December 08, 2008

The secrets of the new foundation

Refounding a city involves reconstruction- the Romans spent 'unremitting toil and labour' in restoring their city. More importantly though it meant refounding a political community- and in that sense a religious community. Livy tells us that Rome was refounded in three steps- firstly with the physical reconstruction of the city, secondly with the election of new magistrates and thirdly with the restoration of Roman religion. This last matter is what the historian emphasizes- the other two matters take up a paragraph, but religion, as ever for Livy, is at the heart of his political narrative. As soon as new magistrates are appointed, he tells us that they 'consulted the senate before anything else on matters of religious observance.' (VI 1). This is important- but so are the actions that immediatly come after this search- this consultation of the senate- because they amount to a restatement in religious language of the key principles that underlay the Roman state .

Firstly the magistrates and pontiffs made a search 'for all that could be found of the treaties and the laws, the twelve tables and certain laws of the Kings'- so far so civil but notice the following- 'to some of these even the common people were given access, but those which applied to the sacred rites the pontiffs supressed, largely so they could keep the minds of the populace under control through religious awe'. (VI 1). The point is important and relates both to the use of religion for social control and the class basis of that use in Rome. Notice here the secular magistrates and the priests- who often would be the same people- search for both judicial, political and religious records- and find them and exclude religious ones from their publication in order to maintain political power. This is a world in which the civil and the religious are not divorced but firmly married together and where the imposing posture of the latter supports the social structure and diktats of the former.

Secondly they declared two religious days. The 18th July became the day of the Allia- the battle lost against the Gauls and decreed 'it should be marked by the cessation of all business, public or private'. (VI 1) Secondly 'some think it was also decreed' that religious rites should not be held on two days following the Ides. (VI 1). Livy is here telling us something important- what the Roman state was doing was twofold. They reintroduced the ritual calendar. Also they added to it to memorialise the stress of the state under the Gallic invasion. The calendar was used to bind together the populace in patriotic and religious zeal. If the first measures about secrecy bound religion to social structure, the second sought to bind it to the fortunes of the state. In so doing, the argument was the state might be blessed by divinity, but even more so the people would see the deeds of the state not as political acts on a civil stage, but as religious acts in a moral drama.

It is impossible to understand anything going on in Livy's history without seeing the importance of the binding together of religious and political. Both internally and externally, opposition to Rome becomes impiety if you take the ceremonial functions of the Roman state seriously. In this sense the religious observances of sacrifice and prayer, fasting and idleness, take on a special meaning- they become part of the ideology of an aristocratic city state, fixed for eternity, and anchored in a world both human and divine. They are the perfect riposte to the Gallic invasion- in that they assert both Rome's civilisation and social stratification and its divine blessing.


James Higham said...

...the argument was the state might be blessed by divinity, but even more so the people would see the deeds of the state not as political acts on a civil stage, but as religious acts in a moral drama...

Yes and it works in modern times just as well, even in a secular setting. As John Buchan wrote: "You invent a flag and anthem eventually you might even get to love the damned thing."

Georg said...

I understand the religious sentiment of the people was somehow created or recreated by organizational measures, rites etc.

Now the question that interests me is this: did those who created "religious awe", by appropriate measures, believe in their religion or not?

In other words, those people on top of the state, the movers and shakers, were they religious, too, - because it worked so well for them - or were they atheists, non believers who used religion merely as a useful and efficient tool?

Does Livius give any hints?


Gracchi said...

James yes.

Georg- that's the interesting question I agree. Livy doesn't give an indication of their belief- he moves over it very quickly and I'm not sure he could know. My own feeling for the sake of argument is that over cynical explanations are as problematic as over idealistic explanations of politics- in general I do think that politicians tend to do things because they believe that they work. Error is more common than manipulation of policy- but manipulation to get to make policy is a different matter.