Vincenzo Camuccini, The Death of Caesar

War, Liberty, and Empire: the Fall of the Roman Republic

Instructor: Bruce King
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

In the first century BCE, the Roman Republic that had conquered the Mediterranean world entered a period of terminal crisis. Its traditional senate, too corrupt to govern, was usurped by a series of autocrats, whose murderous civil wars culminated in the ascent of Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Bloody, tumultuous, and traumatic—and concurrent with profound social and cultural change, not least the rise of a new, subversive Jewish sect, Christianity—the demise of the Republic and establishment of the Empire was impetus to three of the greatest works of Classical history: Livy’s History of Rome, Tacitus’s Annals, and Josephus’s The Jewish War. Topically distinct, the three histories share a common concern, weaving narrative and social commentary as they reckon with the monumentality and experience of Roman power. Is Augustan Rome a consummation or depredation of the city’s origins and Republican ideals? How does power corrupt? Are empire and liberty necessarily at odds? 

In this course, we will read from Livy’s History, Tacitus’s Annals, and Josephus’s The Jewish War, as we chart the course of Roman history from the mythic landing of Aeneas to the destruction of Jerusalem, while attending to key questions of historiography, memory, and public writing. How did the historians of Rome think about the rise of tyrants at home and empire abroad? What are the uses of the past in a period of increasing autocracy and censorship? We’ll begin by reading the first book of Livy’s History (Ab Urbe Condita), which narrates the founding legends of Rome—including Aeneas’s arrival to Italian shores, the exploits and fratricide of Romulus and Remus, and the rape of the Sabine Women—and which culminates in the expulsion of the tyrant and the foundation of the Republic. After Livy, we will read from Tacitus’ Annals, which begin from the death of Augustus and include his studies of the tyrannies of Tiberius and Nero, as well as of the self-destruction of the old, aristocratic order. Finally, we will read from Josephus’s The Jewish War, including its account of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 CE, which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. Individually and in dialogue, Livy, Tacitus, and Josephus ponder questions of national myth, of tyranny and its origins, and of imperialism and messianism—questions that remain very much with us. How is history not merely a record of the past, but a negotiation of the politics of the present?

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 21 — November 11, 2021
4 weeks


Registration Open

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