The Life of Tacitus


Historia Augusta


1

1

A certain measure adopted after the departure of Romulus, during the infancy of Rome's power, and recorded by the pontiffs, the duly authorized writers of history, — namely, the proclamation of a regency for the interval in which one good prince was being sought for to succeed another — was also adopted after the death of Aurelian for the space of six whole months, while the senate and the army of Rome were engaged in a contest, one that was marked not by envy and unhappiness but rather by good feeling and sense of duty.

2

This occasion, however, differed in many ways from that former undertaking. For originally, when the regency was proclaimed after the reign of Romulus, regents were actually created, and that whole year was divided up among the hundred senators for periods of three, or four, or five days apiece, in such a way that there was only one single regent who held the power.

3

From this it resulted that the regency remained in force for even more than a year, in order that there might be no one of those equal in rank who had not held the rule at Rome.

4

To this must be added that also in the time of the consuls and the military tribunes vested with consular power, whenever a regency was proclaimed there were always regents, and never did the Roman commonwealth so entirely lack this office that there was not some regent created, though it might be for only two or three days.

5

I perceive, indeed, that the argument can be brought up against me that for the space of four years during the time of our ancestors there were no curule magistrates in the commonwealth. There were, however, tribunes of the plebs vested with the tribunician power, which is the most important element of the power of a king.

6

Even so, it is nowhere stated that there were no regents in that time; and indeed it has been declared on the authority of more reliable historians that consuls were later created by regents for the purpose of conducting the election of the other magistrates.


2

1

And so the senate and people of Rome passed through an unusual and a difficult situation, namely, that for six months, while a good man was being sought, the commonwealth had no emperor.

2

What harmony there was then among the soldiers! What peace for the people! How full of weight the authority of the senate! Nowhere did any pretender arise, and the judgement of the senate, the soldiers and the people of Rome guided the entire world; it was not because they feared any emperor or the power of a tribune that they did righteously, but — what is the noblest thing in life — because they feared themselves.

3

I must, however, describe the cause of a delay so fortunate and an instance of unselfishness which should both receive special mention in the public records and be admired by future generations of the human race, in order that those who covet kingdoms may learn not to seize power but to merit it.

4

After Aurelian had been treacherously slain, as I have described in the previous book, by the trick of a most base slave and the folly of the officers (for with these any falsehood gains credence, provided only they hear it when angry, being often drunken and at best almost always devoid of counsel), when all returned again to sanity and the troops had sternly put down those persons, the question was at once raised whether any one of them all should be chosen as emperor.

5

Then the army, which was wont to create emperors hastily, in their anger at those who were present, sent to the senate the letter of which I have already written in the previous book, asking it to choose an emperor from its own numbers.

6

The senate, however, knowing that the emperors it had chosen were not acceptable to the soldiers, referred the matter back to them. And while this was being done a number of times the space of six months elapsed.


3

1

It is important, however, that it should be known how Tacitus was created emperor.

2

On the seventh day before the Kalends of October, when the most noble body had assembled in the Senate-house of Pompilius, Velius Cornificius Gordianus the consul spoke as follows:

3

"We shall now bring before you, Conscript Fathers, what we have often brought before you previously; you must choose an emperor, because it is not right for the army to remain longer without a prince, and at the same time because necessity compels.

4

For it is said that the Germans have broken through the frontier beyond the Rhine and have seized cities that are strong and famous and rich and powerful.

5

And even if we hear nothing now of any movement among the Persians, reflect that the Syrians are so light-minded that rather than submit to our righteous rule they desire even a woman to reign over them.

6

What of Africa? What of Illyricum? What of Egypt and the armies of all these regions? How long, do we suppose, can they stand firm without a prince?

7

Wherefore up, Conscript Fathers, and name a prince. For the army will either accept the one you name or, if it reject him, will choose another."


4

1

Thereupon when Tacitus, the consular whose right it was to speak his opinion first, began to express some sentiment, it is uncertain what, the whole senate acclaimed him:

2

"Tacitus Augustus, may God keep you! We choose you, we name you prince, to your care we commit the commonwealth and the world.

3

Now take the imperial power by authority of the senate, for by reason of your rank, your life and your mind you deserve it. Rightfully is the prince of the senate created Augustus, rightfully is the man whose privilege it is to speak his opinion first created our emperor.

4

Who can rule more ably than a man of authority? Who can rule more ably than a man of letters? May it prove happy, auspicious, and to the general welfare! Long have you been a commoner. You know how you should rule, for you have been subject to other princes. You know how you should rule, for on other princes you have rendered judgement."

5

Tacitus, however, replied: "I marvel, Conscript Fathers, that in the place of Aurelian, a most valiant emperor, you should wish to make an aged man your prince.

6

Behold these members, which should be able to cast a dart, to hurl a spear, to clash a shield, and, as an example for instructing the soldiery, to ride without ceasing. Scarce can I fulfill the duties of a senator, scarce can I speak the opinions to which my position constrains me.

7

Observe with greater care my advanced age, which you are now sending out from the shade of the chamber into the cold and the heat. And think you that the soldiers will welcome an old man as their emperor?

8

Look you lest you give the commonwealth a prince whom you do not really desire and lest men begin to raise this as the sole objection against me, namely, that you have chosen me unanimously."


5

1

Thereupon there were the following acclamations from the senate: "Trajan also came to power when an old man." This they said ten times. "Hadrian also came to power when an old man." This they said ten times. "Antoninus also came to power when an old man." This they said ten times. "You yourself have read, 'And the hoary beard of a Roman king.' " This they said ten times. "Can any one rule more ably than an old man?" This they said ten times. "We are choosing you as an emperor, not as a soldier. This they said twenty times.

2

"Do you but give commands, and let the soldiers fight." This they said thirty times. "You have both wisdom and an excellent brother." This they said ten times. "Severus said that it is the head that does the ruling and not the feet." This they said thirty times. "It is your mind and not your body that we are choosing." This they said twenty times. "Tacitus Augustus, may the gods keep you!"

3

Then all were asked their opinions. In addition, Maecius Faltonius Nicomachus, a senator of consular rank, whose place was next to Tacitus', addressed them as follows:


6

1

"Always indeed, Conscript Fathers, has this noble body taken wise and prudent measures for the commonwealth, and from no nation in the whole world has sounder wisdom ever been awaited. At no time, however, has a more wise or more weighty opinion been voiced in this sacred place.

2

We have chosen as prince a man advanced in years, one who will watch over all like a father. From him we need fear nothing ill-considered, nothing over hasty, nothing cruel. All his actions, we may predict, will be earnest, all dignified, and, in fact, what the commonwealth herself would command.

3

For he knows what manner of prince he has ever hoped for, and he cannot show himself to us as other than what he himself has sought and desired.

4

Indeed, if you should wish to consider those monsters of old, a Nero, I mean, an Elagabalus, a Commodus — or rather, always, an Incommodious — you would assuredly find that their vices were due as much to their youth as to the men themselves.

5

May the gods forfend that we should give the title of prince to a child or of Father of his Country to an immature boy, whose hand a schoolmaster must guide for the signing of his name and who is induced to confer a consulship by sweetmeats or toys or other such childish delights.

6

What wisdom is there — a plague upon it! — in having as emperor one who has not learned to care for fame, who knows not what the commonwealth is, who stands in dread of a guardian, who looks to a nurse, who is in subjection to the blows or the fear of a schoolmaster's rod, who appoints as consuls or generals or judges men whose lives, whose merits, whose years, whose families, whose achievements he knows not at all?

7

But why, Conscript Fathers, do I proceed farther. Let us rejoice that we have an elder as our prince, rather than recall again those times which appear more than tearful to those who endured them.

8

And so I bring and offer thanks to the gods in heaven in behalf, indeed, of the entire commonwealth, and I appeal to you, Tacitus Augustus, asking and entreating and openly demanding in the name of our common fatherland and our laws that, if Fate should overtake you too speedily, you will not name your young sons as heirs to the Roman Empire, or bequeath to them the commonwealth, the Conscript Fathers, and the Roman people as you would your farm, your tenants, and your slaves.

9

Wherefore look about you and follow the example of a Nerva, a Trajan, and a Hadrian. It is a great glory to a dying prince to love the commonwealth more than his own sons."


7

1

By this speech Tacitus himself was greatly moved and the whole senatorial order was deeply affected, and at once they shouted, "So say we all of us, all of us."

2

Thereupon they proceeded to the Campus Martius, where Tacitus mounted the assembly-platform. There Aelius Cesettianus, the prefect of the city, spoke as follows:

3

"You have now, most venerated soldiers, and you, most revered fellow-citizens, an emperor chosen by the senate at the request of all the armies, Tacitus, I mean, the most august of men, who, as he has in the past benefited the commonwealth by his counsels, will now benefit it by his commands and decrees."

4

The people then shouted, "Tacitus Augustus, most blessed, may the gods keep you!" and all else that it is customary to say.

5

At this point I must not leave it unmentioned that many writers have recorded that Tacitus, when named emperor, was absent and residing in Campania;

6

this is indeed true, and I cannot dissemble. For when the rumour spread that he was to be made emperor, he withdrew and lived for two months at his house at Baiae.

7

But after being escorted back from there he took part in this decree of the senate, as though actually a commoner and one who in truth would refuse the imperial power.


8

1

And now, lest any one consider that I have rashly put faith in some Greek or Latin writer, there is in the Ulpian Library, in the sixth case, an ivory book, in which is written out this decree of the senate, signed by Tacitus himself with his own hand.

2

For those decrees which pertained to the emperors were long inscribed in books of ivory.

3

He proceeded thence to the troops. Here also, as soon as he mounted the platform Moesius Gallicanus, the prefect of the guard, spoke as follows:

4

"The senate has given you, most venerated fellow-soldiers, the emperor you sought; and that most noble order has carried out the instructions and the wishes of the men of the camps. More I may not say, for the emperor is now present with you. Do you, then, as he speaks, listen to him with all respect, for his duty it is to watch over us."

5

Thereupon Tacitus Augustus spoke: "Trajan also came into power in his old age, but he was chosen by a single man, whereas I have been judged worthy of this title, first by you, most venerated fellow-soldiers, and then by the most noble senate. Now I will endeavour and make every effort and do my utmost that you may have no lack, if not of brave deeds, at least of counsels worthy of you and of your emperor."


9

1

After this he promised them their pay and the customary donative, and then he delivered his first speech to the senate as follows: "So surely may it be granted me, Conscript Fathers, to rule the empire in such a way that it will be apparent that I was chosen by you, as I have determined to do all things by your will and power. Yours it is, therefore, to command and enact whatsoever seems worthy of yourselves, worthy of a well-ordered army, and worthy of the Roman people."

2

In this same speech he proposed that a golden statue of Aurelian be set up in the Capitolium, likewise a silver one in the Senate-house, in the Temple of the Sun, and in the Forum of the Deified Trajan. The golden one, however, was never set up and only the silver ones were ever dedicated.

3

In the same oration he ordained that if any one, either officially or privately, alloyed silver with copper, or gold with silver, or copper with lead, it should be a capital offence, involving confiscation of property.

4

In the same speech he ordained that slaves should not be questioned against their master when on trial for his life, not even in a prosecution for treason.

5

He added the further command that every man should have a painting of Aurelian, and he ordered that a temple to the deified emperors be erected, in which should be placed the statues of the good princes, so that sacrificial cakes might be set before them on their birthdays, the Parilia, the Kalends of January, and the Day of the Vows.

6

In the same speech he asked for the consulship for his brother Florian, but this request he did not obtain for the reason that the senate had already fixed all the terms of office for the substitute consuls. It is said, moreover, that he derived great pleasure from the senate's independence of spirit, because it refused him the consulship which he had asked for his brother. Indeed he is said to have exclaimed, "The senate knows what manner of prince it has chosen."


10

1

He presented to the state the private fortune which he had in investments, amounting to two hundred and eighty million sesterces, and the money which he had accumulated in his house he used for the payment of the soldiers. He continued to wear the same togas and tunics that he had worn while a commoner.

2

He forbade the keeping of brothels in the city — which measure, indeed, could not be maintained for long. He gave orders that all public baths should be closed before the hour for lighting the lamps, that no disturbance might arise during the night.

3

He had Cornelius Tacitus, the writer of Augustan history, placed in all the libraries, claiming him as a relative; and in order that his works might not be lost through the carelessness of the readers he gave orders that ten copies of them should be made each year officially in the copying-establishments and put in the libraries.

4

He forbade any man to wear a garment made wholly of silk. He gave orders that his house should be destroyed and a public bath erected on the site at his own expense.

5

To the people of Ostia he presented from his own funds one hundred columns of Numidian marble, each twenty-three feet in height, and the estates which he owned in Mauretania he assigned for keeping the Capitolium in repair.

6

The table-silver which he had used when a commoner he dedicated to the service of the banquets to be held in the temples,

7

and all the slaves of both sexes whom he had in the city he set free, keeping the number, however, below one hundred in order not to seem to be transgressing the Caninian Law.

11

1

In his manner of living he was very temperate, so much so that in a whole day he never drank a pint of wine, and frequently less than a half-pint.

2

Even at a banquet there would be served a single cock, with the addition of a pig's jowl and some eggs. In preference to all other greens he would indulge himself without stint in lettuce, which was served in large quantities, for he used to say that he purchased sleep by this kind of lavish expenditure. He especially liked the more bitter kinds of food.

3

He took baths rarely and was all the stronger in his old age. He delighted greatly in varied and elaborate kinds of glassware. He never ate bread unless it was dry, but he flavoured it with salt and other condiments.

4

He was very skilled in the handicrafts, fond of marbles, truly senatorial in his elegance and devoted to hunting.

5

His table, indeed, was supplied only with country produce, and he never served pheasants except on his own birthday and on those of his family and on the chief festivals. He always brought back home the sacrificial victims and bade his household eat them.

6

He did not permit his wife to use jewels and also forbade her to wear garments with gold stripes. In fact, it is said that it was he who impelled Aurelian to forbid the use of gold on clothing and ceilings and leather.

7

Many other measures of his are related, but it would be too long to set them all down in writing, and if anyone desires to know everything about this man, he should read Suetonius Optatianus, who wrote his life in full detail.

8

Though he was an old man, he could read very tiny letters to an amazing degree and he never let a night go without writing or reading something except only the night following the day after the Kalends.


12

1

It must not be left unmentioned, and if it should become widely known, that so great was the joy of the senate that the power of choosing an emperor had been restored to this most noble body, that it both voted ceremonies of thanksgiving and promised a hecatomb and finally each of the senators wrote to his relatives, and not to his relatives only by also to strangers, and letters were even despatched to the provinces, all in the following vein: "Let all the allies and all foreign nations know that the commonwealth has been restored to its ancient condition, and that the senate now creates the ruler, nay rather the senate itself has been created ruler, and henceforth laws must be sought from the senate, barbarian kings bring their entreaties to the senate, and peace and war be made by authority of the senate."

2

In fact, in order that nothing may be lacking to your knowledge, I have placed many letters of this sort at the end of the book, to be read, as I think, with enjoyment, or at least without aversion.


13

1

His first care after being made emperor was to put to death all who had killed Aurelian, good and bad alike, although he had already been avenged.

2

Then with wisdom and courage he crushed the barbarians — for they had broken forth in great numbers from the district of Lake Maeotis.

3

The Maeotidae, in fact, were flocking together under the pretext of assembling by command of Aurelian for the Persian War, in order that, should necessity demand it, they might render aid to our troops.

4

Now Cicero declares that it is rather a matter for boasting to tell how one has conducted, rather than how one has obtained, the consulship; in the case of Tacitus, however, it was a noble achievement that he obtained the imperial power with such glory to himself, but by reason of the shortness of his reign he performed no great exploit.

5

For in the sixth month of his rule, he was slain, according to some, by a plot among the troops, though according to others he died of disease. It is, nevertheless, agreed among all that, crushed by plots, he grew weak both in mind and in spirit.

6

He likewise gave command that the month of September should be called Tacitus, for the reason that in that month he was not only born but also created emperor.

He was succeeded in the imperial power by his brother Florian, about whom a few things must now be related.


14

1

Florian was own brother to Tacitus, and after his brother's death he seized the imperial power, not by authorisation of the senate but on his own volition, just as though the empire were an hereditary possession, and although he knew that Tacitus had taken oath in the senate that when he came to die he would appoint as emperor not his own sons but some excellent man.

2

Finally, after holding the imperial power for scarce two months he was slain at Tarsus by the soldiers, who heard that Probus, the choice of the whole army, was now in command.

3

So great, moreover, was Probus in matters of war that the senate desired him, the soldiers elected him, and the Roman people itself demanded him by acclamations.

4

Florian was also an imitator of his brother's ways, though not in every respect. For the frugal Tacitus found fault with his lavishness, and his very eagerness to rule showed him to be of a different stamp from his brother.

5

So then there arose two princes from one house, of whom the one ruled for six months and the other for scarce two — merely regents, so to speak, between Aurelian and Probus, and themselves named princes after a regency.


15

1

Their two statues, made of marble and thirty feet in height, were set up at Interamna, for there cenotaphs were erected to them on their own land; but these were struck by lightning and so thoroughly broken that they lay scattered in fragments.

2

On this occasion the soothsayers foretold that at some future time there would be a Roman emperor from their family, descended through either the male or the female line, who would give judges to the Parthians and the Persians, subject the Franks and the Alamanni to the laws of Rome, drive out every barbarian from the whole of Africa, establish a governor at Taprobane, send a proconsul to the island of Iuverna, act as judge to all the Sarmatians, make all the land which borders on the Ocean his own territory by conquering all the tribes, but thereafter restore the power to the senate and conduct himself in accordance with the ancient laws, being destined to live for one hundred and twenty years and to die without an heir.

3

They declared, moreover, that he would come one thousand years from the day when the lightning struck and shattered the statues.

4

It showed no great skill, indeed, on the soothsayers' part to declare that such a prince would come after an interval of one thousand years, for their promise applied to a time when such a story will scarce be remembered, whereas, if they had said one hundred years, their falsehood could perhaps be detected.

5

All this, nevertheless, I thought should be included in this volume for the reason that someone who reads me might think that I had not read.


16

1

Tacitus scarcely gave a largess to the Roman people in six months' time.

2

His portrait was placed in the house of the Quintilii, representing him in five ways on a single panel, once in a toga, once in a military cloak, once in armour, once in a Greek mantle, and once in the garb of a hunter.

3

Of this picture, indeed, a writer of epigrams made mock, saying: "I do not recognise the old man in the armour, I do not recognise the man in the military cloak," and so forth, "but I do recognise the man in the toga."

4

Both Florian and Tacitus left many children, whose descendants, I suppose, are awaiting the coming of the thousandth year. About them many epigrams were written, ridiculing the soothsayers who made the promise of the imperial power.

5

This is all that I remember learning about the lives of Tacitus and Florian that is worthy of record.

6

Now we must take up Probus, a man of note both at home and abroad, and one to be preferred to Aurelian, to Trajan, to Hadrian, to the Antonines, to Alexander, and to Claudius, for the reason that, while they had various virtues, he had all combined and to a surpassing degree. He was made emperor after Tacitus by the vote of all good men, and he ruled a world to which he had brought perfect peace by destroying barbarian tribes and by destroying also the very many pretenders who arose in his time, and about him it was said that he was worthy to be called Probus even if that had not been his name. Many, indeed, declare that he was even foretold by the Sibylline books, and had he but lived longer the world would contain no barbarians.

7

These statements about him I thought should be given in the life of others as a foretaste, lest the day, the hour, and the moment should put forth some claim against me because my fate is destined, and I should die without mention of Probus.

8

Now, since I have for the time satisfied my zeal, I will bring this book to a close, believing that I have given satisfactory expression to my devotion and my desire.


17

1

The omens that predicted the rule of Tacitus were the following: A certain madman in the Temple of Silvanus was seized with a stiffening of the limbs and shouted out, "There is tacit purple, there is tacit purple," and so on for seven times; and this, indeed, was later regarded as an omen.

2

The wine, moreover, with which Tacitus was about to pour a libation in the Temple of Hercules Fundanius, suddenly turned purple,

3

and a vine, which had previously borne white Aminnian grapes, in the year in which he gained the imperial power bore grapes of a purple colour. Very many other things, too, turned purple.

4

Now the omens predicting his death were these: His father's tomb burst its doors asunder and opened of its own accord. His mother's shade appeared in the daytime as though alive to Tacitus and to Florian as well — it is said, indeed, that they had different fathers. All the gods in their private chapel fell down, overthrown either by an earthquake or by some mischance.

5

The statue of Apollo, worshipped by them both, was found removed from the top of its pedestal and laid on a couch, all without the agency of any human hand. But to what end shall I proceed further? There are others to relate these things; let us save ourselves for Probus and for Probus' famous deeds.


18

1

Now since I have promised to quote some of the letters which showed the joy of the senate when Tacitus was created emperor, I will append the following and then make an end of writing.

2

The official letters:

"From the most noble senate to the council of Carthage, greeting. May it prove happy, auspicious, of good omen, and to the welfare of the commonwealth and of the Roman world! The right of conferring the imperial power, of naming an emperor, and of entitling him Augustus has been restored to us.

3

To us, therefore, you will now refer all matters of importance. Every appeal shall now be made to the prefect of the city, but it shall come up to him from the proconsuls and the regular judges.

4

And herein, we believe, your authority also has been restored to its ancient condition, for this body is now supreme, and in recovering its own power it is preserving the rights of others as well."

5

Another letter:

"From the most noble senate to the council of the Treviri. We believe that you are rejoicing that you are free and have ever been free. The power to create the emperor has been restored to the senate, and at the same time the prefect of the city has been authorized to hear all appeals."

6

After the same manner letters were written to the people of Antioch, of Aquileia, of Milan, of Alexandria, of Thessalonica, of Corinth, and of Athens.


19

1

The private letters, moreover, were as follows:

"From Autronius Tiberianus to Autronius Justus his father, greeting. Now at last it is fitting, my revered father, for you to be present in the most noble senate, and now to speak your opinion, for so greatly has the authority of that noble body increased that, now that the commonwealth has been restored to its ancient position, we name the princes, we create the emperors, we, in fine, give the Augusti their title.

2

Now look to it that you grow strong, ready to be present once more in the ancient Senate-house. We have recovered the proconsular command, and to the prefect of the city have been restored the appeals from every office and from every rank."

3

Likewise another letter:

"From Claudius Sapilianus to Cereius Maecianus his uncle, greeting. We have obtained, revered sir, what we have always desired; the senate has been restored to its ancient position. We now create the emperors and in our body is vested every power.

4

All thanks to the Roman army, aye, Roman in truth! It has restored to us the power which we always held.

5

Now away with retirement to Baiae and Puteoli! Present yourself in the city, present yourself in the Senate-house. Happy is Rome, happy the entire commonwealth. We name the emperors, we create the princes; and we who have begun to create are also able to depose. To the wise a word is sufficient."

6

It would be too long to include all the letters that I have found and read. I will say only this much, that all the senators were so carried away by joy that they all in their houses sacrificed white victims, uncovered everywhere the portraits of their ancestors, sat arrayed in white garments, served more sumptuous banquets, and supposed that the ancient times had been restored.