Tacitus and Liberty

  • M. N. S. Sellers
Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


The republican narratives of Livy and Plutarch animated American republicanism with the virtues and spirit of Rome’s senatorial aristocracy. But they also told sad stories of lost liberty and the state’s corruption. These led to the dominant dilemma of America’s constitutional debate. Rome’s fine Polybian republic had fallen into despotism. How could the American republics avoid Rome’s fate? Cornelius Tacitus, in particular, had painted a nostalgic picture of mixed republican government as a noble vision, ‘much easier to commend than to create’.1


American Republic American Antifederalist Republican Institution Roman Historian Eventual Execution 
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  1. 1.
    Tacitus, Annals, IV:33, quoted e.g., in Adams, Defence, Ixix. For Tacitus in revolutionary America, see Reinhold, Classick, 99–101. Cf. Benario, ‘Gordon’s Tacitus’. For discussions of Tacitus’s purposes and ideology, see Herbert W. Benario, An Introduction to Tacitus (Athens, Georgia, 1975); T. A. Dorey (ed.), Tacitus (London, 1969); Hans Drexler, Tacitus: Grundzüge einer politischen Pathologie (Frankfurt am Main, 1963) (reissued Hildesheim, 1970); Francis Richard David Goodyear, Tacitus (Oxford, 1970); James Leake, Tacitus’ Teaching and the Decline of Liberty at Rome’, Interpretation 15 (1987):55–96,195–308; Ronald H. Martin, Tacitus (Berkeley, 1981); Ronald Mellor, Tacitus (New York, 1993); Kenneth Schellhase, Tacitus in Renaissance Political Thought (Chicago, 1976); Ronald Syme, Ten Studies in Tacitus (Oxford, 1970); Idem, Tacitus (Oxford, 1963–67).Google Scholar
  2. 29.
    On Tacitus’s defeatist sensibility see Earl, 93–4; Ronald Syme, Tacitus 2 vols (Oxford, England, 1958), 1:26–7.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© M. N. S. Sellers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. N. S. Sellers
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Baltimore School of LawUSA

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