Tuesday, September 5, 2017


Thomas E. Strunk, History after Liberty: Tacitus on Tyrants, Sycophants, and Republicans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Pp. x, 221. ISBN 9780472130207. $65.00.

Reviewed by Caitlin Gillespie, Columbia University (cg3004@columbia.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


In History after Liberty, Thomas E. Strunk utilizes modern theories of republicanism in order to move the discussion of libertas in Tacitus forward. While Tacitus depicts the Principate as depriving society of the type of libertas enjoyed by those under the Republic, he also offers a path out of deprivation. Strunk explores Tacitus' political thought through case studies of those who resisted political corruption and sought to restore a sense of civic engagement, concluding that Tacitus' writings themselves are intended as an act of restoring liberty. Strunk's main contributions to current scholarship include his explication of lesser-studied exempla in the Annals, and his concluding chapter on Tacitus' work as a political act of libertas.

The work is divided into an introduction followed by five chapters. Political thought and the theme of libertas in Tacitus have been topics of scholarly concern for over half a century, and the introduction and first chapter require a fair amount of scholarship review. In his introduction, "History after Libertas", Strunk establishes that Tacitus' continual efforts to illustrate the lack of continuity between Republic and Principate suggest that the Principate is an autocracy, that there is a clear disjunction between Principate and libertas, that Tacitus himself is writing after the fall of libertas, and that he is not a "subversive politician" but a "revolutionary writer" (4). Examining Tacitus through the lens of libertas brings the author's didactic aims to the fore: Strunk's Tacitus illustrates the necessity of resistance to tyranny and his exempla are intended to teach readers how to create a just, republican polity to replace the current autocracy.

Chapter one, "Libertas and the Political Thought of Tacitus," introduces Tacitus' idea of political libertas. Strunk places his work in opposition to those who have suggested biographical facts about Tacitus' life can and should be used as evidence for the interpretation of his political thought. On Strunk's reading, Tacitus' life cannot be assumed to have had a great impact on his writings. Strunk contextualizes his assertion that Tacitus was a republican in relationship to those who have debated whether Tacitus was a republican, monarchist, or something in-between, and situates his study of libertas as a partial response to the seminal work of Wirszubski, cited throughout the book. 1 Sailor's Writing and Empire in Tacitus is also addressed in many of Strunk's assertions, although Sailor's analyses of rhetorical techniques are not always apropos to the current study. 2 One wonders whether a closer engagement with Liebeschuetz's account of the consequences of the loss of libertas in the Agricola would not be helpful at the outset; the work is cited once (49 n.30), yet is fundamental to the study of libertas in Tacitus.3 Strunk begins by comparing Agricola 42.4 and Annals 4.20, passages seen as indications that Tacitus was a "middle-way" writer offering an apologia for his career, and reinterprets both as evidence that Tacitus was a republican: both passages emphasize the individual's choice to act for the common good of the state rather than for personal gain, a characteristic of republicans. Strunk suggests Tacitus viewed his own writings as also benefitting the common good, and "therefore participating in the restoration of a republic" (22). This claim is argued fully in chapter five, but the initial proposal guides readers to look for hints of this final reveal throughout the intervening chapters.

The first chapter concludes with a discussion of Tacitus' positive and negative conceptions of political libertas, defined on the one hand as, "freedom from domination (dominatio), the absence of a master (dominus)," and as, "the freedom to participate in the politics of a free state," on the other (23). Strunk's definition expands Wirszubski's primary understanding of libertas as "the status of a liber" by considering scholars of modern republicanism, Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner above all (24 n.45 provides helpful background; see Wirszubski 1950, 1 for the former definition). He embeds libertas in the actions of individuals rather than policy, while recognizing that the Principate had a clear impact on individual libertas. According to Strunk, Tacitus considered the princeps as a dominus and the Principate as a dominatio whose citizens were "reduced to servitude" (25). This revelation is itself a "political act" made by Tacitus (33). By establishing his two-part definition for libertas, Strunk sets up the parameters for his following chapters.

Chapters two through four focus on three areas in which Tacitus' portrait of the Principate as corrupter of libertas is manifest: military service, public service, and public speech. The sheer number of exempla provides partial proof of argument, although the wealth of citations also requires a fair amount of summary. Well-known models are reviewed with an eye towards connecting exemplarity, service to the state, and the restoration of libertas.

Chapter two, "The Principate and the Corruption and Restoration of Military Libertas", opens with Domitius Corbulo, whom Tacitus uses to illustrate the corruption of a traditional military career by the Principate. The princeps constrained Roman generals, limiting their freedoms and imperiling their lives. Suetonius Paulinus in Britain and Publius Cornelius Dolabella in Numidia join the ranks of the repressed. The chapter's central comparison aligns Agricola and Germanicus as generals who fell under the suspicion of the emperor, and extends scholarship on Germanicus as a foil to Tiberius to suggest he also provides a foil to the Principate (52). Strunk's fluency with the Tacitean corpus is admirable, although at times this leads to problematic parallels and generalizations. For example, Strunk uses Tacitus' association between martial virtues and imperial virtues (Agr. 39.2) to argue for a fundamental incompatibility between general and emperor and to claim that, "The princeps alone could possess [martial virtues], or else the one who did possess them could threaten to become princeps" (49). One wonders, can every princeps from Augustus onward be evaluated equally as an "enemy of Rome" (62)? Corbulo closes out the chapter, and Strunk rejects Ash's discussion of ambivalence in Tacitus' portrait of Corbulo in favor of claiming him as a counterpoint to the princeps and his corruption of the state: Corbulo's service to the res publica and fulfillment of his duty meant acting "as a free citizen of Rome with a spirit of libertas" (67), and his life exemplifies the means by which libertas could be restored. 4

In chapter three, "The Corruption and Restoration of Libertas Senatoria", Strunk applies his model to the senate, denouncing the rise of delatores and charges of maiestas, and celebrating those who resisted. Suillius Rufus and the trial of Gaius Silius are paradigmatic of the critique, while Marcus Lepidus, Thrasea Paetus, and Helvidius Priscus serve as exemplars of libertas. Tacitus' negative portrait of delatores is well attested, although Strunk goes further than most in claiming the historian "relishes the opportunity" to detail an informer's "fall from grace" (91). The discussion of M. Aemilius Lepidus, the only sapiens in Tacitus (98), adds insight into the oft rehearsed models Paetus and Priscus. Lepidus in the Tiberian hexad of the Annals finds a parallel in Paetus in the Neronian books; here, Strunk avoids a discussion of Stoicism and the concept of the libertas of the spirit in favor of Paetus' identity as a Roman citizen and libertas as a concern of the political community. Priscus takes up the banner after Paetus. Together, these men show how senators could resist the delatores and "provide an alternative mode of political behavior that was founded upon libertas and was oriented toward the common good" (131).

Chapter four, "The Corruption and Restoration of Libertas as Freedom of Speech and Expression", turns to libertas as free speech, which was lost during the Principate due to adulatio and dominatio. Tacitus begins this discussion in the prologue of the Agricola, and it culminates in the trial of Cremutius Cordus (Ann. 4.34-35). Much of this chapter reviews the arguments of others, opening with analyses of Tacitus' denunciation of adulatio and book burning before focusing on Cremutius. Strunk's reading brings together useful comparative material and serves as a necessary step on the way to his summative argument in chapter five.

In the final chapter, "A Historian after Libertas", Strunk claims Tacitus' writing was an act of libertas and that Tacitus' understanding of political libertas, as outlined in the prior chapters, clearly marks him as a republican. This chapter poses the strongest of Strunk's arguments, beginning with Tacitus' prologues as indicators of his desire to continue in the vein of pre-Augustan historians, those who operated with libertas. Book one of the Annals demonstrates the trajectory from libertas to servitium under the Principate, and the breakdown of the annalistic format in this work reflects the dismantling of Republican institutions. Strunk argues, "It was the institution of the Principate, not the princeps alone, which determined the status of libertas" (179). Strunk builds on Syme's study of obituaries in Annals book three to illustrate that these passages indicate the Principate's misunderstanding of how to bestow honor and dishonor.5 Tacitus undermines the Principate by honoring the jurist Antistius Labeo rather than Ateius Capito (Ann. 3.75.1-2), and the synkrisis of the two men juxtaposes incorrupta libertas with obsequium dominantibus (173). The chapter concludes, "The writings of Tacitus are a monument to the struggle for and the survival of libertas under the Principate" (181).

Strunk ends with a brief epilogue, "Our Tacitus," formulated as a response to Syme's evaluation of Tacitus as a republican in his writing but a monarchist in his life and politics.6 The concept of a republic remains difficult to determine, but Strunk defines libertas as its "essence" (185).

In its focused argumentation and expanded analyses of Tacitean exempla, History after Liberty is a helpful addition to scholarship on Tacitus and the concept of libertas as represented by Roman historians. Strunk is clear in his intention and in his relationship to prior scholarship throughout, providing insight into Tacitus' self-positioning as a champion of libertas in his own right.


1.   Wirszubski, C. 1950. Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome during the Late Republic and the Early Principate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.   Sailor, D. 2008. Writing and Empire in Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.   Liebeschuetz, W. 1966. "The Theme of Liberty in the Agricola of Tacitus." CQ 16: 126-39.
4.   Ash, R. 2006. "Following in the Footsteps of Lucullus? Tacitus's Characterisation of Corbulo." Arethusa 39: 355-75.
5.   Syme, R. 1970. "Obituaries in Tacitus," In Ten Studies in Tacitus, 79-90. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
6.   Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 517.

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