GOVT-436 Roman Political Thought
Spring for 2017-2018
The aim of the course is to provide an overview of Roman political philosophy. While to a certain extent is it true to say that Roman thought was derivative of that of the Greeks, such a view disregards the substantial contributions made by Roman thinkers to the development of political philosophy. The thought of more recent philosophers, such as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and the American Founders, owes a great debt to the writings of their Roman predecessors. The Roman authors function as a bridge between the more well-studied works of Plato and Aristotle and the writers of later centuries.
After a review of Greek political thought and Roman history, the readings are drawn from the works of Polybius, Cicero, Seneca, Livy, and Tacitus. The texts are divided between treatises concerned with political and moral philosophy and works of history. In antiquity moral and political thought were inextricably interwoven, while historical works very often contained political observations and moral evaluations. With the exception of Livy, all the writers were experienced in the practice of politics. Arguably, this practical experience gave these authors a very different perspective on politics than that of thinkers who theorize about politics without possessing any actual experience of its practice.
In addition to obtaining a general overview of Roman political thought, there are certain themes which will be highlighted in the readings: the idea of republican government as the means by which citizens may live free from tyranny; the concept of virtue and virtuous individuals in politics; the use of myth to convey what constitutes correct personal and political behavior; the notion that historical writing may be employed as a means of political and moral commentary, in order to set out examples of how or of how not to engage in politics. In sum, then, there are many lessons to be drawn from the study of Roman political thought, not only in the sense that it is inherently important and interesting, but also in the broader sense that many of the questions which these authors wrestled with are still present for us today when we question what it means to live well as individuals and as citizens.
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