Life: AD c. 200 – 276
- Name: Marcus Claudius Tacitus
- Born AD ca 200 in the Danube Region.
- Consul AD 203.
- Became emperor Oct./Nov. AD 275.
- Died in Tyana in Cappadocia, July AD 276.
The origins of Marcus Claudius Tacitus are disputed. In fact not much is known about him at all. The ancient literary sources, making him a fabulously rich Italian, appear to be fiction rather than fact.
One assumes he was born somewhere in the Danube region. The year of his birth being most likely around AD 200. This derives from the statement that Tacitus was 75 years old on his accession, though this too might be incorrect.
Most likely he was an old military general, having risen through the ranks to wealth and status, and having finally held the consulship in AD 273.
At the death of Aurelian he was not with the emperor and his army in Thrace, but staying at his house at Baiae in Campania, perhaps having retired from service.
How the choice for emperor fell on Tacitus is unknown. There is some suggestion that the army indeed left it to the senate to choose the emperor after the death of Aurelian, but this indeed seems highly doubtful. Why the army’s men didn’t elect anyone among those leaders who were at the time with Aurelian’s campaign force in Thrace is not know. Instead they chose a man hundreds of miles away, residing at his country house.
It is very probable that the army’s leaders simply couldn’t agree on anyone among themselves. And so they simply chose Tacitus as he was deemed a safe pair of hands.
Once Tacitus learnt of his elevation to the throne he left for Rome, to accept the senate’s confirmation of position in person.
Also he saw to it that Aurelian was deified.
With Tacitus taking power there was the promise of dynastic rule and the stability which accompanies it. For he had several which might have succeeded him. Tacitus’ desire include his family in influential positions also showed, when he made his half-brother, Florian, praetorian prefect.
For all its promise, the reign might have been a very tranquil one, would it not have been for another wave of Germanic invasions. The Franks, the Alemanni, and a tribe called the Longiones (lugii) crashed into Gaul and the Goths and the Heruli once more crossed the Black Sea to wreak havoc on Asia Minor (Turkey).
Tacitus decided the Gothic invasion was the more urgent matter. Also Aurelian’s army appeared still to be in Thrace. Accompanied by Florian he led the legions into Asia Minor and defeated the barbarians in battle in spring of AD 276.
There are two versions of events surrounding Tacitus’ death at Tyana in Cappadocia shortly after his victory over the barbarians. One version tells of the very same murderers who had just shortly before assassinated his relative, the governor of Syria called Maximinus, then journeyed from Syria to kill Tacitus.
Another account says that Tacitus simply died of illness.
In any case, Tacitus died in July AD 276, having ruled for only six months.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.