There are quite a number of misleading statements about this subject circulating on the internet, including the curious idea that Tacitus was forged in the 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini. This page has been written to place the facts at the disposal of those interested, and references to more information. The intended audience is the interested layman. All this material is derived from the sources listed.
I've also added a short paragraph on the allegations that Tacitus' works were forged.
The works of Tacitus that have come down to us are as follows:
Annales, 11-16, Historiae
The titles Annales and Historiae are 16th century, as the manuscripts present both works under the title Ab excessu divi Augusti. Historiae 1-5 appear as books 17-21 in the MS.
It is generally accepted "that Tacitus completed the Historiae in 14 books, and then wrote 16 books Ab excessu Divi Augusti, but did not complete the prolegomenary and supplemental works which he had projected. The result, therefore, was two historical works which were subsequently combined, possibly by the author but more probably by a later editor, into a single sequence of 30 books numbered consecutively. The existence of such a consolidated edition is implied in Jerome's oft-quoted reference (Comm. ad Zach. 3, 14; = Migne, 25, 1522) to the triginta volumina (= libri) of the Tacitean 'vitae Caesarum,' and confirmed by the subscriptions in the Second Medicean manuscript, in which we clearly have the remains of a consolidated edition. At the end of the second book of Historiae, for example, the colophon reads: Cornelij tacitj. || Liber octauus decim; expljcit. || Incipit nonus decimus. This numbering is certainly taken from the mutilated archetype from which the Second Medicean was copied, and may therefore be presumed to be ancient.".2
The first 6 books of the Annales survive in a single manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, where it is MS. plut. 68.1. Since this is the library of the Medici prince, Lorenzo the Magnificent, it is naturally called the Codex Mediceus, or M for short.
This MS was written around 850AD in Germany. The distinctive type of script suggests the event took place in the scriptorium of the Benedictine abbey of Fulda, and this is supported by an explicit reference to Tacitus in the Annales Fuldenses for 852 (Cornelius Tacitus, scriptor rerum a Romanis in ea gente gestarum) which seems to show knowledge of Ann. 2,9.
The script is a pre-carolingian hand which the scribe is changing to Carolingian minuscule, together with occasional small plain majuscules (a 9th century derivative of rustic capitals), a more ornamental version of these letters with decorative shading and some uncial elements, and also a few much larger and heavier capitals of essentially rustic form. It is generally agreed that it was copied from a text written in 'insular' script which was copied from a manuscript in 'rustic capitals', and it has been suggested that this latter was at least 4th and probably 3rd century, based on an analysis of errors made in copying the titulature and colophons of each book, which are most easily explained if these errors occurred in copying a volume written in the early period in which prose texts were normally written in comparatively large letters and very narrow columns, and the colophons were not laid out in the manner common in 5th century and later books.2
The MS as originally written also included a good copy of the 9-book version of the letters of the younger Pliny (now separately bound as Laurentianus plut. 47.36).
At some time after it was written, the MS was transferred to the monastery of Corvey, in Saxony. There it remained, apparently without ever being copied.
In 1508 the volume was removed from the library. A letter of Pope Leo X of December 1, 1517 indicates that it had been stolen, and that Leo had paid a large amount of money for it4. At all events it passed into the hands of Pope Leo X.3
Leo gave the MS to Filippo Beraldo the Younger, who used it to produce the first edition in 1515, and left numerous annotations in the margins of the MS. The monks of Corvey, who petitioned the Pope for the return of their treasure, were instead sent a copy of the printed volume together with an indulgence to make up the balance.
The number of letters to a page is identical with M. II, which led Dom Henri Quentin to the conclusion that M originally contained the complete Annals, and Histories, and was the ancestor of M.II also. The suggestion is that the rebinding of the first part with Pliny created separate volumes, and the latter portion proceeded to lead a separate life4. However not all scholars agree that the statistic is significant, and it has been suggested that the text of M.II is more seriously corrupt than that of M, and in ways that make it likely that they are not related in this way1.
[Image of Folio 6v (end of 11, start of 12); Image of folio 38r containing Annals 15:44 (from here); better image of same from here]
All of the late Italian manuscripts - some 31 at the last count - are copies of a single mediaeval manuscript, also in the Laurentian library, where it is number 68.2. It is referred to as M. II or 'second Medicean', to distinguish it from the unique codex of Annals 1-6. Bound with it are the major works of Apuleius, written slightly later than the Tacitus but at the same place.
The copies are discussed by Mendell.6
This MS is written in the difficult Beneventan hand. It was written at Monte Cassino, perhaps during the abbacy of Richer (1038-55AD). It derives from an ancestor written in Rustic Capitals, as it contains errors of transcription natural to that bookhand. There is some evidence that it was copied only once in about ten centuries, and that this copy was made from an original in rustic capitals of the 5th century or earlier,8 but other scholars believe that it was copied via at least one intermediate copy written in a minuscule hand.9
How the MS came to leave Monte Cassino is a matter of mystery. It was still at Monte Cassino, and was used by Paulus Venetus, Bishop of Puzzuoli, sometime between 1331 and 1344. However Boccaccio had certainly seen the text by 1371, and the MS is listed among the books given by him at his death to the monastery of S. Spirito in Florence. Whether he had 'liberated' it, or acquired it from another collector who had done so has been extensively debated, without final result.
The MS is next seen in 1427, in the hands of the book-collector Niccolo Niccoli, who had furnished bookcases for Boccaccio's collection at S.Spirito. That Niccolo had not acquired the MS legitimately is suggested by a letter to him from his friend Poggio Bracciolini, asking to see it and promising to keep quiet about it. Knowledge of the text among the humanists is correspondingly limited in this period.
Poggio returned the MS to Niccolo, complaining about its barbarous script, and comparing it unfavourably with a copy of it in humanist script held by another mutual friend, Salutati.
At Niccolo's death in 1437, the MS passed with his books to the monastery of San Marco at Florence with the Medici as executors, and the humanist copies all date from this period or later.
The editio princeps was from the press of 'Spira' at Venice, a folio volume containing only the last 6 books of the annals and the first five of the histories. It is undated, but supposed to be from either 1468 or 1470. (Dibdin, Thomas Frognall, An introduction to the knowledge of rare and valuable editions of the Greek and Latin classics, 4th edn., London (1827), vol II. p.466 checked).
[The first plate is plate XIV from Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars. The others are directly or indirectly from a photographic facsimile: Tacitus. Codex Laurentianus Mediceus 68 I. (II.) [comprising Bks. 1-5, and 11-16 of the Annals; and Bks. 1-5 of the Histories]; phototypice editus. Praefatus est Henricus Rostagno (Enrico Rostagno); in Du Bieu (W. N.) Codices Graeci et Latini phototypice editi, etc. tom. 7. Leiden, 1902.]
[image of Aesinas Lat. 8 f.63v
(Agricola 38.3-4); image of start of
Germania, from same ms]
Several pages online here; scroll down and search for "Aesinas"
The three minor works of Tacitus - the Dialogus, the Agricola, and the Germania - were little known before the renaissance. However a number of manuscripts did survive at that time, and were copied. Unfortunately most of the originals were then lost, and the details are disputed. The monasteries were very reluctant to part with their treasures (even if they didn't look bother after them) and so the process whereby the MSS were 'liberated' is usually very unclear.
The sole survivor is the Codex Aesinas Latinus 8 (E), which was discovered by Prof. Cesare Annibaldi in the private library of Count Aurelio Guglielmi Balleani of Jesi in the autumn of 1902. The MS was thought lost again, but in 1980 was in the hands of Count Balleschi-Balleani, the great-nephew of Count Aurelio Guglielmi Balleani of Jesi.5 It was on loan to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, and was damaged in the flooding of the Arno in 1966. However in 1994 it was sold to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome, where it is now Cod. Vitt. Em. 1631.11
The manuscript nearly ended up in Germany, however, during the intervening period. At a meeting in 1936 the German dictator Adolf Hitler asked Mussolini for the Jesi manuscript. Mussolini agreed, but changed his mind on finding how unpopular the promise was in Italy. Hitler had not been serious, it seems, thinking that the text only showed what barbarians the Germans were compared to the Romans at that time. But his ideologist Alfred Rosenberg was seriously interested, as was Heinrich Himmler. In July 1944 a sonderkommando of SS men arrived at the Palazzo of the Balleani in Fontedamo, a couple of miles west of Ancona. On finding the house empty, they broke in, searched for the Ms. and vandalised the house on finding it not present. They then searched, somewhat less roughly, two further properties of the Balleani family; a house in Osimo, where the family remained undetected in a cellar, and the Palazzo on the Piazza in Jesi. The Ms. was in fact in a kitchen cellar in the Jesi palazzo in a wooden trunk bound with tin, but was undiscovered. 12
The Aesinas contains Dictys Cretensis, Bellum Troianum, partly in the 15th century hand of Stefano Guarnieri; Agricola 13.1-40.2 (ff. 56-63) in a hand from the second quarter of the 9th century, together with a palimpsest (f. 69) with some decipherable readings from 40.2 to 43.4; with the missing start and end added in Guarnieri's hand; and the Germania, entirely in Guarnieri's hand.
In November 1425 Poggio wrote to Niccolo of the discovery in a German Abbey of some volumes, including Julius Frontinus and some works of Tacitus unknown to them (ignota nobis). The information had been brought to him by a monk of Hersfeld, Heinrich von Grebenstein, who had visited the Papal Curia (where Poggio worked) in search of money. Poggio specified that the book should be brought to Nuremburg, where it would be exchanged for some other contemporary works that the monk wanted.
In May 1427 Poggio writes to Niccolo that the monk had let him down, "many words, but nothing". It seemed that Poggio would not meet his price; and Poggio seems to have become discouraged on learning that the MS did not contain any more of the Annals.
By 1431, Niccolo knew that a volume at the abbey of Hersfeld contained the Germania, Agricola, Dialogus and the fragments of Suetonius' De grammaticis et rhetoribus, and lists it in a sheet of 'things to get' (his Commentarium, which is online) he handed to two Cardinals travelling in Germany. The Commentarium has a note in the margin that the book was actually found.
In 1432, a letter from Francesco Pizzolpasso, Archbishop of Milan, to Nicolaus Cusanus also discusses what sound like the same MSS4.
In 1455 an MS of this description was seen in Rome by Pier Candido Decembrio. Decembrio describes the MS in detail. It seems to be in columns, and to contain the Germania, the Agricola, the Dialogus, and the Suetonius fragments. Associated with it - perhaps bound together - is a copy of Frontinus, De aquaeductibus, with the two volumes of that work reversed.4
In the same year an MS was brought to Rome by Enoch of Ascoli, one of Poggio's rivals - and Poggio consequently belittles the find in a letter. Enoch had worked for Pope Nicholas V, but as he was dead Enoch was allowing no copies to be made and standing out for a large price. Enoch died in 1457, and left his MSS to Stefano de Nardini of Ancona, according to a letter from Carlo de Medici to his half-brother Giovanni. The four good finds included Apicius, Porphyrio, Suetonius de viris illustribus and the Itinerarium Augusti. However a Leiden MS (Leiden 18) copied from his MSS contains the Suetonius fragments (not the De viris illustribus), and on the back of this the Dialogus and the Germania. It does not contain the Agricola, which suggests that the Enoch MS did not contain it either. It has thus been suggested that Enoch's MS is not the same as the Hersfeld MS, seen by Decembrio in the same year.4 However others do not agree with this, and treat the Leiden MS as a copy of a Vatican copy of the Hersfeld MS1.
It is usually accepted that this now lost MS is the original of all the later copies of these works, which include the Codex Toletanus 49,2 (T); codex Vaticanus 3429 (A); codex Vaticanus lat. 4498 (B). The standard view is that the Aesinas is part of the lost MS from Hersfeld. However a case has been made that in fact the Aesinas is independant of the Hersfeld MS1. It has also been suggested that it in fact came from Monte Cassino, and was assembled for the Jesi library by Guarini.4
So it would seem that informed opinions range from one to three surviving copies, from which the various modern texts take their origins.
[The first plate is Tacitus Agricola 38, 3-4, Codex Aesinas latinus 8, folio 63, verso (from Till's Untersuchungen), obtained from Stan Wolfson's clearly well-informed website, which, adds the following further notes on the scholarship:]
E is the Oxford abbreviation for the codex. Further refinements are added by Murgia (1977, 324 n.2). Till (1979, 7-10) uses H (Hersfeld) for the Caroline section and E for the fifteenth century transcriptions. Delz (1983) assumed that the Hersfeld and Aesinas were the same. That they were different was proposed by Mendell (1949, 134-135; 1957, 257-293) and Schaps (1979, 28-42) and supported by Winterbottom (1983, 411). This was challenged by Murgia and Rodgers (1984, 145-153, cf. Magnaldi 1997, 133). For the fate of the codex, cf. Schama (1995, 75-81) and Niutta (1996, 172-202).
Marginal notes in E are contemporary and often superior where proper names are concerned: cf. Perret 1950, 99-100; Koestermann 1964, xii; Murgia 1977, 339.
Delz, J. 1983: P. Cornelii Taciti qui supersunt libri, Agricola, Stuttgart
Koestermann, E. 1964: P. Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt, tom ii. Fasc. 2 Germania Agricola, Leipzig
Magnaldi, G. 1997: 'Suetonio, Tacito e il codice Hersfeldense', Prometheus 23, 119- 144, 229-246
Mendell, C.W. 1935: 'Discovery of the minor works of Tacitus', AJP 56, 111-130
Mendell, C.W. 1949: 'Manuscripts of Tacitus' minor works', MAAR 135-145
Mendell, C.W. 1957: Tacitus: the man and his work, Newhaven and London
Murgia, C.E. 1977: 'The Minor Works of Tacitus: a study in textual criticism' CP 72, 323-345
Murgia, C.E. 1978: 'Loci Conclamati in the Minor Works of Tacitus', CSCA 11, 159-178
Murgia, C.E. and Rodgers, R.H. 1984: 'A Tale of Two Manuscripts', CP 79, 145- 153
Niutta, F. 1996: 'sul codice Esinate di Tacito', Quad. di storia 43, 173-202
Perret, J. 1950: Recherches sur le texte de la 'Germanie', Paris
Schama, S. 1995: Landscape and Memory, London
Schaps, D. 1979: 'The found and lost manuscripts of Tacitus' Agricola' CP 74, 28-42
Till, R. 1943: Handschriftliche Untersuchungen zu Tacitus Agricola und Germania, Berlin-Dahlem
The modern editions of Tacitus that I have seen do not refer to the allegations of forgery that have been made at various times. The following account is summarised from Mendell4, who gives the same data at more length. If anyone has more data or more recent bibliographic references on this, so that this story can be put to bed, I would be grateful to receive it.
According to Mendell, since 1775 there have been at least 6 attempts to discredit the works of Tacitus as either forgeries or fiction:
It would seem that the arguments for forgery have failed to find acceptance.
Mendell also gives an extensive list of people who mention Tacitus or any of his works from the 1st century onwards. From this we can see that Tacitus is mentioned or quoted in every century down to and including the Sixth. The Seventh and Eighth centuries are the only ones that have left no trace of knowledge of our author4. The Dialogus is not mentioned at all, however.1 Without quoting every reference, here are some which I found of interest.
"Haec omnia plenissime Josephus, qui Judaicam scripsit historiam, et multo majora quam legimus in prophetis, eos sustinuisse commemorat. Cornelius quoque Tacitus, qui post Augustum usque ad mortem Domitiani Vitas Caesarum triginta voluminibus exaravit." (from the Patrologia Latina text here)
"All these things [about the destruction of Jerusalem] Josephus records very fully, who wrote a Jewish History, and supports them with many things at greater length than we read in the prophets [i.e. in the bible]. Also Cornelius Tacitus, who wrote the lives of the Caesars in 30 volumes from Augustus down to the death of Domitian." (Tr. RP)
Since an English version of his letters to Niccolo Niccoli on this subject is readily available,10 I thought perhaps it might be of interest to reproduce portions of them.
From Letter X
... As for the monastery of Corvey, which is in Germany, you have no grounds for hope. There are supposed to be a lot of books there; I do not believe the tales of fools but even if what they say were true, the whole country is a den of thieves. Even those natives who stay in the Curia do not go back safely to their own country. So give up that idea. ... The twenty-ninth day of October .
Poggio had been persuaded to come to England when the Papal curia was in particular danger, but had been deceived by his new patron, Cardinal Beaufort, who kept him very short of money. All his letters from this period are very depressed, and he was pining to go home. In the end he managed to get enough money to escape and promptly felt much happier.
From Letter XLII
... You have almost all the news, but I am keeping the honey for the last. A friend of mine, who is a monk from a monastery in Germany and who left us lately, sent me a letter which I received three days ago. He writes that he has found several volumes of the kind you and I like which he wants to exchange for the Novella of Joannes Andreae or for both the Speculum and its supplements, and he sends the names of the books enclosed in the letter. The Speculum and the supplements are volumes of great value; so see if you think the exchange should be made. Among these volumes are Julius Frontinus and several works of Cornelius Tacitus still unknown to us. You will see the inventory and find out whether these law books can be bought for a decent price. The books will be deposited in Nuremberg where the Speculum and supplements ought also to be taken; it is easy to bring books from there as you will see in the inventory. This is a selection; there are many other books. For he writes in this vein. 'As you asked me to mark the poets for you to choose those you would like from the list I have found many from which I chose some which you will find on the enclosed inventory'. Dear Nicolaus, write to me as soon as you can what to answer him so that everything may be done according to your judgement; I care for only a few things, which you will see for yourself. Goodbye, I have written this in great haste. Rome, the third day of November .-Tell Nicolaus as soon as possible not to send his copy of the De finibus because I have found one, and the one which I am getting ready will be finished before his comes. So your affairs go stumbling on. [End]
This refers to a monk from Hersfeld. The law-books in question were very large and expensive volumes.
From Letter XLVII
... I shall say no more about the books from Germany except that unlike you I am not asleep but awake. But hopefully if the man I count on keeps his promise, the book will come to us either by force or willingly. Even so I have made an effort to have an inventory of one of the very old monasteries in Germany where there is a large collection of books, but I shall not tell you any more so that you will not annoy me with your sarcasm. If you want to have the Spartianus, see that I have the Aulus Gellius ...Goodbye, at Rome in haste, September the twelfth .
From Letter XLVIII
... See that I have the books which I asked you for and the paper too and especially the Aulus Gellius. I shall be truly pleased if you send the Cornelius Tacitus; if you do so, I shall return your Spartianus; I ask you for this very insistently. ... Goodby and answer me even if you are angry, for then your letters bring me the greatest pleasure. Rome, the twenty-first of October .
This is a reference to M. II. Niccolo was a man in constant poor health and very nervous, which made him irritable, and gave him a considerable ability to make enemies.
From Letter XLIX
XLIX. I had told our friend Cosmus, just as you write, that that monk from Hersfeld had told someone that he had brought an inventory of more books according to my list. Afterward when I questioned the man thoroughly he came to me bringing the inventory, full of words and empty of matter. He is a good man, but ignorant of our studies, and he thought that whatever he found that was unknown to him would be unknown to us too and so he crammed it with books which we have, the same books that you have known elsewhere. However I am sending you the part of his inventory which describes the volume of Cornelius Tacitus and of other authors whom we lack; since these are short little texts, they must not be considered of great importance. I have given up the great hope which I built on his promises; that is the reason why I did not make a particular effort to write you this, for if there had been anything unusual or worthy of our wisdom, I should not only have written to you but flown to you to tell you about it in person. This monk is in need of money; I have discussed helping him, provided only that he gives me for this money the Ammianus Marcellinus, the first Decade of Livy, and one volume of the Orations of Cicero, to mention works we both have, and quite a few others, which although we have them are not to be disdained. I asked furthermore that they be carried at his risk to Nuremberg. This I am handling. I do not known how it will turn out; however you will find it all out from me in due course. ... Rome, the fifteenth of May  ...
From Letter LI
... Now to more important matters. When the Cornelius Tacitus comes I shall keep it hidden with me for I know that whole song, "Where did it come from and who brought it here? Who claims it for his own?" But do not worry, not a word shall escape me. ... I have heard nothing about the Cornelius Tacitus which is in Germany. I am waiting for an answer from that monk. ... Rome, the twenty-fifth of September 1427.
This indicates that there was something doubtful about the ownership of the volume. It has been suggested that this is because Niccolo had 'acquired' it from the estate of Boccaccio.
Gordan gives here a couple of references on the subject of the rediscovery of Tacitus, and Poggio and Niccoli.
From Letter LVII
... Goodbye, the fifth day of June, 1428. I gave Bartholemew de Bardis the Decade of Livy and the Cornelius Tacitus to send you. In your Cornelius there are several pages missing in various places and in the Decade a whole column, as you will be able to see. 1428. [End]
The reference is to a copy of M. II which Niccolo had.
From Letter LIX
... Cornelius Tacitus is silent in Germany and I have heard nothing new from there about his activities. ... Goodbye, in haste, the eleventh day of September 1428.
Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.
1. This account is taken primarily from L.D. REYNOLDS, Texts and Transmission: A survey of the Latin Classics, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1983), ISBN 0-19-814456-3. Tacitus occupies page 406-411. The pages on the major works are by R.J. TARRANT; those on the minor works by M. WINTERBOTTOM. The references are also from this volume, except where indicated, but I have only reproduced a few of them. Anyone at all interested in the transmission of the classics should read this volume. It is in print, and available from Amazon. The only downside is the price - $150 - which will exclude most people.
2. See the article by Revilo P. OLIVER, The First Medicean MS of Tacitus and the Titulature of Ancient Books, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 82 (1951), pp.232-261. (Checked)
3. P. LEHMANN, Corveyer Studien, ABAW 30.5 (1919), pp. 22 and 38. (Not checked)
4. Clarence W. MENDELL, Tacitus: The Man and his Work, Yale University Press/Oxford University Press (1957). (This reference is not from Texts and Transmission). This book contains an enormous amount of detail about the transmission and MSS of Tacitus. (Checked)
5. James S. HIRSTEIN, Tacitus' Germania and Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547): A study of the Editorial and Exegetical Contribution of a Sixteenth Century Scholar, Studien zur klassischen Philologie vol. 91, Frankfurt am Main/New York, 1995. (This reference is not from Texts and Transmission). (Checked)
6. C.W. MENDELL, Manuscripts of Tacitus XI-XXI, YCS 6 (1939), pp.41-70. (Ref. from Oliver). (Not checked)
7. A facsimile edition of the main MSS exists: Tacitus. Codex Laurentianus Mediceus 68 phototypice editus; praefatus est Henricus Rostagno, Lugdunum Batavorum (1902). (Ref. from Oliver, listed in Bodleian). (Not checked)
8. E.A. LOWE, The Unique Manuscript of Tacitus' Histories, Casinensia, Monte Cassino, 1929, vol. I pp. 257-272. (Ref. from Oliver). (Not checked)
9. C.W. MENDELL and S.A. IVES, Rycks's Manuscript of Tacitus, American Journal of Philology 72 (1951), pp.337-345. (Ref. from Oliver). (Not checked)
10. P. W. G. GORDAN, Two Renaissance Book Hunters: The letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicolaus de Niccolis, New York (1974). This seems easy to obtain online second-hand.
11. I owe this information to the kindness of Prof. Michael Reeve.
12. Many thanks to Edgar Wright who emailed me about a German article online which describes these events, and gives "Landscape and Memory" by Simon Schama (London 1995) as the source. The image of the incipit of the Germania comes from this article. Unfortunately Mr. Wright failed to supply a valid email address, so I was unable to thank him!
Note that there is also a Tacitus Home Page.
Updated 25th May, 2000.
Updated 17th August 2001. Material from Oliver and Gordan added.
Updated 1st October 2003. Note on the Jesi manuscript added, thanks to MDR.
Updated 8th April 2005. Hitler and the Jesi manuscript details added, thanks for Edgar Wright.
Updated 10th October 2008. Photographs of Christians page from M2.
This page has been accessed by people since 26th April 2000.
Return to Roger Pearse's Pages