September 28, 2008

A model of certainty

Appius Claudius (I) died "a great man" and thousands attended his funeral. (Livy 2.62) However as Livy makes clear this great man was unable to either solve the social crisis or lead Rome's armies into battle against the Volscians coming down from the hills. Appius's failure should interest us because he represents an archetype, that Livy feels, was unable to cope with Republican politics. Appius was brave and principled- several times Livy shows him standing up to the plebeians, rebuking them to their face and even attempting to arrest their spokesmen: at one point his colleague (Titus Quinctius) in the consulship had to rescue him from the crowd in the forum and the senate convened to calm their colleague down and make sure that he did not risk death through his impetuous hatred of the commons (2.57). As this suggests, Livy's view of Appius is not entirely without nuance- a great man may not be a successful man.

Perhaps this is demonstrated most by Livy's account of Appius's military career. Livy tells us that with appealing symmetry the two consuls were given command of two campaigns- Appius against the Volscians and Titus against the Aequeians. Livy then provides us with parallel and contrasting accounts of their campaign's successes. Appius took his 'savage' temperament to the battlefield- the response of his men was that they grew 'drunk on insubordination' and 'actively desired defeat'. (2.58) After they had been defeated, Livy provides an example of Appius's cruelty- he marched them back into Roman territory and had every man who had betrayed his post, whose unit had fled, who had lost his equipment or his standard, flogged and then beheaded. The rest were decimated (i.e. one in every ten, chosen by lot, was executed). As a contrast Livy develops an account of Quinctius's campaign where 'the consul and his men vied with one another in goodwill on one side and generous consideration on the other' (2.60). On their return to Rome, Quinctius's men summed up the distinction by telling their friends that the senate had given one army a tyrant and the other a father (2.60).

Livy here is directing us to the conclusions that we ought to draw about politics from this episode. Appius's greatness is the root cause of his inability to command, his principles lead him to be unable to compromise with the outside world. As David Runciman at Cambridge might put it: Appius is the most dangerous kind of hypocrite. The man who believes in his own belief so much that he does not recognise that it is his own belief, rather than a societal good. Appius definitely saw no need to recognise the political game of persuasion- his political career was about confrontation and a refusal to care for the beliefs of others. At some points this leads to amazing courage, during his trial and just before his death, Appius stood as a martyr to the cause of senatorial glory. That steadfastness terrified his foes- and they refused to continue the trial, adjourning it indefinitely (2.62). It is what we might call greatness- but it is married to an inability to see other people's point of view when it is right and good to do so. Basically Appius was not a politician- he was a martyr and the garb of a martyr suited him, but in Rome he almost caused a riot and in the field, his inflexible hatred of his own men and their desires caused mutiny, defeat and savagery.

Livy's point is an interesting one- it anchors him as a historian, a student of the changing human nature that can never be fully accommodated in a political system and determines the course of events as much as the general political and ideological framework does. But Livy also here offers us counsel about what kinds of personality thrive in which situations. Appius was a hypocrite of a particular sort- if he was not a fool. The hypocrisy of Appius was the hypocrisy of the martyr, of the great man, but what that great man or martyr was incapable of doing was controlling armies and being a Republican politician, he was capable of impressing even his opponents with his bravery. The example of Appius is interesting- the chances are that Livy's portrait is not historical but derives from scandalous rumour created centuries afterwards about the Claudian family, but what Livy here is doing is deriving out of his created history, principles to understand political nature. Here he does so by observing the way that situation and character can come together- at points a disposition can be useful, at points it cannot. The personality, Livy reminds us, is political- and in order to evaluate politicians, it is necessary to evaluate their strengths of personality.

Appius was able to stand steadfast to his principles in moments of great danger- but unable to understand that compromise, that negotiation are needed when commanding an army or speaking in the forum.


Crushed said...

I Suppose it's all about fine lines, I guess.

I suppose history is full of such characters, in some ways.

People a litle TOO principled, perhaps.

Take Edward the Confessor and Sebastian, King of Portugal. Both disatrously refused to marry and have children because they sought a higher purity.

Their kingdoms suffered after their deaths as a result.

It's interesting the whole martyrdon complex, I can kind of relate to myself quite powerfully, the desire to go in a place of glory, unbowed, surrounded on all sides, you die so your principles live.

But I guess there's a time and a place for that.

Gracchi said...

Crushed- I agree and disagree. I agree with your main point that there is a time and a place for martyrs.

I dont know anything about Sebastien- but unfortunately Edward the Confessor was married to Edith the daughter of Earl Godwin- they were childless but that may have more to do with his hatred for her father than anything else. The image of Edward as a saintly King is the creation of later chroniclers to a great extent- I am very cautious about it. The Organic Viking would be the woman to talk to on it though.

Having said that I agree with you and Livy- personality makes politics.

James Hamilton said...

Imagine what David Runciman was like as a child!