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Tacitus and Domitian

Tacitus’ Life

We have limited biographical information for Tacitus. He is mentioned in a short inscription from 112/113 (or thereabouts) which suggests that he was governor of Asia (I.Myl. 365). He was consul in 97 (the minimum age for which was 32), suggesting a date of birth before 65. He was away from Rome with his wife, Julia, when her father, Agricola, died on 23rd August 93, and had been away for four years (so from 89) (Agricola 44-45). He was praetor in 88 when he assisted Domitan in the performance of the Secular Games (Annales 11.11). In Histories 1.1, he claims that he began his career under Vespasian (emperor: 69-79) and was then promoted by Titus (emperor: 79-81). It is not certain what that means, but he may have been quaestor under Titus.

If we assume that he held the lesser magistracies at near the minimum age, then we would suggest a date of birth of c. 56. In 77 or possibly a little later, he married Julia, daughter of Agricola (Tacitus, Agricola 9). Tacitus describes himself as a ‘youth’ at the time. That would be compatible with him being 21 or 22.

His career followed a steady path, but there was a gap between the end of his term as praetorian governor and his appointment as consul, late in 97.  That delay may have been due to an extended governorship, but since Domitian was assassinated in September 96, it is very tempting to see Tacitus as being elevated by the next emperor, Nerva, as a figure representing a new regime and a break with the Domitianic past.

We know very little about his background. He seems not to have had senatorial forefathers. He may have come from a provincial background. He developed an early connection to the consular, Julius Agricola, himself from southern Gaul. It is very tempting to imagine a prior familial connection between Tacitus and Agricola which made the marriage a good one. The sole daughter of a consul could certainly have expected a brilliant marriage and the connection to Agricola must have helped Tacitus gain visibility in Rome.

 Tacitus and Domitian

The middle part of Tacitus’ career was under the emperor Domitian. The politics of the Domitianic period are captured in the first (1-3) and last (40-46) chapters of the Agricola and parts from 2-3 is given below.

Certainly we showed a magnificent example of patience; as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. 3. Now at last our spirit is returning. And yet, though at the dawn of a most happy age Nerva Cæsar blended things once irreconcilable, sovereignty and freedom, though Nerva Trajan is now daily augmenting the prosperity of the time, and though the public safety has not only our hopes and good wishes, but has also the certain pledge of their fulfillment, still, from the necessary condition of human frailty, the remedy works less quickly than the disease. As our bodies grow but slowly, perish in a moment, so it is easier to crush than to revive genius and its pursuits. Besides, the charm of indolence steals over us, and the idleness which at first we loathed we afterwards love. What if during those fifteen years, a large portion of human life, many were cut off by ordinary casualties, and the ablest fell victims to the Emperor’s rage, if a few of us survive, I may almost say, not only others but our ownselves, survive, though there have been taken from the midst of life those many years which brought the young in dumb silence to old age, and the old almost to the very verge and end of existence! Yet we shall not regret that we have told, though in language unskilful and unadorned, the story of past servitude, and borne our testimony to present happiness. 

Tacitus depicts an era (15 years) in which informers monitored what was said in households, and so people maintained their silence. Literary works critical of the regime were burnt and their authors killed or exiled. Opponents were condemned to death or exile. The obvious comparison we have is with reigns of terror under totalitarian regimes, notably the communist and fascist regimes of the twentieth century.

So does Tacitus exaggerate? Does he misrepresent Domitian’s reign? Historians have been more than suspicious. They have pointed to Tacitus’ career advancing in this period. They have noted that another vocal opponent of the regime, once it had passed, the Younger Pliny, was also advanced. They have seen that there was no real evidence that Domitian tried to dispose of Agricola.

Domitian_Vaison-la-Romaine commons

A young and heroic Domitian (maarjaara: Commons)

Yet, Tacitus’ portrayal of the period is consistent with what else we know. The relations between Domitian and his senatorial opponents progressively worsened. There were suspicions. The senators did not trust the emperor. The emperor did not trust the senators. Domitian seems to have been a rather gloomy character, perhaps even solitary (Suetonius, Domitian).

Tacitus talks of fifteen years lost under this tyranny, but it was in the last three to four years that relations worsened. Enemies were removed. This is the period of ‘terror’ that Tacitus references Agricola having being spared by his early death.

It is not clear how many were killed, and this again leads to accusations of exaggeration against Tacitus. But how many needed to be killed to create such fear? At what number does the political murder of your opponents move from being acceptable to being unacceptable?

We need to remember that the aristocracy were close-knit and small in number. A man removed brought sorrow and terror to his family and friends. Would they be guilty by association? At which point would the purge stop?

How would people behave during the purge? We know from Russian politics especially that the way to survive was to acquiesce, remain quiet, follow the regime’s instructions. It is that acquiescence lies behind the collective guilt that we can read in the Agricola. In the meantime, to preserve one’s life, the unhappy dissident did one’s duty. That is the model which Tacitus presents through the life of his father-in-law. He was Domitian’s opponent, but could enjoy a glorious career by never showing any sign of being Domitian’s opponent.

One expects that these experiences were formative of Tacitus’ political ideologies. They taught him about political life and the choices that were faced by the senators under the rule of a tyrant.

As Tacitus himself remarks, history taught the senators how to behave. What did he learn from his experiences under Domitian?

Did he shape his account of Tiberius’ reign to match those experiences? Was Tiberius for



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