James Hankins on the Perception of Rome Among Renaissance Humanists

May 16, 2014
James Hankins

Addressing a crowded AAR Lecture Room, Professor James Hankins, FAAR’82, of Harvard University gave two parallel accounts about the recovery of ancient Greek and Latin sources in the Italian Renaissance and the evolution of Renaissance ideas on the Roman republic from the late fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century. Professor Hankins joins the Academy as a Scholar in Residence until May 26th.

Director Christopher Celenza, FAAR’94, warmly welcomed guests and introduced Professor James Hankins as the leading scholar of Renaissance intellectual history, author of two volumes on Plato in the Italian Renaissance (1990), three volumes on Leonardo Bruni: History of the Florentine People (2001-2007) and the general editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, which aims to make original Latin texts from the Italian Renaissance more easily accessible to modern audiences. Under his editorship the series has published over fifty volumes. Thursday’s lecture originated in the Carlyle Lectures in the History of Political Thought that Professor Hankins delivered at Oxford University in 2010.

As Professor Hankins explained, Renaissance understandings of the Roman Republic differed considerably from those of modern times, both as a political concept and as an historical period. Starting from the history of the term respublica Professor Hankins explained that while the Romans understood the term more loosely in reference to the state, Renaissance thinkers believed it to be a term used in reference to a non-monarchical regime. Instead our modern conception of the term as defining a chronological period from the founding of the Roman republic in 503 BC to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC only emerged thereafter in the late eighteenth century.

In his detailed account Professor Hankins introduced numerous humanist thinkers including Flavio Biondo, Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Patrizi of Siena, Aurelio Lippo Brandolini, Marcantonio Sabellico, Onofrio Panvinio and Carlo Sigonio, all of whom developed unique perspectives on Roman political history and its lessons for politics during the Renaissance. While Leonardo Bruni condemned the emperors for destroying political liberty, Francesco Patrizi of Siena, whose writing was widely read in the fifteenth century, asserted that the stability of monarchical rule made it preferable to the insecurities of popular governance. Influenced by the newly translated and popularized texts of Appian and Polybius, respectively, Onofrio Panvinio and Carlo Sigonio advocated for rival forms of absolutism versus constitutionalism. These two rival Renaissance visions of the Roman republic would go on to inform early modern politics.

Renaissance humanists were exposed to an increasing variety of original Greek and Latin texts over the course of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, but, practiced as they were in the art of rhetoric, they argued for and against the original sources in making their own judgments about the virtues and vices of Roman politics. Standing in critical relation to society, the Renaissance humanist viewed education and the study of ancient authors as a requisite part of developing and ensuring a politics of virtue. Here perhaps lies a valuable lesson for the contemporary political landscape and the importance of the humanities.