September 18, 2008


by universal consent the greatest soldier and statesman of his day

The Federalist Papers were published anonymously. Hamilton, Maddison and Jay wrote under the pseudonym Publius. When they did this, they did it deliberately and they brought to mind the great Roman statesman about whom Livy wrote the comment I quoted above. What is significant is that that statesman- Publius Valerius- was a contemporary of Brutus and a founder of the Roman republic- yet he is often forgotten today, obscured by the fame of Lucius Junius Brutus and the splendour of the immediate resistance to Tarquin. But for Livy and for the authors of the Federalist Publius was equally if not more important: when Plutarch wrote his lives of the Romans and Greeks, he paired Publius with the famous Athenian constitutional lawgiver, Solon. The implication was obvious- Solon's fame remains to this day as the possibly fictional lawgiver of Athenian democracy- to place Publius beside him was to place him in a similar position within the history of the Roman republic. He not Brutus the regicide was the instigator for Plutarch of the successes of Rome.

What about Livy though? The quotation above demonstrates the high esteem with which Livy held Publius. And what I want to do in the rest of this essay is demonstrate that Publius for Livy was an archetype of what a Republican statesman looked like. Brutus was killed soon after Rome was converted from a monarchy. Valerius became sole consul and then served four further times in the supreme office of the Republic. Valerius was important both as a general and as a leglislator. As a leglislator he brought in measures which made it possible for any man to ascend to the consulship, which allowed the people to kill without judgement in court any man who desired to gain the crown and gave people the right of appeal against the magistrate. (II 8) Valerius was responsible for a number of Roman tactical victories when the city was invaded by the King of Clusium: he constructed an ambush in which several Etruscan soldiers died (II 10) and was responsible for driving away the first invasion of the Tarquins and the citizens of Veii (II 6). From Livy, we can derive the impression that Valerius was the most important citizen in Rome for a time: he was consul four out of the six years that he lived after the foundation of the Republic and in one of the years in which he was not consul, his brother Marcus held the honour. (II 15) It is significant as well that Rome created the office of dictator after the death of Valerius- the office was explicitly linked to the defence- and in previous years when under pressure, Rome, Livy tells us, elected Valerius to the consulship. (II 15)

Valerius faced one major crisis that Livy sees fit to explain in his rule of the Republic and this explains a recurrent theme in Roman history. After Brutus's death for a while Valerius was sole consul: Livy tells us that when he was sole consul suspision grew about his motives, people feared that he might desire the crown. 'Rumour' Livy tells us 'had it that he was aiming at the monarchy' (II 7) because he had constructed a great house on the hill at Velia and because he had failed to replace Brutus with another consul. Valerius addressed this by making a speech to the Roman population- tieing in usefully another great theme of Roman history, the importance of oratory- and
dwelt on the good fortune of his colleague who, having set Rome free, had held the highest office in the land and had died fighting for his country at the very peak of his fame, before the breath of envy could tarnish its brightness. 'While I,' he went on 'have outlived my good name. I have survived only to face your accusations and your hate. Once hailed as the liberator of my country, I have sunk in your eyes to the baseness of traitors like the Aquilii and Vitellii. Will you never find in any man merit so tried and tested as to be above suspision? How could I, the bitterest enemy of monarchy, ever have believed I should have faced the charge of covetting a throne? If I lived in the fortress of the capitol itself, could I ever have thought that my own fellow-citizens would be afraid of me? Can my reputation be blown away by so slight a breath? Are the foundations of my honour so insecure that you judge me more by where I live than what I am? No my friends, no house of mine shall threaten your liberties. The Velia shall hold no dangers. I'll build my house on the level- more I'll build it at the very base of the hill so that you can live above me and keep a wary eye on the fellow citizen you mistrust. Houses on the Velia must be reserved for men better to be trusted with Rome's liberty than I. (II 7)

This speech, crafted by Livy rather than Valerius, demonstrates in my opinion the historian's sagacity in that it shows the way that image not reality dominates politics. It is the house on the Velia that infuriates and the consul's destruction of that house led to the recovery of his reputation. But there is more to this than merely that. What Livy is also considering here is a set of problems at the heart of any republic- a set that Livy's own contemporaries had cause to consider deeply.

Valerius stood so high in the state that he overtook any other rival. Eminence and distinguished service made him the priniciple citizen- the title of course that Octavian took rather than King when he became Emperor (hence the fact that historians call the early empire, the Principate). The problem here is simple- that it is easy to make the transition from Valerius to Octavian. Eminence is the enemy of Republics. Something that Livy would have known from the many examples before him in more recent history- Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Octavian, even perhaps Cicero. That problem of eminence and too much power being attracted by it is one that dominates Roman history as we have it. But Roman history is dominated by another force- also given testament by Valerius's speech and that is the fickle mob (II 6) who had begun to distrust the consul. The problems of the Republic are compounded by the presence of the mob and the man of greatness- we have seen that the one can create tyrants, the second creates Kings and Kings lead inexorably to tyrants. So the history of the Republic was a search for an accomodation- for moderating the passions of the mob through institutional frameworks and accomodating the greatness of individuals within the legal forms of constitutionalism. Livy thus in his first account of Rome's formation offers us in Valerius Publius a model of the problem that politicians created in the Republic. It is interesting to reflect therefore on the choice of Publius by those great readers of Livy, Hamilton, Jay and Maddison as their pseudonym.

A last thing remains to be said about Publius- because of course he was able to diffuse that feeling of suspision and he did not create or seek to create a monarchy- though he did Livy tells us seek popularity (II 8). Publius became known as Publicola- the people's friend- and in a sense that was because he had, in Livy's terms, presented the perfect model of the way a man of eminence should behave. Giving up more than the population wanted in terms of recognition to avoid the fear that he might desire more than they were willing to give- serving and not subjugating the state so that even after his demise the legal forms of republicanism survived to another generation. Whether Livy also means this career as a warning is an interesting question- there is an element in Livy's story that implies Publicola was rare as a man of distinction and true Republican ethics- by Livy's time men of distinction were still available but few had the ethics to turn away from cementing a position of principal citizen into a position as Princeps and Emperor.