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It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.

Publius Tacitus (or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus; c. 56–after 117 AD), Roman orator, lawyer, and senator. He is considered one of antiquity's greatest historians.


To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.

Agricola (98)[edit]

In De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, Tacitus describes and praises the life of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an eminent Roman general. It covers briefly the people and geography of Britain, where Agricola was stationed.
  • Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium, atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
    • To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace.
    • Variant translations:
    • They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.
      • Loeb Classical Library edition
    • To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.
      • As translated by William Peterson
    • More colloquially: They rob, kill and plunder and deceivingly call it "Roman rule", and where they make a desert, they call it "peace".
    • This is a speech by the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus addressing assembled warriors about Rome's insatiable appetite for conquest and plunder. The chieftain's sentiment can be contrasted to "peace given to the world" which was frequently inscribed on Roman medals. The last part solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (they make a desert, and call it peace) is often quoted alone. Lord Byron for instance uses the phrase (in English) as follows,
      • Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease!
        He makes a solitude, and calls it — peace.
        • Lord Byron, Bride of Abydos (1813), Canto 2, stanza 20
  • Et maiores vestros et posteros cogitate.
    • Think of your forefathers and posterity.
      • Chapter 32
  • Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris.
    • It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured.
      • Chapter 42; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Tu vero felix, Agricola, non vitae tantum claritate, sed etiam opportunitate mortis.
    • Thou wast indeed fortunate, Agricola, not only in the splendour of thy life, but in the opportune moment of thy death. [1]
      • Chapter 45

Germania (98)[edit]

  • The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive; and the boundless and, so to speak, hostile ocean beyond us, is seldom entered by a sail from our world.
    • Chapter 2
  • They even say that an altar dedicated to Ulysses, with the addition of the name of his father, Laertes, was formerly discovered on the same spot, and that certain monuments and tombs with Greek inscriptions, still exist on the borders of Germany and Rhaetia.
    • Chapter 3
  • On the whole, one would say that their strength is in their infantry, which fights along with the cavalry; admirably adapted to the action of the latter is the swiftness of certain foot soldiers, who are picked from the entire youth of their country, and stationed in front of the line.
    • Chapter 6
  • Scutum reliquisse praecipuum flagitium, nec aut sacris adesse aut concilium inire ignominioso fas; multique superstites bellorum infamiam laqueo finierunt.
    • To abandon your shield is the basest of crimes; nor may a man thus disgraced be present at the sacred rites, or enter their council; many, indeed, after escaping from battle, have ended their infamy with the halter.
      • Chapter 6
  • Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims.
    • Chapter 9
  • Quanquam severa illic matrimonia
    • However the marriage is there severe.
      • Start of chapter 18
    • This is in the sense that the matrimonial bond was strictly observed by the Germanic peoples, this being compared favorably against licentiousness in Rome. Tacitus appears to hold the fairly strict monogamy (with some exceptions among nobles who marry again) between Germanic husbands and wives, and the chastity among the unmarried to be worthy of the highest praise. (Ch. 18).
  • ...ibi boni mores valent quam alibi bonae leges. [2]
    • ...good habits are here more effectual than good laws elsewhere. [3]
    • End of chapter 19
  • No one in Germany laughs at vice, nor do they call it the fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted.
    • Chapter 19
  • Indeed, the crowning proof of their valour and their strength is that they keep up their superiority without harm to others.
    • Chapter 35
  • Dwelling on one side of the Chauci and Chatti, the Cherusci long cherished, unassailed, an excessive and enervating love of peace. This was more pleasant than safe, for to be peaceful is self-deception among lawless and powerful neighbours. Where the strong hand decides, moderation and justice are terms applied only to the more powerful; and so the Cherusci, ever reputed good and just, are now called cowards and fools, while in the case of the victorious Chatti success has been identified with prudence. The downfall of the Cherusci brought with it also that of the Fosi, a neighbouring tribe, which shared equally in their disasters, though they had been inferior to them in prosperous days.
    • Chapter 36
  • Their shields are black, their bodies dyed. They choose dark nights for battle, and, by the dread and gloomy aspect of their death-like host, strike terror into the foe, who can never confront their strange and almost infernal appearance.
    • Chapter 43
  • All this is unauthenticated, and I shall leave it open.
    • Chapter 46 (last text line)

Histories (100-110)[edit]

  • Rara temporum felicitate, ubi sentire quae velis, et quae sentias dicere licet.
    • Translation: It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.
    • Book I, 1
  • Indeed, when a ruler once becomes unpopular, all his acts, be they good or bad, tell against him.
    • Book I, 7
  • Once killing starts, it is difficult to draw the line.
    • Book I, 39
  • He possessed a peculiar talent of producing effect in whatever he said or did.
    • Book II, 80
  • Expugnatae urbis praedam ad militem, deditae ad duces pertinere.
    • The soldiers have the plunder of a city that is stormed, the generals of one which capitulates.
      • Book III, 19; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Divisa inter exercitum ducesque munia: militibus cupidinem pugnandi convenire, duces providendo, consultando, cunctatione saepius quam temeritate prodesse. ut pro virili portione armis ac manu victoriam iuverit, ratione et consilio, propriis ducis artibus, profuturum.
    • There is a division of duties between the army and its generals. Eagerness for battle becomes the soldiers, but generals serve the cause by forethought, by counsel, by delay oftener than by temerity. As I promoted your victory to the utmost of my power by my sword and by my personal exertions, so now I must help you by prudence and by counsel, the qualities which belong peculiarly to a general.
      • Book III, 20; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Some might consider him as too fond of fame; for the desire for glory clings even to the best men longer than any other passion.
    • Book IV, 6
  • Deos fortioribus adesse.
  • Vitia erunt donec homines
    • There will be vices as long as there are men.
      • Book IV, 74; Church-Brodribb translation

Annals (117)[edit]

So obscure are the greatest events, as some take for granted any hearsay, whatever its source, others turn truth into falsehood, and both errors find encouragement with posterity.
The more corrupt the state, the more laws.
  • Tiberii Gaique et Claudii ac Neronis res florentibus ipsis ob metum falsae, postquam occiderant, recentibus odiis compositae sunt. inde consilium mihi pauca de Augusto et extrema tradere, mox Tiberii principatum et cetera, sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo.
    • The histories of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts about Augustus - more particularly his last acts, then the reign of Tiberius, and all which follows, without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives to which I am far removed.
      • Book I, 1; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Juniores post Actiacam victoriam, etiam senes plerique inter bella civium nati: quotus quisque reliquus qui rem publicam vidisset? Igitur verso civitatis statu nihil usquam prisci et integri moris: omnes exuta aequalitate iussa principis aspectare, ...
    • The younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most even of the elder generation, during the civil wars; few indeed were left who had seen the Republic. It was thus an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace lingered. Equality was an outworn creed, and all eyes looked to the mandate of the sovereign, ...
      • Book I, 3-4; Loeb Classical Library translation by John Jackson (1931)
  • Pacem sine dubio post haec, verum cruentam.
    • No doubt, there was peace after all this, but it was a peace stained with blood.
      • Book I, 10; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Nihil deorum honoribus relictum, cum se templis et effigie numinum per flamines et sacerdotes coli vellet.
    • No honour was left for the gods, when Augustus chose to be himself worshipped with temples and statues, like those of the deities, and with flamens and priests.
      • Book I, 10; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Ne Tiberium quidem caritate aut rei publicae cura successorem adscitum, sed quoniam adrogantiam saevitiamque eius introspexerit, comparatione deterrima sibi gloriam quaesivisse.
    • He had not even adopted Tiberius as his successor out of affection or any regard to the State, but, having thoroughly seen his arrogant and savage temper, he had sought glory for himself by a contrast of extreme wickedness.
      • Book I, 10; Church-Brodribb translation
  • So true is it that all transactions of preeminent importance are wrapt in doubt and obscurity; while some hold for certain facts the most precarious hearsays, others turn facts into falsehood; and both are exaggerated by posterity.
    • Book III, 19
    • Variant: So obscure are the greatest events, as some take for granted any hearsay, whatever its source, others turn truth into falsehood, and both errors find encouragement with posterity.
  • Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.
    • The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.
      • Book III, 27
    • Variant translations:
    • The more corrupt the state, the more laws.
    • And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.
  • For I deem it to be the chief function of history to rescue merit from oblivion, and to hold up before evil words and evil deeds the terror of the reprobation of posterity.
  • Viginti clarissimarum familiarum imagines antelatae sunt, Manlii, Quinctii aliaque eiusdem nobilitatis nomina. sed praefulgebant Cassius atque Brutus eo ipso quod effigies eorum non visebantur.
    • The busts of twenty most illustrious families were borne in the procession, with the names of Manlius, Quinctius, and others of equal rank. But Cassius and Brutus outshone them all, from the very fact that their likenesses were not to be seen.
This line is the origin of Lord John Russell's phrase "Conspicuous by its absence"; of which Russell said "It is not an original expression of mine, but is taken from one of the greatest historians of antiquity". Similar phrases also are found in the tragedy Tiberius of Joseph Chénier and in Les Hommes Illustres of Charles Perrault.
  • Neque femina amissa pudicitia alia abnuerit.
    • A woman after having parted with her virtue will hesitate at nothing.
    • Book IV, 3; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Suum cuique decus posteritas rependit.
    • To every man posterity gives his due honour.
      • Book IV, 35; Church-Brodribb translation
  • Punitis ingeniis, gliscit auctoritas.
    • When men of talents are punished, authority is strengthened.
    • Book IV, 35.
  • He had talents equal to business, and aspired no higher.
    • Book VI, 39
  • He upbraided Macro, in no obscure and indirect terms, "with forsaking the setting sun and turning to the rising".
    • Book VI, 52, referring to Tiberius
  • What is today supported by precedents will hereafter become a precedent.
    • Book XI, 24
  • Habet aliquid ex iniquo omne magnum exemplum, quod contra singulos, utilitate publica rependitus.
    • Every great example of punishment has in it some injustice, but the suffering individual is compensated by the public good.
    • Book XIV, 44
  • non enim ignavia magna imperia contineri
    • Great empires are not maintained by timidity.
    • Book XV, 1
  • nisi impunitatis cupido retinuisset, magnis semper conatibus adversa.
    • The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
      • Book XV, 50, in his account of Subrius Flavus’ passing thought of assassinating Nero while the emperor sang on stage.
    • Variant translation: "but desire of escape, foe to all great enterprises, held him back."
  • cupido dominandi cunctis adfectibus flagrantior est
    • Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions.
    • Book XV, 53

Quotes about Tacitus[edit]

  • Tacitus appears to have been as great an enthusiast as Petrarch for the revival of the republic and universal empire. He has exerted the vengeance of history upon the emperors, but has veiled the conspiracies against them, and the incorrigible corruption of the people which probably provoked their most atrocious cruelties. Tyranny can scarcely be practised upon a virtuous and wise people.
  • Of all histories I think Tacitus simply the best.
    • Francis Bacon, Advice to Fulke Greville on his studies, quoted in The Oxford Authors: Francis Bacon, ed. Brian Vickers (1996), p. 105
  • [Tacitus] has a higher reputation than other more learned historians, because he not only narrates events, but, so to speak, writes a commentary on his own narrative.
    • Maiolino Bisaccioni, Historia della guerre civili (1653), p. 1, quoted in Peter Burke, 'A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient Historians, 1450–1700', History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1966), p. 151
  • The appeal of Tacitus' Germania to Englishmen as an account of their ancestors was to be a lasting one; its influence is still obvious in the high-Victorian scholarship of Stubbs, Freeman and Green... As a piece of ethnography, Tacitus' work has much charm, sowing in the mind images from heroic life: the lightly dressed warriors, bound by a touching loyalty to their chief, urged on in battle by their chaste wives; the assemblies, held in the open at new or full moon, clashing weapons as a sign of assent; the investiture of the young warrior with shield and spear; the villages of scattered houses, each surrounded by a clearing; everywhere the surrounding forest. Tacitean society is not one of absolute equality; there are important hereditary distinctions of rank. But the general impression is one of a hard, in some respects savage, but simple, spacious and independent life, and a society essentially transparent and free, bound together by intelligible, strong, yet largely voluntary loyalties.
    • J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981), pp. 109-110
  • He represented to the life...not only outward actions...but also the most secret of thoughts.
    • Girolamo Canini (d.1626), the prefatory 'del modo di cavar profitto della lettura' to Tacitus, Opera (1628), quoted in Peter Burke, 'A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient Historians, 1450–1700', History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1966), p. 150
  • His bias against the dynastic system is plain; yet his accuracy, though severely probed by modern criticism, can rarely be impugned. Though sometimes an unfavourable interpreter of his facts, he will not blacken even Tiberius or Nero by crediting stupid rumours about them (Ann. 4. 1 1; 16. 6). His picture of capital and court is terrible, but its general truth is incontestable. His gaze is focused upon Rome; when he looks farther be approves the sturdy simplicity of North Italy and the provinces (Ann. 16. 5), and can pen a moving appeal for the preservation of the Empire (Hist. 4. 74). Though mistrustful of "civilization" and of its debilitating effects, he never despairs of human nature: even the Civil War produced examples of heroism, loyalty, and friendship (Hist. I. 3), and virtue is not confined to past ages (Ann. 3. 55). Napoleon called Tacitus a "traducer of humanity": from one who spent his powers in annihilating humanity this verdict is interesting, but simply untrue. In independent research and judgement, in essential truth, in the dramatic power and nobility of an enthralling style, Tacitus claims his place among the greatest historians.
  • He was most diligent in explaining motives (in consiliis explicandis) and most penetrating in enquiring into causes; no one has seen more acutely or described more faithfully the arts of princes and of those around them.
    • Celio Secondo Curione, 'How to read history', De Historia legenda, in Artis Historicae Penus (1579), vol. II, p. 600, quoted in Peter Burke, 'A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient Historians, 1450–1700', History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1966), p. 150
  • The most civilized nations of modern Europe issued from the woods of Germany, and in the rude institutions of those barbarians, we may still distinguish the original principles of our present laws and manners. In their primitive state of simplicity and independence, the Germans were surveyed by the discerning eye, and delineated by the masterly pencil of Tacitus, the first of historians who applied the science of philosophy to the study of facts. In his incomparable treatise, which contains, perhaps, more ideas than words, he has comprehended a description of the German manners, that has formerly exercised the diligence of innumerable antiquarians, and employed the genius and penetration of the philosophic historians of our own times.
  • Moral purpose...is never absent from Tacitus' mind. The sequence of events on which he chooses to focus his attention provoked the sternest moral reflections. To him, as to many others, decline and disaster seemed due to vice. Virtue and vice are continually emphasized and contrasted. As Tacitus himself says, "I regard it as the foremost task of the historian to ensure that virtues are not left unrecorded, and that evil words and deeds are made subject to the fears inspired by posterity's denunciation."
    • Michael Grant, 'Introduction' to Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome (1956), p. 14
  • [I]t seems that he is not really able to believe that an autocrat can be good. For he constantly stresses the evils of rule by one man. Perhaps this conviction is the central point of his philosophy. No amount of experience, he infers, can stand up against the corrupting effects of autocratic authority. "In spite of all his experience of public affairs, Tiberius was transformed and deranged by absolute power." So it was under Tiberius that freedom suffered its most fatal losses. As these are remorselessly described we do not feel two thousand years distant.
    • Michael Grant, 'Introduction' to Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome (1956), p. 19
  • Human fate often looks black to Tacitus. So does human nature. Yet he is far from sceptical about the potentialities of the human spirit. Even in times of civil war and tyrannical government, he is able to point to human actions of extraordinary virtue, bravery, and pertinacity. Indeed he is a humanist, and one whose contribution to our western tradition of humanism has been immense and singularly inspiring.
    • Michael Grant, 'Introduction' to Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome (1956), pp. 20-21
  • The outstanding quality of Tacitus is his brilliance as a literary artist. Racine called him "the greatest painter of antiquity". Others have compared his work not so much to a series of pictures as to a continuous frieze. But of his supreme artistic genius there can be no doubt. A large part of the artistry resides in his style – the aspect of his talent which a translator has least hope of reproducing. Now ancient readers usually recognized stylistic talent, and by no means found that it interfered with their enjoyment when history contained a strong infusion of rhetoric. But the style of Tacitus, as it had developed to its culminating point in these Annals, was indeed extraordinary. It displays a sharp, astringent contrast to the rotund periods of Cicero and to the flowing, "milky" diction of Livy.
    • Michael Grant, 'Introduction' to Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome (1956), p. 22
  • Cornelius Tacitus is very good at teaching subjects how to live and act prudently, just as he teaches tyrants how to establish tyranny.
    • Francesco Guicciardini, Ricordi, in Opere di Francesco Guicciardini, ed. Emanuella Lugani Scarano (1970), vol. I, p. 732, quoted in Peter Burke, 'Tacitism', in T. A. Dorey (ed.), Tacitus (1969), p. 153
  • Tacitus I consider the first writer in the world without a single exception. His book is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.
    • Thomas Jefferson, to his grand-daughter Anne Cary Bankhead, in a letter dated 1808.
  • [Tacitus] is a great writer who is especially appropriate for great persons, that is, those who hold the tiller of the state or those who give advice and counsel to the helmsman. What part of civil and military prudence, and what emotions of men (even concealed), what fortunes or events does he not openly reveal or show under a veil? ... There is none among the Greeks or Romans, and I will confidently assert, there will never be any, who can be compared with Tacitus in the glory earned by his prudence of every sort.
    • Justus Lipsius, 'Adlocutio Itera', in C. Cornelii Taciti opera quae exstant (1607), quoted in Mark Morford, 'Tacitean Prudentia and the Doctrine of Justus Lipsius', in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman (eds.), Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (1993), p. 139
  • Tacitus goes beyond this common source to provide a level of detail and an acuteness of political perception that is unique to his version. Likewise, though Tacitus knew the common sources which Suetonius, Dio, and Plutarch used in their accounts of the Civil War of 69, his result is so different that we must attribute the final product to his own craft and intelligence rather than to his raw material.
  • No international enterprise as yet has taken the initiative in collecting the hundred most dangerous books ever written. No doubt some time this collection will be made. When it is done, I suggest that Homer's Iliad and Tacitus' Germania should be given high priority among these hundred dangerous books. This is no reflection on Homer and Tacitus. Tacitus was a gentleman and, for all that I know, Homer was a gentleman too. But who will deny that the Iliad and the Germania raise most unholy passions in the human mind? It is fortunately not my task to speak here about the influence of Tacitus' Germania. One horror is enough for one day.
    • Arnaldo Momigliano, 'Some Observations on Causes of War in Ancient Historiography', Acta Congressus Madvigiant, Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Classical Studies 1954, vol. I (1958), pp. 119-211, quoted in A. D. Momigliano, Studies in Historiography (1966; 1969), pp. 112-113
  • Tacitus has written an entire work on the manners of the Germans. This work is short, but it comes from the pen of Tacitus, who was always concise, because he saw everything at a glance.
  • If Juvenal is supreme over the poets of his time, Tacitus is as clearly monarch of the prose-writers. He was continuing the work of Livy and writing from the same republican standpoint. But for history-writing he had certainly discovered a finer style of rhetoric. Both are rhetoricians first and historians a long way after, but the packed epigrams of Tacitus say more in a line than Livy is capable of thinking in a chapter. In describing a battle, a riot, or a panic, or in painting some tragic scene, such as the death of Vitellius, Tacitus is unequalled. The freedom that was permitted to him and Suetonius in depicting the crimes and follies of the earlier Cæsars affords remarkable evidence of the freedom of letters under Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. Here, again, it is necessary, as in the case of Juvenal, to beware of accepting too literally the severity of his criticisms upon the preceding generation. To praise the past at the expense of the present was one of the traditions of Roman literature. But Tacitus was the last of Rome's great historians and his loss was irreparable.
    • J. C. Stobart, The Grandeur That Was Rome: A Survey of Roman Culture and Civilisation (1912), pp. 289-290
  • These personal statements of Tacitus' aims and beliefs seem to be, if not wholly consistent, at least candid; but even the most superficial reading of his history will bring them into question. The claim to write "sine ira et studio" has been condemned by certain critics as sheer hypocrisy, and while most scholars have thought it honest in intention, few have considered the attempt successful. The aim of moral instruction, "ne virtutes sileantur", has been dismissed as political partisanship; his wish to trace events to their causes has been thought casual or pretentious. His views on philosophy and religion have been variously called agnostic, sceptical, stoic, fatalist, superstitious, and (as a last resort) "deeply original".
    • B. Walker, The Annals of Tacitus: A Study in the Writing of History (1952; 1960), p. 2

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