Tacitus and the decline of ancient Roman education


The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD) is well known for his sharp, even-handed criticism of his own society. In his histories, annals and other works, he makes no secret of his deep sense of decadence and decline that Roman society and culture, at the height of its Empire, had attained. Writing in the reign of Emperor Domitian, he looks back, in eloquent horror, on Nero’s horrific rule and on the lives of the first Roman emperors. His tone is not moralistic, but incisive, akin to what Horace, almost a century before him, had described as Italum acetum, meaning Italian mordacity, but literally Italian (non-balsamic) vinegar – a typically Roman feature.

In his Dialogue on Orators, Tacitus sets up a disputation between three men on the question whether oratory had declined since the Republic. Towards the end of the work, there is a discussion about the decadence…

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