October 07, 2008

Tyranny and War

You talk of the Sabine invasion- that paltry affair. The real war which the people of Rome must fight is of a very different kind, if only you knew it: it is a war against those who, appointed to office in order to give us laws, have left our country at the mercy of their own caprice; it is against those who have abolished free elections, annual magistracies, which by ensuring the regular transfer of power are the sole guarantee of liberty for all, and without any mandate from the people flaunt the insignia and exercise the power of Kings. (III 39)

Marcus Horatius Barbatus said this to the face of the decemvirs in the senate at the height of their power- and the beginning of their ruin. As ever we need to be cautious- Livy may be inferring what he probably did not know- I find it hard to believe that a record of this speech survived. But this does not negate the speech's importance as a manifesto of resistance to the Decemvirs- in many ways the position that Horatius argues here- coming out of a populist aristocratic pride (he suggests that the Horatii and Valerii have always protected Rome (III 39))- is one that contains an important critique of tyranny. Notice already we have the emphasis upon the partiality or 'caprice' of the tyrant- something that we observed in the last piece of analysis that we did on the decemvirs.

But let us dig a little deeper into Horatius's speech. Firstly there is an important fact to notice about the way that Horatius describes tyrants. Tyrants are at war with their own country- a greater threat than an army of foreigners, of 'Sabines' in this case. Tyrants are at war with their own country because ultimately war is about volition- if I conquer you I force you to do what I want you to do. The brute fact behind a victorious triumph is the brute power that a tyrant seeks. The point Horatius is making here is that a tyrant is the enemy of the people. What he also suggests is that a tyrannical rule can never be a legal rule- notice again the way that he describes the decemvirs, they had an 'office' but now they do not hold a position superior to any private citizen (III 39). His argument is based upon the sense that an office of the government operates in the people's good- as a tyrant cannot operate in a people's good but is their enemy, he cannot govern a free people and consequently must be at war with them.

That is a first important point. Secondly we have an argument that extends something we have already seen in Livy. Livy originally told us that Brutus had made Romans swear never to obey another King- such was the reason that Octavian later refused the office of Rex itself. But Livy here is warning directly to Octavian and his successors that the name is insubstantial- the decemvirs arrogance is demonstrated when they take on the insignia of Kings, but the key objection to them is that they 'exercise the power of Kings'. Horatius states that 'what men hated was not the name of king but his pride and his violence'- we are back to the private will of the tyrant placing itself over and above the will or good of the people (III 39). The King or tyrant is not defined by a name but by a nature. This politically creates a resistance theory for Rome directed against those who behave like Kings- a tyrant (defined by his behaviour) is at war with his populace and any action by them, as in war, is justified. A point that later is made when one of the decemvirs appeals to the law of Rome, Verginius, one of the tribunes tells the crowd that a tyrant 'alone can claim no share in the beneficence of war' (III 57)- that claim fits with the suggestion that tyrants are beyond the law and its protections.

Resistance theory binds a person to resist a tyrant. This is perhaps an elementary and historically based resistance theory- but no less powerful for that- and its importance is derived from its context. Livy wrote in the reign of Augustus- when the power of a tyrant, one might argued, was cloaked in the Principate's velvet gowns. His argument is a warning to Augustus- that no matter what the legal situation was, if he or his successors ceased to act in the interests of Rome, then they placed themselves at war with their own people.