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The ideas that formed the Constitution, Part 13: Tacitus

The ideas that formed the Constitution, Part 13: Tacitus

This essay was first published in the Jan. 16, 2023 Epoch Times.

The authors discussed in this series impacted the Constitution both directly and indirectly. Citations to the authors by participants in the constitutional debates of 1787–1790 are evidence of direct influence.

Indirect influence occurred in at least two ways. First, over the course of centuries the insights of men such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius had permeated through the British political and legal tradition the Founders inherited. Second, participants in the debates often relied on later writers, who in turn had built upon the ideas of earlier ones. In classical antiquity, Aristotle owed much to Plato, Polybius to Aristotle, and Cicero and Plutarch to all those who had gone before.

This pattern continued after classical antiquity as well. For example, during the constitutional debates, Baron Montesquieu’s book, the “Spirit of the Laws” (1748/50), was one of the most discussed writings. Montesquieu’s footnotes are laden with citations to Aristotle, Plutarch, and Livy. Montesquieu also relied extensively on the subject of this essay: Tacitus.

The Life and Times of Tacitus

Tacitus is widely considered to be the finest Roman historian and one of the best stylists in the Latin language. Yet we don’t even know his first name.

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus was born in 56 C.E. and died sometime after 120. He lived at the height of the Roman Empire.

Tacitus’s life demonstrates how socially mobile Roman society was. His family, although financially comfortable, wasn’t particularly distinguished and lived far from the capital—in northern Italy or southeastern Gaul (France). Yet Tacitus rose to become consul (in 97), the highest office next to the emperor. Moreover, in 112–113, he served as governor of the province of Asia (western Turkey), the most important provincial posting in the realm.

Tacitus was a lawyer, administrator, politician, biographer, rhetorician, ethnographer, and historian. One of his earlier books was a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agrippa, who spent a term as governor of Roman Britain. Tacitus’s “Germania,” composed about the same time as the biography of Agrippa, was a study of the Teutonic tribes that lived just beyond the Roman frontier. The “Germania” was long a favorite among the English, who thought it provided insight into their own Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Tacitus also produced a book on oratory.

His two historical works are the “Annals” and “Histories.” The “Annals” narrate Roman history from the death of Augustus (in 14 C.E.) until the death of Nero in 68. The “Histories” pick up where the “Annals” leave off, and continue the story until 96, when the Emperor Domitian died.

When Tacitus wrote, the emperor’s power—which under Augustus had been tempered by republican traditions—had become nearly absolute. Fortunately, Tacitus composed the “Annals” and the “Histories” during the reigns of Nerva and Trajan, two of Rome’s most tolerant rulers. This allowed him more independence as a historian than he could have exercised during the time of, say, Nero or Domitian.

I should say something about Tacitus’s Latin. It isn’t for novices. Tacitus is among the more difficult classical authors. When you read Cicero, his elaborate and repetitive sentences frequently offer multiple opportunities to figure out what he means. But Tacitus generally wrote in a manner that was concise even for the very concise Latin language. With Tacitus, either you get it the first time or not at all.

Here’s my favorite example of his abbreviated style: In his biography of his father-in-law, he reports a speech by a British chieftain who challenged Roman rule. The chieftain said of the Romans, “They make a desert and they call it peace.” That nine-word sentence is how it’s usually translated into English.

In Tacitus’s version, the line is solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Same meaning. Just four words.

Influence on the Constitution-Makers

When Founding-era schoolboys tackled Latin, they didn’t begin with Tacitus. His writings were advanced material. However, Tacitus was a favorite among some of the more scholarly American Founders—among them John Adams, John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and George Wythe.

Yet participants in the constitutional debates with fewer pretensions to learning also cited him. They included Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and Antifederalists, who opposed it. Both sides found political lessons in Tacitus’s “Germania.” Here are some examples:

One reason the “Antifederalists” opposed the Constitution was that, while it guaranteed trial by jury in criminal cases, it didn’t guarantee it in civil cases. (The Seventh Amendment cured this.) A Pennsylvania Antifederalist writing under the name “By-Stander” cited Tacitus to demonstrate that even the ancient Germans had adopted trial by jury.

In a speech supporting the Constitution, James Wilson cited Tacitus for the view that the best government mixed monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. However, Wilson acknowledged Tacitus’s belief that such a government wouldn’t last long. In an undelivered address, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland Federalist, highlighted the same passage in Tacitus’s work that Wilson had.

John Adams addressed the subject in the first volume of his encyclopedia of republican governments, which circulated at the Constitutional Convention. He said Tacitus’s account of the Germans showed they had a mixed government, but it didn’t work well because the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic interests were all combined in the same assembly. The result was that the aristocratic element dominated the other two.

Adams explained that each of the three interests should comprise a separate branch of government: a chief executive as the monarchical interest, a senate to represent the natural aristocracy, and a house of representatives to serve the people. There should be checks and balances among all three branches, and each branch should have a veto on any proposed new laws.

The Maryland Antifederalist writing as “A Farmer” disputed the relevance of the German example. Tacitus, he said, made it clear that among the Teutonic tribes the “legislature” consisted of the entire citizenry, not elected representatives.

Power Corrupts

Both sides in the constitutional debate also sought lessons in Tacitus’s “Annals” and “Histories.” The lesson from the “Annals” and “Histories” they considered most important—a lesson amply confirmed by the imperial biographies of Gaius Suetonius—was that power corrupts. Even when the corruption isn’t total, power creates incentives for abuse and dishonesty.

When I ran for governor of Montana in 1996, my opponent, a liberal Republican, used to chide me for not accepting his and other officials’ statements on faith. “Rob, you do not trust enough,” he’d say.

The Founders would have ardently disagreed with him. During the ratification debates, an essayist writing as “A Farmer” summarized the effects of unchecked power:

“Whoever will read what the pens of Suetonius and Tacitus have described, will be lost in admiration [i.e., astonishment] at the original and surpassing wickedness to which Rome arrived in less than half a century. … Tacitus informs us, that during his life—virtue became a death warrant.”

In May 1788, a Virginia Antifederalist writing as “Brutus” (not to be confused with the better-known New York Antifederalist with the same pen name) reminded his readers of Tacitus’s account of abuses by the Emperors Tiberius and Nero. Similarly, “Cato junior,” a Rhode Island Antifederalist, relied on Tacitus to show that corrupt governments endeavor to corrupt the people. Current circumstances in America, I think, make the words of “Cato junior” worth quoting:

“Ill governments, subsisting by vice and rapine, are jealous of private virtue, and enemies to private property. … Hence it is, that to drain, worry, and debauch their subjects, are the steady maxims of their politics, their favourite arts of reigning. In this wretched situation the people to be safe, must be poor and lewd ….”

“Cato junior” added that the contagion is mutual. A corrupted people idolize corrupt leaders:

“Even Nero (that royal monster in man’s shape) was adored by the common herd at Rome …. Tacitus tells us, that those sort of people long lamented him, and rejoiced in the choice of a successor that resembled him ….”

Charles Carroll quoted Tacitus for a solution to such decadence: Permit neither total servitude nor unrestrained liberty (license).

The Next Installment

In the next essay, we depart from classical antiquity and travel to the Renaissance to meet a fellow named Niccolò Machiavelli.

Read prior installments here: firstsecondthirdfourthfifthsixthseventheighth ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth.

Rob Natelson