Quotations by Tacitus


Let the sweet Muses lead me to their soft retreats, their living fountains, and melodious groves, where I may dwell remote from care, master of myself … let me no more be seen in the wrangling forum, a pale and odious candidate for precarious fame … let me live free from solicitude … and when nature shall give the signal to retire may I possess no more than I may bequeath to whom I will. At my funeral let no token of sorrow be seen, no pompous mockery of woe. Crown me with chaplets; strew flowers on my grave, and let my friends erect no vain memorial to tell where my remains are lodged.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
“A Dialogue on Oratory,” sec. 13, Dialogus, Agricola, Germania

In The Works of Tacitus, Oxford trans., rev., vol. 2, (1854). The above is the version read at the funeral for Justice Hugo Black. The printed version differs in reading, at the start, "Me let the sweet Muses lead," and in using "anxious" for "odious."

Alt trans. (Peterson (1914)): "As for myself, may the 'sweet Muses,' as Virgil says, bear me away to their holy places where sacred streams do flow, beyond the reach of anxiety and care, and free from the obligation of performing each day some task that goes against the grain. May I no longer have anything to do with the mad racket and the hazards of the forum, or tremble as I try a fall with white-faced Fame. I do not want to be roused from sleep by the clatter of morning callers or by some breathless messenger from the palace; I do not care, in drawing my will, to give a money-pledge for its safe execution through anxiety as to what is to happen afterwards; I wish for no larger estate than I can leave to the heir of my own free choice. Some day or other the last hour will strike also for me, and my prayer is that my effigy may be set up beside my grave, not grim and scowling, but all smiles and garlands, and that no one shall seek to honour my memory either by a motion in the senate or by a petition to the Emperor."
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Fear is not in the habit of speaking truth. When perfect sincerity is expected, perfect freedom must be allowed; nor has anyone who is apt to be angry when he hears the truth any cause to wonder that he does not hear it.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
(Attributed)
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Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
(Attributed)

In Machiavelli, The Discourses, 1.29 (1517) [tr. Detmold (1940)]
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Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice: the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude.

[Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Agricola, Book 1, para. 21 (AD 98) [tr. Church and Brodribb]

Alt. trans.: "Because they didn't know better, they called it 'civilization,' when it was part of their slavery."
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To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

[Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Agricola, ch. 30 (AD 98) [tr. Oxford Revised]
    (Source)

  • "They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace." [Loeb Classical Library edition]
  • "To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace." [tr. William Peterson]
  • "They rob, kill and plunder all under the deceiving name of Roman Rule. They make a desert and call it peace."
Speech about Rome by the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus to his assembled warriors.
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So, as you go into battle, remember your ancestors and remember your descendants.

[Et majores vestros et posteros cogitate]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Agricola, ch. 32 [tr. Acheson, ch. 4, para. 22 (1938)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans: "Think of your ancestors and your posterity" or "Think of your forefathers and posterity."
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It is human nature to hate the man whom you have to hurt.

[Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Agricola, ch. 42 (AD 98)
    (Source)

Alt trans: "It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured."
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To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals (AD 117)
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Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions.

[Cupido dominandi cunctis affectibus flagrante est.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals, 15.53 (AD 117)
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The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.

[Nisi impunitatis cupido retinuisset, magnis semper conatibus adversa.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals, Book 15, 50 (AD 117)

Referring to Subrius Flavus’ thought of assassinating Nero while the emperor sang on stage.Alt. trans.: "But desire of escape, foe to all great enterprises, held him back."
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And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.

[Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals, Book 3, ch. 27 (AD 117)

More common variants:

  • "The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government."
  • "The more corrupt the state, the more laws."
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Candor and generosity, unless tempered by due moderation, lead to ruin.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Histories, Book 3, ch. 86 (AD 115-16)
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Once killing starts, it is difficult to draw the line.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Histories, Book I, ch. 39 (AD 100-110)
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The desire for glory clings even to the best men longer than any other passion.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Histories, Book IV, ch. 6 (AD 100-110)
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Neglected, calumny soon expires; show that you are hurt, and you give it the appearance of truth.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
The Annals (AD 109)
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That cannot be safe which is not honorable.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
The Histories, 1.33 [tr. Church and Brodribb (1942)]

Quoting an unnamed Roman.
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Our greatest advantage in coping with tribes so powerful is that they do not act in concert. Seldom is it that two or three states meet together to ward off a common danger. Thus, while they fight singly, all are conquered.

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola
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