- History After Liberty: Tacitus on Tyrants, Sycophants, and Republicans by Thomas E. Strunk
Thomas Strunk offers an audacious argument in History After Liberty, a revision of his doctoral dissertation. Rejecting a “calcified” consensus that Tacitus’ historical works urge a middle way between humiliating servility and a pointlessly confrontational stance toward the Principate, Strunk argues in the introduction and first chapter that Tacitus is a “revolutionary writer” who imagines a future in which a republic is restored. This claim goes too far, but Strunk convincingly shows that Tacitus points out not just the evil actions of individual emperors but the systemic weaknesses of the Principate, a form of government that warps incentives for those serving it and that attracts amoral and self-serving individuals.
The greatest strengths in the book lie in the central chapters on how the Principate corrupts political and military activity by shifting public servants’ focus from the well-being of the res publica to ensuring that the emperor does not feel threatened. Chapter 2 details how competence in generals threatened the emperors’ sense of security and caused those fragile autocrats to demote or [End Page 278] sideline the best commanders in favor of less talented alternatives. Chapter 3 explores the ways the Principate corrupted the freedom of the Senate, primarily through creating circumstances under which delatores could run wild. Chapter 4 concerns the state of speech under the Principate. The Principate limited free expression, and practitioners of adulatio filled much of the open space. Tacitus’ account of the persecution of Cremutius Cordus shows historiography’s place as the object of the Principate’s violent suppression of speech and as a potential contributor to its restoration.
Strunk is particularly interested in figures who are exemplary for their resistance to the Principate. He applies an expansive understanding of resistance to men like Agricola, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Thrasea Paetus. They resisted the tyranny of the Principate by doing their jobs as if they were still serving the Republic, by turning imperial ideology back on the emperors, and occasionally by directly challenging the façade of the Principate. Strunk argues that Tacitus judges these men exemplary on the basis not of the results of their actions, but of their demonstration of how to live as a free man under the Principate. Tacitus expresses his own libertas by writing critical history.
Strunk’s book will serve as a useful source of insight into how Tacitus presents the Principate’s destruction of Republican institutions. The book, however, also features a number of arguments that are unconvincing to this reader. Strunk begins with a discussion of labels for Tacitus: “revolutionary writer,” “red Tacitus,” “monarchist.” This search for a fitting label simplifies the complexity within Tacitus’ historical narratives: Tacitus often shows that multiple contradictory viewpoints have value. Strunk positions himself as dissenting from the scholarly consensus going back to Gaston Boissier that Tacitus’ political career proved that he was not an opponent of the Principate. Strunk characterizes this as a “biographical fallacy” and insists that Tacitus’ career should not influence how we interpret the histories. A problem with Strunk’s view here is that scholars are following Tacitus’ self-critical lead when they ask whether the historian’s political advancement and silence under the Flavians, disclosed in the Agricola and Histories, suggest a pessimism about the possibility of revolutionary change.
A desire to return to a republican form of government is also a difficult conclusion to draw from Tacitus’ works. Reading Sallust, which Strunk shows Tacitus did, reveals that the Republic from at least 146 bc onward was not running like a well-oiled machine, and it was therefore not Augustus’ Principate that first corrupted senatorial freedom. Furthermore, as Sallust shows with Metellus’ dismissive treatment of Marius in the Jugurtha, and as Tacitus does in such places as the senatorial debate on granting citizenship to Gallia Comata in Annals 11, the Roman nobility’s unwillingness to share its privileges outside its circle made developing an administration that could manage an...