40 Tacitus Quotes – Ancient Wisdom From a Roman Historian

Let us rub shoulders Tacitus – a Roman intellectual and historian who has gifted us with pearls of wisdom since 56 AD (and departed in 120 AD). Tacitus, our guide through the labyrinth of the Roman Empire, wore many laurels – senator, historian, and master of the one-liner. His written works are like time capsules from the Silver Age of Rome, bursting at the seams with political gossip and societal side-eyes.

Tacitus is a well-placed guide to look behind the curtain of the wealthy and the powerful, dishing the dirt on the virtuous and not-so-virtuous with equal fervor. Every quote of his is a key to understanding our own complexities, triumphs, and the occasional foot-in-mouth moments.

We hope you enjoy these 40 Tacitus quotes on love and envy, human nature, corruption and society, power and leadership and virtue and adversity.

Best, Most Popular and Famous Tacitus Quotes

“The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”  ~  Tacitus

“Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.”  ~  Tacitus

“If you would know who controls you see who you may not criticise.”  ~  Tacitus

“They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor… They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”  ~  Tacitus

“Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”  ~  Tacitus

Tacitus Quotes on Love, Envy and Retribution

“To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.”  ~  Tacitus

“When men are full of envy they disparage everything, whether it be good or bad.”  ~  Tacitus

“When a woman has lost her chastity she will shrink from nothing.”  ~  Tacitus “Abuse if you slight it, will gradually die away; but if you show yourself irritated, you will be thought to have deserved it.”  ~  Tacitus “Things forbidden have a secret charm.”  ~  Tacitus

Tacitus Quotes on Human Nature

“Love of fame is the last thing even learned men can bear to be parted from.”  ~  Tacitus

“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

“Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay falsehood by haste and uncertainty.”  ~  Tacitus

“It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured.”  ~  Tacitus

“It is human nature to hate the man whom you have hurt.”  ~  Tacitus

“Greater things are believed of those who are absent.”  ~  Tacitus

“Old things are always in good repute, present things in disfavor.”  ~  Tacitus

“A desire to resist oppression is implanted in the nature of man.”  ~  Tacitus

Tacitus Quotes on Corruption and Society

“A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.”  ~  Tacitus

“In a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous.”  ~  Tacitus

“When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.”  ~  Tacitus

“To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.”  ~  Tacitus

“Those in supreme power always suspect and hate their next heir.”  ~  Tacitus

Tacitus Quotes on Power and Leadership

“Custom adapts itself to expediency.”  ~  Tacitus

“No one would have doubted his ability to reign had he never been emperor.”  ~  Tacitus

“Victor and vanquished never unite in substantial agreement.”  ~  Tacitus

“Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.”  ~  Tacitus

“He that fights and runs away, May turn and fight another day; But he that is in battle slain, Will never rise to fight again.”  ~  Tacitus

“Valor is of no service, chance rules all, and the bravest often fall by the hands of cowards.”  ~  Tacitus

“Be assured those will be thy worst enemies, not to whom thou hast done evil, but who have done evil to thee. And those will be thy best friends, not to whom thou hast done good, but who have done good to thee.”  ~  Tacitus

“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.”  ~  Tacitus

“All enterprises that are entered into with indiscreet zeal may be pursued with great vigor at first, but are sure to collapse in the end.”  ~  Tacitus

Tacitus Quotes on Virtue and Adversity

“Candor and generosity, unless tempered by due moderation, leads to ruin.”  ~  Tacitus

“Many who seem to be struggling with adversity are happy; many, amid great affluence, are utterly miserable.”  ~  Tacitus

“It is less difficult to bear misfortunes than to remain uncorrupted by pleasure.”  ~  Tacitus

“We see many who are struggling against adversity who are happy, and more although abounding in wealth, who are wretched.”  ~  Tacitus

“Prosperity is the measure or touchstone of virtue, for it is less difficult to bear misfortune than to remain uncorrupted by pleasure.”  ~  Tacitus

“Noble character is best appreciated in those ages in which it can most readily develop.”  ~  Tacitus

“A bad peace is even worse than war.”  ~  Tacitus

What are the Quotes All About? Lessons and Applications of Tacitus Quotes

Alright, so let’s dive into the universe of Tacitus quotes. We’re talking a myriad of themes – human nature, societal norms, power politics, love, envy, you name it. It’s a smorgasbord of thought nuggets, each one, like “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws,” offering a peek into his take on societal corrosion.

What Can We Learn From These Quotes?

Now, what do we get from these quotes, aside from the sort of thrill of looking into a two-thousand-year-old mind? Tacitus’ words are a kind of guidebook, nudging us to question character, societal standards, power dynamics, and how we react when life throws us the proverbial curveball. He’s not handing out comfort. Instead, he nudges us towards introspection with gems like “Many who seem to be struggling with adversity are happy,” and leadership advice like “Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.”

How Can We Apply This Wisdom In Our Own Lives?

How do we use this ancient wisdom today? Well, Tacitus’ musings beg for personal reflection and discernment. Ponder this – “It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured,” he says. It’s a call for kindness, empathy, a kind of universal ‘don’t be a jerk.’ His views on power and leadership could guide us towards responsible, fair leadership. And his critique of societal decay? Well, that’s a push for integrity in a world where it seems increasingly scarce.

The Dark Side (Not So Wise Quotes)

Now, not everything Tacitus had to say is a nugget of wisdom. Some quotes, like “When a woman has lost her chastity she will shrink from nothing,” read more like outdated stereotypes than enlightened philosophy. Others, like “The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise,” seem to lean more towards cynicism than profound insight. It’s a reminder that while Tacitus offers plenty of food for thought, he was a product of his time, and his views don’t always stand up to modern sensibilities.

Tacitus quotes

Who Was Tacitus? A Brief Introduction Into Tacitus

Upringing and Personal Life: What Made Them?

Delving into the life of Tacitus, we must first acknowledge that historical recording has left us in the dark about many aspects of his early life. Born into a provincial family, possibly in Gaul (modern-day France), Tacitus lived from around 56 AD to 120 AD. A part of the senatorial class, he grew up in a period of relative peace and stability in the Roman Empire, often called the Silver Age. As a member of the Roman elite, he likely received a high-quality education, focusing on rhetoric, a skill he later used masterfully in his works.

Tacitus was married to the daughter of the famous general Agricola, whose biography he penned, showcasing a deep respect and admiration for his father-in-law. This relationship no doubt greatly influenced his views on leadership, virtue, and the workings of the empire. Tacitus’ personality, as gleaned from his writings, was that of an astute observer, a thoughtful critic of society and power, and a man of strong moral conviction.

Success and Achievements: What They Are Best Known For?

Tacitus’ legacy lies primarily in his significant contributions to Roman historical literature. He penned several key works, including “Germania,” “Agricola,” “Histories,” and “Annals.” Through his narrative and analytical style, Tacitus provided unique insights into the socio-political dynamics of Roman society, the workings of power, and the nature of leadership.

“Annals” and “Histories” are particularly notable as they cover the Roman Empire’s historical span from the death of Augustus to the end of the Flavian dynasty. He has influenced countless historians and writers with his engaging narrative style, sharp political commentary, and exploration of moral issues. Tacitus’ influence was vast, shaping the work of many later historians and thinkers, from the Renaissance humanists to Enlightenment philosophers and modern political theorists.

Struggles and Character Flaws: They were only human!

While Tacitus’ achievements are impressive, it’s essential to recognize his humanity, which included challenges and limitations. One key struggle was the political environment Tacitus had to navigate. Living through the reigns of multiple emperors, he needed to tread carefully in his commentary, leading to a writing style often marked by subtle implication rather than direct accusation.

As for character flaws, some critics argue that Tacitus may have had a somewhat cynical view of human nature, often emphasizing individuals’ corruptibility in power. His works, while insightful, tend to focus more on the political elite and less on the experiences of ordinary people, thereby presenting a somewhat narrow view of Roman life.