Liberty Matters

Studying the Early Modern Reception of the Roman Senate: Challenges and Opportunities

It is pleasing to see the respondents agree that a transnational study of the reception of the Roman senate in early modern Europe is long overdue. Transcending national silos and disciplinary frontiers, a collaborative venture of this kind would yield significant insights into the period’s political culture and thought, and illuminate a hitherto neglected aspect of contemporary engagement with ancient Rome. This would be an ambitious and demanding project but hardly an impossible one to pull off: in my experience, scholars in the humanities and social sciences are becoming increasingly open to interdisciplinary, international collaboration, especially when it promises to be innovative and original. Meanwhile, technological advances provide ever more sophisticated digital resources for communication, information gathering, and knowledge exchange. There is abundant collective expertise worldwide that could be harnessed, so the principal challenge would be securing funding, for instance from the European Research Council which has long supported similar large-scale international projects.
My own interest in the subject stems from long-term fascination with how the Roman example shaped early modern England’s imaginative writing, politics, and ideas which produced a raft of articles and an edited volume on Ancient Rome in English Political Culture, ca. 1570–1660 and a new collaborative project I lead which investigates early modern parliamentary culture—the transnational tradition of customs, ideas, and cultural expressions associated with representative assemblies such as parliaments, diets, states, riksdag, and cortes. Bringing together historians, political scientists, literary scholars, classicists, and art historians, the latter approaches parliamentary assemblies not just as formal structures of power, as has been standard in scholarship, but also as cultural phenomena and both engine and subject of political thinking. For only by doing so can we recognize a common set of assumptions, rituals, and symbolic practices across Europe and beyond, and appreciate the vitality and lasting importance of this type of political organization. In a recent overview of the field, we show how damaging has been the prevalence of legal-constitutional approaches to parliamentary history which routinely emphasize differences between assemblies and the corresponding neglect of representative institutions by students of political thought and culture, among them the Cambridge School.
Inevitably, the question of how far contemporaries relied on classical precedents in shaping, debating, and remodelling their own parliamentary assemblies has been central to our enterprise. We have been mindful, however, that to do the topic justice, it is vital to develop a fresh comparative methodology. A country-by-country survey simply would not do. The upshot is that several of our pieces are co-authored which means that we can bring to bear command of distinct languages, sources, and historiographies. For instance, I am currently co-writing an essay on ‘Parliamentary Assemblies in the Political Imagination of Poland-Lithuania, Britain, and Ireland’, and one of our case studies involves looking closely at the uses of ancient Roman deliberative institutions, in particular the senate, in scholarly, political, and imaginative works in Latin, Polish, English, Scots, and Gaelic. And that entails considering not only the influence of classical authors but also of Bodin’s, Lipsius’s, and others’ path-breaking discussions of the Roman senate.
In their responses, Professors Evrigenis and Moses compellingly demonstrate how much could be gained by exploring in greater depth what early modern authors, especially ones directly involved in the politics of their time such as Bodin and Milton, made of this ancient institution, and how they commandeered it for immediate polemical purposes. It is true, as Evrigenis observes, that few scholars possess the necessary skills to explicate Bodin’s work, and that the lack of a proper scholarly edition (and translation) hampers the study of his monumental Six livres. It is to be hoped that Evrigenis succeeds in producing a hypertext version of, at a minimum, the French edition of 1576 and the Latin one of 1586, alongside his own translation of the latter. Given how much effort has gone—and continues to go—into editing Shakespeare, and how many other early modern authors—Lipsius and Grotius come to mind—boast sumptuous multivolume critical editions, it is frankly astounding that Bodin, arguably the founder of modern political science, remains so inaccessible, and that students who do not have French or Latin, are forced to fall back on the defective Knolles edition.
Evrigenis rightly points out that Bodin encompasses different things under the term senate. For instance, Bodin explains the genesis of a smaller conciliar body under Augustus and discusses the relative importance of this kind of Privy Council versus a larger assembly while calling both a senate. So too Bodin glides from ancient to contemporary deliberative institutions, especially in Book III, chapter 7, a significant and surprisingly underexplored section of his magnum opus whose textual evolution reveals Bodin’s changing perception of the role of parliamentary assemblies, including his own.
Evrigenis wonders why an aristocratic institution such as the Roman senate commanded so lasting an influence over the early modern political imagination. One reason, I think, is that, pace Polybius, contemporaries did not associate the senate merely with the aristocratic element and patrician privilege but, rather, viewed it as a forum to which even those not high born could aspire. It is no coincidence that it is Cicero, one of the New Men, who emerged as the authority on the workings of the senate, and that it is he who was routinely hailed in our period for putting down the Catilinarian conspiracy fomented by his social superiors. In other words, the Roman senate could be and often was seen as epitomising something akin to social mobility, however limited this might have been in practice. Virtue and public service had ensured one’s entry into the senatorial class in ancient Rome, many thought, and should do so in contemporary states, whether monarchical or republican.
In contrast to Bodin’s scholarly and comparative approach to the Roman senate, Milton’s was unabashedly polemical. Professor Moses provides an insightful analysis of Milton’s startling call in his 1660 tract The Readie and Easie Way (1660) for a Grand Council or standing senate, appointed for life, akin to the one which had held sway in Rome after the abolition of the monarchy but before the establishment of the tribunes. It is striking that in advancing this argument Milton tendentiously recast both the work of Bodin, and of Marchmont Nedham, a consummate polemicist and remarkable political chameleon, and Milton’s friend. Nedham’s The Excellencie of a Free-State; Or, The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth (1656), which itself repurposed Nedham’s earlier editorials, adamantly condemned the oligarchic tyranny exercised by the Roman senate once the Tarquins had been expelled. For Nedham, the senate proved the enemy to liberty, a new oppressor:
Though the Name of King were exploded with alacrity, yet the Kingly power was retained with all Art and subtilty, and shared under another notion among themselves, who were the great ones of the City. For all Authority was confin’d within the walls of a standing Senate, out of which, two Consuls were chosen yeerly; & so by turns they dub’d one another with a new kinde of Regality: the people being no gainers at all by this alteration of Government, save onely, that (like Asses) they were sadled with new Paniers of Slavery.
Only the erection of the tribunate, claimed Nedham, ensured Rome’s transformation into a truly free state. Nedham wrote in response to the increasing dysfunctionality and then forcible dissolution of the Rump, and the debacle of Barebone’s Parliament, and his target was the Cromwellian Protectorate; Milton, after the Protectorate’s demise when the restoration of the Rump and readmission of the members expelled in Pride’s Purge ominously presaged the return of the Stuart monarchy. Ironically, at this juncture Nedham himself came to endorse Milton’s new and quite unorthodox application of Roman history, so contrary to his own.
As this brief discussion indicates, early modern authors fought their ideological battles by summoning—and often wilfully misrepresenting—the power and authority of the Roman senate. Nor did the phenomenon disappear in the post-Revolutionary era. None other than John Adams accused Nedham of misusing Roman history to suit his partisan ends. In doing so, however, Adams was himself misreading Nedham, whom he credited with advocating unbridled unicameralism even though Nedham had in fact made a case for what might be dubbed a separation of powers. If we want to understand the political thought of early modern Europe and its transatlantic legacy, we need to probe not only how and to what end contemporaries drew on neo-Roman concepts such as virtue and liberty, but also what kind of institutional embodiment they sought for them.