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Tacitus (emperor)

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Bust of the Emperor Tacitus
Roman emperor
Reignc. December 275 – c. June 276
DiedJune 276
Antoniana Colonia Tyana, Cappadocia
Marcus Claudius Tacitus[1]
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Marcus Claudius Tacitus Augustus

Marcus Claudius Tacitus (/ˈtæsɪtəs/ TAS-it-əs; died June 276) was Roman emperor from 275 to 276. During his short reign he campaigned against the Goths and the Heruli, for which he received the title Gothicus Maximus.

Early life[edit]

Antoninianus of Tacitus. Legend: IMPerator Caesar Marcus CLavdius TACITVS AVGustus.

His early life is largely unknown. An origin story which claimed Tacitus to be the heir of an old Umbrian family and one of the wealthiest men of the empire with a total wealth of 280 million sestertii circulated after his coronation. His faction distributed copies of the historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus' work, which was barely read at the time, perhaps contributing to its partial survival. Modern historiography rejects his alleged descent from the historian as a fabrication.[2][3] It is more likely that he emerged from the Illyrian military, which made him a representative of the army in imperial politics.[4]

In the course of his long life he held various civil offices, including the consulship twice, once under Valerian and again in 273, earning universal respect.[5]


After the assassination of Aurelian, the army, apparently showing remorse towards its role in the death of the beloved emperor, relinquished the right of choosing his successor to the Senate.[6] After a few weeks, the throne was offered to the aged Princeps Senatus, Tacitus.

According to the Historia Augusta, Tacitus, after ascertaining the sincerity of the Senate's regard for him, accepted their nomination on 25 September 275,[7] and the choice was cordially ratified by the army.[1] If true, Tacitus would have been the last emperor elected by the Senate.[8] However, it's possible that much of this narrative is fictitious, as Zosimus and Zonaras report that Tacitus was actually proclaimed by the army without any intervention of the Senate.[9] His proclamation as emperor should have happened in late November or early December.[10]

In older historiography, it was generally accepted that Aurelian's wife, Ulpia Severina, ruled in her own right before the election of Tacitus which could indicate an interregnum which lasted as long as six months.[11][12] Contemporary bibliography considers that no interregnum may have existed between Aurelian's death and the coronation of the new Emperor. Tacitus had been living in Campania before his election, and returned only reluctantly to the assembly of the Senate in Rome, where he was elected. He immediately asked the Senators to deify Aurelian, before arresting and executing Aurelian's murderers.[13] In ancient sources, he was described as very old at that time, but in reality he was possibly in his fifties.[4]

Amongst the highest concerns of the new reign was the restoration of the ancient Senatorial powers. He granted substantial prerogatives to the Senate, securing to them by law the appointment of the emperor, of the consuls, and the provincial governors, as well as supreme right of appeal from every court in the empire in its judicial function, and the direction of certain branches of the revenue in its long-abeyant administrative capacity.[14] Probus respected these changes, but after the reforms of Diocletian in the succeeding decades not a vestige would be left of them.

Fighting barbarians[edit]

Next he moved against the barbarian mercenaries that had been gathered by Aurelian to supplement Roman forces for his Eastern campaign.[citation needed] These mercenaries had plundered several towns in the Eastern Roman provinces after Aurelian had been murdered and the campaign cancelled.[15] His half-brother, the Praetorian Prefect Florian, and Tacitus himself won a victory against these tribes, among which were the Heruli, gaining the emperor the title Gothicus Maximus.[13]


On his way back to the west to deal with a Frankish and Alamannic invasion of Gaul, according to Aurelius Victor, Eutropius and the Historia Augusta, Tacitus died of fever at Tyana in Cappadocia around June 276, after a rule of just over 6 months.[16][17] In a contrary account, Zosimus claims he was assassinated, after appointing one of his relatives to an important command in Syria.[18]


  1. ^ a b Jones, pg. 873
  2. ^ McMahon, Note 3 and accompanying text
  3. ^ Leadbetter 2010, p. 86.
  4. ^ a b Hagi 2016, p. 336
  5. ^ Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (The Modern Library, 1932), ch. XII., p. 276
  6. ^ Gibbon, pp. 274–278
  7. ^ Historia Augusta, Vita Taciti, 3.2.
  8. ^ Lee Fratantuono (2017). Tacitus Annals XVI. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-3500-2351-2.
  9. ^ Grant, Michael (1985). The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, 31 BC–AD 476. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 188–189. ISBN 0-684-18388-9.
  10. ^ Watson, A. (1999). Aurelian and the Third Century. London: Routledge. p. 225. ISBN 0-415-07248-4.
  11. ^ Watson, Alaric (1999). Aurelian and the Third Century. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07248-4.
  12. ^ Körner, Christian (23 December 2008). "Aurelian (A.D. 270–275)". De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and Their Families. Retrieved 6 January 2011.
  13. ^ a b Southern, p. 127
  14. ^ Gibbon, p. 279
  15. ^ Gibbon, p. 280
  16. ^ Aurelius Victor, 36:1
  17. ^ Historia Augusta, Vita Taciti, 13:5
  18. ^ Zosimus, I:63:2


Ancient sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by Roman emperor
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Roman consul
with Julius Placidianus
Succeeded by
Preceded by Roman consul
with Aemilianus
Succeeded by