The Tacitus Encyclopedia is the first and only comprehensive reference work to be published in English on Tacitus (c. 56-120 CE), one of our richest sources for the history of the early Roman Empire. His magisterial style is peerless, his narratives are intricate, and his speeches a tour-de-force of rhetoric and metahistory. Therefore, his language is inextricably bound with his philosophy of human nature, and his prose is haunted by an eerily familiar sense of survivor’s guilt.
Tacitus left five extant works. The Life of Julius Agricola is a biography of his father in law who was governor of Britain under the reign of Domitian. The Germania is a brief treatise on the customs and peoples of Germania. The Dialogue on Orators is a discussion among friends about the importance and decline of public speaking. Of the Histories, only the first five books survive. They recount the Long Year 69, when four emperors ruled Rome: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty. Finally, the Annals chronicle the Julio-Claudian emperors. The reign of Tiberius is covered in Books 1-4 and the fragments of Books 5 and 6. The books from the end of 6 to the beginning of 11 are missing, hence the entire reign of Caligula is lost. Books 11-12 cover the end of the reign of Claudius, Books 13-16 the reign of Nero. The manuscript of the Annals breaks off in the middle of Book 16.
In classical antiquity there are only scattered references to these works, due in part to the accidents of transmission. Tacitus appears to have been neglected in late antiquity and the middle ages (650-850 CE). By 1362, the Florentine scholar and poet Giovanni Boccaccio was reading Annals Books 11-16 and Histories Books 1-5; by 1473, a first edition of the Germania and Dialogue on Orators appeared in Venice. With the publication of Annals Books 1-6 and the Agricola in 1515, Tacitus experienced a revival of epic proportion: 45 editions of his work appeared in the 16th century including the monumental edition by the Flemish philologist Justus Lipsius in 1574, and 103 more in the 17th. Between 1580-1700, 100 commentaries on the works of Tacitus were published. As a result, the political thought of Tacitus cut a broad swath across European intellectual history. In the Renaissance and Reformation eras Tacitus was appropriated for the competing aims of monarchic absolutism and religious reform. Under the Ancien Régime, Tacitus was widely read and criticized. The 18th century was the age of Tacitism in Britain, the 19th in Germany. By the early 20th century, he was claimed by translators, historians and philosophers—and eventually Nazis, as Christopher Krebs has demonstrated. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, artists and writers continue to harness the power of Tacitus’ imagery to convey the essence of the human condition. Novelists Robert Graves, Naomi Mitchison, and Lion Feuchtwanger were inspired by Tacitus; between 2003-2006, Manda Scott published three novels about Boudica, the warrior queen whose legacy in literature, art, movies, and documentaries can be traced to Tennyson’s poem “Boadicea.” In Tacitus, post-war German artist Anselm Kiefer and American poet Frank Bidart find inspiration for works of art that confront, and perhaps even seek to heal, the traumas of the 20th century.
Therefore, because his style is notoriously difficult, his content indispensable to the study of ancient history, and his imprint on Western thought is indelible, perhaps no other classical Latin author requires an encyclopedia more than Tacitus. The cast of characters in the works of Tacitus is daunting; approximately 1,000 individuals are named (only 124 of them are women) and about 300 of these are known only from Tacitus. Because he was writing during the reign of Trajan, when the Roman Empire at its height stretched from Britain to Babylon, his works are also filled with the names of approximately 400 regions, cities, towns, and geographical and topological features.
This two-volume set is designed to complement existing scholarship by providing readers of all levels an approachable means of access to Tacitus. With standard background information necessary for enhanced appreciation of the people, places, and topics fundamental to Tacitean studies, entries treat the content and contexts of Tacitus’ history and reception from antiquity to the present.
The encyclopedia surpasses volumes currently available. Fabia’s Onomasticon Taciteum (1900) contains only the names of persons mentioned in Tacitus. Because the Oxford Classical Dictionary covers the entire classical world in one volume, entries are selective and brief. Although the 80 volumes of the monumental Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft have been updated and revised in Brill’s New Pauly, the scope is so broad that even if a minor figure from Tacitus is included, the entry cannot possibly situate the figure within the broader context of Tacitus’ works. Edited collections introduce various aspects of Tacitean scholarship and reception, e.g., Luce and Woodman (1993); Mellor (1995); Woodman (2009); Pagán (2012). In spite of their breadth, none gives fingertip access to the essentials.
The Tacitus Encyclopedia consists of entries of three types:
- Regular entries provide facts about items as they appear in the texts of Tacitus, with citations to ancient sources and relevant scholarship. Regular entries are 300, 500, 750, and 1000 words long, depending on their frequency within the works of Tacitus. Fifty of these regular entries are longer essays of 3,000 words on topics in social history (e.g., gender, slavery); literary history (e.g., allusion, oratory); or political history (e.g., the reigns of individual emperors). Several of the longer essays will also serve as introductions to the scholarship and reception of Tacitus from antiquity to the present day.
- Blind entries are alphabetized amid regular entries, but, in place of an article, redirect the reader to a regular entry where the item is discussed in context.
- Hapax legomena are those items found only in Tacitus and only once, and which therefore do not merit an article nor inclusion in an article but are catalogued for the sake of completeness.
Thus, The Tacitus Encyclopedia will be the only complete reference work of its kind in the field of Tacitean studies, Roman history, and European intellectual history. Because of its comprehensive nature, the volumes are expected to be of use to a range of readers, from experts seeking the latest scholarly trends to the average reader who needs a legible explanation for an unfamiliar person or place.
The encyclopedia is not intended to serve as a dictionary of Latin words, critical terms, major concepts, or methodological approaches. It is not a prosopography, that is, a list of persons; rather, the entries are intended to put individuals in context, as more than just names in Tacitus. Entries are designed to show the relationship of the individual to the larger Tacitean corpus.
It is impossible to promise that the encyclopedia contains everything ever mentioned in Tacitus or concerning Tacitus. Such an objective could never be fully achieved; comprehensive coverage of all elements of Tacitus is a chimera. It may also be objected that some persons or topics that are not mentioned by Tacitus ought to be included because of their importance to Roman imperial history or literature. For example, although Titus Labienus was an important figure of the late Republic whose presence is felt at Annals 4.34, he is not included in the encyclopedia because Tacitus does not mention him by name. Scope is limited in the interest of focus, and Tacitus’ own omissions are as instructive as his inclusions. The reader who looks for Titus Labienus and is disappointed in fact discovers such items are conspicuous by their absence (a phenomenon in fact first recognized by Tacitus at A. 3.76.2). Finally, readers should not expect comprehensive analysis. Entries are just that: points of entry, starting points for further inquiry, designed to set the reader on a path toward more in-depth research.
Any reference work is bound by such disclaimers. It is hoped that the present volumes will give a clearer picture of the contents of Tacitus through a text-based historical treatment than has been achieved by previous reference works.
Photograph of the inscription on the tomb of the historian Cornelius Tacitus, National Roman Museum, Baths of Diocletian, by Victoria Pagán.