September 30, 2008

Rome and her surroundings

Attacks on Rome during its first century of Republicanism came through the peoples of the hills- the Aequians and Volscians. An uneasy peace with Veii endured, an alliance with the Latins stabilised that territory but it was the people of the hilly valleys around Latium that caused Rome problems. In 463BC, the two tribes came down from the hills and marched on Rome and her allies. Rome was unable to aid the Hernici in Latium (III 5). She was unable to send troops because in an 'unhealthy season', Roman farmers had fled the invasions and 'disease was increased' says Livy 'by overcrowding'. (III 5). Livy paints a terrifying picture of the interior of Rome at this point

The smell of this motley collection of animals and men was distressing to city folk, who were not accustomed to it; the farmers and yokels, packed as they were into inadequate quarters, suffered no less from heat and lack of sleep, while attendance upon the sick, or mere contact of any time, continually spread the infection. (III 5)

The image here is important- and echoes that of Thucydides about the Athenian plague- but it merely is part of the situation rather than part of Livy's argument. The plague is part of what Livy describes as a situation announced by portents (III 5), in which all Rome had to depend on was 'her tutelary Gods' and 'her fortune' (III 6).

Rather than the situation, what Livy is interested in is Rome's response to the situation. Firstly her senators and all the able bodied men did not abandon Rome to her fate. Plebeian Aediles patrolled the streets (normally a task reserved Livy says for the consuls- both of whom were dying) and young senators guarded the gates. The community came together and came together in the service of the city. (III 6) Furthermore Livy comments that Romans went straight to their Gods to seek help:

The Senate, despairing of human aid, turned to the people and their prayers, bidding them go with their wives and children and supplicate heaven for a remission of their sorrows. It was an official command, but no more than each was impelled to do by his own distress: every shrine was packed; in every temple women lay prostrate, their hair sweeping the floor, praying the angry Gods to grant them pardon and to put an end to the plague (III 7)

As Livy noted it seemed the Gods recognised their prayers (III 7) and the raiding forces withdrew. Livy's moral Romans triumphed in that sense- in their moment of weakness the enemy spontaneously withdrew and their allies came into fight for Rome. Rome was saved therefore possibly by its virtue.

But it was also saved by the vice of its enemies. Livy wants us to see that if the Romans were steadfast and virtuous, then their enemies were not. The Aequi were mere theives and not soldiers (III 6). However Livy implies a sociological point as well as a moral one- we have seen the Romans taking pride in their city and defending it. Let us look for a moment at the Aequi, people of the hills without a city, and the way that Livy describes their progress on Rome.

They were very far, as it turned out, from hoping to capture, or even to get within striking distance of, the city; the mere sight from far away of its hills and houses so effectively extinguished their martial ardour, that with one accord they began to grumble about wasting their time amongst the rotten carcasses of men and cattle in a stricken desert where nothing was to be found worth taking, while they might just as well be turning their attention to the rich and wholesome lands of Tusculum

The Aequi and Volsci lacked the strategical longterm sense of the Romans- they lacked the ability to stand steadfast to their objective but rather strived after short term objectives. Whereas the Romans were soldiers, the Aequi and Volsci were 'theives'. (III 6) I think what Livy gets here particularly, as ever, is the effect of the sights as they approach Rome on the Aequi and Volsci. Whereas the sights in Rome stirred men and women to devotion and to hopeless fidelity to their cause; the Aequi see the hills of Rome and are terrified by their history, they see the carcasses and think to move to Tusculum. It is an indication of the moral and strategical difference in Livy's view between the folk of the hills and city dwellers, the former are feckless, wild, animalistic and undisciplined, the latter are determined, devout and desperate to defend their homes. It is a distinction that we shall come back to, but it is crucial to understand, if we are to understand why Livy believed that Rome survived and eventually conquered these hill folk.

Livy's case is partly that Rome was morally superior and partly that its population were strategically sounder- more determined- the two things run together and for Livy cannot be separated. Both meant that Rome survived the attack of the Aequi- she was saved by her character, as much as their folly in not conquering her was a result of their character. To use a Machiavellian word, and its no surprise that Machiavelli read Livy attentively, the virtu of the people, dependent on the way that they lived, deterimined their future.

3 comments:

James Higham said...

That's a very interesting point about the smell of Rome. What would it have been like?

Gracchi said...

In general hard to know- I suspect much less sanitary than a modern city but I couldn't swear to it. At this point I think it was awful becuase of the stench of rotting flesh.

James Hamilton said...

Should you want to understand life in an Italian village in medieval times, it's only necessary to spend a few weeks in rural Morocco, or, perhaps at more of a distance, rural Vietnam or Cambodia. But there's nowhere to go to experience at first hand even an eighteenth century type city, let alone a Roman one.

I agree however that smell is the first change to notice, given how unaware we are of the world of smell we ourselves swim in. E.g. the way tobacco used to be the great deodoriser in late Victorian/20th century Britain. Or compare the change cleaner fuels have made to London's smell in the last 20 years (Edinburgh's buses are still "unreformed" and it makes quite a difference).

There's a wonderful Kingsley Amis letter about rotting flesh. Must look it up for you.