Thomas More’s History of King Richard III: Educating Citizens for Self-Government
By Gerard Wegemer
Thomas More Studies, Vol.2 (2007)
Introduction: In his Historia Richardi Tertii, Thomas More does for England what Sallust did for Rome and what Thucydides had done for Greece. Sallust, who himself imitated Thucydides, had special importance to More. As Richard Sylvester points out: More must have known Sallust “almost by heart”; he was required reading in More’s school, and his histories are “significantly echoed in [More’s] Historia. There is evidence that More lectured at Oxford on Sallust in 1513 or shortly afterwards, and we know that Sallust held an important place among the English Renaissance humanists, just as he did among the Renaissance humanists of Florence.
The great Renaissance leader of Florence Leonardo Bruni—a classical scholar and a chancellor like More—based his history of the Republic of Florence on Sallust’s in his dangerous task of recovering and strengthening republican rule in an age of tyranny. Sallust was the experienced general and senator promoted by Julius Caesar; Sallust’s long reflections led him to conclude that Rome grew “incredibly strong and great in a remarkably short time” only “once liberty was won”—that is, only once wise and experienced leaders changed the Roman government from monarchy to a republic, with the explicit intent to “prevent men’s minds from growing proud [superbia] through unlimited government” (Catiline 6.7-7.3).
Sallust was not a favorite author among the Tudor monarchs.
Sallust’s two histories each focuses upon one specific event of the late war-torn Roman Republic, just as More focuses upon one three-month event of war-torn England. Sallust’s two histories, when considered together, give an interpretation of what caused the rise and fall of the great Roman Republic and, implicitly, of Roman civic health understood as just and peaceful self-rule. More’s Historia, especially when considered with its companion pieces Utopia and Epigrammata, reveals England’s strengths and weaknesses, and it points to an understanding similar to Sallust’s of civic health.