November 24, 2008

The first fall of Rome

What happened in Rome when the Gauls arrived is something that has been told many times. Livy tells the story of the Roman defeat at Allia and the arrival of the Gauls in Rome with a brilliance that demonstrates the perfection of his writing style and the power of his evocative imagery: he writes with an immediacy that is perfect in committing the idle reader to the Roman side. He is particularly impressive when it comes to describing what happened in Rome when the Gauls burst through- when they seized the city, and the citadel alone remained indomitable in the service of its Gods and its history. What we see here is a version of patriotism that fuses the city and the state, the human and the divine, the story of Rome and that of the cosmos. Let us turn though to the fundementals of the story- what happened according to Livy when the Gauls overwhelmed Rome- what we must understand as we read this passage is that for Livy's story the moment when the Gauls came over the wall was akin to the way that the British regard Dunkirk, it was the defeat that became a moral victory.

What happened? What Livy outlines is a 'cruel separation'. The old and infirm including many of the heroes of the Republic were left in the outer city, whereas the younger men of military age retreated to the citadel. The rest of the Roman people including the priests seem to have fled into the Italian countryside. Let us for a second acknowledge that much of what Livy writes at this point is conjecture- even so what he tells us is something important both about the identity of the city state and its security. To start with the second point, what Livy tells us here is that ultimately the city state is its food supply and its population fo military age- Rome was threatened as the Gauls occupied its lower levels with starvation, hence the disposal of surplus population, and the only way to save itself was through military resistance. In the end military service was tied to suffrage- because ultimately Rome was a state which was an army. Taking this point on, Livy does not demur from its consequences, rather he celebrates them- celebrating the military virtues even of the non-combatants who face their inevitable death with stoicism- seeming to be heroic statues for a while to the Gauls.

This militaristic- state as an army- dynamic in ancient Republics is a consequence of the instability that was natural to them which we talked of in our last post. It is something that made Livy and others resent empire as a civilian enterprise that sapped military vigour because it destroyed uncertainty- a point that echoes through European history even until the 18th and 19th centuries. Livy's point is curiously a democratic one- at its roots- the senate may be the 'fountain head of true government' but it is only such when its members behave on an equal footing with the commons. Conscription we have seen is a democratic point in Roman politics- and in a sense this invasion returned Rome to the world of conscription, from the world of paid armies into which she seemed, on Livy's telling, to be embarking. As a moment though, this brings to bear everything Livy felt nostalgic about in the early Republic- primitive vulnerability and martial vigour breeding a superstitious yet egalitarian republican virtu.


Dave Cole said...

Forgive my ignorance, Tiberie, but is that where Macaulay describes Horatius at the Pons Sublicius?


Anonymous said...

Did the gauls win then?

goodbanker said...

Presumably not, if history is written only by winners? (Though I imagine the historical treatment of setbacks on the way to ultimate victory is an interesting topic to look at.)

James Higham said...

Conscription we have seen is a democratic point in Roman politics.

How do you mean, Tiberius? Doesn't seem too democratic to me.

Gracchi said...

Dave- earlier much earlier in the time of the early Republic,

Mutley for a moment but not for long.

Goodbanker yes you are right entirely.

James because conscription gave the plebeians power within the state as opposed to the nobility- so when you look at roman history, they use a strike against being conscripted as a political tool.