Publius Cornelius Tacitus was, in my opinion, the greatest prose writer in all of Latin literature. His style is not easy - his sentence structure is complex and he is very sparing with words, so that to untangle his meaning one has to consider not just what he says but how he says it.
He was a senator and clearly a highly educated man. He lived approximately 56 AD to 117 AD. His political views were anti-imperial and, like many of his class, he longed for the return of the senate to power in Rome. We know little about his life, but a decent account of what little there is can be found in the Wikipedia article on him.
He was, given the conventions of historiography in the classical world, very scientific in his approach to history. There is quite a bit of evidence that he consulted actual participants or at least first-hand sources if he could. The most famous instance of this is two letters written to Tacitus, at Tacitus’ request, by his friend C. Plinius Secundus, called Plny the Younger by his modern friends: the letters are about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD of which Pliny had been an eye witness. The first letter is about a fatal attempt on the part of Pliny’s uncle - yep, Pliny the Elder - who was in command of the fleet in the Bay of Naples, to rescue people trapped by the eruption. The elder Pliny, a writer himself and polymath author of a monumental tome, The Natural History, lingered too long observing the phenomenon and was suffocated by the noxious gases. The second letter is about the experiences of Pliny himself and his mother, who were forced to flee for their lives - the account is really exciting and often touching to read.
Tacitus’ main works cover the history of imperial government at Rome:
- Ab Excessu Divi Augusti Annales = Annals from the death of the God Augustus, known as The Annals: a history of the Julio-Claudian emperors who succeeded Augustus, probably 14-68 AD
2.Historiae, known as The Histories, covering the wars that ensued upon Nero’s death, and then the reigns of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian (called the Flavian Emperors): AD 69 to probably AD 96.
Since most of both these works is lost, we can’t say for sure, though we do have the opening part of the Histories so we know the terminus a quo for that.
- De Vita et Moribus Iulii Agricolae = The life and character of Julius Agricola - known as The Agricola this is a biography of his father-in-law - covers some exciting history of Roman Britain.
Other minor works are an ethnographical treatise on Germany called the Germania (De Origine et Situ Germanorum = On the origin and country of the Germans) and a work on oratory, called the Dialogus (Dialogus de Oratoribus = Dialogue about the orators).
Tacitus is particularly known for the epigrams that dot his work eg a Britannic chieftain in the Agricola says, in the course of a (very accomplished!!) speech: ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant = They [the Romans] make a desert and call it peace.
He is also the earliest Roman author to mention Jesus Christ and Christianity. It is in his account of the reign of the Emperor Nero: here courtesy of Wikipedia, is the passage from the Annals (Bk XV.39-43):
So, to get rid of the report [that he had deliberately set fire to Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a group hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, first all who pleaded guilty were arrested; then, on their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had died."
Alas! Even the greatest of minds can have the most extraordinary blind spots.
btw, the Younger Pliny (the one that escaped Vesuvius) went on to become governor of a province called Bithynia (in Asia Minor) and had Christians accused before him. He wrote to the emperor, Trajan, for advice - I think this was around 112 AD. Trajan’s reply is preserved, and both letters make the most fascinating reading. The reference is Pliny X.96-97, and a quick Google threw up a decent translation at this URL:
Anyway, hope this wasn’t too long and/or boring - but showed you that you picked a good 'un for your namesake.