Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 CE), was a Roman senator, public official, and perhaps most notably a historian of the Roman Empire. Not much informs us of the details of Tacitus’ life although we can say that he was born into an equestrian status family, married a woman by the name Julia Agricola, and enjoyed hunting as a hobby. He also provides us with a valuable reference to the early Christian movement and Jesus Christ himself, which will be our area of focus here.
Tacitus as a Historian and Writer
Tacitus was a historian dedicated to Rome and, as a writer, certainly had his share of biases. He wrote history in a way some have called episodic and visual. His history also had the aim of providing moral instruction to its readers, which meant praising those he approved of and employing a range of rhetorical strategies to denounce those he disliked. Historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill notes Tacitus’ use of “rhetorical cosmetics” but explains that this does not impugn his reliability as a historical witness. In fact, it actually makes him particularly perceptive as an observer of the political culture of his era, especially in his representational portraits of such figures as Tiberius and Nero and many others (1). Tacitus’ writing and his moral and political conceptions are also at times theatrical, although his text is also accompanied by passages of a deep sense of tragedy.
His writings also give priority to the law in three main areas: the emperor and law, justice or the perversions of law, and the philosophy of law. However, Tacitus is pessimistic when it comes to law and never offers any theoretical consideration of the nature of justice, as some philosophers had done (2). As a matter of geography, Tacitus evidences a particular interest in those territories which had an impact on Rome, which explains his fascination with the Germanies, Gaul, and Britain. He did not like the Greeks, considered the Gauls decadent, admired the Britons, and hated the Jews. He was also clearly convinced of the necessity of empire and saw the uncivilized as being little more than animals. Much of his writing has to do with the military and he shows a concern with the army as a social institution. Some of his writing goes in great detail on the Roman military, its strength, and operations. Tacitus apparently embraced what scholar Pierre Grimal has called “political religion”, which Tacitus deemed necessary to govern a city and the wider empire (3). Tacitus also accepted the traditional Roman belief concerning the relationship of the city with the divine.
Tacitus’ writings, despite his biases, are appreciated for a number of reasons. Historians tend to agree that he had a good grasp of the major issues of his time and an ability to accurately describe remote places he had never even visited. He was also the first author to provide writing on the lochs in Scotland and had access to sources that allowed him to relate detailed stories from more than four decades before his birth (4).
What do we Learn from Tacitus About Early Christianity?
Tacitus writes about the Great Fire in Rome of 64 CE. He notes how it was thought that the emperor Nero had started this fire but then saw in the Christians an easy scapegoat. Although Nero attributed to them the blame of arson, modern historians acknowledge that the lack of connection made to the Christians and the fire in other ancient sources suggests their innocence. According to Tacitus the fire’s damage was extensive. It lasted nine days and left only four of Rome’s sixteen districts intact. In his Annals, Tacitus then narrates the story of Nero’s scapegoating the Christians, using the common early spelling of Christians as Chrestians:
“But neither human help, nor gifts from the emperor, nor all the ways of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order [of Nero]. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the clothes of a charioteer, or mounted on his chariot. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrifices not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man” (5).
Tacitus’ passage is valuable because of the details the historian can use to piece together some early Christian history. Perhaps most important is its corroboration of the figure of Jesus Christ, whom Tacitus called “Christus”, and to whom he attributes the origin of the Christian religion. The Latin term “Christus” is a transliteration of the Greek word Christos, which means “anointed” and is equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah.
Like some other Roman writers, Tacitus was certainly a hostile witness to the early Christian movement calling it a “pernicious superstition” that had continued to grow. It was in a state of expansion despite its founder having recently been put to death under Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Tacitus thus corroborates the gospel sources that also name Pontius Pilate as the one who condemned Christ to death by crucifixion (Mark 15:15, Matthew 27:37, Luke 23, John 18). The Gospel of Luke also says that this occurred during the rule of Emperor Tiberius (3:1). Both the gospels and Tacitus put Christ’s crucifixion in the correct time, in 30 CE, as Tiberius ruled from CE 14 to CE 37.
Tacitus also references where the “disease” of Christianity originated, which was in Judaea, the same place the New Testament locates Christ and the earliest Christians. We also know from the Apostle Paul that Christians existed at an early stage in the city of Rome. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is dated to the 50s CE, around 20 or so years after Christ’s death and a few years before the fire of Rome. In a similar fashion to details from other extra-biblical accounts, such as one provided by Pliny the Younger, members of the early Christian movement experienced persecution. According to what Tacitus informs us, the Christians were arrested by Roman authorities, many of them convicted, and then thrown to the wild beasts and dogs or crucified while being set alight to serve as lamps to illuminate the darkness of night. Tacitus says that Nero relished in this punishment making it a spectacle for the crowds to see. However, many had pity on the Christians for their suffering and deaths were due to Nero’s own hatred. Scholar Paul Keresztes explains that this was Tacitus’ attempt to portray Nero in a negative light,
“Ever purposeful in his choice of themes and characters, Tacitus shows himself in his writings as a supreme dramatist and tragic writer of history. By joining together the Christians, the outcasts of Roman society, and Nero, equally, if not more, hated by the Romans, and by joining together the fire of Rome and the massacre of the Christians, the Roman historian paints a tragedy in sheer black — and all this only, perhaps, to make the character of Nero appear even darker. By painting the Christians as the vilest and most abominable members of society and expressing obvious satisfaction at their horrible punishment by such a man as Nero himself — despite their admitted innocence of arson — Tacitus the dramatist fulfills his chief duty as historian in putting on record evil men and their evil deeds” (6).
The consensus is that this reference in Tacitus to Christ and the early Christians is authentic (7). This is why Tacitus’ Annals is considered a valuable book for early Christian history, especially because the author evidences a precise knowledge of the historical Jesus (8). David Shotter, a specialist in Roman history, has argued that Annals is essentially accurate and reliable (9), while it is also agreed that there is no reason to doubt the general facts presented in Annals on the early Christians (10).
One reason that is suggestive of this is because of Tacitus’ unique style of Latin commonly called “silver Latin.” Silver later distinguishes Tacitus’ use of Latin from the Latin of the golden age of Cicero (107-43 BCE), and it is the former type that is found on the manuscript of a Medieval scribe writing at a later date. However, we know that as the centuries rolled on by the language of Latin changed, as languages tend to do. But we still find the preservation of the so-called silver Latin on the manuscript, suggesting the scribe’s attempt to compose a faithful copy. There are also a few details in Tacitus matching the New Testament that can be taken to point to its historical value. For example, Tacitus reveals that it was the crowd who named Christ’s followers “Chrestians.” It was not Christ’s own followers who named themselves this. This detail fits in with the at least three occurrences in the New Testament where the name “Christian” is given to Christ’s followers (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The term was first applied by non-Christians and only later was adopted by Christians themselves.
1. Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. 1991. “Reading Tacitus: Rome Observed.” AU 34(3):76-82.
2. Ducos, Michèle. 1991. “Les problemes de droit dans l’oeuvre de Tacite.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 33(4): 3183-3259.
3. Grimal, Pierre. 1989. ”Religion politique et sens du divin chez Tacite.” BAL 20:101-116.
4. Syme, Ronald. 1982. “Tacitus: Some Sources of His Information.” The Journal of Roman Studies 72:68-82.
5. Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Book 15, Chapter 44.
6. Keresztes, Paul. 1984. “Nero, the Christians and the Jews in Tacitus and Clement of Rome” Latomus 43(2):404-413. p. 405.
7. Evans, Craig. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. Leiden: Brill Publishers. p. 42.
8. Sordi, Marta. 1985. “II cristianesimo nella cultura romana dell’etA postflavia.” CCC 6:99-117.
9. Shotter, David. 1988. “Tacitus and Tiberius.” Ancient Society 19:225-236.
10. Howatson, Margaret. 1997. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 548.
For extensive access to scholarly work on Tacitus see: Benario, Herbert. 2005. “Recent Work on Tacitus: 1994-2003.” The Classical World 98(3):251-336.