CHAPTER XX, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325
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THE policies of Nerva and Trajan liberated the suppressed mind of Rome, and gave to the literature of their reigns a note of fierce resentment against a despotism that had gone but might come again. Pliny’s Panegyric voiced it in welcoming the first of three great Spaniards to the throne; Juvenal seldom sang any other note; and Tacitus, the most brilliant of historians, became a delator temporis acti, an accuser of times past, and excoriated a century with his pen.
We do not know the date or place of Tacitus’ birth, nor even his given name. Probably he was the son of Cornelius Tacitus, procurator of imperial revenue in Belgic Gaul; through this man’s advancement the family was raised from the equestrian class into the new aristocracy. Our first definite fact about the historian is his own statement: “Agricola, during his consulship (78)… agreed to a marriage between myself and his daughter, who might certainly have looked for a prouder connection.” He had received the usual education, and had learned to the full those oratorical arts which enliven his style, that skill in pros and cons which marks the speeches in his histories. The younger Pliny often heard him in the courts, admired his “stately eloquence,” and acclaimed him as the greatest orator in Rome. In 88 Tacitus was praetor; thereafter he sat in the Senate and confesses with shame that he failed to speak out against tyranny, and joined in the Senatorial condemnation of Domitian’s Senatorial victims. Nerva made him consul (97), and Trajan appointed him proconsul of Asia. He was evidently a man of affairs and practical experience; his books were the afterthought of a full life, the product of a leisurely old age, and of a mature and profound mind.
One theme unites them- hatred of autocracy. His Dialogue on Orators (if it is his) attributes the decline of eloquence to the suppression of liberty. His Agricola – the most perfect of those brief monographs to which the ancients confined biography- proudly recounts the achievements of his father-in-law as general and governor, and then bitterly records Domitian’s dismissal and neglect of him. The little essay On the Situation and Origin of the Germans contrasts the virile virtues of a free people with the degeneration and cowardice of Romans under the despots. When Tacitus praises the Germans for considering infanticide an infamy, and giving no advantage to childlessness, he is not describing Germans but denouncing Romans. The philosophical purpose destroys the objectivity of the study, but allows a remarkable breadth of view in a Roman official praising the German power of resisting Rome. *03091
The success of these essays induced Tacitus to illustrate the evils of tyranny by indicting the record of the despots in ruthless detail. He began with what was freshest in his memory and in the testimony of his older friends- the period from Galba to the death of Domitian; and when these Historiae were acclaimed by a grateful aristocracy as the best historical writing since Livy, he continued his story a fronte by describing, in the Annales, the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Of the fourteen (some say thirty) “books” of the Histories four and a half remain, all devoted to the years 69 and 70; of the Annals twelve books survive from an original sixteen or eighteen. Even in this mutilated form they are the most powerful works in extant Roman prose; we may vaguely imagine the grandeur and impress of the whole. Tacitus had hoped to chronicle also the reigns of Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan, mitigating the gloom of his published works with some commemoration of constructive statesmanship. But the years were not given him; and posterity has judged him, as he judged the past, from a somber aspect alone.