Exemplarity in Early Modern Tacitism: Reconstructing Political Thought (1530-1608)

Name of applicant

Esben Rasmussen


University of Oxford


DKK 900,000



Type of grant

Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford


With the research project Exemplarity in Early Modern Tacitism, I explore a neglected phenomenon that did, however, play a major role in the genesis of early modern political thought. While the 16th century was marked by pervasive religious and political turmoil, writers such as Francesco Guicciardini, Jean Bodin, Giovanni Botero, Scipino Ammirato and Trajano Boccalini turned their attention from Cicero, the preferred practical guide for the early Renaissance, towards Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD). They did so in an attempt to find useable precedents for avoiding turmoil and rebellion, yet the protagonists of Tacitus’s histories were morally dubious emperors such as Nero and Domitian that hardly lived up to prevailing ideals of moral behaviour. This caused something of a headache for those who wanted to mine Tacitus for practical advice but were acutely aware of the morally questionable consequences doing so might entail. I thus explore how the various attempts to find guidance in Tacitus entailed a change in traditional ideals of moral exemplarity, that is, the idea that history presents us with static models of moral behaviour, which, if correctly imitated in the present, guarantees the rectitude of political action. I argue that by revising traditional ideals of moral exemplarity, these writers ended up effecting a change in the practical import of historical experience as such.


The revived interest in Tacitus in the beginning of the 16th century is textually well-attested, yet its conceptual impact upon early modern conceptions of politics, history and their intricate relationship is still uncharted. By exploring the reception of Tacitus through the lens of ‘exemplarity’ and, in particular, how it was profoundly altered during the 16th century, I examine the historical roots for current conceptions of politics and history. In particular, I explore the hypothesis that the efforts to render Tacitus useful entailed a view of history that played a huge role in the development of a decidedly modern historical consciousness, according to which history is not just the repetition of static moral and political patterns but marked by irrevocable events that shape human communal life in its core.


Analysing the reception of Tacitus in the early modern period calls for an acute attention to conceptual structures and discontinuities while keeping an eye to the pervasive political turmoil that characterized the period in which the source material was written. In particular, I will further develop the historical-systematic method I have already applied in my doctoral dissertation on Thomas Hobbes. I thus explore the impact of Tacitus upon early modern political thought through four different ‘conceptual formations’ into which I have grouped the source material, exclusively written in Latin and 16th century Italian. Each formation corresponds to four different ways of responding to the ambiguous lessons of Tacitus’s historiography: 1) an ethics of withdrawal from politics, 2) a new method of historical research, 3) economics instead of politics and 4) a distinction between politics and morals.

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