October 02, 2008

Livy's Cincinnatus


Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is one of the archetypes of the Roman republic, summoned from his farm, he led the armies of Rome into battle, won and then resigned his power. That is the figure that has come down to us but it is not, crucially the figure that Livy handed to his successors. Cincinnatus is a much more complicated and interesting figure in Livy- still according to Livy great- but much more interesting than the figure we have. Our figure is a democratic one at its roots- the citizen who can command as well as the highest politician- Livy's argument is not democratic but aristocratic- he uses the story to exalt nobility and to question the values of his own society. His argument is directed against fortune not against the conception of native virtue.

Understanding Cincinnatus means understanding his career- without that understanding you cannot see what Livy wants us to take from the story he tells. Cincinnatus comes to the fore in Livy's history when his son Caeso was prosecuted by the tribunes for his allegiance to the patrician party in the senate and his violent hatred of the people outside it. Caeso fled Rome to Tusculum and though he may have fought for Rome afterwards, he was in disgrace. Upon his flight, his father Cincinnatus lost his entire estate and 'found a deserted hovel across the river and lived there like a banished man' (III 14). The old senator though did not retire from politics but returned to its frontline when he was elected consul along with Appius Claudius (II). LIvy tells us that he was a controversial choice for Consul: he "
began his period of office with a series of speeches in which his castigation of the senate was even more vehement than his attempts to repress the commons". (III 19) He castigated the senate for their weakness, their 'feebleness' (III 19). Cincinnatus's arguments on this occasion against the tribunes are fascinating and I will deal with them at another point, but Livy wants to establish him as a character, curmudgeonly but principled. It is noteworthy that when the Romans join his army, Livy comments that 'authority, both religious and secular, was still a guide to conduct and there was as yet no sign of our modern scepticism which interprets solemn compacts, such as are embodied in an oath or a law, to suit its own convenience' (III 20). Cincinnatus's army marches under ancient virtue and one might see his entire consulship in that manner. Cincinnatus himself embodies the same principle- offered the consulship a second time- indeed forced onto the ballot, he rigged it so that he received no votes (III 21)

I wanted to make that point because it allows us to set the famous incident of Cincinnatus's dictatorship in context. Cincinnatus was not an innocent farmer but a highly partisan political leader- a hammer of the plebs we might say- and a punctilious man for legal precedent and obligation. When Livy tells the story of his dictatorship- that the consuls were defeated and that Cincinnatus was called from his farm to lead Rome's armies and led them to a stunning victory in only fifteen days- we are not to read that as a supplication to the successful spirit of Rome, but rather as an injunction to nobility. (III 26) When Livy says that he wants the 'particular attention of those numerous people who imagine that money is everything in this world' he does not want to tell them that everyone is equal, rather his argument is that money means nothing besides nobility and morality. That the ancient virtues of the Roman patrician will outpace the modern ones of the Roman businessman- this is an argument, familiar to any serious analyst of the enlightenment, about the virtues of aristocracy and commerce. It is significant that Cincinnatus appoints Lucius Tarquitius his master of horse- poor but the best soldier in Rome- the point is being made again in case you didn't get it, that wealth and virtue are not the same (III 27). We have to understand this in the story of Cincinnatus because it is the hinge upon which Livy's history turns- and what we need to see in it is a critique of the contemporary senate that Livy lived with: they could not do this because they have turned from the soil and the sword to luxury and commerce.

And Cincinnatus himself provides the ultimate definition of this himself: he derides the consul Municius sternly,

Until, Lucius Muicius, you learn to behave like a consul and commander, you will act as my lieutenant and take your instructions from me (III 29)

Cincinnatus's point is Livy's: forget money, the real determinant of the ability to command is ancient nobility and stern disciplined morality. The two run together and Livy is using the character of Cincinnatus to provide to modern times an example- a model- to behave like. This is a portrait with a contemporary relevance- Livy is speaking directly to the Augustan senators of Rome- Cincinnatus's words for Municius are meant to come down the century as an injunction to senators who lived hundreds of years later, and to make them reflect on the moral decline that has slain the Republic and left an Empire in its place.

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