September 13, 2008

Tarquin the Proud

Now began the reign of Tarquin Superbus, Tarquin the Proud. His conduct merited the name (Livy I.48)

Tarquin was of course the last king of Rome before the Principate- which was the immediate political context in which Livy wrote his history. Its worth pausing a moment therefore over the way that Livy introduces Tarquin. The sentence above performs a bridging function- between the fall and assassination of Servius Tullius and the introduction of Tarquin's reign. I think it is interesting because it explains what Livy does not like about Tarquin, one of his villains, and it links together two important themes in the history- two ideas that Livy wants us to take from the character of Tarquin. Curiously they are ideas which link the character of the demagogue with that of the tyrant- they link them through the concept of pride. Ultimately everything in Livy about Tarquin comes back to the fact that Tarquin is superbus, he is arrogant and proud.

When Servius Tullius falls, a King that Livy directly tells us had a good reign and with whom true Kingship in Rome came to an end (I. 48), he falls through a popular insurrection. What Livy describes in his fall is the way that Tarquin inspired the population of Rome or a segment of it with passionate hatred of Tullius and that segment then overthrew the old King, in confusion, we are told that Tarquin forced his way into the Senate House and proclaimed himself King, forcing the Romans to choose between their loyalty to their King and their fear of Tarquin. Servius arrived and Livy tells us that a mob battled the population to prevent him from speaking- Tarquin interrupted by seizing the old man and having him assassinated. Leaving Tarquin as the only monarch in Rome. (I.48)

This description of the way that Tarquin destroyed Servius may not be historical- who knows- but it is definitely in accord with the character of the demagogue in classical literature. Livy is telling us that Tarquin inspired irrational and temporary emotion to sweep away his predecessor and have him assassinated. Everything Tarquin does changes the emotional and not the rational situation in which the Roman people found themselves and Livy is keen to restate that what Tarquin did was aided by a mob. (I.48) Tarquin's inner motivation for this move is as irrational- a demagogue does not have reasonable arguments but he has emotional appeals. Tarquin's emotional appeal is based upon the fact that he is the son of the previous King but one (Lucius Tarquin) and that Servius was not. That is his argument in the senate- it is also his argument in his own breast. Tarquin is proud and irrational- and moves the assembly to being irrational. The demagogue is the seed of the tyrant.

One should also recognise that this seeding goes further. In Livy's view what is constant about Tarquin is his refusal to take advice. He tries capital cases 'without consultation', he breaks 'the established tradition of consulting the senate', 'he was his own sole master' and he insults Rome's allies in Latium (I.48-50). The point of this condemnation is to get us to reflect on the fact that Tarquin has not changed. He is still the demagogue but now in control of the resources of the state. The mob he leads has become his private guard instead of just being a segment of the irrational populace. Livy wants us to understand this- because it is the key to understanding the type of character that cannot thrive in any political system. We shall see that Tarquin's lack of counsel precedes his fall- it makes him prioritise his scheming son, Sextus Tarquin, over the virtue of a Roman matron. Tarquin lacks the ability to govern as well as lacking the morality to govern well. His pride precedes his fall in a way that goes beyond a proverb.

The point about this analysis of Tarquin, bringing together the Demagogue and the Tyrant and arguing that both have the same root in the human character is one that is common within classical literature. Livy did not invent it: but the case of Tarquin enables our historian to demonstrate a classic instance of the way that demagogues proceed to tyrants. Though Thucydides might well have agreed with Livy- Cleon did not become a tyrant in Athens. The uncounselled King as a villain is something that endured long after the classical era had ended- Livy's work was still read- and you can find elements of this critique in the civil war arguments about Charles I and vague shadows even in the recent film Downfall about Hitler. The point about Livy's critique though is that it was written at a certain time- and it was written I'd suggest with the characters of Caesar (another populist who rose to the principate), Catiline and others in mind. The warning to Octavian is clear- demagogic tyranny may lead to the throne but it also leads to bad government which leads inevitably to the destruction of that government. Lastly what this passage does is provide a formidable classic account of the distinction between popular and constitional government- the one leads to the rise of the demagogue, the other leads to restraints on him.

Livy's history is about the creation of constitutional government- and that is ultimately why Tarquin is isolated from it, we are told that Servius might well have founded the republic and was the last good king. Tarquin's reign is thus in parenthesis- between the virtuous monarchy and the virtuous Republic.


Anonymous said...

is there any indicaion on how he belived roman kings were chosen before tarquin (son of the previous one is a common way!) or any indications he was wrong?


Gracchi said...

Actually that is a really interesting question- as far as I can remember there is no succession from father to son. Romulus and Numa were not related- Huma was not even Roman possibly. Neither was Hostilius to Numa. Ancus Martius was a nephew of Numa. Servius Tullius may have been a slave. Lucius Tarquin was a foreigner. Indeed Tarquin was the second Roman King to have been related to a former one.

Most of the previous kings seem to have been appointed after a year's interregnum by a popular assembly- I'd suggest something like the Anglo-Saxon Witan. I'd see it as less formal- probably involving nomination and seizure to a degree that we can't really get at. But good point.

Anonymous said...

thanks of course the problem of knowing how much he actually knew as alwasy with early livy!


Gracchi said...

Of course