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Tacitus (275-276 A.D.)

Robin Mc Mahon

New York University

Emperor Tacitus (c)2000 Princeton Economic Institute justin Paola

Full name, Marcus Claudius Tacitus; name as Emperor, Imperator Caesar Marcus Claudius Tacitus Pius Felix Invictus Augustus.[[1]] We have no reliable information on the earlier career of the Emperor Tacitus. All that is known with any degree of certainty is that in 273 he was consul along with Julius Placidianus.[[2]] All the statements in the Historia Augusta regarding Tacitus' earlier career, including the claim he was related to the historian Tacitus, have been rejected by historians as fictitious.[[3]] The most reliable sources for Tacitus' reign, Zosimus and Zonaras, state that he was chosen Emperor by the army following the assassination of Aurelian in the fall of 275, most likely in November.[[4]] At the time of his elevation he was in Interamna (modern Terni, about 60 miles north of Rome). From there he made his way to Rome where he was confirmed as Emperor by the Senate.[[5]] Tradition has it that he was 75 years old at the time, but there is no way to confirm this.[[6]]

As Emperor, Tacitus first had Aurelian deified, then seized and executed many individuals involved in plotting Aurelian's murder.[[7]] Tacitus then turned his attention to the defense of the Empire. Although the Franks, Alamanni, and Longiones posed threats in the north, Tacitus determined that the greater danger lay in the East.[[8]] Aurelian had enlisted the aid of several barbarian tribes, including the Heruli and Maeotidae (referred to as Scythians in the sources), for a projected invasion of Parthia.[[9]] Aurelian's murder cancelled these plans. Feeling cheated of their opportunity for plunder, the tribes attacked the Roman provinces in Asia Minor, overrunning Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia and Cilicia, and caused terrible destruction.[[10]] Tacitus appointed his half-brother Florian Praetorian Prefect. They campaigned in the East against the invaders, winning Tacitus the title Gothicus Maximus.[[11]]

Tacitus, however, did not long enjoy his victory: on his way back to Europe, he died. Zosimus and Zonaras preserve the report that Tacitus had appointed a relative of his, Maximinus, as governor of Syria. Maximinus was murdered; then the assassins, fearing Tacitus's reaction, murdered him. It was alleged that some of them had also had a hand in murdering Aurelian.[[12]] The Historia Augusta more eccentrically reports that Tacitus became ill with a fever and started showing signs of megalomania: but as the month September Tacitus allegedly wanted named after himself dates his accession incorrectly, the story appears to be a fabrication.[[13]] Tacitus died some time in June of 276.[[14]] His memory was neither condemned nor deified.

Tacitus held the consulship at least twice,  first in 273 and again in 276.[[15]] There is numismatic evidence of a third consulship but there is no record of a third in any of the fasti, that is, the lists of consuls.[[16]] Because of the paucity of the sources and the brevity of his reign, little can be said of his policies. It is unlikely that the military would choose as Emperor anyone like the contemplative, abstemious civilian the Historia Augusta portrays.[[17]] A hint may be given by the fact that Tacitus's colleague in the consulship of 273, Julius Placidianus, commanded an army corps in Narbonensis and later went on to be a Praetorian Perfect.[[18]] Nevertheless, some numismatic and epigraphic evidence suggests that Tacitus sought to strike a milder tone than his predecessor. Prominent among his coin legends is Clementia Temporum.[[19]] Unlike both Aurelian and Tacitus' successor, Probus, Tacitus did not take the title, deus et dominus natus ["born god and master"].[[20]] He also issued no Sol Invictus coins honoring Aurelian's favorite deity.[[21]] Some of his coins revive the SC (senatus consulto) marking senatorial authority for the issue, which had been missing in previous reigns. Tacitus also used the Genius Senatus, inscriptions which had disappeared under Valerian.[[23]] Further, in some inscriptions he is styled auctor verae libertatis ["originator of true liberty"], and on coins restitutor rei publicae ["restorer of the state"].[[22]]


Tacitus largely fell out of the ancient historiographical record. The best sources are Zosimus and Zonaras. The Historia Augusta creates its own fiction of Tacitus out of forged documents, bogus names and faulty chronology.[[24]] Tacitus deserved better than oblivion or fabrication, having halted potentially serious raiding in the East.[[25]]

Two problems emerge from the evidence for Tacitus's short reign. The first is the six-month interregnum said to have intervened between the death of Aurelian and Tacitus' accession. The years 260-285 have been the subject of close chronological scrutiny, and it has been shown that, although there might have been a brief interval between emperors (something not uncommon), amounting to a few weeks, anything longer is not possible.[[26]] The error appears to have originated in the Latin historians, who confused the duration of Tacitus' and Florian's reign with the brief period between the reigns of Aurelian and Tacitus.[[27]]

The second question is whether or not the edict of the Emperor Gallienus, which had excluded senators from military commands and any other dealings with the military, was set aside during the reigns of Tacitus and Florian.[[28]] Aurelius Victor reports that Gallienus, acting largely through fear of revolts and usurpation, replaced the senators in military offices with Equites. Several passages in the Historia Augusta claim that these edicts were suspended for the duration of the reigns of Tacitus and Florian. The overwhelming consensus among historians, however, is that the passages in the Historia Augusta are unhistorical: no credible evidence suggests that Gallienus' edicts were even temporarily set aside.[[29]]


Primary Sources:

Chastagnol, André (tr.). Histoire Auguste. Paris, 1994.

Cohen, Henry. Description historique des monnaies frappées sous l'Empire romain. Paris & London, 1880-1892.

Dessau, Hermann. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae. Berlin, 1892.

Festy, Michel (ed.). Pseudo-Aurelius Victor, Abrégé des Césars. Paris, 1999.

Grenfell, Bernard; Hunt, Arthur. "Horoscope of Sarapammon." The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Part II. No. 1476. London, 1916.

________. Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Vol XII. No. 1409. London, 1916.

Hazzard, J.C. (ed.). Eutropius. New York, 1898.

Liebenam, Willy (ed.). Fasti Consulares Imperii Romani. Bonn, 1909.

Magie, D. (ed.). Scriptores Historiae Augustae. Cambridge, MA, 1982.

Mommsen, T. (ed.) Monumenta Germania Historica. 9.1. Chronica Minora. Chron, A.D. 354; Laterculus Polemii Silvii. Berlin, 1892.

Paschoud, F. (ed.). Histoire Nouvelle [par] Zosime. Paris, 1971.

Rea, J.R. "The Corn Dole Archive." Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Vol. 90. London, 1972.

Zonaras, Annales (12.27). ed. M. Pinder. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. Bonn, 1844.

Modern Works:

Alföldi, Andreas. Die monarchische Repräsentation im römischen Kaiserreiche. Darmstadt, 1970.

Anderson, J.G.C. "The Genesis of Diocletian's Provincial Re-Organization." The Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. XXII (1932). Pp. 24-32.

Baynes, Norman. The Historia Augusta: Its Date and Purpose. Oxford, 1926.

________. "Three Notes on the Reforms of Diocletian and Constantine." Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. XV (1925) Pp. 195ff.

Den Hengst, Daniel. "Some Notes on the Vita Taciti." In Giorgio Bonamente and François Paschoud (eds.), Historiae Augustae Colloquium Genevense. Bari, 1994.

Gilliam, J.F. "The Governors of Syria Coele from Severus to Diocletian," AJP, 89 (1958).

Groag, Edmund and Arthur Stein. "Imp. Caesar M. Claudius Tacitus Augustus." Prosopographia Imperii Romani. Part II. Claudius, No. 1036. Berlin, 1936.

Hohl, Ernst. "Vopiscus und die Biographie des Kaisers Tacitus." Klio. Vol 11 (1911).

Jones, A.H.M., Martindale, J.R. Morris, J. "M. Claudius Tacitus," p. 873; "M. Annius Florianus," p. 367. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Cambridge, 1971.

Jones, Tom B. "Three Notes on the Reign of Marcus Claudius Tacitus". Classical Philology vol. xxxiv (1939). Pp. 366-369.

Keyes, Clinton W. The Rise of the Equites. Princeton, 1915.

Kienast, Dietmar. Römische Kaisertabelle: Grundzüge römischen Kaiserchronologie. Darmstadt, 1990.

Kramer, Ida and Tom Jones . "Tribunicia Potestate: A.D. 270-285." American Journal of Philology. Vol. lxiv (1943).

Merton, Elke W. Stellenbibliographie zur Historia Augusta. 4 vols. Bonn, 1987.

Peachin, Michael. Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology, A.D. 235-284. Amsterdam, 1990.

Stein, Arthur. "Zur Chronolgie der römischen Kaiser". Archiv für Papyrusforschung. Vol 7. Berlin, 1924.

Stein, Arthur. "Tacitus." Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Vol. 3, cols. 2872-2881 (Claudius No. 361). Stuttgart, 1899.

Syme, Ronald. Emperors and Biography. Oxford, 1971.

________. Historia Augusta Papers. Oxford, 1983.


[[1]]Arthur Stein, "Claudius (no. 361)," Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, (Stuttgart 1899) [hereafter PW], vol. 3, cols. 2872ff; Theodor Mommsen, ed., Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum [hereafter CIL], vol. VIII Supp. 18844.

[[2]] Willy Liebenam (ed.), Fasti Consulares Imperii Romani (Bonn, 1909), Year 273; CIL VIII, 18844.

[[3]] Edmund Groag & Arthur Stein, Prosopographia Imperii Romani [hereafter PIR], Pars II (Berlin, 1936), p. 251, no. 1036: "A Cornelis Tacitus rerum Sciptore Orgininem trahit Vita," 10.3, originem absurde. Also, Dietmar Keinast, Römische Kaisertabelle (Darmstadt, 1996), p. 247.

[[4]]Arthur Stein, "Zur Chronologie der römischen Kaiser," Archiv für Papyrusforschung 7 (1924), p. 46. Aurelian died in November 275, and Tacitus was probably emperor by December 10, 275 and no later than January 1, 276. Also Michael Peachin, Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology, A.D. 235-284, (Amsterdam, 1990), p. 92; PIR p. 252 No. 1036.

[[5]] David Magie, The Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Cambridge, MA, Loeb edition) "Vita Taciti," vii.5 [hereafter, SHA, Vita]; Zonaras, Annales, XII.28, ed. M. Pinder, Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1844).

[[6]]SHA, Vita Taciti, VII. 5; Zonaras XII. 28. See, however, Ronald Syme, Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1971) p. 271. Syme casts substantial doubt over the entire portrayal of Tacitus by the Latin Historians.

[[7]] SHA, Vita Taciti, XIII 1-2.

[[8]] German attacks are mentioned in the SHA, Vita Taciti, III.4. Tacitus's successor, Probus, campaigned along the German border.

[[9]] SHA, Vita Taciti, XII.2-4; Zosimus, 1.63.1; Zonaras, XII.28.

[[10]] See Magie, SHA, Vita Taciti, p. 318 note 3.

[[11]] Appoints his brother prefect, Zonaras, XII.29; victory: Zonaras XII.20; Zosimus I.63; SHA, Vita, XIII.2; CIL XII 5563; Herman Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae [hereafter, Dess.], (Berlin, 1936) vol. 1, 591; Henry Cohen, Description historique des monnaies frappées sous l'Empire romain (Paris & London, 1880-1892), Tacitus, Victoria Gothica: pp. 157-164, Mars Ultor: pp. 55-58, Victoria Aug. pp. 150-156, Victoria Perpetua: pp. 123-124.

[[12]]Zosimus, I.63.2; Zonaras XII.28; J.F. Gilliam, "The Governors of Syria Coele from Severus to Diocletian," AJP, 89 (1958).

[[13]]SHA, Vita Taciti, XIII.6.

[[14]] Arthur Stein, Archiv für Papyrusforschung, Vol. VII (1924) p. 46 note 5. The latest known dates for Tacitus from papyri are P. Oxy VI 907 June 7, 276; Wessely Text GR. 74 June 23, 276; and P. Strassb. 8 June 8, 276.

[[15]]Op. cit. Leibman (Fasti), p. 271 (276 A.D.)

[[16]]H. Webb, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol 5, pt.1 (London, 1923)[hereafter, RIC]. A third consulship appears on coins from Ticinum, Tacitus 120-121. The possibilities are discussed J.R. Rea, "The Corn Dole Archive," Oxyrhynchus Papyri. vol XL (1972) pp. 27-28.

[[17]] Ronald Syme, Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1971), p. 247. "...Nothing precludes the hypothesis that Tacitus was a known and eligible character to generals and officers at Caenophrurium... When Tacitus acceded to power, the Danubian armies... made no stir...Tacitus, if the truth could be known, was perhaps one of the Danubian military. He was extracted from his retirement in Campania by the call of duty and the recognition of old friends."

[[18]] Ibid., Syme; Dess. 569; PIR 468.

[[19]] R.A.G. Carson, Coins of the Roman Empire (London & New York, 1990), p. 124.

[[20]] Tom B. Jones, "Three Notes on the Reign of Marcus Claudius Tacitus," Classical Philology, XXXIV (1939), p. 367.

[[21]] Ibid.


[[23]] Andreas Alföldi, Die monarchische Repräsentation im römischen Kaiserreiche (Darmstadt, 1980), p. 135; RIC vol. 5. p. 333 no. 75; pp. 346-347, nos. 205 and 209. SC, Cohen. "Tacitus," nos. 3, 116, 117, 120 et. al..

[[24]]Daniel Den Hengst, "Some Notes on the Vita Taciti," Historiae Augusta Colloquium Genevense (Bari, 1994): p. 104, quantifies, "...less than 10% of the lines deal with facts attested elsewhere"; Syme, op. cit.(1983): p. 214, "...none of the names [in the biography] is genuine save those of emperors."

[[25]] Ronald Syme, Historia Augusta Papers, (Oxford, 1983) p.116. The major themes the author uses the biography for are "...hostility to hereditary monarchy, boy emperors, eunuchs, bureaucrats."

[[26]]Stein, op. cit. See note 4.

[[27]] Syme, op. cit. (1971), pp. 237-238.

[[28]] Michael Festy (ed.), Pseudo-Aurelius Victor, Abrégé des Césars (Paris, 1999), 33,33 "...senatum militia vetuit et adire exercitum."

[[29]]Vita Taciti, 19.2-4; and Vita Probi, 13.1. The veracity of the statements was accepted by L. Homo, "L'empereur Gallien et la crise de l'empire romain au iiie Sieclè," Revue Historique, cxiii (1913), pp. 1-22; 225-267. But this view was convincingly argued against by Norman Baynes, "Three Notes on the Reforms of Diocletian & Constantine," Journal of Roman Studies, xv (1925): esp. pp. 198-199; J.G.C. Anderson, "The Genesis of Diocletian's Provincial Re-Organization," Journal of Roman Studies xxii (1932): esp. pp. 27-28. Also see Clinton W. Keyes, The Rise of the Equites in the Third Century of the Roman Empire, (Princeton 1932), pp. 36-37; and Lukas de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Leiden, 1976), esp. pp. 39-89.

Copyright (C) 2000, Robin Mc Mahon. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Robin Mc Mahon.

Updated: 2 February 2000

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