Lipsius' Tacitus, Printed by the Plantin Press – An Excellent Copy

Tacitus, Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius (ca. 56 – ca. 115 A.D.)

C. Cornelii Taciti Opera qvae exstant, a Ivsto Lipsio postremvm recensita, eivsqve avctis emendatisqve commentariis illvstrata: item C. Velleivs Patercvlvs cvm eivsdem Ivsti Lipsi avctioribvs notis.

Antwerp: ex officina Plantiniana, Balthasaris Moreti, 1668


Large Folio: 39 x 24.5 cm. 8 lvs., 547, [1] p., 16 lvs., 36, 84 p., 7 lvs. Collation: *8, A-Z6, a-z6, Aa6, Bb8, AA-CC6, Aaa-Ggg4, Hhh8 (final leaf blank)


Bound in contemporary Dutch vellum, ruled in blind, with large blind-stamped arabesques at the center of the boards. A very fine copy internally, tall and crisp, with some light foxing and occasional toning to some signatures, a few light stains, the occasional rust spot, and an ink spot on leaf X2. With an engraved title vignette incorporating the Plantin printer's device, woodcut initials, and decorative tailpieces. With two divisional title pages, each with a woodcut version of the Plantin device, and two further leaves with yet another version.

The final Plantin-Moretus edition, based on the edition of 1627, of Justus Lipsius' celebrated Tacitus, one of the greatest humanist publications of the Plantin press. The original edition was printed in octavo in 1574 by Christopher Plantin, founder of the Plantin-Moretus printing dynasty. 

This 1668 edition was printed by Balthasar II Moretus, grandson of Jan Moretus (d. 1610), who had been Christopher Plantin's direct successor. Balthasar II had inherited the press from his uncle, Balthasar I, in 1641. Although the press continued into the 18thcentury (it's 9thgeneration), Balthasar II was the last of the owners of the Plantin-Moretus firm to print humanistic works, and the 1668 Tacitus was the last edition of Lipsius' great work to be issued by the press.

Justus Lipsius was at the center of an important intellectual circle that included Christopher Plantin and Peter Paul Rubens. Although Lipsius had been courted by the Stephanus printing firm, he chose Plantin to publish his works, among them, his edition of Tacitus. The men developed a close friendship and it was to Plantin's home in Antwerp that Lipsius fled before Leuven was sacked in 1578. Although Christopher died in 1589, Lipsius' relationship with the firm continued until his own death in 1606.

Lipsius' familiarity with Tacitus is legendary. Sandys, quoting Niceron, tells us that Lipsius would "offer to repeat any passage of Tacitus with a dagger to his breast to be used against him if memory failed him." Brotier calls Lipsius' Tacitus "the monument to his glory."

"The authority of Lipsius’ Tacitus is founded first upon its philological excellence, which derived from his complete knowledge of Roman literature, History, and institutions, and from his accuracies in matters of language and grammar. What truly set Lipsius apart form his contemporaries, however, was his ability to use philology for practical ends. To establish the text was not an end in itself, for the study of Tacitus was to lead to Prudentia in contemporary affairs. Lipsius put it succinctly: ‘I want you to use and to enjoy this edition. But above all use and enjoy Tacitus himself and breathe in something deeper and firmer than my labors in criticism and grammar. For these things are the means not the goal, of the journey.’" (Quoted from Mark Morford’s "Stoics and Neostoics p. 148)


“Tacitus’ plan for a long historical work was already present in the "Agricola" (whose subject is his father-in-law's life and work), where, in one of the early chapters, Tacitus expresses his intention to narrate the years of Domitian’s tyranny and then the freedom recovered under the regimes of Nerva and Trajan.  In the "Histories" the project appears modified. Although the extant part narrates the events of the years 69-70, from the reign of Galba to the Jewish rebellion, the work in its entirety was to extend to 96, the year of Domitian’s death. In the preface, Tacitus expressly says that he is saving for his old age the treatment of the principates of Nerva and Trajan, “richer and less risky material”. The "Histories" thus dealt with a gloomy period, one disturbed by civil wars and finished by a long tyranny.” (Gian Biagio Conte’s "Latin Literature, A History")

"Tacitus' historical work began while he was in the midst of public activity. The "Agricola" seems to have been 'published' in 98; and the "Germania", a primarily geographical and ethnographic work on that important area on the fringe of the empire, shortly thereafter. The "Dialogus de oratoribus", a discussion of the decline of oratory, composed in a Ciceronian style and form, may be dated circa 101. Of the major works of Tacitus, "Histories'" and "Annales" as they are now called, the former was perhaps already in progress when the minor works began to appear. The subject of the "Historiae" is the years 69 to 96, and may have been completed by 110 in 12 or 14 books, of which only I-IV and part of V, covering the year 69-70, survive today. The end of Tacitus' life was devoted to the writing of the "Annales" in 18 or 16 books, in which he went back and began annalistic treatment 'ab excessu divi Augusti'. Of this work there survive only Books I-VI and XI-XVI." (Ulery)