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Tacitus: too old to be emperor (276 A.D.)

76-year-old Marcus Claudius Tacitus ruled the Roman Empire for nine months in 276 A.D.

Emperor Aurelian was a tight disciplinarian. Despite his amazing successes as emperor, his strict nature frightened his subordinates to assassinate him. Afterward, the Senate chose Tacitus to succeed Aurelian. The aged Tacitus spent his reign fighting barbarians. The emperor was over 70, which may have contributed to his death after nine months in office.

Aurelian’s secretary made a minor mistake, but feared his master’s response. So, he forged some documents and convinced others of a pending purge. The conspirators removed Aurelian from power through assassination. In the aftermath, Aurelian’s widow, Ulpia Severina, ruled for a time. Her rule marked the only time a woman controlled the empire. However, the Senate decided to name a more seasoned politician as Aurelian’s successor.

Tacitus enjoyed a long career in Roman politics. He rose as high as consul in the year 273. By this point, the future emperor was about 70. Tacitus probably expected to live out his remaining years rather than rise to the heights of power. Aurelian's death changed the dynamic. Once appointed, the new emperor deified his predecessor, executed the assassins, and reintegrated the Senate into governance. His efforts quickly stabilized the political situation following the murder. Additionally, Tacitus became the first emperor in decades to support senatorial prerogatives. Perhaps he felt his age and recognized the need for assistance. Aurelian was a one man empire, but Tacitus was a senior citizen.

Aurelian was assassinated en route to battle with eastern barbarians. Tacitus completed Aurelian’s work and earned the title Gothicus Maximus. Meanwhile, other barbarian tribes attacked Gaul. The emperor pivoted westward to deal with the new threat. By this point, Tacitus was in his mid-seventies. By ancient standards, the emperor was extremely old. He grew ill, developed a fever in Cappadocia (modern Turkey), and died in June 276 A.D.

Tacitus ruled wisely in his brief reign. He involved the Senate in governance, conquered hostile tribes, and dealt with Aurelian’s assassins. The emperor proved up to the task in his nine months in office. However, he was an old man. Tacitus caught a fever and died in the east while marching to counter invasions in the west. Once again, the empire searched for a ruler.

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