September 16, 2008

The establishment of the Roman Republic

My task from now on will be to trace the history in peace and of a free nation, governed by annually elected officers of state and subject not to the caprice of individual men, but to the overarching authority of law. (II.1)

Livy begins his second book with these words, marking the transition from a Kingdom to the Republic. Of course this transition is crucial to Livy's theme- he wants us to observe the Republic at work, its principle and eventually its fall. His enterprise changes its nature with the expulsion of Tarquin- and one can see that very clearly, before the events of 509BC, Livy describes the Roman state by reference to its rulers, afterwards he describes it by reference to the annual consuls. The form of the state changes and therefore the form of Livy's dating- the most essential part of any history- changes- the frame of the work becomes Republican.

Livy's description of this transition is not merely the description of a long awaited revolt. Indeed he tells us that all the Kings of Rome from Romulus to Servius Tullius might have considered themselves the founder of Rome (II.1) and it is Livy's opinion that 'it cannot be doubted that Brutus, who made for himself so great a name by the expulsion of Tarquin, would have done his country the greatest disservice, had he yielded too soon to his passion for liberty and forced the abdication of any of the previous Kings' (II.1). It is worth us asking why this is true- for what it establishes is the basic condition upon which a Republic can be established. Livy's argument is not that Republics are always better than Monarchies or Tyrannies, rather it is that they are better given a precise set of circumstances.

It is important that we understand Livy's meaning here. There are two elements I wish to draw attention to- and both are contained within the quotation I gave above, though Livy clarifies what he means below in the text. The first is that Livy beleived that there could be no republic without a free people. He argues that the 'rabble' that early Rome was composed of would have 'set sail upon the stormy sea of democracy' without the early Kings: and we should recall how close to a tyrant, Livy deems the Democratic leader. The people must be capable therefore of exercising their freedom with deliberation- and this aristocratic concern about republicanism casts a long shadow through Roman and later history. For Livy republicanism must rest on the sure foundation of a patriotism which 'comes slowly and springs from the heart... founded upon true respect for the family and love of the soil'. (II 1) Livy also argues that it took a while for Republicanism to develop fully in Rome- the first consuls for him 'exercised the full powers of Kings' (II 1).

When Livy describes a free people, he does not merely mean a people with the ability to deliberate. He also means that the people are free from domination by others. Brutus, by Livy's account, forced the people of Rome to swear an oath that they would never return the country to kingship (II 1), nobody therefore might fear the reimposition of royal authority. Furthermore the young Republic expelled Collatinus (Lucretia's husband) because he was related to the Tarquins- the entire family were driven out because of the danger of creating a reversionary interest (II 2). That as Brutus put it was an 'insuperable barrier' to liberty, mimicking the French and later Russian revolutionaries, Brutus argued that only the extermination of the royal house might preserve the revolutionary regime (II 2). It is in the opposition to this sentiment that we can descry its full features. The oppositiion to this movement was led, for Livy, by young aristocrats who reasoned that

'under a monarchy there was room for influence and favour; a King could be angry and forgive, he knew the difference between a friend and an enemy. Law, on the other hand, was impersonal and inexorable. Law had no ears. An excellent thing for paupers, it was worse than useless for the great, as it admitted no relaxation or indulgence to a man who ventured beyond the bounds of mediocrity.' (II 3)

These aristocrats were arguing against an equal republic- a republic in which favour and finance could not buy the relaxation of the law. The point about this Livyan construction is that popular freedom goes together with freedom from domination internally and the freedom to be equal. In a state without equality before the law- ie without the capacity to be sure that the rich man and poor man will be judged the same- there is no freedom. Livy beleived that such a state was analogous to tyranny.

This radical attitude towards the creation of a commonwealth through sentiment and towards freedom's identity with authority characterises Livy's commentary on the distinctions between the Roman Republic and the Roman monarchy. He digresses into this analysis in my view to make a point about the way that societies function. It is on the one hand their own fault if they decay into monarchy, but on the other when looking at a society the degree of its freedom can be assessed from the degree of the freedom of the poorest from relying on the favour of the richest both in terms of personal power and law. Livy was no socialist- this is not a socialist manifesto. Rather it is a small farmer's manifesto- calling everyone back to the family and to the soil- Livy is seeking to make an argument for an idyllic arcadian society that probably never existed, but from which Rome's decline can be inferred. There is one element though that we need to deal with in Livy's description of the Republic, and it is as Machiavelli saw much later, the element which makes for instability and that is the Republic's relationship with other Republics and Monarchies. That though takes us into a world Tacitus would have recognised- and the world that Gibbon was later to analyse.