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How can we be confident that Tacitus really wrote any of the works attributed to him, namely his Histories and Annals?

The background here is that when we discuss the historicity and/or accuracy of Tacitus' reports, we often appeal to Tacitus himself as perhaps being in a position to know these things. For instance, he is said to have lived ca. 56-120 CE or so, and so when he speaks on events in this period it makes us more inclined to believe him.

Compare this to something like the Acts of the Apostles, where "Luke" claims that he is a companion of Paul who accompanied him on a few of his missionary journeys; and yet historians are divided on whether this is true. What makes historians so confident, in contrast, that Tacitus did and saw the things he claimed he did?

Of course Tacitus did not claim to be an eyewitness for most of his Histories or Annals, but the principle is the same. How do we know that what Tacitus does claim about himself is correct?

One starting point might be Pliny the Younger, who mentions that 7.33 of his own letters that he anticipates Tacitus' Histories to be published in the future and achieve high popularity. If we accept the authenticity of Pliny's letter then this would be helpful, even if not completely persuasive. And even so, what of Annals?

I suspect that both Histories and Annals would have been quoted or referenced soon after their publication. Perhaps this can help establish a terminus ante quem, which in turn might bolster its authenticity? But then, where can we find these early references?

Any thoughts---or especially references!---would be much appreciated. Thanks!

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    This touches on the very interesting question of how we know anything about the source of any ancient writing, but as written misses the target. How do I know that you asked this question? We never "know" anything with certainty! And of what consequence is the author's name, anyway? (We know practically nothing about Tacitus beyond that -- we don't even know his full name!) See the Wikipedia article for what few details there are. A much better question might be to ask why we accept Tacitus's writing as a real and pretty reliable product of a late 1st/early 2nd century Roman senator.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 11:44
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    You seem more concerned with the identity of the author than with the authenticity of the book! If it turned out that the author was really named Fred but otherwise of similar background would that really change anything? (Granted "Fred" would be a very surprising name for a Roman senator...) ((Cue the old joke of the scholar who proved that the Iliad was not written by Homer but by another Greek of the same name!)) Unless we know something substantial about the author from other sources -- and in neither Tacitus's case nor in Luke's do we -- the author's name is little more than a curiosity.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 13:57
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    @MarkOlson Well but that is exactly what I am asking. The author tells us many things about himself, that he was a quaestor under Titus, more generally that he lived during the timeframe we think he lived, etc. How can we be confident that these things are true?
    – Ben W
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 14:02
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    Perhaps you could edit your question to make this more clear -- it was not clear to me. You are asking a very good question -- I think that far too few people remember to ask "How do we know this?" when talking about history, and classical history in particular.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 14:16
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    @cmw The point -- at least for me -- is that since all we know about Homer is that he was a Greek named Homer, saying it was actually a different Greek named Homer who wrote about the Trojan War is a distinction without a difference. Once legend and speculation is set aside, we know very, very little about most named people in classical history and our discussions can unknowingly skate perilously close to juggling Homers.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 15:30

1 Answer 1

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Embedded in the question is this comment (emphasis added):

Compare this to something like the Acts of the Apostles, where "Luke" claims that he is a companion of Paul who accompanied him on a few of his missionary journeys; and yet historians are divided on whether this is true. What makes historians so confident, in contrast, that Tacitus did and saw the things he claimed he did?

The fact of the matter is that not all historians are so confident that all of what we have attributed to Tacitus is really authentic history, especially the Annals. For example, see the 19th century work John Wilson Ross' Tacitus and Bracciolini. The Annals Forged in the XVth Century.

However, academic consensus is difficult to reach in any era. For example, at the time of the Reformation there was a division among theologians. Many Hebrew, Greek & Patristic scholars were divided on whether to agree with what Martin Luther and what the Lutherans were arguing.

Strong feelings about religious claims can result in the corruption of historical judgment. Hence, the division among historical scholars in regards to the authorship of Luke's Gospel.

Are any or all of the works, claiming to be Tacitus, works of historical fiction? If so, could they still contain reliable historical insights related to that period of time? It's a great question to ask.

There is a lot of historical fiction being produced in our era that could easily be confused with real historical biographies. One can even read those books and end up with a flawed view of history, as some novelists use "poetic license" where false information about a historical character or period has been invented for entertainment value.

The process of determining what are works of fiction, from that of what were meant to be understood as historical biographies, has do with both genre criticism and how the documents were understood by those who wrote during the first couple of hundred years following their composition.

So, were the works that we attribute to Tacitus basically fictional compositions made for entertainment value?

As was pointed out earlier, the works of Tacitus are in dispute by some scholars. For example, in the 1899 revised Reader's Handbook by E. Cobham Brewer Wikipedia it is stated:

Annals of Tacitus (The). Said to be a forgery of Poggio Bracciolini, apostolic to eight popes (1381--1459). It is said that Cosmo de Medici agreed to pay him 500 gold sequins (about £160) for his trouble. We are further told that Poggio's MS. is still in the library of Florence, and that it was published in 1460. Johannes de Spire produced the last six books, but the work is still incomplete. In confirmation of this tale it is added "that no writer has quoted from the Annals before the close of the sixteenth century." The title "Annals of Tacitus" was given to Poggio's book by Beatus Rhenanus in 1553.

However, see the article Tacitus and his manuscripts for the pushback to that forgery argument. That article, Tacitus and his manuscripts, also puts forth a pretty cogent answer to the question raised on this post. To repost the main arguments from the article would take up too much space on this post. But, in my opinion, it really would get to the heart of a better answer that others (-4 so far!) have not seen that helpful in my answer. Another good resource is the dialog that can be found here.

Getting back to the original observation about how historians are divided who wrote Luke. To fail to examine the minority viewpoint among traditional historical scholars, believing in the authenticity of Luke being the writer of the Gospel of Luke, would be an argumentum ad populum effort that avoids the specific arguments.

To begin with, there is a title attached to most of the Greek texts for the Gospel of Luke Kata Lucan. The custodians of the texts (Alexandria, etc.) understood the phrase as referring to a specific individual and not a school of thought. They also did not understand the text as being a work of historical fiction, or even embellished midrash like expansions of historical events.

In all the manuscripts of Luke's Gospel, that have survived sufficiently intact to include any title, not one of those manuscripts omits an ascription to the author being Luke. In other words, in every manuscript that has survived sufficiently intact for any title to be present, there is a title, and that title links the text to Luke being the author.

The first and perhaps biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found.

Contrast that to the question of whether we can be confident that Tacitus really wrote any of the works attributed to him, namely his Histories and Annals?

If that one forgery accusation of the Annals of Tacitus can be resolved as this argument indicates, one might argue that the custodians of the works of Tacitus did not think of these texts as works of historical fiction. They also did not understand the text as being embellished midrash like expansions of historical events. They also attributed the texts to an individual by the name of Tacitus.

For the occurrence of forgeries and their acceptance in classical antiquity see Bruce Metzger's Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha.

Having written the above, the question was put forth:

Pliny the Younger, who mentions that 7.33 of his own letters that he anticipates Tacitus' Histories to be published in the future and achieve high popularity.

In debating the authentication of Pliny's works one might raise the question of whether its fulfillment puts the authenticity of Pliny’s material into dispute, as 7.33 could be a form critical version of a vaticinium ex eventu argument.

However, that type of vaticinium ex eventu argument can easily corrupt historical judgment. For example, using it indiscriminately would necessitate the rejecting of the authenticity of John Adam's letter to Abigail Adam, dated July 3, 1776, which reads in part (emphasis added):

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

… I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

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