As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.
The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.
The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.
Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.
However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.
The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.
At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.
He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.
It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.
One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.
Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.
What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.
The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.
In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.
(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.
For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.
Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).
Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.
All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.
There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.
The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.
Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.
It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.
Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.
The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.
Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.
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 and 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 the 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 they 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 terribly 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.
Calgacus 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 on 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 Britons 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 far 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 of this piece, 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, and 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.