October 20, 2008

Livy's view of the death of Maelius

Spurius Maelius had, according to Livy, attempted to use food as a weapon to bring down the Roman Republic. The Senate appointed a dictator to bring him to justice- a dictator who happened to be Lucius Cincinnatus- and Cincinnatus managed to solve the food crisis, confiscate the grain that Maelius had stockpiled, and then he sent for Maelius. Maelius refused to come and was summarily executed by Servilius, who Cincinnatus had sent to take him to the dictator. Cincinnatus then addressed the people of Rome, who had supported Maelius. This speech is interesting- because what Cincinnatus was doing was describing the reason for an illegal act- the murder of Maelius- an act that Livy tells us that some tribunes had attempted to prosecute the perpetrator. (IV 16)

Cincinnatus makes an argument in the forum- that has a contemporary relevance for Livy (something we shall pass onto)- which justifies the action of Servilius. Cincinnatus tells the forum that that Maelius had not been killed for his treachery, for that he would have been tried, but for having 'used force in an attempt to avoid a trial' (IV 14). Cincinnatus goes further and attacks Spurius Maelius's character. He argues that Maelius was not merely a parvenu- but also inexperienced. Whereas Appius Claudius and others might have been rightly killed for their tyrannical ambitions- at least there was some justification in their lineage and acheivements for their high ambition. As Cincinnatus argues that 'He fondly imagined that we, who could hardly think of him as a senator without a pain in the belly, would endure him as a King... why the thing is not merely a crime it is a monstrosity' (IV 15). Cincinnatus's contempt for Maelius's ambition is partly based on aristocratic hauteur and partly upon the basis that Maelius had no desert for it. But the core of the argument lies in the suggestion that the system must be protected against the individual. Maelius's death fits into this ideology wonderfully, as his death was met in opposing the process of judicial inquiry, just as his own political career was devised to destroy judicial inquiry and replace it with tyranny.

Livy's view of this has a contemporary resonance- much of the argument that Cincinnatus makes against Maelius ressembles the arguments that Cicero had put against Catilina. The issues of the late Republic- ambition and its opposition to law- are the issues that Livy wants us to place in the forefront of our mind. Yet again Cincinnatus is here an image of the virtues of the old republic- respect for law, lineage and experience- as opposed to Maelius and possibly others in the more recent past. The 'Maelius' incident substantiates the thesis that there is a connection between tyranny and democracy- but it does something else- Cincinnatus's speech associates (what for Romans was a powerful association) the lineage and experience of the senate with the majesty of the law. In that sense- his speech both defines a kind of republicanism and defines it within a culture that is aristocratic and unequal. What Cincinnatus does here is define a aristocratic republicanism which runs through Livy's history. Because of the connection between the events of the past and present, we could guess that Livy perceived that strand running down even to the Principate itself.


Crushed said...

And perhaps resonant today?

I was thinking recently of Pym's charge against Strafford, that he was treasonous because he 'made the King's government odious to his people'.

Should we not have impeached Blair for the same?

Gracchi said...

The Strafford case is fascinating- at some point I mean to write about it- partly because of what Pym did using the law against the King's servant and the way that that operated in a situation where the sovereign was the King in Parliament not the King.

There are obvious comparisons to Livy's attitude- though Maelius held no actual position- he was a private citizen and Livy wants us to remember that at all times.