How Tacitus Became a Bestseller

Cover page of the Tacitus edition published by Justus Lipsius.

C. Cornelius Tacitus, Opera quae exstant, a Iusto Lipsio postremum recensita

Printed in 1648 in Antwerp by the Offizina Plantiniana

In 1976, the BBC captivated the British nation: already at the time of the initial broadcast, “I, Claudius” made 2.5 million people gather around the television every week. And yet, this series was nothing but the adaptation of the work of a Roman historian. The script was based on Tacitus’ Annals even though already his contemporaries considered the book to be difficult to digest and not suitable for a wide audience. During the Middle Ages, his work fell into oblivion until it was rediscovered as the result of a bold theft.

The Abbey of Corvey. Photo: Arimja. BY-CC 4.0.

Bold Thefts from German Monasteries

For centuries, a manuscript with parts of Tacitus’ Annals had been stored in the Abbey of Corvey, Germany. You want to know who stole it from the monastery and when? Well, we do not know that. However, we know this: at the end of the 15th century, it was well-known in Germany that there were weird people in Italy willing to pay incredibly high prices for old books. The codex stolen from Corvey already had changed hands several times before Pope Leo X bought it for his library, had the manuscript printed and sent one of the copies to the Abbey of Corvey as a thank you. The abbey was delighted about the papal attention and the replacement.

Other monasteries were not as relaxed about the issue. Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini, who was looking for manuscripts in Germany at the beginning of the 15th century, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1427: “If I receive the manuscript of Cornelius Tacitus, I will hide it well – for I know how the usual song goes: Where does it come from and who brought it here? Who claims to be the legitimate owner? But do not worry, I will not breathe a word about it.”

Although the Italian humanists got their hands on the codices by means of a theft, they made good use of it and ensured their publication and dissemination. However, Tacitus was no success right away. His work was not written in the beautiful Latin that humanists were used to from Cicero and that they loved so much. And additionally: Livius wrote about proper military history. In contrast, the intrigues Tacitus focused on were not worthy of being a subject of noble historiography!

Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Political Importance of Faith

And then, the Germans reformed themselves. Faith might have played a decisive role in this. However, political implications were far more important. A reformed prince (or a reformed city) was finally capable of subjecting those enclaves that had been ruled by ecclesiastical authorities in the past to his own law. Until then, the estates of monasteries, dioceses and all other Catholic institution had been subject to ecclesiastical jurisdiction and taxation. Those who reformed their territory could not only take pride in their moral superiority but also experienced a real increase in power. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that German princes and imperial cities welcomed the Reformation so enthusiastically.

For centuries, people had looked up to the Pope in Rome and believed in a universal empire. From then on, they needed something different to replace this world view with. That’s when the rise of the idea of a German nation began. And an author that gave a past to the German nation obviously had the potential of becoming a bestseller.

Yes, it is said to have happened right here: the battlefield where Arminius fought Varus. Photo: KW.

Varus, Give Ge Back My Legions!

First, Tacitus wrote the “Germania”. Written to provide the Romans with a counterpart to their corrupt and decadent society, in the 16th and 17th century, the work had a lot to offer for a nascent German nation that could be interpreted as flattering.

And these wonderful texts in the Histories about Arminius of the Cherusci who defeated the Roman legions! German readers obviously loved that – and they did so to such an extent that, even today, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest attracts numerous fans to come to Kalkriese, where nothing is reminiscent of the battle apart from the spiritus loci and a little museum.

We should not forget to mention the intrigues at the imperial court described in the Annals and the Histories. All of a sudden, every sovereign of a tiny principality with his courtiers was sure to know these situations from his own experience.

In a nutshell, Tacitus was relevant, so relevant that his works were printed over and over again.

The Reprint of a Reprint of a Reprint

The Flemish scholar Justus Lipsius published a first critical edition of Tacitus’ works in 1574. It became a bestseller. Already during his lifetime, it was reprinted constantly and the Antwerp printing company Platin-Moretus made a lot of money with it! Obviously, it continued to print the work after Lipsius died. Our edition of 1648 contains Tacitus’ four texts: the Histories, the Annals, the Germania, the biography of Agricola and a work by Velleius Paterculus complementing Tacitus’ historiographic literature.

The book taught diplomats and courtiers of Baroque times how to behave at the court of a ruler. And, of course, there was a heated discussion about how much pretence was ethical, good and useful. After all, a scholar like Claudius had only survived the rule of tyrants because he had hidden his true nature…

Thus, if you want to understand the problems readers of this Tacitus edition were confronted with, don’t forget to re-watch the series “I, Claudius”.


You can have a look at this edition of Tacitus’ works at Google Books.

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