Abusing Tacitus

Lots of people throw around quotations attributed to ancient authors.  Last year I read the Annals and Histories by Tacitus.  Since then I’ve found writers who seem to have reason to beat up on him.  But not everyone who refers to ancient authors actually reads the works they use and abuse.  The early Christian writer Tertullian may be a case in point.

Alexamenos Graffito
Wikimedia Commons

In Apology 16 and Ad Nationes 1.11 he attacks a pagan derision against Christians having to do with the worship of a donkey’s head.  He takes Tacitus to task as the originator of the insult, a possible example of which is visible in an ancient scrawl known as the Alexamenos Graffito. This was found inside the excavation of a former Roman boarding school for imperial page boys. It appears to depict a victim of crucifixion with a donkey’s head, as well as an inscription that could be read as “Alexamenos worships his god.”  According to Tertullian, Tacitus was the first to convey the insult.

Modern writers have been attacking Tacitus as well, particularly the veracity of a  section in Annals 15 having to do the Great Fire of Rome in the summer of 64 CE.  Tacitus describes the fire and an unconfirmed rumor that the emperor Nero was responsible, and also describes Nero’s brutal scapegoating of Christians in an attempt to dispel the rumor.  Tacitus also had uncomplimentary things to say about the scapegoats themselves, describing them as “…hated for their abominations…(Annals 15.44).”

An example of an attack on this section may be found in an academic paper by Raphael Lataster, published in the Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.  It is incorporated into a broader attack on the historicity of Jesus Christ.  He writes:

“It is the phrase referring to Christus and his death under Pontius Pilate that is of great interest. It could be that this phrase (or even the whole passage and its context) could also be a later Christian interpolation. While some scholars could argue that this passage must be genuine because it does not portray Christians and Christ in a totally positive manner, there are reasons to have doubts over the authenticity or legitimacy of this passage. It is interesting that the name Jesus is never used, and that this is Tacitus’ only reference to Jesus. It is questionable if a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as Christ rather than the more secular Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian scribe, however, would have no issue in calling him Christ. Given that Jesus is not specified, there may also be a small possibility that this could refer to another Christ or messiah-figure. Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14 CE to 66 CE, no other mention is made of Jesus Christ.(78) This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quote Tacitus in the 3rd century.(79)”[1]

This is speculation entangled in argument from silence.

It is hardly surprising that there is no mention of Jesus or his execution in the extant portions of the Annals.  Why would the execution of yet another obscure Jew in Palestine be noticed in Rome?  Roman governors recorded what they did and sent reports home.  But as Pliny’s letters to Trajan suggest, the reporting was likely to contain a fair bit of self-promotion and flattery.  If Pilate’s messaging to Rome said anything at all about Jesus it would have been a very brief bit that cast any relevant events in the best possible light.  And it would vanish into a hand-curated archive along with all the other provincial reporting.

Rome is the center of the universe for Tacitus.  Jesus wouldn’t even be a blip on the first century Roman radar except for Nero’s pogrom. Which means information about Jesus probably filtered into Roman thinking via the Christians themselves, including whatever names they used. And what other “messiah-figure” could the passage possibly be talking about?  One of the Vestal Virgins?  The flow of the passage referencing the fire appears consistent with the rest of Tacitus’ writing.  The bar for tagging this section as a forgery seems quite high.

But I digress.  The asserted quotations by Origin and Tertullian are the focus of my interest.  It would have been helpful to have references.  I am unable to locate anything in Origen’s writing naming Tacitus which likely reflects my ignorance of his work. But Tertullian does specifically name him, and refers to the Histories.  Time to read what Tacitus actually wrote.

In Histories 5 he includes an ethnographic survey of the Jews in the context of the their revolt from Roman rule starting in 66 CE.  Tacitus notes his reference to other writers and relates variant accounts of the origins of the Jews. In referencing what is presumably the Exodus, Tacitus states that the Jews followed a herd of wild asses to water and later, “…in their holy place…consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance…(Histories 5.3).”   This is presumably the focus of Tertullian’s ire.  But later in the section Tacitus relates the following:

“…the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.”

In this context a characterization of the Jews as worshiping an animal might be more than what Tacitus intended to say (this would need to be confirmed by someone with a command of Latin).  But what is extremely odd is that Tertullian did not cite this additional bit. In both Apology and Ad Nationes Tacitus is accused of self-contradictory falsehood, by elsewhere describing Pompeii’s failure to find an image when he entered the temple after capturing Jerusalem.  Tertullian also does not mention Tacitus’ explicit dependence on other writers.  Contrary to what Tertullian states, Tacitus is not the origin of the story about the donkeys.

Tertullian’s actual references are of more significance. Ad Nationes incorrectly attributes Tacitus’ comment to Book 4 of the Histories and contradicts the correct reference to Book 5 in Apology. The obvious question is how does Tertullian make a mistake like this if he is working directly from source material? It’s not like ancient writers could be overwhelmed with the results of too many citations.  Contrary to what Lastaster presents, it appears that in this instance Tertullian does not appear to “…actually quote Tacitus…”

Tertullian is at least not directly working from a primary source.  It is possible he may have been working from fragmentary copies, or possibly his memory of having read the texts at some point.  But given the high  divergence from the actual writings, it is far more likely he is using material transmitted by way of an intermediary — someone else’s oral or written references to to Tacitus’ works.  Tertullian demonstrates at least some familiarity. Tertullian refers to Tacitus in Ad Nationes 2.12, in what appears to be a sweeping but somewhat offhand reference in the context of an argument about the human origins of pagan divinities.  But that is not the same as actually reading from the  Histories and Annals.  One could just as easily argue that a social media posting referencing Sun Tzu demonstrates a direct reading of The Art of War.

Any argument that depends on the direct access of one ancient writer to another is potentially problematic in the media context of the ancient world. It encapsulates gratuitous assumptions about the diffusion of documents over time and distance.  This was an era of manuscripts laboriously copied by hand[2], as well as arduous travel powered by animals, sail, and human feet.  Diffusion over time is possibly not at issue, as Tertullian was born roughly a century later than Tacitus, but he lived across the Mediterranean in North Africa.  It’s not like he could walk into a local bookseller and order a scroll.

Absent actual evidence of quotation there would seem to be a need to demonstrate a reasonable availability of the primary source material.  Without this the silence of Tertullian becomes no more than a probable artifact of manuscript transmission in the ancient world.

Ancient writers are not wholly silent on the events treated by Tacitus. Paulus Orosius refers to the fire and a Neronian persecution. The History against the Pagans 7.7 on Nero summarizes the events but does not link them.  Sulpitius Severus, however, is explicit about Nero’s attempt to scapegoat Christians for the fire in Sacred History 2.29.  The material is unattributed, and backstopped with an interpretation of The Apocalypse of John. It is possible that Severus is using an independent source, but the language appears very similar to that of Tacitus, minus the pejorative characterization of Christians.  Unlike Tertullian, Severus appears to have been working directly from what Tacitus wrote, and not been forced to rely on memory or someone else’s references.

Tertullian might be excused for working with what he had.  Modern writers have no such excuse.


[1]Raphael Lataster, “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources.” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 6, no. 1 (2015) PP 84-85.

The footnotes in the quotation refer to the following works:
(78) Bart D Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. p. 54.
(79) Earl Doherty. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2009. pp. 596-600.  The proprietor of the publisher appears to be the author.  Self-publication is common (like this blog) however the book is not identified as such in the paper’s bibliography.  This seems rather odd for a peer-reviewed journal.

[2] Update April 11, 2014: the bar to manuscript diffusion was even a bit higher than I thought.  There is the matter of the very high cost of the physical media which would definitely slow transmission over time and distance.  See a very interesting discussion of the cost here:  https://sarahemilybond.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/sacrificial-lambs-livestock-book-costs-and-the-premodern-parchment-trade/


3 thoughts on “Abusing Tacitus

    1. If I understand your question correctly my opinion is that the passage in Tacitus demonstrates the presence of a visibly identifiable group of Christians in Rome roughly three decades after accounts of crucifixion. This is a big deal given the nature of travel in the ancient world. Very few people other than soldiers, imperial representatives, and merchants ever moved very far from where they were born. It provides an extra-biblical context for Acts.

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