September 26, 2008

Prosecuting in Democracy

We have seen that Livy believed that tyranny and democracy approached each other in the figure of the demagogue. We have yet to see what the consequences of that for the ordinary citizen- we have seen passion dominating politics in the persona of Tarquin and we have already seen a tyrant refuse to punish a relative for his sin. But what we have yet to see is the wrath of the mob turn on the individual- what we have yet to see is the untrammelled power of the prosecuting wrath of the demagogue, the tyrant- what we have not yet seen is the darkness at the heart of democracy. The creation of the Tribunes of the Plebs brings this aspect of demagoguery (so Livy tells us) to the fore and with a particular ancient tinge.

Titus Menenius was prosecuted for losing his position on the Cremera, Spurius Servilius of failure to command on the Janiculum. (Livy's account is in 2.51, it is worth remembering that while the verdict may be true the record of the trial is definitely Livy's invention: for our purposes analysing Livy's thoughts about the state, this does not matter, but its worth remembering that when I use the past tense here, I am not implying that these things definitely happened). The point of both these prosecutions was to exploit a consequence of the world of the citizen soldier. When military matters as in modern society are divorced from politics, generals are seldom exposed to popular anger: the perceived mishandling of Iraq has not been blamed on Ricardo Sanchez or Tommy Franks but on George Bush- when a conscript army is created then the general's art becomes a matter not merely of public concern but of public policy. This is even truer in a society in which there is no distinction between the military and political roles- we shall find plenty of evidence later in Livy to suggest that this unity of politics and strategy is not neccessarily prudent- but the point here is that in the ancient world the success of a general was seen as a matter of political concern.

When Menenius and Servilius were prosecuted, they were brought to court on the instigation of the tribunes. Considius and Genucius brought Menenius to trial, Caedicius and Statius brought Servilius to the bar. The interest for Livy lies in the fates of the two men and in the way that illustrates the pernicious effects of democratic power and the ways that character influences the viccissitudes of politics. Menenius was bullied and endured a 'bitter humiliation' which resulted in a swift and fatal illness. His death, despite the attempts to intercede of the senate, became a cause for Servilius at his trial. He poured 'anger and contempt' upon the tribunes and the people who had forced Menenius to his 'savage death'. Livy comments that Servilius was saved by his courage and by the fact that Menenius had died. The differing fates of the men reflected that one was prosecuted first and also by their different reactions to the trial: the first reacting by defending himself and therefore seeming more guilty, the second by attacking his accusers and thereby giving the appearance of innocence- its a tactic that politicians even today use well.

But what it illustrates is the way that the mob can force in its wrath, led by tribunes of the people, a man to suicide. The point Livy wants to make is that the judgement of the mob is essentially irrational- the results of these trials were in Livy's view decided by events that had nothing to do with the fact of the matter before the court. It was the carriage of the condemned and the temperature of the times- not guilt and innocence which governed the result. The trials were carried out in an atmosphere of public hysteria, as the tribunes brought out proposals for land reform, and in the aftermath of a war. Failure to fight well was a crime against fellow citizens, furthermore it meant the destruction of a political career: Livy shows how accusations of failures of strategy could devastate careers. Though the substance of the accusations might change, his essential point is about the feeling of the mob- democracy for him cannot be true because like the tyrant a democracy can lead, for Livy, to a show trial where innocence is no defence.

6 comments:

UBERMOUTH said...

That was an excellent read!
In reference to this line though..'But what we have yet to see is the wrath of the mob turn on the individual...' we the have!
In the name of democracy, the mob turned on/killed Saddam Hussein when he was judged and condemned by the west's democracy/laws.

I think that the mob mentality exists, aside from one benefitting from temporarily losing their individuality/accountability, is because people like to 'follow the leader', for they don't have to think for themselves.

That inbred {mental)laziness of man is to the benefit of the dictator.

Gracchi said...

Ubermouth- thanks for the comment. I meant in Livy- I've been going through Livy page by page recently so that's what I am describing.

There is obviously something that works about Livy's analysis- but the real issue is how you stabilise the regime. What's interesting about Livy is his work is a chronicle of disruption and what is difficult is to see how he seeks to prevent disruption. As always the diagnosis of what can go wrong, the more difficult issue is the solution of that issue.

James Higham said...

When military matters as in modern society are divorced from politics, generals are seldom exposed to popular anger: the perceived mishandling of Iraq has not been blamed on Ricardo Sanchez or Tommy Franks but on George Bush- when a conscript army is created then the general's art becomes a matter not merely of public concern but of public policy.

Yes, this is very true. A great read, Tiberius.

Gracchi said...

Thanks James- you are right to pick out that part of the post as well, I'm very interested in teh distinction between a republic as Machiavelli envisaged it of militias and conscript armies (incidentally the American founders as well) and a republic that does not fight but is commercial. Its the heart of the enlightenment argument about luxury and commerce- it strikes me that its one that we neglect at the mometn.

Anonymous said...

two things also found it a good read

a) how do we know the record of the trial is livy's invention-have i missed something in the review ?

b) it stirke me a hugep art of this story is not conscirption (is russia and georgia differeent in that respect? from the US or brian in world war 2 now ) or even republican theory it is better communication raido and televisoin- if you could overrule generals from rome in the ancient world in real time- i'm sure consuls would have shed more of the blame and generals in the field less. The most senior person there tneds to get blamed.

edmund

Gracchi said...

Edmund- firstly we presume it, Livy later tells us that all the records of Republican Rome were burnt in 385BC- and several times tells us that he doesn't know that the names of the consuls he tells us are in the right order.

Secondly- yes and no. Yes I think that our system is impossible without those communications- in the sense that otherwise it is very difficult for civilian leaders to keep control of the troops as later Roman emperors and Medieval Kings might tell you. No though because firstly the point is that the consul was both general and politician- like say Andrew Jackson. That may be influenced by the communications- indeed it may be due to the communications that that has changed- but its worth noting and cannot be reduced simply to the argument that the communications systems have changed.