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Mining Tacitus: secrets of empire, nature and art in the reason of state

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2012

Assistant Professor of History, Clark Honors College, University of Oregon, USA. Email:


A new political practice, the ‘reason of state’, informed the ends and practices of natural study in the late sixteenth century. Informed by the study of the Roman historian Tacitus, political writers gathered ‘secrets of empire’ from both history and travel. Following the economic reorientation of ‘reason of state’ by Giovanni Botero (1544–1617), such secrets came to include bodies of useful particulars concerning nature and art collected by an expanding personnel of intelligencers. A comparison between various writers describing wide-scale collections, such as Botero, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Jakob Bornitz (1560–1625) and Matthias Bernegger (1582–1640), reveals that seventeenth-century natural intelligencers across Europe not only were analogous to political intelligencers, but also were sometimes one and the same. Those seeking political prudence cast themselves as miners, prying precious particulars from the recesses of history, experience and disparate disciplines, including mathematics, alchemy and natural philosophy. The seventeenth-century practice of combining searches for secrets of empire, nature and art contests a frequent historiographical divide between empirical science and Tacitism or reason of state. It also points to the ways political cunning shaped the management of information for both politics and the study of nature and art.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2012

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93 Balthazar Gerbier, Wellcome Library Ms. 2505. This manuscript has two title pages. The first is entitled Secretum virtutis et scientiarum speculum. Miroir de la vertu. Et quelques secrets utiles aux Princes et aux Peuples, and the second Formulaire Touchant L'ART DE LA PLUME et D'un language et Chifre secret; tres utile aux Princes, du Desseing, de la Geometrie, de l'Architecture militaire, de la Perspective, Cosmographie, Geographie, Minnature, Peinture, Architecture, et de la Philosophie naturelle experimentale, en exemples de secrets, tres rares et utiles.

94 Trevor-Roper, op. cit. (88), p. 338.

95 Boate to Hartlib, op. cit. (69), 16/26 August 1648, 36/1/17A. On the tensions between Hartlib's claims to openness and his secrecy see Michelle di Meo, ‘Openness vs. secrecy in the Hartlib Circle: revisiting “democratic Baconianism” in interregnum England’, in Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge: Medicine, Science and Commerce 1500–1800, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 105–124.

96 Hartlib, Ephemerides, op. cit. (69), 1639, Part 2, 30/4/16B. See M. Greengrass, ‘Samuel Hartlib and the Commonwealth of Learning’, in John Barnard and D.F. McKenzie (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, 6 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, vol. 4, pp. 304–322, on Hartlib's mercantilist view of knowledge and his local survey of London.

97 British Library, Sloane Ms. 1465, 193v, and Sloane Ms. 654, 249r.

98 Cf. Webster, Charles, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626–1660, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976Google Scholar.

99 Canoniero, Pietro Andrea, Quaestiones et discursus in Tacitum, Rome: Zanetto, 1609, p. 120Google Scholar; Scribani, Carlo, Politico-christianus, Antwerp: Nutius, 1624, pp. 609611Google Scholar; Mathias Bernegger, op. cit. (77), question cviii. Bose, Johann Andreas, Specimen observationum politicarum, ad proemium vitae Jul. Agricolae à Cornelio Tacito scriptae, Leipzig: Bauer, 1655Google Scholar, thesis II; idem, Dissertationum De Statu Europae, Jena: Krebs, 1676, p. 356; and Johannes Gryphiander (quoting Bornitz), Oeconomicorum Legalium, Bremen: Petrus Colerus, 1662, pp. 545–548.

100 Bernegger, op. cit. (77), question xvii. ‘Non enim video, quare frugibus inventis, glande vesci, & incultam rigidamque priscorum simplicitatem horum temporum culturae praeferre debeamus’.

101 Bose, Johann Andreas, Iulii Agricolae ortus, educatio, studia, Jena: Krebs, 1659, pp. 3334Google Scholar.

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