December 13, 2008

Dictator: Marcus Furius Camillus

Livy tells us immediately that Rome 'stood at first by leaning upon its chief citizen, Marcus Furius Camillus' (VI 1). What he means by that becomes evident very quickly- the Romans appointed Camillus as dictator and effectively handed him control of the Republic. This office had an ancient and important pedigree within the history of the Republic and it is important to understand why Livy thought it was necessary. In my view the case of Camillus illustrates this importance and provides an illustration of how Livy saw the Roman republic meet a political situation, common to all regimes, which might destroy the Republic. We can best understand the situation and the resolution if we understand the situation in which Camillus was appointed dictator and the consequences of that appointment for Rome.

The Gallic invasion had consequences which were not merely domestic- but international. Rome, Livy tells us, was, as a consequences of its fall, 'held in contempt' even by its allies (VI 2), its enemies the Volscians beleived 'that all their [Rome's] young men were wiped out by the Gauls' (VI 2). We should not lose sight of the political implications of that sense that Rome was weak. Livy tells us of three concrete consequences- and implies a fourth. He tells us that the Latin allies of Rome decided to seize back their autonomy, that the Etruscans gathered together to discuss invasion and that the Volscians decided to invade (VI 2). Rome's allies, Sutrium for example on the border with Etrusca, were threatened by armies. Rome herself was under threat from both the north and the south. This was at a point when Rome herself was depopulated: some citizens having died in the wars against the Gauls, others defected to the neighbouring city of Veii (where they did not need to rebuild their houses but could occupy vacant ones). As soon as the strategical situation eased, Rome sought to recover the citizens who had moved away and extended grants of citizenships to others (VI 4): before that though her resources of man power were low. The strategic situation was dire.

One might well ask though why that situation impelled one to select a dictator. Firstly as Livy is very aware- politics is a matter of perception, of signs delivered to others about your intentions. Secondly we need to understand that Livy and others did not believe in a Republic, because they believed that extraordinary merit amongst its citizens could not be found. Rather Livy did agree that some citizens had extraordinary ability- and at this point in time, it is quite evident from his account that he saw such ability within Camillus. Merely appointing an experienced and able general to the dictatorship had an immediate effect, Camillus was able to suspend laws and conscript those not normally conscripted (VI 2), the appointment threw the Volscians into 'panic' and he relieved and recaptured Sutrium from the Etruscans (VI 2-4). That was partly the effect of his generalship- Livy mentions several of Camillus's strategical ideas having a real impact (VI 4), but also it was the effect of Rome sending a signal- that it was committed to warfare. In a sense what Livy describes- and the way that he describes Camillus's techniques of reanimating the Roman war machine- is the effect of morale on warfare.

This problem is a textbook problem within early modern and ancient philosophy. It is normally called the problem of necessity- in some sense as Geoff Baldwin has argued, it underlay the crisis of 1641 which led to civil war in England. What Livy describes is a situation that threatens the state- and his remedy to that situation is to suspend the slow acting constitutional processes and appoint a temporary dictator, that appointment both sent a signal of the seriousness with which the state took the crisis and delivered the best leadership in the current crisis. Its flaws as a system are easy to perceive- Gaius Caesar and Cnaeus Pompeius were to be dictators- but we need to understand, if we are to comprehend the reasons for the later crises, the reasons why the office was instituted. The wars of Camillus provide us with a textbook case of how the institution worked and why it was brought in: they are thus an illustration of the way that a dictator might contribute to the survival of the state.


Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

If this is possible, could you add the years BC when writing those posts about Roman history?

Another helpful addition would be a kind of map or at least direction and distance from Rome.

For instance, that is the second time Livius seems to mention Veii and now I read the town is neighboring Rome. Don't know why, but I imagined Veii to be somewhere in a distance, like London to Manchester or so.

What about writing (if possible) Veii, 20 km north of Rome. Because now, I imagine this city to be a kind of suburb.

Your obdn't servant and assiduous reader


Gracchi said...

Georg I'll try to- problem is I often write these posts after a full days work so forget to do things like that! But I can see the use of them and will try to do them.