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Historians Reconsidered: Tacitus

Part of the series Historians Reconsidered
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A great historian of an age he disliked, Harold Mattingly shows how Tacitus has given posterity an incomparable picture of the early Roman Empire.

One of the great attractions of ancient history — and one of its greatest vexations — is the fact that, since relatively so little is known, one can ask far more questions than one can answer. When knowledge does advance and the circumference of our little patch of light grows, with it grows the area of the encircling unknown. So it is with our knowledge of Tacitus. We know his name, of course — Cornelius Tacitus, with praenomen Publius (P.) — though Gaius (C.) is occasionally given in late references. His father was probably that procurator of Belgica (North Gaul) of whom Pliny the Elder speaks. A procurator was a financial officer employed by the Emperor; and, as Tacitus tells us, such offices represented a sort of aristocracy in the equestrian order. Further back, the family may have descended from a client of the Cornelian “gens”; for “Tacitus” is not one of the old names associated with that “gens,” and clients commonly took the gentile name of their patrons. If this is true, as it might be, Tacitus’s own contempt for freedmen takes on a rather comic aspect. Where was he born? He has been claimed for Interamna in Umbria, but for no good reason. The Emperor Tacitus (275-276AD) is said to have come from that place and to have regarded Tacitus as his ancestor; but, the Emperor’s gentile name being Claudius, not Cornelius, the descent is most unlikely. It seems more probable that Tacitus came from one of the towns of Gallia Narbonensis, the province par excellence, as the Romans called it, which is still Provence today. A number of small indications all point in that direction. Agricola, father-in-law of Tacitus, came from Forum Julii. We know of quite a number of Gauls in the inner circle of Tacitus. His particular interest in Germany and Britain is easier to understand, if his world faced that way. One story, told in a letter of Pliny the Younger, friend and admirer of Tacitus, comes slightly nearer to direct evidence. Tacitus, he records, met and talked with a Roman knight in the circus at Rome. After some conversation, the knight asked “Are you an Italian or a provincial?” Tacitus replied: “You know me from your serious reading.” “Are you Tacitus or Pliny?” asked the knight. Let us try to fill in the missing parts of this little story. Why does the knight ask his first question? Because he recognizes in Tacitus one of the new senators whom Vespasian had brought in from the elite of Italy and the provinces — probably from the province, Narbonensis, in particular. Tacitus by implication admits that he is of that class; he does not say to which half he himself belongs, but he adds as a help that he is a literary man. The knight sees the field narrowed down. It must be either Tacitus or Pliny. Now, as there is the question of Italians and “provincials,” and as Pliny was an Italian (from Comum), is it not a reasonable inference that Tacitus was a “provincial” and, in this general setting, almost certainly a native of Narbonensis? At the moment it seems profitless to guess further.

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