stile, thou art beholding to one who gives thee the same
food, but with a pleasant and easie taste.'










Tacitus held the consulship under Nerva in the year 97. At this point
he closed his public career. He had reached the goal of a politician's
ambition and had become known as one of the best speakers of his time,
but he seems to have realized that under the Principate politics was a
dull farce, and that oratory was of little value in a time of peace
and strong government. The rest of his life was to be spent in writing
history. In the year of his consulship or immediately after it, he
published the _Agricola_ and _Germania_, short monographs in which he
practised the transition from the style of the speaker to that of the
writer. In the preface to the _Agricola_ he foreshadows the larger
work on which he is engaged. 'I shall find it a pleasant task to put
together, though in rough and unfinished style, a memorial of our
former slavery and a record of our present happiness.' His intention
was to write a history of the Principate from Augustus to Trajan. He
began with his own times, and wrote in twelve or fourteen books a full
account of the period from Nero's death in 68 A.D. to the death of
Domitian in 96 A.D. These were published, probably in successive
books, between 106 and 109 A.D. Only the first four and a half books
survive to us. They deal with the years 69 and 70, and are known as
_The Histories_. _The Annals_, which soon followed, dealt with the
Julian dynasty after the death of Augustus. Of Augustus' constitution
of the principate and of Rome's 'present happiness' under Trajan,
Tacitus did not live to write.

_The Histories_, as they survive to us, describe in a style that has
made them immortal one of the most terrible and crucial moments of
Roman history. The deadly struggle for the throne demonstrated finally
the real nature of the Principate - based not on constitutional
fictions but on armed force - and the supple inefficiency of the
senatorial class. The revolt on the Rhine foreshadowed the debacle of
the fifth century. Tacitus was peculiarly well qualified to write the
history of this period. He had been the eye-witness of some of the
most terrible scenes: he was acquainted with all the distinguished
survivors: his political experience gave him a statesman's point of
view, and his rhetorical training a style which mirrored both the
terror of the times and his own emotion. More than any other Roman
historian he desired to tell the truth and was not fatally biassed by
prejudice. It is wrong to regard Tacitus as an 'embittered
rhetorician', an 'enemy of the Empire', a 'détracteur de
l'humanité'.[1] He was none of these. As a member of a noble, though
not an ancient, family, and as one who had completed the republican
_cursus honorum_, his sympathies were naturally senatorial. He
regretted that the days were passed when oratory was a real power and
the consuls were the twin towers of the world. But he never hoped to
see such days again. He realized that monarchy was essential to peace,
and that the price of freedom was violence and disorder. He had no
illusions about the senate. Fault and misfortune had reduced them to
nerveless servility, a luxury of self-abasement. Their meekness would
never inherit the earth. Tacitus pours scorn on the philosophic
opponents of the Principate, who while refusing to serve the emperor
and pretending to hope for the restoration of the republic, could
contribute nothing more useful than an ostentatious suicide. His own
career, and still more the career of his father-in-law Agricola,
showed that even under bad emperors a man could be great without
dishonour. Tacitus was no republican in any sense of the word, but
rather a monarchist _malgré lui_. There was nothing for it but to pray
for good emperors and put up with bad ones.

Those who decry Tacitus for prejudice against the Empire forget that
he is describing emperors who were indubitably bad. We have lost his
account of Vespasian's reign. His praise of Augustus and of Trajan was
never written. The emperors whom he depicts for us were all either
tyrannical or contemptible, or both: no floods of modern biography can
wash them white. They seemed to him to have degraded Roman life and
left no room for _virtus_ in the world. The verdict of Rome had gone
against them. So he devotes to their portraiture the venom which the
fifteen years of Domitian's reign of terror had engendered in his
heart. He was inevitably a pessimist; his ideals lay in the past; yet
he clearly shows that he had some hope of the future. Without sharing
Pliny's faith that the millennium had dawned, he admits that Nerva and
Trajan have inaugurated 'happier times' and combined monarchy with
some degree of personal freedom.

There are other reasons for the 'dark shadows' in Tacitus' work.
History to a Roman was _opus oratorium,_ a work of literary art. Truth
is a great but not a sufficient merit. The historian must be not only
_narrator_ but _ornator rerum_. He must carefully select and arrange
the incidents, compose them into an effective group, and by the power
of language make them memorable and alive. In these books Tacitus has
little but horrors to describe: his art makes them unforgettably
horrible. The same art is ready to display the beauty of courage and
self-sacrifice. But these were rarer phenomena than cowardice and
greed. It was not Tacitus, but the age, which showed a preference for
vice. Moreover, the historian's art was not to be used solely for its
own sake. All ancient history was written with a moral object; the
ethical interest predominates almost to the exclusion of all others.
Tacitus is never merely literary. The [Greek: semnotês] which Pliny
notes as the characteristic of his oratory, never lets him sparkle to
no purpose. All his pictures have a moral object 'to rescue virtue
from oblivion and restrain vice by the terror of posthumous
infamy'.[2] His prime interest is character: and when he has
conducted some skilful piece of moral diagnosis there attaches to his
verdict some of the severity of a sermon. If you want to make men
better you must uncover and scarify their sins.

Few Christian moralists deal much in eulogy, and Tacitus' diatribes
are the more frequent and the more fierce because his was the morality
not of Christ but of Rome. 'The Poor' are as dirt to him: he can stoop
to immortalize some gleam of goodness in low life, but even then his
main object is by scorn of contrast to galvanize the aristocracy into
better ways. Only in them can true _virtus_ grow. Their degradation
seems the death of goodness. Tacitus had little sympathy with the
social revolution that was rapidly completing itself, not so much
because those who rose from the masses lacked 'blood', but because
they had not been trained in the right traditions. In the decay of
Education he finds a prime cause of evil. And being a Roman - wherever
he may have been born - he inevitably feels that the decay of Roman
life must rot the world. His eyes are not really open to the Empire.
He never seems to think that in the spacious provinces to which the
old Roman virtues had taken flight, men were leading happy, useful
lives, because the strong hand of the imperial government had come to
save them from the inefficiency of aristocratic governors. This
narrowness of view accounts for much of Tacitus' pessimism.

Recognition of the atmosphere in which Tacitus wrote and the objects
at which his history aimed helps one to understand why it sometimes
disappoints modern expectations. Particular scenes are seared on our
memories: persons stand before us lit to the soul by a fierce light of
psychological analysis: we learn to loath the characteristic vices of
the time, and to understand the moral causes of Roman decadence. But
somehow the dominance of the moral interest and the frequent
interruption of the narrative by scenes of senatorial inefficiency
serve to obscure the plain sequence of events. It is difficult after a
first reading of the _Histories_ to state clearly what happened in
these two years. And this difficulty is vastly annoying to experts who
wish to trace the course of the three campaigns. Those whose interest
is not in Tacitus but in the military history of the period are
recommended to study Mr. B.W. Henderson's _Civil War and Rebellion in
the Roman Empire_, a delightful book which makes the dark places
plain. But they are not recommended to share his contempt for Tacitus
because his accounts of warfare are as bad as, for instance,
Shakespeare's. Tacitus does not describe in detail the tactics and
geography of a campaign, perhaps because he could not do so, certainly
because he did not wish to. He regarded such details as dry bones,
which no amount of literary skill could animate. His interest is in
human character. Plans of campaign throw little light on that: so they
did not interest him, or, if they did, he suppressed his interest
because he knew that his public would otherwise behave as Dr. Johnson
did when Fox talked to him of Catiline's conspiracy. 'He withdrew his
attention and thought about Tom Thumb.'

There is no worse fault in criticism than to blame a work of art for
lacking qualities to which it makes no pretension. Tacitus is not a
'bad military historian'. He is not a 'military' historian at all.
Botticelli is not a botanist, nor is Shakespeare a geographer. It is
this fault which leads critics to call Tacitus 'a stilted pleader at a
decadent bar', and to complain that his narrative of the war with
Civilis is 'made dull and unreal by speeches' - because they have not
found in Tacitus what they had no right to look for. Tacitus inserts
speeches for the same reason that he excludes tactical details. They
add to the human interest of his work. They give scope to his great
dramatic powers, to that passionate sympathy with character which
finds expression in a style as nervous as itself. They enable him to
display motives, to appraise actions, to reveal moral forces. It is
interest in human nature rather than pride of rhetoric which makes him
love a good debate.

The supreme distinction of Tacitus is, of course, his style. That is
lost in a translation. 'Hard' though his Latin is, it is not obscure.
Careful attention can always detect his exact thought. Like Meredith
he is 'hard' because he does so much with words. Neither writer leaves
any doubt about his meaning. It is therefore a translator's first duty
to be lucid, and not until that duty is done may he try by faint
flushes of epigram to reflect something of the brilliance of Tacitus'
Latin. Very faint indeed that reflection must always be: probably no
audience could be found to listen to a translation of Tacitus, yet one
feels that his Latin would challenge and hold the attention of any
audience that was not stone-deaf. But it is because Tacitus is never a
mere stylist that some of us continue in the failure to translate him.
His historical deductions and his revelations of character have their
value for every age. 'This form of history,' says Montaigne, 'is by
much the most useful ... there are in it more precepts than stories:
it is not a book to read, 'tis a book to study and learn: 'tis full of
sententious opinions, right or wrong: 'tis a nursery of ethic and
politic discourses, for the use and ornament of those who have any
place in the government of the world.... His pen seems most proper for
a troubled and sick state, as ours at present is; you would often say
it is us he paints and pinches.' Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton
and Provost of Eton, who translated the _Histories_ into racy
Elizabethan English at a time when the state was neither 'troubled'
nor 'sick' is as convinced as Montaigne or the theorists of the French
Revolution that Tacitus had lessons for his age. 'In Galba thou maiest
learne, that a Good Prince gouerned by evill ministers is as dangerous
as if he were evill himselfe. By Otho, that the fortune of a rash man
is _Torrenti similis_, which rises at an instant, and falles in a
moment. By Vitellius, that he that hath no vertue can neuer be happie:
for by his own baseness he will loose all, which either fortune, or
other mens labours have cast upon him. By Vespasian, that in civill
tumults an advised patience, and opportunitie well taken are the onely
weapons of advantage. In them all, and in the state of Rome under them
thou maiest see the calamities that follow civill warres, where lawes
lie asleepe, and all things are iudged by the sword. If thou mislike
their warres be thankfull for thine owne peace; if thou dost abhor
their tyrannies, love and reverence thine owne wise, iust and
excellent Prince.' So whatever guise our age may assume, there are
lessons to be drawn from Tacitus either directly or _per contra_, and
his translators may be acquitted at a time when Latin scholarship is
no longer an essential of political eminence.


[1] Napoleon's phrase.

[2] _Ann._ iii. 65.



A.D. 68.


9. Death of Nero.

16. Galba, Governor of Nearer Spain, declared Emperor at Clunia.

Fonteius Capito, Governor of Lower Germany, Clodius Macer,
Governor of Africa, and Nymphidius Sabinus, Prefect of the
Guard, murdered as possible rivals. Verginius Rufus, Governor
of Upper Germany, refuses to compete.


Galba enters Rome. Massacre of Marines at Mulvian Bridge.

His government controlled by Laco, Vinius, and Icelus.

A.D. 69.


1. News of mutiny in Upper Germany, now governed by Hordeonius

3. The armies of Upper Germany (under Caecina) and of Lower Germany
(under Valens) salute Vitellius, Governor of Lower Germany, as

10. Galba adopts Piso Licinianus as his successor.

15. Otho declared Emperor in Rome and recognized by Praetorian

Murder of Galba, Vinius, and Piso.

Otho recognized by the Senate.


The Vitellian armies are now marching on Italy: Caecina through
Switzerland and over the Great St. Bernard with Legio XXI Rapax
and detachments of IV Macedonica and XXII Primigenia: Valens
through Gaul and over Mount Genèvre with Legio V Alaudae and
detachments of I Italica, XV Primigenia, and XVI.


Caecina crosses the Alps.

Otho dispatches an advance-guard under Annius Gallus and Spurinna.

Otho starts for the Po with Suetonius Paulinus, Marius Celsus,
and Proculus.

Titianus left in charge of Rome.

Otho sends fleet to Narbonese Gaul, and orders Illyric
Legions[3] to concentrate at Aquileia.

Spurinna repulses Caecina from Placentia.

Otho's main army joins Gallus at Bedriacum.

Titianus summoned to take nominal command.


6. Battle of Locus Castorum. Caecina defeated.

Valens joins Caecina at Cremona.

15. Battle of Bedriacum. Othonian defeat.

17. Otho commits suicide at Brixellum.

19. Vitellius recognized by the Senate.


Vitellius greeted by his own and Otho's generals at Lyons.

24. Vitellius visits the battle-field of Bedriacum.


Vitellius moves slowly towards Rome with a huge retinue.


1. Vespasian, Governor of Judaea, proclaimed Emperor at Alexandria.

3. At Caesarea.

15. At Antioch.

The Eastern princes and the Illyric Legions[4] declare for
Vespasian. His chief supporters are Mucianus; Governor of Syria,
Antonius Primus commanding Leg. VII Galbiana, and Cornelius
Fuscus, Procurator of Pannonia.

Mucianus moves slowly westward with Leg. VI Ferrata and
detachments from the other Eastern legions.

Vespasian holds Egypt, Rome's granary.

Titus takes command in Judaea.

Antonius Primus with Arrius Varus hurries forward into Italy.


Vitellius vegetates in Rome.

Caecina marches to meet the invasion. (Valens aegrotat.) His
Legions are I, IV Macedonica, XV Primigenia, XVI, V Alaudae,
XXII Primigenia, I Italica, XXI Rapax, and detachments from


[3] i.e. in Pannonia Legs. VII Galbiana and XIII Gemina; in
Dalmatia XI Claudia and XIV Gemina; in Moesia III Gallica, VII
Claudia, VIII Augusta.

[4] See note above.


The text followed is that of C.D. Fisher (_Oxford Classical Texts_).
Departures from it are mentioned in the notes.



[A.D. 69.] I propose to begin my narrative with the second 1
consulship of Servius Galba, in which Titus Vinius was his colleague.
Many historians have dealt with the 820 years of the earlier period
beginning with the foundation of Rome, and the story of the Roman
Republic has been told with no less ability than truth. After the
Battle of Actium, when the interests of peace were served by the
centralization of all authority in the hands of one man, there
followed a dearth of literary ability, and at the same time truth
suffered more and more, partly from ignorance of politics, which were
no longer a citizen's concern, partly from the growing taste for
flattery or from hatred of the ruling house. So between malice on one
side and servility on the other the interests of posterity were
neglected. But historians find that a tone of flattery soon incurs the
stigma of servility and earns for them the contempt of their readers,
whereas people readily open their ears to the criticisms of envy,
since malice makes a show of independence. Of Galba, Otho, and
Vitellius, I have known nothing either to my advantage or my hurt. I
cannot deny that I originally owed my position to Vespasian, or that I
was advanced by Titus and still further promoted by Domitian;[5] but
professing, as I do, unbiassed honesty, I must speak of no man either
with hatred or affection. I have reserved for my old age, if life is
spared to me, the reigns of the sainted Nerva and of the Emperor
Trajan, which afford a richer and withal a safer theme:[6] for it is
the rare fortune of these days that a man may think what he likes and
say what he thinks.

The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with 2
warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of
peace. It tells of four emperors slain by the sword, three several
civil wars, an even larger number of foreign wars and some that were
both at once: successes in the East, disaster in the West, disturbance
in Illyricum, disaffection in the provinces of Gaul, the conquest of
Britain and its immediate loss, the rising of the Sarmatian and Suebic
tribes. It tells how Dacia had the privilege of exchanging blows with
Rome, and how a pretender claiming to be Nero almost deluded the
Parthians into declaring war. Now too Italy was smitten with new
disasters, or disasters it had not witnessed for a long period of
years. Towns along the rich coast of Campania were submerged or
buried. The city was devastated by fires, ancient temples were
destroyed, and the Capitol itself was fired by Roman hands. Sacred
rites were grossly profaned, and there were scandals in high
places.[7] The sea swarmed with exiles and the island cliffs[8] were
red with blood. Worse horrors reigned in the city. To be rich or
well-born was a crime: men were prosecuted for holding or for refusing
office: merit of any kind meant certain ruin. Nor were the Informers
more hated for their crimes than for their prizes: some carried off a
priesthood or the consulship as their spoil, others won offices and
influence in the imperial household: the hatred and fear they inspired
worked universal havoc. Slaves were bribed against their masters,
freedmen against their patrons, and, if a man had no enemies, he was
ruined by his friends.

However, the period was not so utterly barren as to yield no 3
examples of heroism. There were mothers who followed their sons, and
wives their husbands into exile: one saw here a kinsman's courage and
there a son-in-law's devotion: slaves obstinately faithful even on the
rack: distinguished men bravely facing the utmost straits and matching
in their end the famous deaths of older times. Besides these manifold
disasters to mankind there were portents in the sky and on the earth,
thunderbolts and other premonitions of good and of evil, some
doubtful, some obvious. Indeed never has it been proved by such
terrible disasters to Rome or by such clear evidence that Providence
is concerned not with our peace of mind but rather with vengeance for
our sin.


[5] To Vespasian Tacitus probably owed his quaestorship and a
seat in the senate; to Titus his tribunate of the people; to
Domitian the praetorship and a 'fellowship' of one of the
great priestly colleges, whose special function was the
supervision of foreign cults. This last accounts for Tacitus'
interest in strange religions.

[6] This project, also foreshadowed in _Agricola_ iii, was
never completed.

[7] Referring in particular to the scandals among the Vestal
Virgins and to Domitian's relations with his niece Julia.

[8] i.e. the Aegean islands, such as Seriphus, Gyarus,
Amorgus, where those in disfavour were banished and often


Before I commence my task, it seems best to go back and consider 4
the state of affairs in the city, the temper of the armies, the
condition of the provinces, and to determine the elements of strength
and weakness in the different quarters of the Roman world. By this
means we may see not only the actual course of events, which is
largely governed by chance, but also why and how they occurred.

The death of Nero, after the first outburst of joy with which it was
greeted, soon aroused conflicting feelings not only among the
senators, the people, and the soldiers in the city, but also among the
generals and their troops abroad. It had divulged a secret of state:
an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome. Still the senate was
satisfied. They had immediately taken advantage of their liberty and
were naturally emboldened against a prince who was new to the throne
and, moreover, absent. The highest class of the knights[9] seconded
the senate's satisfaction. Respectable citizens, who were attached as
clients or freedmen to the great families, and had seen their patrons
condemned or exiled, now revived their hopes. The lowest classes, who
had grown familiar with the pleasures of the theatre and the circus,
the most degraded of the slaves, and Nero's favourites who had
squandered their property and lived on his discreditable bounty, all
showed signs of depression and an eager greed for news.

The troops in the city[10] had long been inured to the allegiance 5
of the Caesars, and it was more by the pressure of intrigue than of
their own inclination that they came to desert Nero. They soon

Online LibraryCaius Cornelius TacitusTacitus: The Histories, Volumes I and II → online text (page 1 of 29)