September 11, 2008

Telling Tales?

What are we to make of Livy's stories about the Roman past? The historian was fond of sprinkling his history with tales of what Romans had done. In the first chapters of his work, discussing the invasion by Rome of its ancestral city Alba Longa, Livy discusses a famous episode involving two sets of brothers. The Romans and Albans were about to plunge into war when the leader of the Albans, Mettius, proposed that they both elect three champions to fight for each city and against each other- victory in the fight would give that city the spoils. The three brothers Horatii volunteered for Rome, whereas it was the Curatii brothers who fought for Alba. Two of the Horatii were killed, but the last managed to slay the Curatii and thus Rome conquered Alba. On his return with the army from the field, Horatius came across his sister outside Rome- she had been engaged to one of the Curatii and seeing her fiance's bloodstained cloak on the shoulder of her brother, she burst into tears. Horatius drew his sword and plunged it into her chest- killing her instantly. He was put on trial immediatly and the King, Tullius Hostilius, gave the right of deciding his punishment to the citizens who voted that he be symbolically punished with performing a ritual observance (that Livy tells us his family had been performing down to Livy's day) but he be let off the horendous punishment for treason that awaited him.

So much the story that Livy tells. It is piquant if nothing else and most readers would find it exciting. But there is more going on here than meets the eye. Firstly its right for us as modern readers to ask whether this could have happened and whether it happened the way that Livy says it did. Its worth stating to begin with that we must be cautious- Livy presumably did not have written records that this had happened. What he did have was the family recollection- and my guess is that this was a family story. Whether it links to the events in the civic history of Rome- the conquest of Alba, the right of the people to decide the punishment in cases of treason- is a separate matter and my guess is that the fabulous story became attached to these events- rather than that it actually happened as Livy tells us. But there probably is something here at the root of this story- possibly quite different from described in Livy's account. Families in clan based societies tend to preserve memories of family dishonour and blood feud down the generations- they tend to keep these stories particularly if they are tied to a peculiar family religious ritual. This particular story involves both the honour of the Horatii (the sister weeping for a non-Roman, the brother committing sorricide) and a religious ritual that was peculiar to them: it seems like just the thing that they might have passed down, exaggerated and transferred to great public events though it might be, my guess is that there is a kernel of truth here.

That ultimately tells us something about the value of Livy's history to us as historians looking back on ancient Rome. His history is the end of a game of Chinese whispers- he tells us the records of early Rome were destroyed- and his historical sources go back scarcely a couple of centuries. But family traditions, stories and fables- even songs that we do not know about- often preserve things where histories are not written. If we say that Livy is not completely accurate- and we can never guarentee that everything described in the early parts of his history happened- we cannot say that his history was a work of fiction (he obviously researched) nor can we say more importantly that it had no connection to the times it described. Livy's history is a limited but useful source- and in stories like that about the Horatii we may be getting a glimpse of primitive Roman society- and just as importantly we are getting a glimpse of what a Roman family wanted to remember about that society. That tells us something about the family and its concerns. It demonstrates their desire to fix private history to public history- and also the fact that they remembered this story demonstrates their piety and an interesting sexual and civic politics- which saw the tears of a young woman for her dead fiance as a threat to the masculine state and civic order.

A threat that had to be met with violence and ultimately murder- murder that the state acquiesced in whilst sacrafices expiated the wrath of the furies.