Home>P. Cornelius Tacitus

P. Cornelius Tacitus




BOOK V, A.D. 70

EARLY in this year Titus Caesar, who had been selected by his father to complete the subjugation of Judaea, and who had gained distinction as a soldier while both were still subjects, began to rise in power and reputation, as armies and provinces emulated each other in their attachment to him. The young man himself, anxious to be thought superior to his station, was ever displaying his gracefulness and his energy in war. By his courtesy and affability he called forth a willing obedience, and he often mixed with the common soldiers, while working or marching, without impairing his dignity as general. He found in Judaea three legions, the 5th, the 10th, and the 15th, all old troops of Vespasian’s. To these he added the 12th from Syria, and some men belonging to the 18th and 3rd, whom he had withdrawn from Alexandria. This force was accompanied by twenty cohorts of allied troops and eight squadrons of cavalry, by the two kings Agrippa and Sohemus, by the auxiliary forces of king Antiochus, by a strong contingent of Arabs, who hated the Jews with the usual hatred of neighbours, and, lastly, by many persons brought from the capital and from Italy by private hopes of securing the yet unengaged affections of the Prince. With this force Titus entered the enemy’s territory, preserving strict order on his march, reconnoitring every spot, and always ready to give battle. At last he encamped near Jerusalem.

As I am about to relate the last days of a famous city, it seems appropriate to throw some light on its origin.

Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete, who settled on the nearest coast of Africa about the time when Saturn was driven from his throne by the power of Jupiter. Evidence of this is sought in the name. There is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighbouring tribe, the Idaei, came to be called Judaei by a barbarous lengthening of the national name. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt, led by Hierosolymus and Judas, discharged itself into the neighbouring countries. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin, who in the time of king Cepheus were driven by fear and hatred of their neighbours to seek a new dwelling–place. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde who, not having sufficient territory, took possession of part of Egypt, and founded cities of their own in what is called the Hebrew country, lying on the borders of Syria. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer, who called the city which they founded Hierosolyma after their own name.

Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moyses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven–sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random. Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock shaded by trees. Moyses followed them, and, guided by the appearance of a grassy spot, discovered an abundant spring of water. This furnished relief. After a continuous journey for six days, on the seventh they possessed themselves of a country, from which they expelled the inhabitants, and in which they founded a city and a temple.

Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practised by other men. Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden. In their holy place they have consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings. They slay the ram, seemingly in derision of Hammon, and they sacrifice the ox, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis. They abstain from swine’s flesh, in consideration of what they suffered when they were infected by the leprosy to which this animal is liable. By their frequent fasts they still bear witness to the long hunger of former days, and the Jewish bread, made without leaven, is retained as a memorial of their hurried seizure of corn. We are told that the rest of the seventh day was adopted, because this day brought with it a termination of their toils; after a while the charm of indolence beguilded them into giving up the seventh year also to inaction. But others say that it is an observance in honour of Saturn, either from the primitive elements of their faith having been transmitted from the Idaei, who are said to have shared the flight of that God, and to have founded the race, or from the circumstance that of the seven stars which rule the destinies of men Saturn moves in the highest orbit and with the mightiest power, and that many of the heavenly bodies complete their revolutions and courses in multiples of seven.

This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful. Circumcision was adopted by them as a mark of difference from other men. Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice, and have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at nought parents, children, and brethren. Still they provide for the increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly–born infant. They hold that the souls of all who perish in battle or by the hands of the executioner are immortal. Hence a passion for propagating their race and a contempt for death. They are wont to bury rather than to burn their dead, following in this the Egyptian cus tom; they bestow the same care on the dead, and they hold the same belief about the lower world. Quite different is their faith about things divine. The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors. From the fact, however, that their priests used to chant to the music of flutes and cymbals, and to wear garlands of ivy, and that a golden vine was found in the temple, some have thought that they worshipped father Liber, the conqueror of the East, though their institutions do not by any means harmonize with the theory; for Liber established a festive and cheerful worship, while the Jewish religion is tasteless and mean.

Eastward the country is bounded by Arabia; to the south lies Egypt; on the west are Phoenicia and the Mediterranean. Northward it commands an extensive prospect over Syria. The inhabitants are healthy and able to bear fatigue. Rain is uncommon, but the soil is fertile. Its products resemble our own. They have, besides, the balsam–tree and the palm. The palm–groves are tall and graceful. The balsam is a shrub; each branch, as it fills with sap, may be pierced with a fragment of stone or pottery. If steel is employed, the veins shrink up. The sap is used by physicians. Libanus is the principal mountain, and has, strange to say, amidst these burning heats, a summit shaded with trees and never deserted by its snows. The same range supplies and sends forth the stream of the Jordan. This river does not discharge itself into the sea, but flows entire through two lakes, and is lost in the third. This is a lake of vast circumference; it resembles the sea, but is more nauseous in taste; it breeds pestilence among those who live near by its noisome odour; it cannot be moved by the wind, and it affords no home either to fish or water–birds. These strange waters support what is thrown upon them, as on a solid surface, and all persons, whether they can swim or no, are equally buoyed up by the waves. At a certain season of the year the lake throws up bitumen, and the method of collecting it has been taught by that experience which teaches all other arts. It is naturally a fluid of dark colour; when vinegar is sprinkled upon it, it coagulates and floats upon the surface. Those whose business it is take it with the hand, and draw it on to the deck of the boat; it then continues of itself to flow in and lade the vessel till the stream is cut off. Nor can this be done by any instrument of brass or iron. It shrinks from blood or any cloth stained by the menstrua of women. Such is the account of old authors; but those who know the country say that the bitumen moves in heaving masses on the water, that it is drawn by hand to the shore, and that there, when dried by the evaporation of the earth and the power of the sun, it is cut into pieces with axes and wedges just as timber or stone would be.

Not far from this lake lies a plain, once fertile, they say, and the site of great cities, but afterwards struck by lightning and consumed. Of this event, they declare, traces still remain, for the soil, which is scorched in appearance, has lost its productive power. Everything that grows spontaneously, as well as what is planted by hand, either when the leaf or flower have been developed, or after maturing in the usual form, becomes black and rotten, and crumbles into a kind of dust. I am ready to allow, on the one hand, that cities, once famous, may have been consumed by fire from heaven, while, on the other, I imagine that the earth is infected by the exhalations of the lake, that the surrounding air is tainted, and that thus the growth of harvest and the fruits of autumn decay under the equally noxious influences of soil and climate. The river Belus also flows into the Jewish sea. About its mouth is a kind of sand which is collected, mixed with nitre, and fused into glass. This shore is of limited extent, but furnishes an inexhaustible supply to the exporter.

A great part of Judaea consists of scattered villages. They have also towns. Jersualem is the capital. There stood a temple of immense wealth. First came the city with its fortifications, then the royal palace, then, within the innermost defences, the temple itself. Only the Jew might approach the gates; all but priests were forbidden to pass the threshold. While the East was under the sway of the Assyrians, the Medes, and the Persians, Jews were the most contemptible of the subject tribes. When the Macedonians became supreme, King Antiochus strove to destroy the national superstition, and to introduce Greek civilization, but was prevented by his war with the Parthians from at all improving this vilest of nations; for at this time the revolt of Arsaces had taken place. The Macedonian power was now weak, while the Parthian had not yet reached its full strength, and, as the Romans were still far off, the Jews chose kings for themselves. Expelled by the fickle populace, and regaining their throne by force of arms, these princes, while they ventured on the wholesale banishment of their subjects, on the destruction of cities, on the murder of brothers, wives, and parents, and the other usual atrocities of despots, fostered the national superstition by appropriating the dignity of the priesthood as the support of their political power.

Cneius Pompeius was the first of our countrymen to subdue the Jews. Availing himself of the right of conquest, he entered the temple. Thus it became commonly known that the place stood empty with no similitude of gods within, and that the shrine had nothing to reveal. The walls of Jerusalem were destroyed, the temple was left standing. After these provinces had fallen, in the course of our civil wars, into the hands of Marcus Antonius, Pacorus, king of the Parthians, seized Judaea. He was slain by Publius Ventidius, and the Parthians were driven back over the Euphrates. Caius Sosius reduced the Jews to subjection. The royal power, which had been bestowed by Antony on Herod, was augmented by the victorious Augustus. On Herod’s death, one Simon, without waiting for the approbation of the Emperor, usurped the title of king. He was punished by Quintilius Varus then governor of Syria, and the nation, with its liberties curtailed, was divided into three provinces under the sons of Herod. Under Tiberius all was quiet. But when the Jews were ordered by Caligula to set up his statue in the temple, they preferred the alternative of war. The death of the Emperor put an end to the disturbance. The kings were either dead, or reduced to insignificance, when Claudius entrusted the province of Judaea to the Roman Knights or to his own freedmen, one of whom, Antonius Felix, indulging in every kind of barbarity and lust, exercised the power of a king in the spirit of a slave. He had married Drusilla, the granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra, and so was the grandson–in–law, as Claudius was the grandson, of Antony.

Yet the endurance of the Jews lasted till Gessius Florus was procurator. In his time the war broke out. Cestius Gallus, legate of Syria, who attempted to crush it, had to fight several battles, generally with ill–success. Cestius dying, either in the course of nature, or from vexation, Vespasian was sent by Nero, and by help of his good fortune, his high reputation, and his excellent subordinates, succeeded within the space of two summers in occupying with his victorious army the whole of the level country and all the cities, except Jerusalem. The following year had been wholly taken up with civil strife, and had passed, as far as the Jews were concerned, in inaction. Peace having been established in Italy, foreign affairs were once more remembered. Our indignation was heightened by the circumstance that the Jews alone had not submitted. At the same time it was held to be more expedient, in reference to the possible results and contingencies of the new reign, that Titus should remain with the army.

Accordingly he pitched his camp, as I have related, before the walls of Jerusalem, and displayed his legions in order of battle.

The Jews formed their line close under their walls, whence, if successful, they might venture to advance, and where, if repulsed, they had a refuge at hand. The cavalry with some light infantry was sent to attack them, and fought without any decisive result. Shortly afterwards the enemy retreated. During the following days they fought a series of engagements in front of the gates, till they were driven within the walls by continual defeats. The Romans then began to prepare for an assault. It seemed beneath them to await the result of famine. The army demanded the more perilous alternative, some prompted by courage, many by sheer ferocity and greed of gain. Titus himself had Rome with all its wealth and pleasures before his eyes. Jerusalem must fall at once, or it would delay his enjoyment of them. But the commanding situation of the city had been strengthened by enormous works which would have been a thorough defence even for level ground. Two hills of great height were fenced in by walls which had been skilfully obliqued or bent inwards, in such a manner that the flank of an assailant was exposed to missiles. The rock terminated in a precipice; the towers were raised to a height of sixty feet, where the hill lent its aid to the fortifications, where the ground fell, to a height of one hundred and twenty. They had a marvellous appearance, and to a distant spectator seemed to be of uniform elevation. Within were other walls surrounding the palace, and, rising to a conspicuous height, the tower Antonia, so called by Herod, in honour of Marcus Antonius.

The temple resembled a citadel, and had its own walls, which were more laboriously constructed than the others. Even the colonnades with which it was surrounded formed an admirable outwork. It contained an inexhaustible spring; there were subterranean excavations in the hill, and tanks and cisterns for holding rain water. The founders of the state had foreseen that frequent wars would result from the singularity of its customs, and so had made every provision against the most protracted siege. After the capture of their city by Pompey, experience and apprehension taught them much. Availing themselves of the sordid policy of the Claudian era to purchase the right of fortification, they raised in time of peace such walls as were suited for war. Their numbers were increased by a vast rabble collected from the overthrow of the other cities. All the most obstinate rebels had escaped into the place, and perpetual seditions were the consequence. There were three generals, and as many armies. Simon held the outer and larger circuit of walls. John, also called Bargioras, occupied the middle city. Eleazar had fortified the temple. John and Simon were strong in numbers and equipment, Eleazar in position. There were continual skirmishes, surprises, and incendiary fires, and a vast quantity of corn was burnt. Before long John sent some emissaries, who, under pretence of sacrificing, slaughtered Eleazar and his partisans, and gained possession of the temple. The city was thus divided between two factions, till, as the Romans approached, war with the foreigner brought about a reconciliation.

Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth. I have heard that the total number of the besieged, of every age and both sexes, amounted to six hundred thousand. All who were able bore arms, and a number, more than proportionate to the population, had the courage to do so. Men and women showed equal resolution, and life seemed more terrible than death, if they were to be forced to leave their country. Such was this city and nation; and Titus Caesar, seeing that the position forbad an assault or any of the more rapid operations of war, determined to proceed by earthworks and covered approaches. The legions had their respective duties assigned to them, and there was a cessation from fighting, till all the inventions, used in ancient warfare, or devised by modern ingenuity for the reduction of cities, were constructed.

Meanwhile Civilis, having recruited his army from Germany after his defeat among the Treveri, took up his position at the Old Camp, where his situation would protect him, and where the courage of his barbarian troops would be raised by the recollection of successes gained on the spot. He was followed to this place by Cerialis, whose forces had now been doubled by the arrival of the 2nd, 6th, and 14th legions. The auxiliary infantry and cavalry, summoned long before, had hastened to join him after his victory. Neither of the generals loved delay. But a wide extent of plain naturally saturated with water kept them apart. Civilis had also thrown a dam obliquely across the Rhine, so that the stream, diverted by the obstacle, might overflow the adjacent country. Such was the character of the district, full of hidden perils from the varying depth of the fords, and unfavourable to our troops. The Roman soldier is heavily armed and afraid to swim, while the German, who is accustomed to rivers, is favoured by the lightness of his equipment and the height of his stature.

The Batavi provoking a conflict, the struggle was at once begun by all the boldest spirits among our troops, but a panic arose, when they saw arms and horses swallowed up in the vast depths of the marshes. The Germans leapt lightly through the well–known shallows, and frequently, quitting the front, hung on the rear and flanks of our army. It was neither the close nor the distant fighting of a land–battle; it was more like a naval contest. Struggling among the waters, or exerting every limb where they found any firm footing, the wounded and the unhurt, those who could swim and those who could not, were involved in one common destruction. The loss however was less than might have been expected from the confusion, for the Germans, not venturing to leave the morass, returned to their camp. The result of this battle roused both generals, though from different motives, to hasten on the final struggle. Civilis was anxious to follow up his success; Cerialis to wipe out his disgrace. The Germans were flushed with success; the Romans were thoroughly roused by shame. The barbarians spent the night in singing and shouting; our men in rage and threats of vengeance.

Next morning Cerialis formed his front with the cavalry and auxiliary infantry; in the second line were posted the legions, the general reserving a picked force for unforeseen contingencies. Civilis confronted him with his troops ranged, not in line, but in columns. On the right were the Batavi and the Gugerni; the left, which was nearer the river, was occupied by the Transrhenane tribes. The exhortations of the generals were not addressed as formal harangues to the assembled armies, but to the divisions separately, as they rode along the line. Cerialis spoke of the old glory of the Roman name, of former and of recent victories; he told them that in destroying for ever their treacherous, cowardly, and beaten foe, they had to execute a punishment, rather than to fight a battle. They had lately contended with a superior force, and yet the Germans, the strength of the hostile army, had been routed; a few were left, who carried terror in their hearts and scars upon their backs. He addressed to the several legions appropriate appeals. The 14th were styled the “Conquerors of Britain”; the powerful influence of the 6th had made Galba Emperor; the men of the 2nd were in that battle first to consecrate their new standards and new eagle. Then riding up to the army of Germany, he stretched forth his hand, and implored them to recover their river bank and their camp by the slaughter of the foe. A joyful shout arose from the whole army, some of whom after long peace lusted for battle, while others, weary of war, desired peace; all were looking for rewards and for future repose.

Nor did Civilis marshal his army in silence. He called the field of battle to bear witness to their valour. He told the Germans and Batavians that they were standing on the monuments of their glory, that they were treading under foot the ashes and bones of legions. “Wherever,” he said, “the Roman turns his eyes, captivity, disaster, and everything that is terrible, confront him. Do not be alarmed by the adverse result of the battle among the Treveri. There, their own success proved hurtful to the Germans, for, throwing away their arms, they hampered their hands with plunder. Since then everything has been favourable to us, and against the foe. All precautions, which the skill of a general should take, have been taken. Here are these flooded plains which we know so well, here the marshes so fatal to the enemy. The Rhine and the Gods of Germany are in your sight. Under their auspices give battle, remembering your wives, your parents, and your father–land. This day will either be the most glorious among the deeds of the past, or will be infamous in the eyes of posterity.” These words were hailed, according to their custom, with the clash of arms and with wild antics, and then the battle was commenced by a discharge of stones, leaden balls, and other missiles, our soldiers not entering the morass, while the Germans sought to provoke, and so draw them on.

When their store of missiles was spent, and the battle grew hotter, a fiercer onslaught was made by the enemy. Their tall stature and very long spears enabled them, without closing, to wound our men, who were wavering and unsteady. At the same time a column of the Bructeri swam across from the dam, which I have described as carried out into the river. Here there was some confusion. The line of the allied infantry was being driven back, when the legions took up the contest. The fury of the enemy was checked, and the battle again became equal. At the same time a Batavian deserter came up to Cerialis, offering an opportunity of attacking the enemy’s rear, if some cavalry were sent along the edge of the morass. The ground there was firm, and the Gugerni, to whom the post had been allotted, were careless. Two squadrons were sent with the deserter, and outflanked the unsuspecting enemy. At the shout that announced this success, the legions charged in front. The Germans were routed, and fled towards the Rhine. The war would have been finished that day, if the fleet had hastened to come up. As it was, the cavalry did not pursue, for a storm of rain suddenly fell, and night was at hand.

The next day the 14th legion was sent into the Upper Province to join Gallus Annius. The 10th, which had arrived from Spain, supplied its place in the army of Cerialis. Civilis was joined by some auxiliaries from the Chauci. Nevertheless he did not venture to fight for the defence of the Batavian capital, but carrying off property that could be removed, and setting fire to the remainder, he retreated into the island, aware that there were not vessels enough for constructing a bridge, and that the Roman army could not cross the river in any other way. He also demolished the dyke, constructed by Drusus Germanicus, and, by destroying this barrier, sent the river flowing down a steep channel on the side of Gaul. The river having been thus, so to speak, diverted, the narrowness of the channel between the island and Germany created an appearance of an uninterrupted surface of dry ground. Tutor, Classicus, and one hundred and thirteen senators of the Treveri, also crossed the Rhine. Among them was Alpinius Montanus, of whose mission into Gaul by Antonius I have already spoken. He was accompanied by his brother Decimus Alpinius. His other adherents were now endeavouring to collect auxiliaries among these danger–loving tribes by appeals to their pity and their greed.

The war was so far from being at an end, that Civilis in one day attacked on four points the positions of the auxiliary infantry and cavalry and of the legions, assailing the tenth legion at Arenacum, the second at Batavodurum, and the camp of the auxiliary infantry and cavalry at Grinnes and Vada, and so dividing his forces, that he himself, his sister’s son Verax, Classicus, and Tutor, led each his own division. They were not confident of accomplishing all these objects, but they hoped that, if they made many ventures, fortune would favour them on some one point. Besides, Cerialis was not cautious, and might easily be intercepted, as the multiplicity of tidings hurried him from place to place. The force, which had to attack the tenth legion, thinking it a hard matter to storm a legionary encampment, surprised some troops, who had gone out, and were busy felling timber, killed the prefect of the camp, five centurions of the first rank, and a few soldiers; the rest found shelter behind the fortifications. At Batavodurum the German troops tried to break down the bridge partly built. Night terminated an indecisive conflict.

There was greater danger at Grinnes and Vada. Civilis attacked Vada, Classicus Grinnes, and they could not be checked, for our bravest men had fallen, among them Briganticus, who commanded a squadron of cavalry, and of whose loyalty to the Roman cause and enmity to his uncle Civilis I have already spoken. But when Cerialis came up with a picked body of cavalry, the fortune of the day changed, and the Germans were driven headlong into the river. Civilis, who was recognised while seeking to stop his flying troops, became the mark of many missiles, left his horse, and swam across the river. Verax escaped in the same way. Some light vessels were brought up, and carried off Tutor and Classicus. Even on this occasion the Roman fleet was not present at the engagement, though orders had been given to that effect. Fear kept them away, and their crews were dispersed about other military duties. Cerialis in fact allowed too little time for executing his commands; he was hasty in his plans, though eminently successful in their results. Fortune helped him even where skill had failed, and so both the general and his army became less careful about discipline. A few days after this he escaped the peril of actual capture, but not without great disgrace.

He had gone to Novesium and Bonna, to inspect the camps which were then in course of erection for the winter abode of the legions, and was making his way back with the fleet, his escort being in disorder, and his sentries negligent. This was observed by the Germans, and they planned a surprise. They chose a dark and cloudy night, and moving rapidly down the stream, entered the entrenchments without opposition. The carnage was at first helped on by a cunning device. They cut the ropes of the tents, and slaughtered the soldiers as they lay buried beneath their own dwellings. Another force put the fleet into confusion, threw their grapling irons on the vessels, and dragged them away by the sterns. They sought at first to elude notice by silence, but when the slaughter was begun, by way of increasing the panic they raised on all sides a deafening shout. The Romans, awakened by sounds, looked for their arms and rushed through the passages of the camp, some few with their proper accoutrements, but most with their garments wrapped round their shoulders, and with drawn swords in their hands. The general, who was half asleep, and all but naked, was saved by the enemy’s mistake. They carried off the praetorian vessel, which was distinguished by a flag, believing that the general was on board. Cerialis indeed had passed the night elsewhere, in the company, as many believed, of an Ubian woman, Claudia Sacrata. The sentinels sought to excuse their own scandalous neglect by the disgraceful conduct of the general, alleging that they had been ordered to be silent, that they might not disturb his rest, and that, from omitting the watchwords and the usual challenges, they had themselves fallen asleep. The enemy rowed back in broad daylight with the captured vessels. The praetorian trireme they towed up the river Lupia as a present to Veleda.

Civilis was seized by a desire to make a naval demonstration. He manned all the triremes that he had, and such vessels as were propelled by a single bank of oars. To these he added a vast number of boats. He put in each three or four hundred men, the usual complement of a Liburnian galley. With these were the captured vessels, in which, picturesquely enough, plaids of various colours were used for sails. The place selected was an expanse of water, not unlike the sea, where the mouth of the Mosa serves to discharge the Rhine into the ocean. The motive for equipping this fleet was, to say nothing of the natural vanity of this people, a desire to intercept, by this alarming demonstration, the supplies that were approaching from Gaul. Cerialis, more in astonishment than alarm, drew up his fleet in line, and, though inferior in numbers, it had the advantage in the experience of the crews, the skill of the pilots, and the size of the vessels. The Romans had the stream with them, the enemy’s vessels were propelled by the wind. Thus passing each other, they separated after a brief discharge of light missiles. Civilis attempted nothing more, and retired to the other side of the Rhine. Cerialis mercilessly ravaged the Island of the Batavi, but, with a policy familiar to commanders, left untouched the estates and houses of Civilis. Meanwhile, however, the autumn was far advanced, and the river, swollen by the continual rains of the season, overflowed the island, marshy and low–lying as it is, till it resembled a lake. There were no ships, no provisions at hand, and the camp, which was situated on low ground, was in process of being carried away by the force of the stream.

That the legions might then have been crushed, and that the Germans wished to crush them, but were turned from their purpose by his own craft, was claimed as a merit by Civilis; nor is it unlike the truth, since a capitulation followed in a few days. Cerialis, sending secret emissaries, had held out the prospect of peace to the Batavi, and of pardon to Civilis, while he advised Veleda and her relatives to change by a well–timed service to the Roman people the fortune of war, which so many disasters had shewn to be adverse. He reminded them that the Treveri had been beaten, that the Ubii had submitted, that the Batavi had had their country taken from them, and that from the friendship of Civilis nothing else had been gained but wounds, defeat, and mourning; an exile and a fugitive he could only be a burden to those who entertained him, and they had already trespassed enough in crossing the Rhine so often. If they attempted anything more, on their side would be the wrong and the guilt, with the Romans the vengeance of heaven.

Thus promises were mingled with threats. When the fidelity of the Transrhenane tribes had been thus shaken, among the Batavi also there arose debates. “We can no longer,” they said, “postpone our ruin. The servitude of the whole world cannot be averted by a single nation. What has been accomplished by destroying legions with fire and sword, but that more legions and stronger have been brought up? If it was for Vespasian that we fought this war, then Vespasian rules the world; if we meant to challenge to battle the Roman people, then what a mere fraction of the human race are the Batavi! Look at the Rhaetians and Noricans, at the burdens borne by the other allies. No tribute, but valour and manhood are demanded of us. This is the next thing to liberty, and if we must choose between masters, then we may more honourably bear with the Emperors of Rome, than with the women of the Germans.” Such were the murmurs of the lower class; the nobles spoke in fiercer language. “We have been driven into war,” they said, “by the fury of Civilis. He sought to counterbalance his private wrongs by the destruction of his nation. Then were the Gods angry with the Batavi when the legions were besieged, when the legates were slain, when the war, so necessary to that one man, so fatal to us, was begun. We are at the last extremity, unless we think of repenting, and avow our repentance by punishing the guilty.”

These dispositions did not escape the notice of Civilis. He determined to anticipate them, moved not only by weariness of his sufferings, but also by that clinging to life which often breaks the noblest spirits. He asked for a conference. The bridge over the river Nabalia was cut down, and the two generals advanced to the broken extremities. Civilis thus opened the conference:– “If it were before a legate of Vitellius that I were defending myself, my acts would deserve no pardon, my words no credit. All the relations between us were those of hatred and hostility, first made so by him, and afterwards embittered by me. My respect for Vespasian is of long standing. While he was still a subject, we were called friends. This was known to Primus Antonius, whose letters urged me to take up arms, for he feared lest the legions of Germany and the youth of Gaul should cross the Alps. What Antonius advised by his letters, Hordeonius suggested by word of mouth. I fought the same battle in Germany, as did Mucianus in Syria, Aponius in Moesia, Flavianus in Pannonia.”

[At this point the Histories break off. We do not know what happened to Civilis. The Batavians seem to have received favorable treatment.]


Tacitus and his manuscripts1
By Roger Pearse


There are quite a number of misleading statements about this subject circulating on the internet, including the curious idea that Tacitus was forged in the 14th century by Poggio Bracciolini.  This page has been written to place the facts at the disposal of those interested, and references to more information.  The intended audience is the interested layman.  All this material is derived from the sources listed.

I’ve also added a short paragraph on the allegations that Tacitus’ works were forged.

The works of Tacitus that have come down to us are as follows:

Annales, 1-6
Annales, 11-16, Historiae
Minor Works

The titles Annales and Historiae are 16th century, as the manuscripts present both works under the title Ab excessu divi AugustiHistoriae 1-5 appear as books 17-21 in the MS.

It is generally accepted “that Tacitus completed the Historiae in 14 books, and then wrote 16 books Ab excessu Divi Augusti, but did not complete the prolegomenary and supplemental works which he had projected.  The result, therefore, was two historical works which were subsequently combined, possibly by the author but more probably by a later editor, into a single sequence of 30 books numbered consecutively.  The existence of such a consolidated edition is implied in Jerome’s oft-quoted reference (Comm. ad Zach. 3, 14; = Migne, 25, 1522) to the triginta volumina (= libri) of the Tacitean ‘vitae Caesarum,’ and confirmed by the subscriptions in the Second Medicean manuscript, in which we clearly have the remains of a consolidated edition.  At the end of the second book of Historiae, for example, the colophon reads: Cornelij tacitj. || Liber octauus decim; expljcit. || Incipit nonus decimus.  This numbering is certainly taken from the mutilated archetype from which the Second Medicean was copied, and may therefore be presumed to be ancient.”.2

Annales 1-67

The first 6 books of the Annales survive in a single manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence, where it is MS. plut. 68.1.  Since this is the library of the Medici prince, Lorenzo the Magnificent, it is naturally called the Codex Mediceus, or M for short.

This MS was written around 850AD in Germany.  The distinctive type of script suggests the event took place in the scriptorium of the Benedictine abbey of Fulda, and this is supported by an explicit reference to Tacitus in the Annales Fuldenses for 852 (Cornelius Tacitus, scriptor rerum a Romanis in ea gente gestarum) which seems to show knowledge of Ann. 2,9.

The script is a pre-carolingian hand which the scribe is changing to Carolingian minuscule, together with occasional small plain majuscules (a 9th century derivative of rustic capitals), a more ornamental version of these letters with decorative shading and some uncial elements, and also a few much larger and heavier capitals of essentially rustic form.  It is generally agreed that it was copied from a text written in ‘insular’ script which was copied from a manuscript in ‘rustic capitals’, and it has been suggested that this latter was at least 4th and probably 3rd century, based on an analysis of errors made in copying the titulature and colophons of each book, which are most easily explained if these errors occurred in copying a volume written in the early period in which prose texts were normally written in comparatively large letters and very narrow columns, and the colophons were not laid out in the manner common in 5th century and later books.2

The MS as originally written also included a good copy of the 9-book version of the letters of the younger Pliny (now separately bound as Laurentianus plut. 47.36).

At some time after it was written, the MS was transferred to the monastery of Corvey, in Saxony.  There it remained, apparently without ever being copied.

In 1508 the volume was removed from the library.  A letter of Pope Leo X of December 1, 1517 indicates that it had been stolen, and that Leo had paid a large amount of money for it4.  At all events it passed into the hands of Pope Leo X.3

Leo gave the MS to Filippo Beraldo the Younger, who used it to produce the first edition in 1515, and left numerous annotations in the margins of the MS.  The monks of Corvey, who petitioned the Pope for the return of their treasure, were instead sent a copy of the printed volume together with an indulgence to make up the balance.

The number of letters to a page is identical with M. II, which led Dom Henri Quentin to the conclusion that M originally contained the complete Annals, and Histories, and was the ancestor of M.II also.  The suggestion is that the rebinding of the first part with Pliny created separate volumes, and the latter portion proceeded to lead a separate life4.  However not all scholars agree that the statistic is significant, and it has been suggested that the text of M.II is more seriously corrupt than that of M, and in ways that make it likely that they are not related in this way1.


Annales 11-16, Historiae        [Image of Folio 6v (end of 11, start of 12)]

All of the late Italian manuscripts – some 31 at the last count – are copies of a single mediaeval manuscript, also in the Laurentian library, where it is number 68.2.  It is referred to as M. II or ‘second Medicean’, to distinguish it from the unique codex of Annals 1-6.  Bound with it are the major works of Apuleius, written slightly later than the Tacitus but at the same place.

The copies are discussed by Mendell.6

This MS is written in the difficult Beneventan hand.  It was written at Monte Cassino, perhaps during the abbacy of Richer (1038-55AD).    It derives from an ancestor in written in Rustic Capitals, as it contains errors of transcription natural to that bookhand.  There is some evidence that it was copied only once in about ten centuries, and that this copy was made from an original in rustic capitals of the 5th century or earlier,8 but other scholars believe that it was copied via at least one intermediate copy written in a minuscule hand.9

How the MS came to leave Monte Cassino is a matter of mystery.  It was still at Monte Cassino, and was used by Paulus Venetus, Bishop of Puzzuoli, sometime between 1331 and 1344.  However Boccaccio had certainly seen the text by 1371, and the MS is listed among the books given by him at his death to the monastery of S. Spirito in Florence.  Whether he had ‘liberated’ it, or acquired it from another collector who had done so has been extensively debated, without final result.

The MS is next seen in 1427, in the hands of the book-collector Niccolo Niccoli, who had furnished bookcases for Boccaccio’s collection at S.Spirito.  That Niccolo had not acquired the MS legitimately is suggested by a letter to him from his friend Poggio Bracciolini, asking to see it and promising to keep quiet about it.  Knowledge of the text among the humanists is correspondingly limited in this period.

Poggio returned the MS to Niccolo, complaining about its barbarous script, and comparing it unfavourably with a copy of it in humanist script held by another mutual friend, Salutati.

At Niccolo’s death in 1437, the MS passed with his books to the monastery of San Marco at Florence with the Medici as executors, and the humanist copies all date from this period or later.

The editio princeps was from the press of ‘Spira’ at Venice, a folio volume containing only the last 6 books of the annals and the first five of the histories.  It is undated, but supposed to be from either 1468 or 1470. (Dibdin, Thomas Frognall, An introduction to the knowledge of rare and valuable editions of the Greek and Latin classics, 4th edn., London (1827), vol II. p.466 checked).

(The plate is plate XIV from Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars.)


Minor Works   

[image of Aesinas Lat. 8 f.63v (Agricola 38.3-4); image of start of Germania, from same ms]

The three minor works of Tacitus – the Dialogus, the Agricola, and the Germania – were little known before the renaissance.  However a number of manuscripts did survive at that time, and were copied.  Unfortunately most of the originals were then lost, and the details are disputed.  The monasteries were very reluctant to part with their treasures (even if they didn’t look bother after them) and so the process whereby the MSS were ‘liberated’ is usually very unclear.

The sole survivor is the Codex Aesinas Latinus 8 (E), which was discovered by Prof. Cesare Annibaldi in the private library of Count Aurelio Guglielmi Balleani of Iesi in the autumn of 1902.  The MS was thought lost again, but in 1980 was in the hands of Count Balleschi-Balleani, the great-nephew of Count Aurelio Guglielmi Balleani of Iesi.5 It was on loan to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, and was damaged in the flooding of the Arno in the 1960’s.  However in recent years it was sold to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome, where it is now Cod. Vitt. Em. 1631.11

The manuscript nearly ended up in Germany, however, during the intervening period.  At a meeting in 1936 the German dictator Adolf Hitler asked Mussolini for the Iesi manuscript.  Mussolini agreed, but changed his mind on finding how unpopular the promise was in Italy.  Hitler had not been serious, it seems, thinking that the text only showed what barbarians the Germans were compared to the Romans at that time.  But his ideologist Alfred Rosenberg was seriously interested, as was Heinrich Himmler.  In July 1944 a sonderkommando of SS men arrived at the Palazzo of the Balleani in Fontedamo, a couple of miles west of Ancona.  On finding the house empty, they broke in, searched for the Ms. and vandalised the house on finding it not present.  They then searched, somewhat less roughly, two further properties of the Balleani family; a house in Osimo, where the family remained undetected in a cellar, and the Palazzo on the Piazza in Iesi.  The Ms. was in fact in a kitchen cellar in the Iesi palazzo in a wooden trunk bound with tin, but was undiscovered. 12

The Aesinas contains Dictys Cretensis, Bellum Troianum, partly in the 15th century hand of Stefano Guarnieri;  Agricola 13.1-40.2 (ff. 56-63) in a hand from the second quarter of the 9th century, together with a palimpsest (f. 69) with some decipherable readings from 40.2 to 43.4; with the missing start and end added in Guarnieri’s hand; and the Germania, entirely in Guarnieri’s hand.

In November 1425 Poggio wrote to Niccolo of the discovery in a German Abbey of some volumes, including Julius Frontinus and some works of Tacitus unknown to them (ignota nobis).  The information had been brought to him by a monk of Hersfeld, Heinrich von Grebenstein, who had visited the Papal Curia (where Poggio worked) in search of money.  Poggio specified that the book should be brought to Nuremburg, where it would be exchanged for some other contemporary works that the monk wanted.

In May 1427 Poggio writes to Niccolo that the monk had let him down, “many words, but nothing”.  It seemed that Poggio would not meet his price; and Poggio seems to have become discouraged on learning that the MS did not contain any more of the Annals.

By 1431, Niccolo knew that a volume at the abbey of Hersfeld contained the Germania, Agricola, Dialogus and the fragments of Suetonius’ De grammaticis et rhetoribus, and lists it in a sheet of ‘things to get’ (his Commentarium, which is online) he handed to two Cardinals travelling in Germany.  The Commentarium has a note in the margin that the book was actually found.

In 1432, a letter from Francesco Pizzolpasso, Archbishop of Milan, to Nicolaus Cusanus also discusses what sound like the same MSS4.

In 1455 an MS of this description was seen in Rome by Pier Candido Decembrio.  Decembrio describes the MS in detail.  It seems to be in columns, and to contain the Germania, the Agricola, the Dialogus, and the Suetonius fragments.  Associated with it – perhaps bound together – is a copy of Frontinus, De aquaeductibus, with the two volumes of that work reversed.4

In the same year an MS was brought to Rome by Enoch of Ascoli, one of Poggio’s rivals – and Poggio consequently belittles the find in a letter. Enoch had worked for Pope Nicholas V, but as he was dead Enoch was allowing no copies to be made and standing out for a large price.  Enoch died in 1457, and left his MSS to Stefano de Nardini of Ancona, according to a letter from Carlo de Medici to his half-brother Giovanni.  The four good finds included Apicius, Porphyrio, Suetonius de viris illustribus and the Itinerarium Augusti.  However a Leiden MS (Leiden 18) copied from his MSS contains the Suetonius fragments (not the De viris illustribus), and on the back of this the Dialogus and the Germania.  It does not contain the Agricola, which suggests that the Enoch MS did not contain it either.  It has thus been suggested that Enoch’s MS is not the same as the Hersfeld MS, seen by Decembrio in the same year.4 However others do not agree with this, and treat the Leiden MS as a copy of a Vatican copy of the Hersfeld MS1.

It is usually accepted that this now lost MS is the original of all the later copies of these works, which include the Codex Toletanus 49,2 (T); codex Vaticanus 3429 (A); codex Vaticanus lat. 4498 (B).  The standard view is that the Aesinas is part of the lost MS from Hersfeld.  However a case has been made that in fact the Aesinas is independant of the Hersfeld MS1.  It has also been suggested that it in fact came from Monte Cassino, and was assembled for the Iesi library by Guarini.4

So it would seem that informed opinions range from one to three surviving copies, from which the various modern texts take their origins.

[The first plate is Tacitus Agricola 38, 3-4, Codex Aesinas latinus 8, folio 63, verso (from Till’s Untersuchungen), obtained from Stan Wolfson’s clearly well-informed, which, adds the following further notes on the scholarship:]

E is the Oxford abbreviation for the codex. Further refinements are added by Murgia (1977, 324 n.2). Till (1979, 7-10) uses H (Hersfeld) for the Caroline section and E for the fifteenth century transcriptions. Delz (1983) assumed that the Hersfeld and Aesinas were the same. That they were different was proposed by Mendell (1949, 134-135; 1957, 257-293) and Schaps (1979, 28-42) and supported by Winterbottom (1983, 411). This was challenged by Murgia and Rodgers (1984, 145-153, cf. Magnaldi 1997, 133). For the fate of the codex, cf. Schama (1995, 75-81) and Niutta (1996, 172-202).

Marginal notes in E are contemporary and often superior where proper names are concerned: cf. Perret 1950, 99-100; Koestermann 1964, xii; Murgia 1977, 339.

Delz, J. 1983: P. Cornelii Taciti qui supersunt libri, Agricola, Stuttgart
Koestermann, E. 1964: P. Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt, tom ii. Fasc. 2 Germania Agricola, Leipzig
Magnaldi, G. 1997: ‘Suetonio, Tacito e il codice Hersfeldense’, Prometheus 23, 119- 144, 229-246
Mendell, C.W. 1935: ‘Discovery of the minor works of Tacitus’, AJP 56, 111-130
Mendell, C.W. 1949: ‘Manuscripts of Tacitus’ minor works’, MAAR 135-145
Mendell, C.W. 1957: Tacitus: the man and his work, Newhaven and London
Murgia, C.E. 1977: ‘The Minor Works of Tacitus: a study in textual criticism’ CP 72, 323-345
Murgia, C.E. 1978: ‘Loci Conclamati in the Minor Works of Tacitus’, CSCA 11, 159-178
Murgia, C.E. and Rodgers, R.H. 1984: ‘A Tale of Two Manuscripts’, CP 79, 145- 153
Niutta, F. 1996: ‘sul codice Esinate di Tacito’, Quad. di storia 43, 173-202
Perret, J. 1950: Recherches sur le texte de la ‘Germanie’, Paris
Schama, S. 1995: Landscape and Memory, London
Schaps, D. 1979: ‘The found and lost manuscripts of Tacitus’ Agricola‘ CP 74, 28-42
Till, R. 1943: Handschriftliche Untersuchungen zu Tacitus Agricola und Germania, Berlin-Dahlem


Is Tacitus a forgery?4

The modern editions of Tacitus that I have seen do not refer to the allegations of forgery that have been made at various times.   The following account is summarised from Mendell4, who gives the same data at more length.  If anyone has more data or more recent bibliographic references on this, so that this story can be put to bed, I would be grateful to receive it.

According to Mendell, since 1775 there have been at least 6 attempts to discredit the works of Tacitus as either forgeries or fiction:

  • The allegation originated with Voltaire, and his claims were elaborated by a lawyer named Linguet.  However the position was  only taken seriously with Napoleon.  The French Revolutionaries had found “tremendous comfort in Tacitus’ republicanism.  The modern successor to the Caesars” had therefore a strong political motive to discredit him.  But these efforts ceased with the collapse of the First Empire.
  • John Wilson ROSS published (anonymously!) a book entitled Tacitus and Bracciolini:: the Annals forged in the XVth century, London (1878) intended to prove that Poggio had forged the works of Tacitus.  (It would be interesting to know how Ross believed Poggio could forge 9th century MSS.)  This work has now been added to Project Gutenberg and is online.
  • In 1890 P. HOCHARTDe l’Authenticite des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite, maintained the same idea “with a much greater show of learning, and followed up with a supplementary volume”.  Apparently neither Ross or Hochart was able to convince scholarly opinion at the time.
  • In 1920 Leo WEINERTacitus’ Germania and other forgeries, “attempted in vain to prove by a bewildering display of linguistic fireworks that the Germania and, by implication, other works of Tacitus were forgeries made after Arabic influence had extended into Europe”.
  • “After Gaston Boissier’s brilliant book (Tacite, 1903) had roused new enthusiasm for the historian, Eugene Bacha (Le Genie de Tacite, 1906) attempted to prove Tacitus was a master of Romantic fiction…  Bacha’s book does have some value for his comments on stylistic matters.”
  • T.S.Jerome, Aspects of the Study of History, 1923, presented Tacitus as “a consistent liar by nature and deliberate choice.  The book has no value because of its overall inaccuracy, the confusion of narratio in a legal speech with narratio in history, and its wholly unconvincing method”.

According to Mendell, none of these writers have won general acceptance of their estimates of Tacitus, the extreme positions have been abandoned, and the general integrity of Tacitus vindicated.  However as with all history, the personal element of selection and interpretation means that scholars do not necessarily accept Tacitus’ view as the final and just interpretation of first-century Roman history.

It would seem that the arguments for forgery have failed to find acceptance.

Mendell also gives an extensive list of witnesses to the text from the 1st century onwards.  From this we can see thatTacitus is mentioned or quoted in every century down to and including the Sixth.  The Seventh and Eighth centuries are the only ones that have left no trace of knowledge of our author4.  Without quoting every reference, here are some which I found of interest.

Around 400:

  • Ammianus Marcellinus publishes his history, starting where Tacitus left off.
  • Sulpicius Severus of Aquitaine, Chronicorum Libri II, 29, uses Annals 15.37 and 15.44 as his source, for the marriage of Nero to Pythagoras and the punishment of the Christians.  (I should add I don’t know exactly what ties to what).  English in ANF; Latin text is Sulpicius Severus. Sulpicii Severi libri qui supersunt. Ed. C. Halm. CSEL 1, Wien (1866).  See also E.Laupot,  Tacitus’ Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans, Vigiliae Christianae 54 (2000) 233-47
  • Jerome in his commentary on Zacchariah 14.1, 2 cites Tacitus as the author of a history from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian, in 30 volumes.

Around 500:

  • Servius quotes a lost portion of the text in his commentary on the Aeneid 3.399.
  • Orosius used Tacitus, and quotes from now lost portions of the text.  Cassiodorus quotes from the Germania 45.  Jordanes quotes from the Agricola 10, and is the last author of antiquity to do so.

Poggio Bracciolini and the works of Tacitus

Since an English version of his letters to Niccolo Niccoli on this subject is readily available,10 I thought perhaps it might be of interest to reproduce portions of them.

From Letter X

… As for the monastery of Corvey, which is in Germany, you have no grounds for hope.  There are supposed to be a lot of books there; I do not believe the tales of fools but even if what they say were true, the whole country is a den of thieves.  Even those natives who stay in the Curia do not go back safely to their own country.  So give up that idea. … The twenty-ninth day of October [1420].

Poggio had been persuaded to come to England when the Papal curia was in particular danger, but had been deceived by his new patron, Cardinal Beaufort, who kept him very short of money.  All his letters from this period are very depressed, and he was pining to go home.  In the end he managed to get enough money to escape and promptly felt much happier.

From Letter XLII

… You have almost all the news, but I am keeping the honey for the last.  A friend of mine, who is a monk from a monastery in Germany and who left us lately, sent me a  letter which I received three days ago.  He writes that he has found several volumes of the kind you and I like which he wants to exchange for the Novella of Joannes Andreae or for both the Speculum and its supplements, and he sends the names of the books enclosed in the letter.  The Speculum and the supplements are volumes of great value; so see if you think the exchange should be made.  Among these volumes are Julius Frontinus and several works of Cornelius Tacitus still unknown to us.  You will see the inventory and find out whether these law books can be bought for a decent price.  The books will be deposited in Nuremberg where the Speculum and supplements ought also to be taken; it is easy to bring books from there as you will see in the inventory.  This is a selection; there are many other books.  For he writes in this vein. ‘As you asked me to mark  the poets for you to choose those you would like from the list I have found many from which I chose some which you will find on the enclosed inventory’.  Dear Nicolaus, write to me as soon as you can what to answer him so that everything may be done according to your judgement; I care for only a few things, which you will see for yourself.  Goodbye, I have written this in great haste.  Rome, the third day of November [1425].-Tell Nicolaus as soon as possible not to send his copy of the De finibus because I have found one, and the one which I am getting ready will be finished before his comes.  So your affairs go stumbling on. [End]

This refers to a monk from Hersfeld.  The law-books in question were very large and expensive volumes.

From Letter XLVII

… I shall say no more about the books from Germany except that unlike you I am not asleep but awake.  But hopefully if the man I count on keeps his promise, the book will come to us either by force or willingly.  Even so I have made an effort to have an inventory of one of the very old monasteries in Germany where there is a large collection of books, but I shall not tell you any more so that you will not annoy me with your sarcasm.  If you want to have the Spartianus, see that I have the Aulus Gellius …Goodbye, at Rome in haste, September the twelfth [1426].

From Letter XLVIII

… See that I have the books which I asked you for and the paper too and especially the Aulus Gellius.  I shall be truly pleased if you send the Cornelius Tacitus; if you do so, I shall return your Spartianus; I ask you for this very insistently. … Goodby and answer me even if you are angry, for then your letters bring me the greatest pleasure.  Rome, the twenty-first of October [1426].

This is a reference to M. II.  Niccolo was a man in constant poor health and very nervous, which made him irritable, and gave him a considerable ability to make enemies.

From Letter XLIX

XLIX.  I had told our friend Cosmus, just as you write, that that monk from Hersfeld had told someone that he had brought an inventory of more books according to my list.  Afterward when I questioned the man thoroughly he came to me bringing the inventory, full of words and empty of matter.  He is a good man, but ignorant of our studies, and he thought that whatever he found that was unknown to him would be unknown to us too and so he crammed it with books which we have, the same books that you have known elsewhere.  However I am sending you the part of his inventory which describes the volume of Cornelius Tacitus and of other authors whom we lack; since these are short little texts, they must not be considered of great importance.  I have given up the great hope which I built on his promises; that is the reason why I did not make a particular effort to write you this, for if there had been anything unusual or worthy of our wisdom, I should not only have written to you but flown to you to tell you about it  in person.  This monk is in need of money; I have discussed helping him, provided only that he gives me for this money the Ammianus Marcellinus, the first Decade of Livy, and one volume of the Orations of Cicero, to mention works we both have, and quite a few others, which although we have them are not to be disdained.  I asked furthermore that they be carried at his risk to Nuremberg.  This I am handling.  I do not known how it will turn out; however you will find it all out from me in due course. … Rome, the fifteenth of May [1427] …

From Letter LI

… Now to more important matters.  When the Cornelius Tacitus comes I shall keep it hidden with me for I know that whole song, “Where did it come from and who brought it here?  Who claims it for his own?”  But do not worry, not a word shall escape me. … I have heard nothing about the Cornelius Tacitus which is in Germany.  I am waiting for an answer from that monk. … Rome, the twenty-fifth of September 1427.

This indicates that there was something doubtful about the ownership of the volume.  It has been suggested that this is because Niccolo had ‘acquired’ it from the estate of Boccaccio.

Gordan gives here a couple of references on the subject of the rediscovery of Tacitus, and Poggio and Niccoli.

  • P. HOCHART, De l’authenticité des annales et des histoires de Tacite, Bordeaux: imprimerie G. Gounouilhou, 1889. (But see above)
  • R. SABBADINI, Le Scoperte dei codici latini et greci ne’ secoli XIV e XV, 2 vols, in the revised version of E. Garin 1967. II, p.254.
  • L. PRALLE, Die Wiederentdeckung des Tacitus: Ein beitrag zur Geistesgeschichte Fuldas und zur Biographie des jungen Cusanus, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Abtei und der Diözese Fulda XVII, Fulda: Parzeller & Co, (1952). includes a scholarly discussion of the matter with the order and dating of Poggio’s letters on the subject.

From Letter LVII

… Goodbye, the fifth day of June, 1428.  I gave Bartholemew de Bardis the Decade of Livy and the Cornelius Tacitus to send you.  In your Cornelius there are several pages missing in various places and in the Decade a whole column, as you will be able to see. 1428. [End]

The reference is to a copy of M. II which Niccolo had.

From Letter LIX

… Cornelius Tacitus is silent in Germany and I have heard nothing new from there about his activities. … Goodbye, in haste, the eleventh day of September 1428.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.


1. This account is taken primarily from L.D. REYNOLDS, Texts and Transmission: A survey of the Latin Classics, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1983), ISBN 0-19-814456-3.  Tacitus occupies page 406-411.  The pages on the major works are by R.J. TARRANT; those on the minor works by M. WINTERBOTTOM.  The references are also from this volume, except where indicated, but I have only reproduced a few of them.  Anyone at all interested in the transmission of the classics should read this volume.  It is in print, and available from Amazon.  The only downside is the price – $150 – which will exclude most people.

2.  See the article by Revilo P. OLIVER, The First Medicean MS of Tacitus and the Titulature of Ancient Books, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 82 (1951), pp.232-261. (Checked)

3. P. LEHMANN, Corveyer Studien, ABAW 30.5 (1919), pp. 22 and 38.  (Not checked)

4. Clarence W. MENDELL, Tacitus: The Man and his Work, Yale University Press/Oxford University Press (1957).  (This reference is not from Texts and Transmission).  This book contains an enormous amount of detail about the transmission and MSS of Tacitus. (Checked)

5.  James S. HIRSTEIN, Tacitus’ Germania and Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547): A study of the Editorial and Exegetical Contribution of a Sixteenth Century ScholarStudien zur klassischen Philologie vol. 91, Frankfurt am Main/New York, 1995.  (This reference is not from Texts and Transmission).  (Checked)

6.  C.W. MENDELL, Manuscripts of Tacitus XI-XXI, YCS 6 (1939), pp.41-70.  (Ref. from Oliver).  (Not checked)

7.  A facsimile edition of the main MSS exists:  Tacitus. Codex Laurentianus Mediceus 68 phototypice editus; praefatus est Henricus Rostagno, Lugdunum Batavorum (1902).   (Ref. from Oliver, listed in Bodleian).  (Not checked)

8. E.A. LOWE, The Unique Manuscript of Tacitus’ Histories, Casinensia, Monte Cassino, 1929, vol. I pp. 257-272. (Ref. from Oliver).  (Not checked)

9. C.W. MENDELL and S.A. IVES, Rycks’s Manuscript of Tacitus, American Journal of Philology 72 (1951), pp.337-345. (Ref. from Oliver).  (Not checked)

10.  P. W. G. GORDAN, Two Renaissance Book Hunters: The letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicolaus de Niccolis, New York (1974).  This seems easy to obtain online second-hand.

11.  I owe this information to the kindness of Prof. Michael Reeve.

12.  Many thanks to Edgar Wright who emailed me about a German article online which describes these events, and gives “Landscape and Memory” by Simon Schama (London 1996) as the source.  The image of the incipit of the Germania comes from this article.  Unfortunately Mr. Wright failed to supply a valid email address, so I was unable to thank him!

Note that there is also a Tacitus Home Page.

Updated 25th May, 2000.
Updated 17th August 2001.  Material from Oliver and Gordan added.
Updated 1st October 2003.  Note on the Iesi manuscript added, thanks to MDR.
Updated 8th April 2005.  Hitler and the Iesi manuscript details added, thanks for Edgar Wright.

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