What can we learn from the Ancients:
Publius Cornelius Tacitus
“Love for fame is the last thing even the wise give up”
Publius Cornelius Tacitus is undoubtedly one of the greatest Roman historians. As freedom is a major topic in Tacitus’ works, we dedicated a whole afternoon to him, his influence, and the implications for us today. The symposium was chaired by Scott B. Nelson and his guests were: Mario Fantini, Matthew Edwards, Titus Techera, Renàta Nelson, and Wolfgang Wein, all notable figures in their respective professional fields.
In his initial address, Mario Fantini lamented the lack of serious discussion in mainstream academy today. Works of antique philosophy, learning, and liberal arts are neglected or even dismissed as praises of slavery and racism. Mario quoted an US scholar of classical literature, who thus condemns his own subject. Consequently, this seminar was an attempt to revive scholarly discussion without ideological and sensitive inclinations.
Scott Nelson then proceeded with a brief introduction on what little we know about Tacitus’ life. The historian was particularly reluctant to tell anything about himself, we know only the highlights of his career, boosted by the three emperors that were his contemporaries.
Tacitus was committed to revealing the development of the amoral deployment of political power in grim depictions and idiosyncratic idioms difficult to translate. The rampant and horrific regime that loomed over the Roman Empire profoundly influenced his work. Although he did not write about the political actors of his time, traces of his discontent can be felt when he depicts long dead emperors.
Thanks to Monasteries like Montecasino and Corvey Abbey, we can still read Tacitus’ works, albeit incomplete. Up to our time, many notable philosophers were touched by Tacitus, among them Montaigne, Montesquieu, Napoleon, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, and others.
The first speaker, Titus Techera, focused on “Agricola” one of the most famous works of Tacitus. Agricola was Taticus’ father in law, Roman Senator and military leader. Agricola was the great hero of the period; he stood for the typical Roman virtues stemming from the times of the Republic and endangered by the emperors. The authoritarian regime shows the evil side of power that pervaded society in draconian form.
“Virtue matters a lot for Romans”, wrote Tacitus; however, recovering the ancient Roman virtue seemed unattainable. One can notice the change in the character of people, not only the nature of emperors who displayed barbarism.
“That is why we study Tacitus nowadays, he is the best writer on decadence, in a way the best educator, for it means to see a world going crazy without going crazy oneself” Titus said.
Tacitus found the link between caution and cowardice, fear was always present. Titus Techera presented Tacitus as a mysterious figure. How he survived and lived better than anyone else during the change of dynasties remains an enigma. He was always careful, polite and diplomatically linked freedom to the emperors, even though Rome was not free anymore.
How did Tacitus portray barbarians? This question concerned Matthew Edwards. Tacitus presented the barbarians as savage and used them as contrast to the refined Roman lifestyle. Nevertheless, it was a very nuanced, rather socially complex picture with information on geography, society, religion, the different tribes of Germania and their relation with Rome. Tacitus used direct speeches – how accurate can these speeches be? The words are Tacitus’ and he puts his critique into the barbarians’ mouths. Tacitus relied on second and third hand knowledge, as he himself has never been in Germania.
Renàta Nelson, a political scientist, analyzed the tragedy of Tiberius, a scornful and dark figure of the east who was the second emperor of Rome. Tacitus portrayed Tiberius as a brooding figure. Every good deed by Tiberius was marred with Tacitus hinting at a hidden sinister design. Augustus pulled Tiberius into the family by forcing him to divorce his wife and marry Augustus’ daughter Julia. Tiberius was never popular with the people, even though he never was a tyrant. Tacitus, despite claiming to write without interest, reported that Tiberius was responsible for many cruel actions and was unable to step out of the shadow of Augustus.
Straying away for a moment from a grim history, Wolfgang Wein presented the philosophical schools of ancient Rome. The Romans were good at logistics, but were not very creative. They simply adapted Greek philosophy: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism shaped Roman philosophy. To which of these schools Tacitus himself tended to is still unknown.
Wolfgang Wein then touched briefly on the core of these ideas, where peace of mind and balance were the key. What mattered most was that nature endowed people with reason to differentiate humans from animals – therefore paving the way for reason to be the main rational driver of nature. Nevertheless, one can undoubtedly say this set the foundations for the later development of both philosophy and society.
Watch the recordings of the talks – Part I
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