Writings contain some­thing more per­ma­nent than words, but when they do not pre­pare for the crime of lese-majesty they are not mate­rial for the crime of lese-majesty.

Augustus and Tiberius never­the­less atta­ched to them the penalty for that crime,1 Augustus on the occa­sion of cer­tain wri­tings against famous men and women, Tiberius because of ones he thought to have been writ­ten against him. Nothing was more fatal to Roman free­dom. Cremutius Cordus was char­ged because in his Annals he had cal­led Cassius the last of the Romans.2

Satirical wri­tings are all but unk­nown in des­po­tic sta­tes, where dejec­tion on the one hand and igno­rance on the other sup­ply nei­ther the talent nor the will to write them. Under demo­cracy they are not repres­sed, for the same rea­son that in the govern­ment of one man alone they are for­bid­den. As they are ordi­na­rily com­po­sed against power­ful per­sons, in a demo­cracy they flat­ter the malice of the peo­ple who govern. In a monar­chy they are for­bid­den, but it is consi­de­red more an admi­nis­tra­tive mat­ter than a crime ; they can amuse the gene­ral malice, console mal­contents, alle­viate envy of high posi­tions, give the peo­ple the patience to suf­fer, and make them laugh at their suf­fe­rings.

Aristocracy is the govern­ment that most pros­cri­bes sati­ri­cal wri­tings. Magistrates there are lit­tle sove­rei­gns, who are not great enough to ignore insults. If in monar­chy some dart is aimed at the monarch, he is so high up that the dart does not reach him, whe­reas a dart runs through an aris­to­cra­tic lord. So it was that the decem­virs, who cons­ti­tu­ted an aris­to­cracy, puni­shed sati­ri­cal wri­tings with death.3

Tacitus, Annals, book I. This continued in the following reigns. See the first law in the Code De famosis libellis [‘on defamatory libels’].

Tacitus, Annals, book IV.

Law of the Twelve Tables.