October 12, 2008

A disgraceful incident

Those are Livy's words about an event that happened soon after the Decemvirs fell, in the consulship of Titus Quinctius Capitolinus and Furius Agrippa. Rome was asked to arbitrate between two cities within Latium, Ardea and Aricia, about a piece of land that both cities claimed to be theirs, and 'for which the two towns had fought so often they were exhausted' (III 70). In the midst of the discussions in the forum, conducted it seems by the people under the tribunes, an aged Roman Publius Scapita, rose to his feet and began speaking. Scapita told the assembly that the land that Ardea and Aricia were claiming was originally the property of another town- Corioli- and as Corioli had been conquered by Rome, that territory ought to have gone with the city that had been conquered. This speech was listened to by the crowd with a 'high measure of approval' and despite the arguments of the consuls, 'cupidity prevailed' and Rome claimed the land. (III 72)

This 'disgraceful incident' is interesting- because of two things. Firstly it exposes how the Roman Constitution may have worked- and secondly it exposes what Livy thought of justice. Let us begin with the first consideration. I have mentioned before that we seem in the Roman world to be in a situation where the judiciary and the executive are separated- the judiciary rests in the people, the executive and legislature in the senate and consuls. That's a broad generalisation and does not fully work- but what we can establish in this case is that quite complicated questions of international law were resolved by the assembly of the people, in great contrast to what is done today in most if not all democracies. The people were the court. The reasons for this are not difficult to work out- many of those within the assembly would have had knowledge of other parts of Latium and possibly Italy- Scapita would not have been alone in having visited in the army the places that they talked about in the assembly. Scapita's evidence is interesting- obviously (and Livy agrees with this) there was an accepted right of conquest that allowed a city to claim a territory that had belonged to a vanquished enemy. (III 72)

Livy though thinks that the case that Scapita outlines was an unjust one. The reason that Livy gives for the decision to be regarded as unjust was a simple one. He argued that 'for an arbitrator to convert disputed land to his own use was a crime revolting in itself, and would set a precedent even worse' (III 72). Livy cites the senators arguing that Rome would lose Ardea and Aricia's friendship and lose its reputation not to mention its honour through these proceedings. (III 72) Livy, we have seen, opposed the idea of judging one's own cause- and in a sense this is the beginning of a critique of empire- as soon as the Roman populace become sovereign over territories which are not free or seek their arbitration, the temptation to judge in their own interest as they have the power becomes tyrannical. Livy here may be indicating some of the dangers to the Republic that will flow from its expansion- dangers to the very conception of a just and honourable republic. In that sense the incident fits into a narrative which sees the empire as the product of virtue (ie rising military strength) and the incubator of the decline both of virtue and ultimately of the city.

These arguments lead I think to an account of Rome which emphasizes the dynamic between expansion and democracy- and the ways in which Rome's character as a republic changes as the empire advances. One could even make the argument based on this case that Rome's transition from a Republic to an Empire is a transition from a Republic to a Tyranny of the citizen over the subject- an arrangement which might naturally lead to a habit of subjection and eventually to the Imperium. It is a speculation but in this case, I think we have an indication of one of the pattern that Livy sees underlying the last years of the Republic and first of the Principate.


Crushed said...

It's perhaps worth pointing out that these political concepts are linked of course, to economic principles.

Although we think of classical times as being more advanced than the middle ages, economically they weren't.

Most of the early Empires are essentially slave states- the citizens a of a certain city live essentially off a permanent system of plunder and slavery. And the Roman Empire is a classical example. Over time, exceptionally priveleged places OUTSIDE Rome could claim some level of parity, 'colonia' rights, but essentially the Empire existed to feed Rome, which lay a hungry spider at it's centre.

Rome offered the Pax Romana, because being part of this system, it could argue, meant that Roman systems essentially designed to cart off goods and people still improved standards of living and quality of life for the conquered.

But it is only really with the advent of the feudal system we can really talk of sustainable urban life existing in balance with an agricultural system around it that did not need slavery and could sustain masive urbanisation without resorting to plunder to support such cities.

So the Executive of Rome was the Executive of abn Empire, but its Judiciary only needed to serve a city state.

edmund said...

good point (main post) interieng the notin of the "right judge" being applied to states in that way