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  • History after Liberty: Tacitus on Tyrants, Sycophants, and Republicans by Thomas E. Strunk
  • Rhiannon Ash
Thomas E. Strunk. History after Liberty: Tacitus on Tyrants, Sycophants, and Republicans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. X + 221 pp. Cloth, $65.

This engaging and readable book is very much a rallying cry. In no uncertain terms, Strunk wants readers to stop equivocating and instead to see Tacitus as an ardent Roman republican, who had no time for monarchy and its trappings. Strunk essentially goes for the jugular by engaging directly with the sharp and undeniably troubling contrast between Tacitus the apparently conformist politician, whose career blossomed and flourished under the Flavians (Histories 1.1) and "Tacitus" the revolutionary historian, whose style and substance combine searingly to condemn the systemic failings and endemic corruption of the principate.

From the start, Strunk spiritedly challenges those scholars who try to reconcile these two conflicting versions of Tacitus, ardently disputing readings of the Tacitean corpus which prioritise the "fallacy of the middle way" (13). This sleight of hand is indeed a fairly pervasive viewpoint of Tacitus in modern scholarship, and one which relies for support primarily on two passages, Agricola 42.4 (especially Tacitus' revelation that posse etiam sub malis principibus magnos uiros esse) and Annals 4.20 (Tacitus' praise of M. Lepidus for successfully navigating his way between sheer defiance and degrading sycophancy, abrupta contumacia vs. deforme obsequium). Such compromise enacted by internal protagonists, in Strunk's eyes, should never be used as a springboard to argue that Tacitus himself was an advocate of the middle way. Nor should the trajectory of Tacitus' own life be evoked to this end.

One could compare here Catullus' forceful and memorable challenge in Poem 16 to Furius and Aurelius, who question the poet's masculinity in real life because of what they read in his poetry. Where Catullus goes on the offensive to reinstate and police the border between literature and life, so too does Strunk on Tacitus' behalf by arguing that the historian's successful career is simply not relevant for interpreting his historical narratives and for gauging his attitude to [End Page 353] the principate as expressed within the Histories and Annals. Whether we are persuaded by Strunk's arguments must depend heavily on whether we ourselves are prepared to remove from the equation what we know about Tacitus' own life and career (and the timing of his publications). This decision in itself is then complicated by the fact that it is Tacitus in his own writings who supplies and interprets important aspects of this biographical portrait.

For Strunk, Tacitus is unequivocally a radical and "not simply a careerist who wrote a manual on how to survive under the Principate" (6). Against the backdrop of Tacitus' reception since his rediscovery, Strunk contrasts republican, anti-tyrannical readings of Tacitus and those who saw him as having monarchical tendencies: in a study of Machiavelli from 1921 (Machiavelli e il tacitismo), Giuseppe Toffanin dubbed these contrasting reactions to our historian as "Red Tacitus" and "Black Tacitus," placing versions of him at opposite ends of an interpretative spectrum. These conflicting versions are reconciled to some extent by Daniel Kapust in Victoria Pagán's A Companion to Tacitus (Wiley-Blackwell) through the notion of a "Pink Tacitus," who is a realist who supported the principate to some extent but was nonetheless sharply critical of tyrannical tendencies within the imperial system.

Strunk presents his arguments in four substantial chapters, each of which engages with a distinct aspect of Tacitus' understanding of libertas. The first "umbrella" chapter sets up the terms of the debate by considering libertas and Tacitus' political thought in general terms and by engaging with some of the issues of interpretation which have already been highlighted above, namely what Strunk calls the biographical fallacy and the fallacy of the middle way. Strunk posits a familiar twofold negative and positive model of Tacitus' conception of political libertas as (i) freedom from domination and the absence of an overbearing master and (ii) freedom to participate in the politics of a free state. Strunk is very clear that for Tacitus, the system is at fault, not just individual...


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