September 22, 2008

Social Strife

Livy likes to illuminate his argument about the Roman republic with illustrations. The moment where Livy really gets to the key of why the Plebeians demanded social rights and yet were a free and rational people (as he has told us Rome was). The point about this population though is that they had justifed greivances. Livy takes his starting point from a moment in a crowd: his lense is captured by an old man, with battle scars and who is enslaved by debt (II 23). Through that old man he gives us a moment which exemplifies the way he constructs an argument, he uses moments and particularly visual moments to tell us what he believes about the Republic. This moment he uses to make a point and the point here is about the connection between political obligation and military service. His argument is that this old man- and by extension all old men who have served and suffered- requires both political representation and is owed political obligation.

It is significant that Livy gives us a series of political opportunities for the plebs- whereby we see their real argument. The Patricians are not given any arguments- they just tell us that the Plebeians are a mob and need to be pacified- whilst themselves behaving like a mob. Livy is illustrating for us a fundamental principle that in a Republic those who serve the state militarily deserve the franchise. He puts the best argument for the senate into the mouth of a senatorial moderate- remember here Livy is constructing the speeches of his historical personages and putting them into their mouths- and gives that moderate the speech at the end of the night. The Plebeians acquire through what is effectively a strike from military service the right to elect a tribune to protect themselves from those who demand arrests for debts.

We should be careful about this- firstly that plebs and patricians meant different things as you went back into the past. In my view it is best to think of the class distinction as rough and ready and that is in the history that Livy tells us- which may not be the history that actually happened. Livy's history is conjectural, as he admits. The point about this story is the way that Livy demonstrates the connection of citizenship to military service- his model of republicanism is an extensive one in the circumstances of a free, smallholding community. It is significant that it is a small holder who is the victim of the creditors in this context- men driven off the land rather than soulless city dwellers. Livy's sociology identifies these individuals with the infantry that secures Rome's victories in war- the connection between agriculture, military service and the franchise is in Livy's view the basis for the ideal Roman republic. Even here though Livy's politics is unfailingly realistic- and his realistic judgement of the way that internal dissention can tear the state even to its own destruction is what makes his history so powerful.

On the one side we have a vision of the ideal conjectural republic, on the other the vision of it as a moment in time, rather than a static perfection. Livy may not have known the exact form of the republic- but what I think is so interesting about his descriptions of the first social conflicts in Rome is that Livy is both an idealist and a historian. The idealist identifies the features of the ideal state- the historian suggests in effect that it has never existed and its features have always been in flux.