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"begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian.” What office he held under the first and second of these princes, there are no means of determining. The posts of Ædile and Quæstor were, however, the usual steps to the dignity of Prætor, which, as we learn from himself, he filled at the time when Domitian celebrated the Ludi Sæculares (A.D. 88). He was at the same time a member of one of the sacred colleges.
In the year following that in which he held the office of Prætor he left Rome, probably, as his father-in-law was still high in the Imperial favour, to undertake some employment in the provinces. He was still absent from the capital, when, four years afterwards, Agricola died (A. D. 93). “You,” he says (Agricola, c. 45), in his eloquent apostrophe to the dead, "had been lost to us for four years before.” There can be no doubt that he returned to Rome before the death of Domitian. His words in the closing passage of the Life of Agricola, “Our hands dragged Helvidius to prison; we witnessed the fate of Mauricus and Rusticus; we were steeped in Senecio's innocent blood," are full of the bitterness of one who had been compelled to witness deeds which he was powerless to prevent. They have even something of self-reproach in them, as if the writer, who must by this time have had a seat in the Senate, had been forced to concur in proceedings which seemed to give to these cruelties the authority of law.
In A. D. 97, the year after the accession of Nerva, Tacitus was advanced to the dignity of the Consulship. L. Verginius Rufus died during his period of office, and Tacitus was appointed to succeed him. Verginius was a man of the highest distinction, and had shown singular loyalty, courage, and wisdom during the troubles which preceded and followed the death of Nero (see Hist. I. 8, 9, 11. 68, &c.). It fell to the lot of his successor to pronounce his funeral oration in the Senate. “His eulogy was pronounced,” says Pliny (Epist. II. I), “by the Consul Cornelius Tacitus; his good fortune was crowned by finding the most eloquent of panegyrists."
In A. D. 99, he was appointed together with Pliny, who was then Consul-elect, to conduct the impeachment preferred at the instance of the province of Africa against their late Proconsul Marius Priscus. Pliny describes the trial at length (Epist. II. II). Of his colleague he says, “Cornelius Tacitus answered him (Salvius Liberalis, who had been speaking on behalf of Marius) most eloquently, and with that dignity (oeuvõs) which belongs in a remarkable degree to his oratory." The resolution which the Senate finally adopted in the matter included a vote of thanks to the two prosecutors for the efficiency with which they had conducted their cause. Here, as far as we know, terminated the public life of Tacitus. We hear, indeed, in one of Pliny's letters (VI. 9), of his interesting himself in the candidature of one Julius Naso for some public office. We may gather from this letter that he was not then living in Rome, and, perhaps, as he seems to have been ignorant of the fact that Naso had started under the auspices of Pliny, that he knew but little of what was going on in the capital.
The life of Tacitus thus seems to divide itself into two periods, the political and the literary. The date of the accession of Trajan (A. D. 98) nearly marks the termination of the one, and the commencement of the other. The new government was so vigorous that it left no room for that liberty of action which statesmen of ability had enjoyed under weaker princes. At the same time its strength was such that it could allow perfect liberty of speech. Of this privilege Tacitus was not slow to avail himself.
The Dialogue on Oratory is indeed generally ascribed to a much earlier period. One of the speakers (c. 17) uses the words “the sixth year of this happy reign with which Vespasian makes the Commonwealth prosperous.” The expression was, perhaps, intended only to fix the date of the imaginary conversation, which the author, like Cicero, with his famous Dialogues, may have found it convenient to refer to a time considerably earlier than that at which he was writing. Though the question of the authorship of this work is foreign to our present purpose,
may be remarked that the tone of this and of other passages (see c. 9) is different from that which Tacitus employs in the History when speaking of Vespasian (see II. 84, III. 34 &c.).
It appears, however, that Tacitus had acquired early in Trajan's reign considerable reputation as a man of letters. Pliny consults him (Epist. IV. 13) about a school or college which he wished to establish for the benefit of Comum, his native place. “Will you," he writes, “among those many learned men, who, from admiration of your talents, frequent your company, look out for teachers to whom we may apply?”
The life of Agricola was published shortly after the accession of Trajan (see c. 3). We may conjecture that it was followed by the treatise on Germany. Two of Pliny's letters (VII. 20 and VIII. 7) acknowledged the receipts of works, not as yet published, we may suppose, which his friend had submitted to his criticism. Meanwhile Tacitus was collecting the materials for his History. The famous letters (VI. 16 and 20), in which Pliny describes the great eruption of Vesuvius were addressed to the historian, and were written at his request, to supply authentic particulars which he might introduce into his work. There is an allusion to the subject in the opening chapters (Hist. I. 2). In a subsequent letter (VII. 33), Pliny narrates some particulars of his own conduct in the prosecution of Bæbius Massa for which he is anxious to obtain some notice. This prosecution took place A. D. 93, and Tacitus was at that time absent from Rome. “I know," he says, “that your History will be immortal, and this makes me the more anxious, I frankly confess, that my name should be introduced into it." We may gather from this that considerable progress had by this time been made with the work. Perhaps it was the book of which Pliny speaks in Epist. VIII. 7. We are strongly inclined to believe that another very interesting letter refers to it. “Some one,” Pliny writes (IX. 27), “had publicly read a very truth-telling book, reserving part of it for another day; when lo! there came to him the friends of a certain person, begging and praying him not to read the rest. So ashamed were these men to hear of what they had done, these men who felt no shame in doing what yet they blushed to bear of. He granted their request indeed; honour permitted him to do it. Yet the book, like the past, remains, and will remain, and will always be read, read the more, because not read at once." This letter may be ascribed to the year 101 (compare IX. 31). To about the same time may be referred an incident which we have from the same source (Epist. IX. 23): “I was never more pleased than I was lately by a remark of Cornelius Tacitus. He told me that at the last games in the Circus there sat next to him a Roman knight. After much learned talk his neighbour asked him, 'Are you of Italy, or from the Provinces?' Tacitus replied, “You know me, and that from your reading.' Then said the other, 'Are you Tacitus or Pliny?'”
The letters of Pliny do not refer to any period later than the year 107. The failure of this source of information leaves us in complete ignorance of the later years of Tacitus. We may infer, however, from his saying (Ann. II. 61) that the empire now reaches to the Red Sea (ad Rubrum mare patescit), that he lived down to the end of Trajan's reign, the Eastern expeditions of that Prince having occupied the years 114-117.
The Annals were written after the History. In the Annals (XI. 11) Tacitus speaks of "the book in which he had recorded the transactions of Domitian's reign." In the first chapter of the History he announces his intention to write of the times of Nerva and Trajan. It seems certain that this intention was never executed, not because “the writer's life was not long enough,” but because his purpose was changed. Doubtless he found it easier to write of the past than of his own times. The records of an extinct dynasty must have furnished a subject 'less anxious,' if not ‘more fertile,' than the reign of even so liberal a ruler as Trajan. Thus, we find him writing the Annals after the History, and in the Annals (III. 24) alluding to some future work which would embrace the time of Augustus.
Great as was the reputation which Tacitus had acquired among his contemporaries, he seems to have been almost forgotten by succeeding generations. Scarcely an allusion is made to him: there are no quotations which might have preserved for us some fragments of the missing portions of his works. We scarcely even know how much we have lost. S. Jerome tells us indeed that Tacitus wrote a history of the Cæsars in thirty books?. We may suppose that the Annals were included in sixteen books, or, perhaps, considering that two years of Nero's reign remained to be recorded, that they extended to a seventeenth. The History, if the whole was written upon the scale observed in the surviving portion of it, must have greatly exceeded the limits thus reserved for it. But the story of the first eventful year was probably told at greater length and with more detail than was required by those that followed it.
i Commentary on Zechariah, ch. xiii. The reference is to a part of the History which has perished, the account of the fall of Jerusalem.
It may be interesting to notice what may, possibly, be an exception to the statement, that we have not a single fragment of the lost books of Tacitus. The ingenuity of a modern German critic (Jacob von Bernays) has extracted from the text of the chronicle of Sulpicius Severus, a passage which may very well have been written by Tacitus. It runs as follows: “Titus, calling a council, considered the question whether he should destroy so vast an erection as the Temple. Some thought that a consecrated building, famous throughout the whole human race, ought not to be destroyed; that were it preserved, it would be a memorial of Roman moderation; that its overthrow would leave an indelible mark of cruelty. But on the other hand some, and Titus himself among them, were of opinion that the Temple more than anything else must be destroyed, that so the Jewish and the Christian superstitions might be thoroughly eradicated. These superstitions, though mutually opposed, had had their origin in the same people; the Christians had risen up from among the Jews; if the root was removed, the stem would soon perish 1."
The critic, it should be remarked, has previously shown that Severus has elsewhere borrowed from Tacitus, reproducing, for instance, the somewhat remarkable language in which the historian describes Nero's persecution of the Christians. If we may accept the passage as thus restored, it would be peculiarly interesting as contradicting the account which the Roman partisan, Josephus, has given of the destruction of the Temple.
I Titus adhibito consilio deliberavit an templum operis everteret. Etenim (nonnullis) videbatur, ædem sacratam inter omnes mortales nobilem non debere deleri, quæ servata modestiæ Romanæ testimonium, diruta perennem crudelitatis notam præberet. At contra (alii) et Titus ipse evertendum templum in primis censebant, quo penitus Judæorum et Christianorum superstitio tolleretur. Quippe has superstitiones, licet contrarias sibi, iisdem tamen auctoribus profectas; Christianos ex Judæis exstitisse; radice sublata stirpem facile perituram.