The Wise Words of Tacitus

20 January, 2020
The wise words of Tacitus still hold true in modern times. Amongst the greatest of Roman historians, he addressed themes of power, honor, education, envy, and criticism.

Tacitus’ writings take us back in time to the Classical World. Although there isn’t much information on his life, historians are certain he had an extraordinary political and literary career.

Not all of his literary works survived to modern times, but his existing works prove that he was a unique thinker of his time.

A view of Rome.

Who was Tacitus?

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, a historian and Roman senator, was born in Rome around the year 55 A.D. He was a prolific writer, with well-known works such as the Agricola, a biography on his father-in-law and Roman general, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, and the battles he fought in Britain.

In his final and perhaps greatest work, the Annals, he covers the history of Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Tiberius. He also wrote the Histories, in which he details the rise of the Flavian Dynasty.

All of these works bring to life the tumultuous times of Rome. His writings introduce us to the well-known figures of his time, highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses.

He demonstrates a palpable nostalgia for the grandeur of the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic, offering stunning portraits of these civilizations, and, furthermore, of humanity.

The wisdom of Tacitus

As you read the works of Tacitus, you discover various tokens of wisdom infused throughout— truisms to offer guidance in our modern political societies, as well as our own personal lives. Here, we address some of these wise adages, as they relate to power, honor, morality and education, envy, and criticism.

Power

“Power acquired by guilt was never used for a good purpose.”

As we previously mentioned, Tacitus felt a lot of nostalgia for the Republic. In this quote, he acknowledges these sentiments and demonstrates that when one comes to power by unfair or illegal means, it rarely bodes well for the prosperity of the citizens.

Honor

“An honorable death is better than a dishonorable life.”

Honor and dignity were values of the utmost importance during Roman times. According to Tacitus, it’s better to live a life of honor than to justify one’s attitudes and actions by unethical means.

Education and morality

“The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”

Education was an important aspect of Ancient Roman life. Similarly, access to education and education reform are ever-present social issues in our modern world. Tacitus advises that when education is lacking or non-existent, personal interests and exploitation of the weak rise to the forefront.

Without education, more laws are necessary to govern the state because its citizens lack “soft skills“, such as common sense, empathy, generosity, and solidarity. When a shared ethical and moral code isn’t present, more laws are needed to protect the citizens.

  Envy

“Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”

Nowadays, pop culture references this as “the grass is greener syndrome”. Tacitus reminds us that not all we yearn for is as great as it seems, and nor are our current situations always as bad as we think they are. In retrospect, we often look back and realize things weren’t as bad as they seemed. So follow the wise words of Tacitus. Stop wishing for the future and enjoy the present!

The grass isn't always greener on the other side.

Criticism

“To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.”

Most of us have felt this way at some point. We’re deeply bothered by another’s criticism. Tacitus gives some hard love here, telling us that if we feel so bothered by their criticism, they’ve most likely hit the nail on the head. If we’re so bothered, it’s often because there’s truth to their claim. Hopefully, it’s constructive criticism we can learn and grow from.

We have only just brushed the surface of Tacitus’ quotes, wise words guided by knowledge, respect, and years of careful reflection. His words still echo true today. Not only do they teach us about the past, but they also guide us in bettering ourselves and our societies now and in the future.