July 01, 2020

Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism

On May 10, 1626, Sir John Eliot — an English parliamentarian and statesman — delivered a blistering speech to the House of Commons. One of the finest orators of his day, Eliot laced into King Charles I’s chief minister, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. A strong proponent of free speech and the rights of Parliament, Eliot had developed a deep revulsion for the wanton lifestyle and financial profligacy of his target and erstwhile patron. The latter’s position as Charles I’s favorite and, as many bitterly hissed, secret lover, allowed Buckingham to exert an inordinate level of influence over the formulation of statecraft. A series of foreign policy disasters that the chief minister had either inspired or commandeered had served only to fan the flames of Eliot’s righteous fury. Arguing in favor of the reviled royal creature’s impeachment, the learned parliamentarian turned to the writings of Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Quoting the first-century Roman senator and historian in the original Latin, Eliot compared Buckingham to Sejanus, the malevolent praetorian prefect who had maneuvered his way to near-ultimate power under the emperor Tiberius before being accused of treason and condemned to death.

It is time to bring Tacitus and the vibrant intellectual tradition that he inspired out of the shadows.

Upon being made aware of the details of the parliamentary debates the following day, Charles I immediately took umbrage. After all, until his dramatic fall from grace, Sejanus’ reign of terror was enabled, in large part, by Tiberius’ credulousness. Through ruse, assassination, and emotional manipulation, the scheming Etruscan had skillfully clambered his way up the imperial hierarchy and, in doing so, had encouraged the aging emperor’s worst impulses. Stung by the unflattering historical parallel, the insecure monarch dissolved Parliament before throwing the contumacious Eliot into the Tower of London. When the monarch himself was beheaded two decades later for treason, one of the men who drew up the charges was Isaac Dorislaus, a Dutch historian who shared many of Eliot’s political sympathies and whose opening lectures on Tacitus had, many years before, resulted in his own expulsion from Cambridge University.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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