September 25, 2008

Fame and Women

Rome in those days was free from the petty jealousy of others' success and the men of Rome did not grudge the women their triumph. To preserve the memory of it forever the temple of Fortuna Muliebris was built and consecrated.

This sentence occurs in Livy after Coriolanus had been forced to retreat: the great general had come to the walls of Rome, and his mother and wife convinced him to retreat, the men of Rome realised that the victory was due to the women who had gone to the enemy camp, despite great danger, and told their opponent to withdraw. That's the context of what Livy is saying here- and it is important to recognise that because we are talking about a traditional female role- the suppliant who persuades rather than forces retreat- and we are talking about an example of great courage. I need hardly remind anyone reading this that the consequences for these women could have been severe. Livy is therefore indicating two things in his admiration of these women- firstly that they behaved appropriately- in the way that any Roman matron should, like Lucretia they are serving their country through their example to men- but they are also courageous. Thats the first part of the paragraph- the courage of the women that the men recognise- but actually today I am more interested in the other parts of what Livy writes- the recognition and the form that recognition takes.

Let us start with the recognition of the women. When Livy uses the word triumph, he means something quite precise. Roman Generals of his own day held triumphs to commemorate great victories. In a sense what Livy is saying here is that courage is a public act- it has public ramifications and becomes part of a public story. This fits in with ideas we know Livy would have come into contact with- take for instance the first line of his great predecessor, Herodotus of Hallicarnassus's history (written about 500 years before Livy's). Herodotus says that the purpose of his history is "preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory". Livy would no doubt agree and so would his idealised Romans of the 5th Century, whose virtue Livy demonstrates through the fact that they recognise and preserve courageous acts. Memory here becomes a public virtue.

Not only does memory become a public virtue, it also becomes a religious virtue. They dedicate a temple to remind Romans in the future of the great deeds of Romans in the past. We have come across this concept already- when after the Battle of Lake Regillus the dictator Postumius vowed a temple to Castor. In part such vows are vows of thanks- Postumius's definitely fell into that category. In part also they are vows to memorise the events that the God is being thanked for: note Livy's language here, we are told that the purpose of the temple is to preserve the memory of the incident forever in the minds of men. In marble and paint the pride of the women of Rome is exalted and their position as the guardians of the Republic is proclaimed. Whatever we understand about the purpose of Livy's history we have to understand in this context.

History in the West has been tied to religion since the days of Augustine and Eusebius. I think though we can see in this passage the way that history in the ancient world is a religious as well as a instructive practice. History is religious because it is an art of memory- Livy's history is about the creation and support of good civic memory which both instructs yet also dignifies the characters of history. In this sense, when we read Livy we have to bear in mind that he is paying tribute to and creating a memento of his assumed ancestors. Glory creates the need for a historian to chronicle it- to endeavour to preserve the memory of Achilles and of the women of Rome who went out to petition Coriolanus. If we understand this, I think we get a better idea of one of the things that Livy's history is designed to do- unlike modern histories Livy wants to preserve the past as a religious and moral duty to the inhabitants of that past.