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Q: Provenance of Tacitus' "Annals" ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Provenance of Tacitus' "Annals"
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: halejrb-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 21 Jun 2002 05:08 PDT
Expires: 28 Jun 2002 05:08 PDT
Question ID: 31122
Can anyone out there trace the copying and storage of a copy of
Tacitus' "Annals" from the time he wrote them in 109 AD down to the
present age?  I'd like a timeline showing exactly who copied them
when, what libraries and/or monestaries kept them during what periods
of time, and what's the oldest copy still in existance.
Subject: Re: Provenance of Tacitus' "Annals"
Answered By: chromedome-ga on 21 Jun 2002 07:06 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Good Morning, Halejrb!

Thank you for providing me with an interesting start to my day.  I own
a well-thumbed "Modern Library" edition of Tacitus, and despite his
stuffiness (think of the Muppet Show's "Sam the Eagle") he's my
favourite historian of antiquity.  Within the conventions of his era,
consensus among modern historians considers Tacitus the classical
world's most authoritative voice.

In considering your question, I'm going to treat both his "Annals" and
his "History," which deserve to be considered jointly as a single

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to construct a
continuous timeline for the survival of these works.  There are simply
too many gaps in the record, too many centuries without a mention of
his name.  Even in his own time, the only contemporary references to
Tacitus are in the letters of his friend, Pliny.  It has been
suggested that the critical nature of his writing on recent events may
have been "politically incorrect" in his own day.

There is an unsubstantiated tradition that the third-century Emperor
Tacitus ordered copies of his alleged ancestor's work made annually.
Perhaps this is true, but we have no firm knowledge of the survival of
his work until the fourth century, when the Greek witer Ammianus
Marcellinus attempted a continuation of Tacitus' work.

From here to the Italian Renaissance, with its re-awakening of
interest in the ancient authors, there are few mentions of Tacitus in
Western literature.  As Moses Hadas stated in the preface to my copy
of the collected works, "From the fifth century to the fifteenth, he
is mentioned not more than two or three times." (Page xxii, see below
for full citation)

There are a few early manuscripts for which I have found confirmation.
 The most recent discovery, of interest to all scholars of the period,
was located in the Vatican library.  It was found two years ago, while
the library was being re-shelved.  The manuscript was long-lost codex
to the "Annals," containing much missing material on Caligula and
Claudius. It is recorded as part of the Vatican collection as early as
the 14th century, but had apparentl been mislaid.  The story is told
at this link, which quotes from the April 2000 Reuters report:

The website "" has a discussion of other extant
manuscripts.  This is the link:

The oldest manuscript of "Annals 1-6" is in the historic library of
Lorenzo Medici ("The Magnificent"), and hence is known as the Codex
Mediceus.  It has been dated from 850AD, and stylistic cues point to
the German abbey of Fulda.  The source manuscript for all extant
copies of "Annals 11-16," also from the same collection (Mediceus II)
was written between 1038 and 1055 at the mountaintop monastery of
Monte Cassino (destroyed in WWII).

How it came to leave the mountain is unclear.  We know it was still at
Monte Cassino in the early 14th century.  It then passed through the
hands of Boccaccio (somehow) before ending in the hands of collector
Niccolo Niccolini, who seems to have regarded it as a guilty secret. 
Eventually, however, he showed his MS to scholar/collector Poggio
Bracciolini.  For information on Bracciolini's life and career,
including locating the "History" and several minor works, this is his
entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

From here, the dissemination of Tacitus' work became widespread. 
Rediscovered at a time when statecraft was at a premium and ancient
authors revered, Tacitus was a Renaissance best-seller.  Machiavelli,
for example, quoted him extensively, and Montaigne considered his work
to be full of insights applicable to his own day.  Indeed the French,
in particular, have long considered Tacitus a touchstone of their own
political thinking.  One would imagine that his aristocratic
prejudices charmed the royalists, while his sternly rational character
was admired by the various Republics.

I hope this is satisfactory.  There is certainly a great deal more
information available, but typically it falls into two categories: 
endless repetitions of "we don't really know," for the predecessors of
the extant manuscripts; and dull cataloguing of the widely-known for
the post-Renaissance era.

I used as a starting point the preface to my edition of Tacitus:

The Complete Works of Tacitus: Moses Hadas, ed., A.J. Church & W.J.
Brodribb, tr. Modern Library, New York, 1942

To find the above links and many more, I used the following search

+Tacitus +manuscript +discovery

Thank you again for an enjoyable question to answer.  If you require
further detail, please don't hesitate to ask.
halejrb-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
This is an excellent answer.  Too bad you didn't answer my first
qustion on the Provenance of Ancient Manuscripts.  That researcher did
a good job, but he's not as good as you are.

Subject: Re: Provenance of Tacitus' "Annals"
From: chromedome-ga on 21 Jun 2002 11:37 PDT
Thank you for your kind remarks, and the five-star rating.  As you
undoubtedly noticed, you hit on a point of personal interest for me.

As for your previous question, I don't know that I'd have provided you
with much more information about textual criticism than you received
from juggler and arlenegreen.  If you wish information on the subject,
however, I can provide you with a couple of other tidbits.

Most of the written materials you will find in North America on
textual criticism (those written for laypeople, at any rate) tend to
come from theological sources.  Theology is to textual criticism, it
seems, as McDonalds is to fast food (excuse the analogy).  The purpose
of this effort is to establish the reliability of the biblical MSS
within normal scholarly standards, therefore presumably permitting
one's attention to be focussed on the contents.  These books and
essays tend to be evangelistically oriented.  A well-known example
would be Josh McDowell's perennial best-seller, "Evidence that demands
a verdict." (Thomas Nelson, 1999)

For a closer look at a current controversy in the field, I would refer
you to Carsten Peter Thiede's hotly-debated dating of the Magdalen and
Barcelona papyri.  Thiede's book, "Eyewitness to Jesus?" (Doubleday
1995) was a populist expansion of his original scholarly essay.  For
an interested individual, it is an excellent and detailed introduction
to the methodology of modern-day scholars.

For a look at the bitter arguments around his hypothesis, search on 
+"Magdalen Papyrus" in Google and sift through a few of the 150 or so
pages that result.

Thanks again for your interest.  Y'all come back now, y' hear?
Subject: Re: Provenance of Tacitus' "Annals"
From: halejrb-ga on 21 Jun 2002 20:09 PDT
Hello Chromedome, You are certainly knowledgeable in this field.  I
just wanted to ask one general follow-up since you are interested in
this field.  I’m sure you’re familiar with Thomas Cahill’s book “How
the Irish Saved Civilization”.   I was always of the opinion that
Constantinople must have played an important role in the preservation
of ancient manuscripts.  After all, the eastern empire lasted well
into the Renaissance and they must have had good libraries.  I was
surprised to see Cahill downplay the importance of Constantinople in
his book, but then again, that’s not what he was writing about.  Your
answer though, seems to mirror Cahill in stressing the role of
monasteries in Western Europe,(such as Fulda), as opposed to libraries
in the Byzantine Empire, in playing the more prominent role as
repositories of ancient manuscripts.  Do you have any thoughts on the
role of Byzantium libraries versus monasteries in Western Europe in
regards to preserving ancient knowledge and writings?

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