Tacitus, Caius Cornelius

, one of the most eminent Roman historians, was born, most probably, in the year of Rome 809 or 810, or about 56 of the Christian aera; but the place of his nativity is no where mentioned. He was the son of Cornelius Tacitus, a procurator appointed by the prince to manage the Imperial revenue, and govern a province in Belgic Gaul. Where he was educated is not known; but it is evident that he did not imbibe the smallest tincture of that frivolous science, and that vicious eloquence which in his time debased the Roman genius. He most probably was formed upon the plan adopted in the time of the republic; and, with the help of a sound scheme of home-discipline, and the best domestic example, he grew up, in a course of virtue, to that vigour of mind which gives such animation to his writings. His first ambition was to distinguish himself at the bar. In the year of Rome 828, the sixth of Vespasian, being then about eighteen, he attended the eminent men of the day, in their inquiry concerning the causes of corrupt eloquence, and is supposed to have been the author of the elegant dialogue concerning oratory, usually printed with his works.

Agrieola was joint consul with Domitian in the year of Home 830, for the latter part of the year. His name does not appear in the Fasti Consulares, because that honour was reserved for the consuls who entered on their office en the kalends of January, and gave their name to -the H hole year. Tacitus, though not more than twenty, had given such an earnest of his future fame, that Agricola chose him for his son-in-law, and, thus distinguished, our ai thor began the career of civil preferment. The circumstances ofhis progress, however, are not precisely menIthongh Mr. Murphy has given us some ingenious conjectures to supply this deficiency. He was favoured | by Vespasian and by Titus, and rose to preferment even under the tyrant Domitian. It would be difficult, says his biographer, to account for the success of a man who in the whole tenourof his conduct preserved an unblemished character, if he himself had not furnished a solution of the problem. Agricola, he tells us, had the address to restrain the headlong violence of Domitian, by his prudence, and the virtues of moderation: never choosing to imitate the zeal of those who, by their intemperance, provoked their fate, and rushed on sure destruction, without rendering any kind of service to their country. The conduct of Agricola plainly shewed that great men may exist in safety under the worst and most barbarous tyranny. We may be sure, that he who commends the mild disposition of his father-in-law, had the prudence to observe the same line of conduct. Instead of giving umbrage to the prince, and provoking the tools of power, he was content to display his eloquence at the bar. Domitian, however, certainly advanced our author’s fortune. It is no where mentioned that Tacitus discharged the office of tribune and aedile, but it may be presumed that he passed through these stations to the higher dignity of praetor, and member of the quindecemviral college, which he enjoyed at the secular games in the year of Rome 841, the seventh of Domitian.

In the course of the following year, our author and his wife left the city of Rome, and absented themselves more than four years. Some writers, willing to exalt the virtue of Tacitus, and aggravate the injustice of Domitian, assert, that Tacitus was sent into banishment. This, however, is mere conjecture, without a shadow of probability to support it. Tacitus makes no complaint against Domitian: he mentions no personal injury: he received marks of favour, and he acknowledges the obligation. It may, therefore, with good reason be affirmed, that prudential considerations induced our author to retire from a city, where an insatiate tyrant began to throw off all reserve, and wage open war against all who were distinguished by their talents and their virtue.

Tacitus had been four years absent from Rome when he received the news of Agricola’s death, which happened in the year of Rome 846, and of the Christian sera 93. A report prevailed that he was poisoned by the emperor’s orders; his rapid course of brilliant success in Britain having | alarmed the jealousy of Domitian, who dreaded nothing so much as a great military character: but Tacitus acknowledges that this report rested on no kind of proof. After this event, however, Tacitus returned to Rome/ and from that time saw the beginning of the most dreadful aera, in which Domitian broke out with unbridled fury, and made the city of Rome a theatre of blood and horror. At length this tyrant fell the victim of a conspiracy, and was succeeded by a virtuous emperor, Nerva, in whose reign, in the year of Rome 850, Tacitus succeeded the celebrated Verginius Rufus, as consul for the remainder of the year, and for that reason, as before noticed, his name is not to be found in the Fasti Consulares. In honour of Verginius, the senate decreed, that the rites of sepulture should be performed at the public expence. Tacitus delivered the funeral oration from the rostrum, and the applause of such an orator, Pliny says, was sufficient to crown the glory of a well-spent life.

Nerva died Jan. 27, in the year of Rome 851, having, about three months before, adopted Trajan as his successor. In that short interval the critics have agreed to place the publication of the “Life of Agricola,” by Tacitus, but Mr. Murphy assigns very good reasons for referring it to the reign of Trajan. The “Treatise on the Manners of the Germans,” it is generally agreed, made its appearance in the year of Rome 851. The “Dialogue concerning Oratory” was an earlier production, and probably was published in the reign of Titus or Domitian, who are both celebrated in that piece, for their talents and their love of polite literature.

The friendship that subsisted between Tacitus and the younger Pliny, and which is well known, was founded on the consonance of their studies and their virtues. When Pliny says that a good and virtuous prince can never be sincerely loved, unless we shew our detestation of the tyrants that preceded him, we may be sure that Tacitus was of the same opinion. They were both convinced that a striking picture of former tyranny ought to be placed in contrast to the felicity of the times that succeeded. Pliny acted up to his own idea in the panegyric of Trajan, where we find a vein of satire on Domitian running through the whole piece. It appears in his letters, that he had some thoughts of writing history on the same principle, but had not resolution to undertake that arduous task. Tacitus had more vigour of mind: he thought more intensely, and | with deeper penetration, than his friend. We find that he had formed, at an early period, the plan of his history, and resolved to execute it, in order to shew the horrors of slavery, and the debasement of the Roman people through the whole of Domitian’s reign. From the year of Rome 853, when along with Pliny, he pleaded in the famous cause of Priscus, the proconsul of Africa, and in behalf of those who had been oppressed by him, Tacitus appears to have dedicated himself altogether to his history. At what time it was published is uncertain, but it was in some period of the reign of Trajan, who died in the year of Rome 870, A. D. 117. In this work he began from the accession of Galba, and ended with the death of Domitian, i. e. from the year of Rome 82-2 to 849, a period of twenty-seven years. Vossius says that the whole work consisted of no less than thirty books; but, to the great loss of the literary world, we have only four books, and the beginning of the fifth. In what remains, we have little after the accession of Vespasian. The reign of Titus is totally lost, and Domitian has escaped the vengeance of the historian’s pen.

The “Annals” followed, including a period of fifty-four years, from the year 767 to the death of Nero in 821; but of these have perished, part of the fifth book, containing three years of Tiberius, the entire four years of Caligula, the first six of Claudius and the last two of Nero. The style of these “Annals,” Mr. Murphy observes, differs from that of the History, which required stately periods, pomp of expression, and harmonious sentences. The “Annals” are written in a strain more subdued and temperate; every phrase is a maxim; the narrative goes on with rapidity; the author is sparing of words, and prodigal of sentiment; the characters are drawn with a profound knowledge of human nature, and when we see them figuring on the stage of public business, we perceive the internal spring of their actions; we see their motives at work, and of course are prepared to judge of their conduct.

Tacitus intended, if his life and health continued, to review the reign of Augustus, in order to detect the arts by which the old constitution was overturned to make way for the government of a single ruler. This, in the hands of such a writer, would have been a curious portion of history; but it is probable he did not live to carry his design into execution. The time of his death is not mentioned by any ancient author. It seems, however, highly | probable that he died in the reign of Trajan, and we may reasonably conclude that he survived his friend PJiny. The commentators assume it as a certain fact, that he must have left issue, because they find that M. Claudius Tacitus, who was created emperor in A. D. 275, deduced his pedigree from our historian; and Vopiscus telts us that he ordered the image of Tacitus, and a complete collection of his works, to be placed in the public archives, with a special direction that twelve copies should be made every year, at the public expence. But when the mutilated state, in which our author has come down to posterity is considered, there is reason to believe that the orders of this prince, who reigned only six months, were never executed.

Without entering on the merits of Tacitus as a historian, which have been the subject of very extensive discussion, we may refer to Mr. Murphy’s comprehensive view of his life and genius. It is universally acknowledged that his works are among the most precious remains of antiquity, and it is not much less universally acknowledged that he exhibits the defects as well as excellencies of the historian, The first edition of his works was published at Venice by John de Spira in 1468, containing the last six books of the “Annals,” four books of the “History,” with part of the fifth, the treatise on the “Manners of the Germans,” and the “Dialogue concerning Oratory,*' which we see has always been printed with Tacitus’ s works, although many critics have doubted whether it was his. Another edition was published in a year or two after by Franciscus Puteolanus, more correct and elegant than the former, with the addition of the life of Agricola. The first six books of the” Annals" had not then been found, but diligent search being made in all parts of Europe, they were at length discovered in the monastery of Corby in Westphalia. Leo X. purchased this treasure, and, under his patronage, Beroaldus, in 1515, gave the world a complete edition of the. whole, the manuscript having been deposited in the Florentine library. The principal subsequent editions were those of Froben, 1519, 1533, and 1544, fol.; several by Lipsius, 1574 1619; by Freinsheim, 1638 and 1664, 8vo; Elzivir, 1634, 1640, 2 vols. 12mo; the Variorum, 1672 and 1685, 2 vols. 8vo; by Rickius, 1687, 2 vols. 12mo; by Gronovius, 1721, 2 vols. 4to by Mrs. Grierson of Dublin, 1730, 3 vols. 8vo; by Ernest, 1752, 1772,2 vols. 8vo; by Lallemand, 1760, 3 vols. 12mo; by Brotier, 1771, 4 vols. 4to; by Crellius, 1779—02, 4 vols. 8vo; by Homer, 1790, | 4 vols. 8vo; at Edinburgh, 1796, 4 vols. 4to and 8vo and by Oberlin, 1801, 2 vols. 8vo. Broiler’s, undoubtedly the best edition, is the model of all that followed. There have been translations of Tacitus in most European languages. His whole works have been published in English, with large political discourses annexed, by Mr. Gordon. The style of Gordon is, however, so vicious and affected, that it is impossible to read him with patience; and Tacitus has lately found a much more elegant and judicious translator in Mr. Murphy, whose work in 4 vols. 4to, was published in 1793, and has met with very general approbation. There have been in all, four English translations of Tacitus; that of Greenway and sir Henry Saville in the reign of Elizabeth that performed by Dry den and others; the translation by Gordon; and that of Murphy. 1


Life prefixed to Murphy’s translation.