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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When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth, when Pompeius was crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Cæsar left to lead it, then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune’s authority for the protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws.

He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past.

Nor did the provinces dislike that condition of affairs, for they distrusted the government of the Senate and the people, because of the rivalries between the leading men and the rapacity of the officials, while the protection of the laws was unavailing, as they were continually deranged by violence, intrigue, and finally by corruption.

[Postquam Bruto et Cassio caesis nulla iam publica arma, Pompeius apud Siciliam oppressus, exutoque Lepido, interfecto Antonio, ne Iulianis quidem partibus nisi Caesar dux reliquus, posito triumviri nomine, consulem se ferens et ad tuendam plebem tribunicio iure contentum, ubi militem donis, populum annona, cunctos dulcedine otii pellexit, insurgere paulatim, munia senatus, magistratuum, legum in se trahere, nullo adversante, cum ferocissimi per acies aut proscriptione cecidissent, ceteri nobilium, quanto quis servitio promptior, opibus et honoribus extollerentur ac novis ex rebus aucti, tuta et praesentia quam vetera et periculosa mallent. Neque provinciae illum rerum statum abnuebant, suspecto senatus populique imperio ob certamina potentium et avaritiam magistratuum, invalido legum auxilio, quae vi, ambitu, postremo pecunia turbabantur.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals Book 1, ch. 2 [tr. Church & Brodribb (1876)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.:
After the deaths of Brutus and Cassius had disarmed the people, with Sextus Pompeius crushed off Sicily (in the naval defeat off Pelorum, 36BC), with Lepidus discarded and Antony’s life ended, the Julian faction itself would have been leaderless but for Octavian. Relinquishing his title of triumvir, he professed himself a plain consul, content to wield only a tribune’s authority in safeguarding the commons.

Seducing the military with gifts, the people with cheap grain, the world with the delights of peace, he gradually gained power, taking to himself the duties of the senate, the magistracy and the law, unopposed. The boldest had fallen in the field or been proscribed, the remaining nobility, raised to wealth and high office by their propensity for servitude, profiting from the turn of events, preferred security and their present situation to the dangers of the old order.

Nor did the provinces oppose this state of affairs, the power of the senate and people having been discredited by the quarrels among the great and the magistrates’ avarice, there being no help from a legal system skewed by force, favouritism and in the end bribery.

[tr. Kline (2017)]

When the killing of Brutus and Cassius had disarmed the Republic; when Pompey had been crushed in Sicily, and, with Lepidus thrown aside and Antony slain, even the Julian party was leaderless but for the Caesar; after laying down his triumviral title and proclaiming himself a simple consul content with tribunician authority to safeguard the commons, he first conciliated the army by gratuities, the populace by cheapened corn, the world by the amenities of peace, then step by step began to make his ascent and to unite in his own person the functions of the senate, the magistracy, and the legislature.

Opposition there was none: the boldest spirits had succumbed on stricken fields or by proscription-lists; while the rest of the nobility found a cheerful acceptance of slavery the smoothest road to wealth and office, and, as they had thriven on revolution, stood now for the new order and safety in preference to the old order and adventure.

Nor was the state of affairs unpopular in the provinces, where administration by the Senate and People had been discredited by the feuds of the magnates and the greed of the officials, against which there was but frail protection in a legal system for ever deranged by force, by favouritism, or (in the last resort) by gold.

[tr. Jackson [Loeb (1931)]]

After the public was disarmed by the murders of Brutus and Cassius, when Pompey had been defeated in Sicily, Lepidus discarded, and Antony had been killed, even the Julian party had Caesar as the remaining leader. Once he gave up the name of triumvir and was declaring himself a consul, happy to safeguard the common people with tribunal powers, he won over the army with payments, the people with food grants, and everyone else with pleasing peace.

Then, bit by bit, he began to arrogate to himself the duties of the senate, the executive offices, and the law because there was no one opposing him since the boldest men had died either in battle or by proscription. The remaining nobles discovered themselves increased by honors and wealth as soon as they accepted servitude: they preferred the present safety to ancient dangers.

The provinces too were not opposed to this state of affairs because the rule of the Senate and People there had been undermined by the struggles of the powerful and avarice of the officers against which there was the weak defense of laws which were corrupted by force, by nepotism and, finally, bribery.

[tr. @sententiq (2020)]
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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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