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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Livy’s idea that the freedom enjoyed by Rome was undermined and eventually destroyed by rising emperors like Augustus spoke to many authors in the Renaissance and early modern period. Machiavelli, Harrington, and Milton all heeded Livy’s warnings and passed them onto a later generation of thinkers who helped prepare the ground for the American Revolution. It is no surprise that Livy was one of the most read authors in 18th century America.

Other quotes about Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots:

4 January, 2010

Livy250

Livy on the irrecoverable loss of liberty under the Roman Empire (10 AD)

Read the full quote in context here.

The Roman historian Livy (59 BC - 17 AD) wrote his History of Rome (10) as the Roman Republic was being turned into a despotic empire. He argued that true liberty consisted of regular elections and the rule of law, and that its loss was irrecoverable and marked a return to slavery:

The ides of May came. The offices of the state not having been filled up by election, men, invested with no public character, made their appearance as decemvirs, retaining still the same spirit to enforce their authority, and the same emblems to support the splendor of their station. This was held the height of arbitrary government, and the loss of liberty was deplored as irrecoverable. No one champion stood forth in its cause, nor was there a prospect of any such appearing: so that the people not only sunk into despondence, but began to be despised by the neighbouring nations, who thought it would reflect shame on themselves, if a state which had forfeited its own liberty, should be allowed to retain its dominion over others.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

XXXVIII. The ides of May came. The offices of the state not having been filled up by election, men, invested with no public character, made their appearance as decemvirs, retaining still the same spirit to enforce their authority, and the same emblems to support the splendor of their station. This was held the height of arbitrary government, and the loss of liberty was deplored as irrecoverable. No one champion stood forth in its cause, nor was there a prospect of any such appearing: so that the people not only sunk into despondence, but began to be despised by the neighbouring nations, who thought it would reflect shame on themselves, if a state which had forfeited its own liberty, should be allowed to retain its dominion over others The Sabines, with a numerous army, made an irruption into the Roman territories; and, having spread devastation through a great part of the country, and collected, without loss, a great booty of men and cattle, they recalled their forces from the various parts in which they were dispersed, and pitched their camp at Eretum, grounding their hopes on the dissensions at Rome, which they trusted would prevent the raising of troops. Besides the couriers that arrived, the country people, flying into the city, caused a general alarm. The decemvirs held a consultation on the measures necessary to be taken; and, while they were left destitute of support on every side, being equally detested by the patricians and the commons, another circumstance occurred which aggravated their fears by presenting an additional danger to their view: the Æquans on the opposite side had encamped in the district of Algidum, and ambassadors, who came from Tusculum to request assistance, brought accounts, that their lands were ravaged by detachments from thence. The decemvirs were so thoroughly frightened, on finding the city surrounded by two enemies at once, that they determined to have recourse to the advice of the senate; accordingly they ordered the senators to be summoned to a meeting, though they well knew what a storm of public resentment threatened to break upon themselves; that all men would heap on their heads, the blame of the devastations of the country, and of all the dangers by which they were encompassed; and that, on these grounds, attempts would be made to deprive them of their office, if they did not firmly unite in the support of their cause; and, by enforcing their authority with severity, on a few of the most intractable tempers, repress the forwardness of others. When the voice of the crier was heard in the Forum, summoning the senators to attend the decemvirs in the senate-house, it excited no less wonder than if it were a matter entirely new; “what could have happened now,” the people said, “that those who had, for a long time past, laid aside the custom of consulting the senate, should now revive it? But they might, no doubt, thank the war, and their enemies, for any thing being done that was formerly usual with them as a free state.” They looked about the Forum for senators, yet could hardly discover one. They then turned their eyes to the senate-house, remarking the solitude which appeared round the decemvirs, who, on their part, attributed the non-attendance of the summoned to the general detestation of their government; while the commons found a reason for it, in the want of authority in private persons to convene them, observing at the same time, that a head was now formed for those who wished for the recovery of liberty, if the people generally would let their endeavours accompany those of the senate; and if, as the fathers refused to attend in senate, they should in like manner refuse to enlist. Such were the general topics of discourse among the commons; while of the senators, there was scarcely one in the Forum, and very few in the city. Disgusted with the times, they had retired to their country-seats; and, being deprived of their share in the administration of the public business, attended solely to their private affairs; thinking, that, by removing to a distance from the meeting and converse of their tyrannic masters, they were out of the reach of ill-treatment. Not meeting according to summons, apparitors were despatched to all their houses, to levy the penalties, and at the same time to discover whether their non-attendance was owing to design; and these brought back an account that the members of the senate were in the country. This gave less pain to the decemvirs, than if they had heard that they were in town, and refused to obey their commands. They then gave orders, that every one of them should be summoned, and proclaimed a meeting of the senate on the day following, when the members assembled in much greater numbers than the decemvirs themselves had hoped. This raised a suspicion in the minds of the commons, that the senators had deserted the cause of liberty, since they had paid obedience, as to a legal summons, to the order of men whose office had expired, and who, except so far as force prevailed, were nothing more than private citizens.

[More works by Titus Livius (Livy) (59 BC – 17 AD)]