Expanding the Liberty Canon: Tacitus on Barbarian Liberty

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian from the early Roman Empire. Some details of his life are oddly evasive given his high status in the Roman system and his fame as a writer. It is not known what his first name was (Romans had three names), but Gaius and Publius are the most widely accepted hypotheses. It is not clear where he was born except that it was some distance from the city of Rome. Southern France (or Gaul) or northern Italy are the most widely accepted hypotheses. His exact dates of birth and death are not known, but he lived from about 56 to 117CE.

Tacitus was one of the great antique historians and prose stylists. He deserves to be read by liberty enthusiasts for the record he provides of ideas of liberty in Rome, as well as for reasons of literary appreciation and general historical knowledge. His historical work includes the Annals and the Histories, which are a major source of information about the history of the early Roman empire, as well as of the political attitudes of the traditional Roman ruling class at that time.

There is some overlap between the Histories and the Annals, and the texts under discussion in the present post, which are On Agricola and On Germany, but the first two texts will be covered in a later post. I have already had a lot to say about the republicanism of the Athenians and the Romans, so it is time to consider how the ancients conceived of liberty in the ‘barbarian’ nations, those nations lacking the cities, literary,  and unified legal-political systems known to Greek and Roman writers. Another topic to be considered later is how the ancient republicans understood good rule in a monarchy, the Cyropaedia of Xenophon from ancient Athens is the most obvious example, and deals with the education of the Persian king Cyrus. There is some overlap between the topics of wise monarchy and barbarian liberty, particularly if we look at how these ideas evolve over time, something that will be explained at the end of this post.

Tacitus’ general position on Roman politics was that of an aristocrat enthusiast for the Republic, who despised many of the early emperors, but was at least willing to give credit to those emperors he believed were behaving with respect regarding the aristocracy and old republican values. In particular, Tacitus gives a negative view of the personality and means of rule used by the second emperor Tiberius, a far more scathing impression of the following emperor Caligula, and a generally horrified impression of Roman leaders and the culture of Rome until the time of Nerva and Nerva’s successor Trajan. Nerva and Trajan are the first two of the Five Good Emperors, also including Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

That sequence is conventionally regarded as the highpoint of the Roman Empire before a decline which ends in the fifth century fall of the West and the formation of Hellenic despotism in the East. That is not exactly a view universally accepted by historians now, and I do not refer to it to endorse it, but to refer to a very powerful story influencing the understanding of history and the fate of states over the centuries. Anyway, Tactitus did much to form the earlier part of that time-honoured if now much criticised historical understanding. It seems to me that it is as least correct to see some substantial, if very variable, respect for republican forms and manners until the death of Marcus Aurelius, though supreme power had been premised on control of th military since Julius Caesar’s time.  After Marcus Aurelius, maybe some republican legacy remains in that the Senate in Rome always has some influence, but that influence looks weak compared with that of the power of the military, which decided the name of the emperor in times of uncertainty or became the source of coups by would be emperors.

Tacitus’s republican inspired criticisms of emperors who humiliated or ignored the Senate were not a wish for popular government, this was a distinctly aristocratic wish for liberty for those who deserved to exercise liberty, combined with nostalgia for a stern public morality of self-restraint and courage associated with the memory of the early Republic. Tacitus’ objections to unrestrained emperor rule were partly of mild behaviour towards slaves and the promotion  of freedmen over free men. The freedman had a particular legal status in Rome, as a slave emancipated from slavery, but still bound to render services to the master who freed him (I’m excluding women here as they do not enter into the politics of the time) and who could be taken back into slavery if he failed to recognise his obligations. So only the children of a freedman were truly free and thy were still of socially low status, at least according to the old aristocratic families in the Senate. Emperors were happy to give important jobs to freedmen who owed them particular loyalty, rather than aristocrats who might believe in their own rights independent of the emperor. So Tacitus, along with other senators, was very much in favour of a state, a kind of republic under an emperor, ruled by free men, on the understanding that only a very limited class of men deserved freedom, understood as the right to exercise political power as well as non-political legal rights.

One way in which Tacitus examines an alternative to the apparent decadence of Rome was with reference to the barbarian subjects or enemies of Rome. He was particularly concerned with two groups of barbarians, Britons and Germans. He discusses the Britons as part of his tribute to his father-in-law Agricola, the Roman governor of ‘Britannia’ (England, Wales and a very variable part of Scotland) who consolidated the conquest undertaken by the Emperor Claudius.

As Tacitus notes, Julius Caesar failed to conquer Britannia, so noting the limitation of the effective founder of the Emperor system, though its formal start is associated with the consolidation of powers and titles, new and old, by Caesar’s successor Augustus. Tacitus is also referring to the difficulties of conquering the Britons who had a fierceness lacking in the Roman legions, disciplined and brave in battle as they were. Tacitus’ praise for his father-in-law is enhanced by and feeds into recognition of the difficulties of subduing the fiercely independent people of this terrible cold, rainy, and foggy land at the edge of the Roman world. As Tacitus notes, resistance to Rome first came from a queen, Boudicca, occupying a role of political and military leadership closed to Roman women Tacitus has little else to say about this situation, but at least has acknowledged a form of struggle for liberty under a woman beyond any episode of Roman history.

The biggest voice for British love of liberty is given to Calgacus leading opposition to Rome in the highlands of Britannia. Tacitus attributes a speech to him, which is likely to have much more to do with Tacitus’ own imagination and political sensibility than anything the historical Calgacus ever said. We will never be sure about this, but in any case Tacitus gives an important example of some deep ambiguities in Roman thinking about liberty and their own civilisation. Calculus condemns the greed for wealth of the Romans and portrays them as only exercising power through enslaved peoples rather than their own courage and merit. The reference to enslaved peoples is to people politically and militarily subdued by the Romans, with most remaining above slave status, rather than the enslavement in the strongest sense of every individual within a people. The liberty the Britons are depending comes from a simple moral struggle to defend family and immediate community from foreign domination, not from a wish to enslave others. Calgacus recognises the remoteness of Brittania from Rome and from Roman civilisation, making their struggle a struggle of wilderness, mountains and places by the sea against a gigantic continental force, fighting with nothing to lose except the liberty of simple peoples with simple lives.

Tacitus is giving voice to a mentality he admires though coming from a people who deserved to be slaves because they failed to throw off Roman mastery. That is partly a matter of war, which Tacitus implies through Calgacus, the Britons lacked talent for over time as opposed to a capacity for isolated surprise victories. Tacitus both admires the courage of the barbarians and despises their lack of discipline. The real source of their slavery though is the luxury that Roman rule brings to Britannia (in practice this can only apply to a minority of urban dwellers and larger to a minority Romanised upper class within that category), so that the Britons forget liberty as they enjoy the fine living of Roman civilisations. Tacitus himself enjoyed that fine living while continuing an idealisation of Romans as simple hardy brave people, which in early history even applied to aristocrats who were small property owners, farming their own land. Tacitus both wished to keep his privileged life and use the ideal of simple republican virtue against the emperors and those corrupted by emperors.

Tacitus wrote on the difficult to conquer but finally conquered Britons and also on the impossible to conquer Germans. The Germans again resisted Caesar, but unlike the Britons resisted a succession of Roman Emperors. Like the Britons, the Germans  are portrayed as living at the edge of the liveable world, in this case surrounded by forests and swamps with no gold or metal and little in the way of farming. The lack of gold and silver marks the Germans as mere barbarians, but also makes them free of the corruption the Romans had suffered. Tacitus discusses the political situation of the Germans as variable as they are divided between many tribes, but generally they have a strong monarchy or a monarch who appears to largely exist to lead in war rather than dominate the society. The latter kind of monarch tends to rule through freedmen according to Tacitus, so duplicating the tendency of Roman emperors to keep political power way from those who fit to exercise liberty and leave it to the slavish in nature.

The Germans are portrayed as brave but with reference to family and immediate community, who are all present in battle (including the women) rather than to the state, or ‘public thing’, ‘res publica’, which is how Romans understood their own state at any time, republican strictly speaking, or imperial in forms. Again Tacitus shows a mixture of contempt for the backwardness of it, and admiration for the so fat uncorrupted bravery on behalf of the little world of everyday life. The emotional passion of the Germans is also admired, but regarded as inferior overall to the discipline and self-control of a proper Roman aristocrat like Agricola. Significantly, Tacitus thinks the kind of Stoic self-control and extreme rationality, discussed from the political point of view in an earlier post on Seneca, is going too far. Despite the influence of Stoic thinking on the Roman upper class and Seneca’s association with resistance to evil emperors, Tacitus wants some passion leftover from the barbarian mentality, as part of the makeup of the Roman ruling class. Their liberty requires passion as well as self-restraint.

As indicated at the beginning, over time there is some convergence between Tacitus’ respect for barbarian liberty and Xenophon’s interest in good kingship in a ‘barbarian’ as in non-Greek, though not as in backward, state, that is the Persian Empire. This is the outcome of the Medieval dominance of monarchy as a political form in western and central Europe, combined with increasing knowledge of ancient republican ideals as knowledge of Latin increases in the Middle Ages, followed by increasing knowledge of Greek in the Renaissance. The social and political structure of Medieval states, in which there are still some city republics, where monarchies allow self-government to city merchants, and find it necessary to consult estates, or assemblies, of nobles, clergy and merchants, the cult of aristocratic-knightly prowess in war, independence of barons from kings, all suggest ways in which European monarchs, aristocrats, and intellectuals pick up on republican ideas and apply them to a monarchy.

Enlightenment ideas of liberty themselves dealt with the tension and combination of Roman order and barbarian spirit. The most sustained attempt to turn this into a philosophy of history, state, and law, can be found in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which emphasises that the Roman Empire in the west was overwhelmed by Germanic tribes and succeeded by Germanic kings, with particular emphasis on France. Early Frankish-German kings and aristocrats brought Germanic laws and customs to Roman Gaul, but some elements of Roman law survived particularly in the church. The Roman law was fully revived in the thirteenth century in a process strongly established with the growing power of the French monarchy and the emergence of a French nation. So for Montesquieu, the French monarchy of his time rested on a mix of Germanic liberty, which was primitive republican in origin, given the limited role of early German kings, under a monarchy and aristocracy that was Germanic and origin, and in which Roman law provided an ordered structure for liberty. The Roman component, like the Germanic component, was republican in origin. Montesquieu himself is taken in both republican and monarchist ways, and he was looking at how the two come together in complex interactions in European history to create liberty with increasing commerce and moral sensitivity, under law, as he knew it. Adam Smith was also very sensitive to this historical  complexity of law and liberty, looking back to both the Graeco-Roman and barbarian republics with various mixtures of admiration and concern. He was certainly aware of the Tacitus style of neo-republican contempt for those supposed unworthy of liberty and feared that modern republics might engage in the same polarisation between full citizens and the excluded.


17 thoughts on “Expanding the Liberty Canon: Tacitus on Barbarian Liberty

  1. Hi Barry, nice upload. Was wondering if the ‘Barbarians’ had a correlative (or similar) term for libertas/ eleutheria? I’d be very interested in their similarities and differences.

  2. Hello Luke, sorry I didn’t see this earlier. There is some reference to ‘libertas’ and related terms in these texts, as there is to opposing slavery (‘servititium’ etc), but not a great deal. There is just as much reference to virtue, bravery and the like. Part of this is that Tacitus was writing history with a political slant rather than deliberately contributing to political ideas, though his discussion of ‘barbarians’ on the northern frontiers of Rome of course did add to the understanding of ‘libertas’.

    • It seems to me that the view Tacitus had of German barbarian liberty was akin to the view that the Americans had of the various Native American peoples surrounding the fledgling republic (Amy Sturgis has a good overview of this conception of ‘liberty’ in the Freeman if anyone is interested).

      Basically, in the view of guys like Tacitus or James Madison, barbarians like the Germans or Native Americans had too much liberty.

  3. […] Other important things also come up in discussing the sagas. There is the issue of how much political ideas, political theory, or political philosophy, just reside in written texts devoted to the theories, institutions, and history, and how much they may reside in everyday culture, collective memory, and the literature of oral tradition. This becomes a particularly important issue when considering cultures lacking in written texts, but nevertheless has ethics, law, and juridical practice of some kind. The modern discipline of anthropology has provided ways of thinking about this, but rooted in older commentaries on non-literate societies, as in the Histories of Herodotus (484-425 BCE) and indeed the texts by Tacitus, considered here last week, on ancient Britons and Germans. […]

  4. Thank you for an interesting article, but I’m sorry to say the text could do with a spell check.

  5. And what can we take from Tacitus? What similarities do we see in the modern world? Are there any?

    This is a comprehensive review and are Smith’s concerns valid today? Certainly fewer people have read “Wealth of Nations” than “Capitalism and Freedom”, and certainly far too few have ever read “Theory of Moral Sentiment” which was, I suspect, much more important to Smith than his earlier work. (Not even sure it is available now, even on Project Gutenberg.)

    • 1. Theory of Moral Sentiments is earlier than Wealth of Nations
      2. Smith thought Wealth of Nations was important enough to be worth leaving his professorship in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow in order to have time for it.
      3. Friedman would not have written Capitalism and Freedom without reading various classic including Wealth of Nations.
      4. Smith’s texts are all widely available online and in printed form and are widely read, at least by the standards of works about ethics, economics and so on.
      5. Tacitus’ discussion of the liberty of barbarians is still widely read, he is widely available online and in printed from. His idea of the liberty of barbarians influenced all later thought about liberty as it exists in ways outside state power, or certainly outside the centralised state with a bureaucratic centre.
      6. The point of this series is to show the importance of historical texts to a really deep understanding of current discussions, which themselves would not exist without that history, and frequently revisit that history. I don’t have any further explanation or defence beyond the posts themselves, though I am of course willing to enter into discussions of particular parts of the history of ideas of liberty in the comments.

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