September 26, 2008

Prosecuting in Democracy

We have seen that Livy believed that tyranny and democracy approached each other in the figure of the demagogue. We have yet to see what the consequences of that for the ordinary citizen- we have seen passion dominating politics in the persona of Tarquin and we have already seen a tyrant refuse to punish a relative for his sin. But what we have yet to see is the wrath of the mob turn on the individual- what we have yet to see is the untrammelled power of the prosecuting wrath of the demagogue, the tyrant- what we have not yet seen is the darkness at the heart of democracy. The creation of the Tribunes of the Plebs brings this aspect of demagoguery (so Livy tells us) to the fore and with a particular ancient tinge.

Titus Menenius was prosecuted for losing his position on the Cremera, Spurius Servilius of failure to command on the Janiculum. (Livy's account is in 2.51, it is worth remembering that while the verdict may be true the record of the trial is definitely Livy's invention: for our purposes analysing Livy's thoughts about the state, this does not matter, but its worth remembering that when I use the past tense here, I am not implying that these things definitely happened). The point of both these prosecutions was to exploit a consequence of the world of the citizen soldier. When military matters as in modern society are divorced from politics, generals are seldom exposed to popular anger: the perceived mishandling of Iraq has not been blamed on Ricardo Sanchez or Tommy Franks but on George Bush- when a conscript army is created then the general's art becomes a matter not merely of public concern but of public policy. This is even truer in a society in which there is no distinction between the military and political roles- we shall find plenty of evidence later in Livy to suggest that this unity of politics and strategy is not neccessarily prudent- but the point here is that in the ancient world the success of a general was seen as a matter of political concern.

When Menenius and Servilius were prosecuted, they were brought to court on the instigation of the tribunes. Considius and Genucius brought Menenius to trial, Caedicius and Statius brought Servilius to the bar. The interest for Livy lies in the fates of the two men and in the way that illustrates the pernicious effects of democratic power and the ways that character influences the viccissitudes of politics. Menenius was bullied and endured a 'bitter humiliation' which resulted in a swift and fatal illness. His death, despite the attempts to intercede of the senate, became a cause for Servilius at his trial. He poured 'anger and contempt' upon the tribunes and the people who had forced Menenius to his 'savage death'. Livy comments that Servilius was saved by his courage and by the fact that Menenius had died. The differing fates of the men reflected that one was prosecuted first and also by their different reactions to the trial: the first reacting by defending himself and therefore seeming more guilty, the second by attacking his accusers and thereby giving the appearance of innocence- its a tactic that politicians even today use well.

But what it illustrates is the way that the mob can force in its wrath, led by tribunes of the people, a man to suicide. The point Livy wants to make is that the judgement of the mob is essentially irrational- the results of these trials were in Livy's view decided by events that had nothing to do with the fact of the matter before the court. It was the carriage of the condemned and the temperature of the times- not guilt and innocence which governed the result. The trials were carried out in an atmosphere of public hysteria, as the tribunes brought out proposals for land reform, and in the aftermath of a war. Failure to fight well was a crime against fellow citizens, furthermore it meant the destruction of a political career: Livy shows how accusations of failures of strategy could devastate careers. Though the substance of the accusations might change, his essential point is about the feeling of the mob- democracy for him cannot be true because like the tyrant a democracy can lead, for Livy, to a show trial where innocence is no defence.

September 25, 2008

Fame and Women


Rome in those days was free from the petty jealousy of others' success and the men of Rome did not grudge the women their triumph. To preserve the memory of it forever the temple of Fortuna Muliebris was built and consecrated.

This sentence occurs in Livy after Coriolanus had been forced to retreat: the great general had come to the walls of Rome, and his mother and wife convinced him to retreat, the men of Rome realised that the victory was due to the women who had gone to the enemy camp, despite great danger, and told their opponent to withdraw. That's the context of what Livy is saying here- and it is important to recognise that because we are talking about a traditional female role- the suppliant who persuades rather than forces retreat- and we are talking about an example of great courage. I need hardly remind anyone reading this that the consequences for these women could have been severe. Livy is therefore indicating two things in his admiration of these women- firstly that they behaved appropriately- in the way that any Roman matron should, like Lucretia they are serving their country through their example to men- but they are also courageous. Thats the first part of the paragraph- the courage of the women that the men recognise- but actually today I am more interested in the other parts of what Livy writes- the recognition and the form that recognition takes.

Let us start with the recognition of the women. When Livy uses the word triumph, he means something quite precise. Roman Generals of his own day held triumphs to commemorate great victories. In a sense what Livy is saying here is that courage is a public act- it has public ramifications and becomes part of a public story. This fits in with ideas we know Livy would have come into contact with- take for instance the first line of his great predecessor, Herodotus of Hallicarnassus's history (written about 500 years before Livy's). Herodotus says that the purpose of his history is "preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory". Livy would no doubt agree and so would his idealised Romans of the 5th Century, whose virtue Livy demonstrates through the fact that they recognise and preserve courageous acts. Memory here becomes a public virtue.

Not only does memory become a public virtue, it also becomes a religious virtue. They dedicate a temple to remind Romans in the future of the great deeds of Romans in the past. We have come across this concept already- when after the Battle of Lake Regillus the dictator Postumius vowed a temple to Castor. In part such vows are vows of thanks- Postumius's definitely fell into that category. In part also they are vows to memorise the events that the God is being thanked for: note Livy's language here, we are told that the purpose of the temple is to preserve the memory of the incident forever in the minds of men. In marble and paint the pride of the women of Rome is exalted and their position as the guardians of the Republic is proclaimed. Whatever we understand about the purpose of Livy's history we have to understand in this context.

History in the West has been tied to religion since the days of Augustine and Eusebius. I think though we can see in this passage the way that history in the ancient world is a religious as well as a instructive practice. History is religious because it is an art of memory- Livy's history is about the creation and support of good civic memory which both instructs yet also dignifies the characters of history. In this sense, when we read Livy we have to bear in mind that he is paying tribute to and creating a memento of his assumed ancestors. Glory creates the need for a historian to chronicle it- to endeavour to preserve the memory of Achilles and of the women of Rome who went out to petition Coriolanus. If we understand this, I think we get a better idea of one of the things that Livy's history is designed to do- unlike modern histories Livy wants to preserve the past as a religious and moral duty to the inhabitants of that past.

September 24, 2008

Freedom, Conflict and the State

Coriolanus became a major Shakespearian hero based upon his characterisation in Livy- but the character in Livy is interesting in his own right. He is interesting because the character is involved in a confrontation with the plebeians- a confrontation that takes the form of an argument about freedom. Coriolanus argues that for him to recognise the freedom of the plebs and the powers of the tribune is to make himself a slave (2.34). The plebs on the other hand think that his harsh policy offers them a false choice- a 'choice between death or slavery' (2.34). Coriolanus and the plebs exchange arguments about freedom.

The interest of this exchange lies in these two concepts of freedom. Coriolanus's freedom is his freedom to vindicate his honour- the problem is that his freedom includes the destruction of other people's freedom just to be. In a sense it is an argument that runs up to the present day. The problem is not that freedom is contradictory but that perceptions of freedom can contradict. I can see your freedom to choose as an insult to my position as a free individual- it is that feeling that leads to instability.

What Livy offers us though is not a normative view of the merits of these arguments- my own is pretty clear but Livy steers us away from such simplistic understandings of politics. For Livy the key question is the survival and the structure of the state- not the normative question of who is most free- Rome not Romans are the centre of Livy's attention. In that sense Livy is caught in a quandary and in a sense this is the meaning of Coriolanus's career: what Livy is interested in is whose freedom- the sense of honour that can only be redressed if others are kept down and kept inferior or the sense of freedom which demands equal rights for everyone.

Livy is uncertain- and his uncertainty comes not so much from a moral point of view as from a military one. Because as he points out, what happens is that Coriolanus defects and comes close to destroying the Republic, leading its enemies to the gates of Rome. From Livy's point of view, Coriolanus's victory 'indicated that the strength of Rome lay in her commanders not her armies' (2 38). The issue here is a dual one- Rome cannot afford to lose her commons as they staff her armies- but equally it is the commanders which make the armies special. That is ultimately the issue between Coriolanus and the commons- not an issue of right- but an issue of might- the question for Livy is what kind of freedom can stabilise the republic and because of the tension between the kind of armies Rome needs to levy in order to fight and the kind of commanders who can guarentee victory that puzzle remains problematic.

The issue is similar say to our arguments about homosexual marriage- with the Christians being Coriolanus and the liberals being the commons- but Livy's analysis is very different to ours. Rather than asking which argument is right, he provides us with a historical argument about consequences which presumes that the key issue is the continuation of the state. The heart of the issue here is that Livy cannot decide and by his account (which may be fictional, historians are very cautious about the career of Coriolanus), both the honourable commander and the free commons are indispensible to Rome's defence. The internal history of the republic could be seen as the attempt to reconcile the two in order for the city to survive: an attempt which culminated within Livy's own day with the destruction of the Republic.

September 23, 2008

Menenius makes his mark

The argument that the state ressembles the human body has a long pedigree: we ourselves perpetuate it by calling Queens and Presidents, heads of state. As an image it is incredibly versatile. One interesting variant is used in Livy to justify oligarchic rule by the senate by Menenius Agrippa- I think it is worth quoting in full before we analyse it:

Long ago when all the members of the human body did not, as now they do, agree together, but had each its own thoughts and the words to express them in, the other parts resetned teh fact that they should have the worry and trouble of providing everything for the belly, which remained idle, surrounded by its ministers, with nothing to do but enjoy the pleasant things they gave it. So the discontented members plotted together that the hand should carry no food to the mouth, that the mouth should take nothing that was offered it, and that the teeth should accept nothing to chew. But alas! while they sought in their resentment to subdue the belly by starvation , they themselves and the whole body wasted away to nothing. By this it was apparant that the belly, too, has no mean service to perform; it receives food indeed; but it also nourishes in its turn the other members, giving back to all parts of the body, through all its veins, the blood it has made by the process of digestion; and upon this blood our life and our health depend (II 33)

The first thing that is fascinating about this is the mechanistic way that it describes the body- as a machine essentially for the processing of food. Notice too that at the centre of that machine is not the heart- which we know pumps the blood around the body- but the belly which in Livy's view does not pump but produces the blood and nourishes it with food. The belly is also for Livy inactive- it does not convert food, it consumes it and transmits it around to other parts of the body. That too establishes a vast difference between how we see ourselves and how Livy saw himself- what for us is a mechanism performing various tasks is for him a mechanism which performs similar but distinctly different tasks. That conception of the body makes his idea of his own individuality very different- for a start what we see as a pump, he does not give any role in the physical process of blood transmission.

Notice too how this effects politics- if our metaphors for politics are bodily then the evolution of how we understand the body changes our understanding of politics. I'm not sure today that we would explicitly connect consumption in the same way to the ability to decide things- Livy did because of what he beleived that the belly did (or he thought it was plausible to do so because that is what he thought the function of the belly was). The metaphors that we use about politics and life are often extensions of the other sciences- the same functions in reverse as well- competition in the animal kingdom is not always conscious! The Livyan world is distinct from ours not just because of Livy's explicitly different moral, religious and political contexts but also because of his scientific and medical context. That provides him and us with the raw material to understand politics and the world through.

The second thing that is so interesting about Menenius's explanation is the way that it perfectly gets the advantages of the division of labour. I have no doubt that this is not a full explanation of the division- seeking for the roots of Adam Smith's philosophy in even Augustan Rome is a futile task of anachronistic idiocy. Rather what I want to draw attention to is the rational basis for an aristocratic government of the world. Essentially what Menenius is saying is not counter intuitive- though of course it may well be deeply incorrect- his argument is that some people are better at making decisions so let them do it. It may look like they make decisions for their own good- but that good filters down to every class of the population and were they not to do that, the state would fail. To some extent Livy agrees with him- afterall Menenius, Livy tells us, died having performed 'great' services for the commonwealth (II 34) and this episode is distinctly mentioned.

What Livy is not is a democrat- and if my last post gave you any such idea then I was wrong- what he is is a believer in constitutional balance. The point of this speech is that it reasserts a moderate position between the aristocratic hauteur of the senate and the mob feelings of the populace- it avoids the trap of oligarchy and that of Athens. In a sense therefore Livy's places this speech by Menenius deliberately at the end of his passage extolling the role of the plebs- he wants to demonstrate that he is no democrat, despite his sympathy for the small farmer in arms.

September 22, 2008

Social Strife

Livy likes to illuminate his argument about the Roman republic with illustrations. The moment where Livy really gets to the key of why the Plebeians demanded social rights and yet were a free and rational people (as he has told us Rome was). The point about this population though is that they had justifed greivances. Livy takes his starting point from a moment in a crowd: his lense is captured by an old man, with battle scars and who is enslaved by debt (II 23). Through that old man he gives us a moment which exemplifies the way he constructs an argument, he uses moments and particularly visual moments to tell us what he believes about the Republic. This moment he uses to make a point and the point here is about the connection between political obligation and military service. His argument is that this old man- and by extension all old men who have served and suffered- requires both political representation and is owed political obligation.

It is significant that Livy gives us a series of political opportunities for the plebs- whereby we see their real argument. The Patricians are not given any arguments- they just tell us that the Plebeians are a mob and need to be pacified- whilst themselves behaving like a mob. Livy is illustrating for us a fundamental principle that in a Republic those who serve the state militarily deserve the franchise. He puts the best argument for the senate into the mouth of a senatorial moderate- remember here Livy is constructing the speeches of his historical personages and putting them into their mouths- and gives that moderate the speech at the end of the night. The Plebeians acquire through what is effectively a strike from military service the right to elect a tribune to protect themselves from those who demand arrests for debts.

We should be careful about this- firstly that plebs and patricians meant different things as you went back into the past. In my view it is best to think of the class distinction as rough and ready and that is in the history that Livy tells us- which may not be the history that actually happened. Livy's history is conjectural, as he admits. The point about this story is the way that Livy demonstrates the connection of citizenship to military service- his model of republicanism is an extensive one in the circumstances of a free, smallholding community. It is significant that it is a small holder who is the victim of the creditors in this context- men driven off the land rather than soulless city dwellers. Livy's sociology identifies these individuals with the infantry that secures Rome's victories in war- the connection between agriculture, military service and the franchise is in Livy's view the basis for the ideal Roman republic. Even here though Livy's politics is unfailingly realistic- and his realistic judgement of the way that internal dissention can tear the state even to its own destruction is what makes his history so powerful.

On the one side we have a vision of the ideal conjectural republic, on the other the vision of it as a moment in time, rather than a static perfection. Livy may not have known the exact form of the republic- but what I think is so interesting about his descriptions of the first social conflicts in Rome is that Livy is both an idealist and a historian. The idealist identifies the features of the ideal state- the historian suggests in effect that it has never existed and its features have always been in flux.

September 21, 2008

The Legion


As Rome was threatened by the Volscians, it had to raise forces. Livy tells us that the dictator, appointed to solve the problem, raised ten legions in order to sweep away the Volscian danger (2.30). This is interesting- because it is the first time that I can recall Livy using the word 'legion' in his history. That does not mean that such things did not exist or were not in evolution earlier- nor does it mean that the legions raised by Manlius Valerius were similar formations to the great legions of the late Republic and early empire- indeed we know they were not. But it is important because it marks a change in Roman military history that had wide political repercussions. Early Roman warfare was cavalry warfare- based around the actions of a couple of notable noblemen- later Roman warfare was dominated by the infantry formation- the legion- and followed on Greek precedent with the phalanx of hoplites. The Legion and its ability to change shape, nature and also withstand heavy charges was the mainstay of Roman military success right up into the imperial era. We need to understand this change- and what precisely the legion at this point in the Republic meant for the citizen before we proceed to discussing the social turmoil that ran alongside the Volscian war.

Early Roman fighting I said was cavalry based. If we take Livy's accounts of battles between the Romans and others and look at them with an inquisitive eye, we can see Livy himself indicating this. There are Homeric encounters- particularly notable in this instance is the battle between the Tarquins and their allies and the Republic. Livy tells us that the armies came together along the battleground and that the son of Tarquin, Arruns, spotted Brutus in the front line of the Roman army- he cried 'Avenge O God of Battles this insult to a King' and charged the Roman consul who accepted the challenge and both 'drove clean [their spears] through their adversary's shield deep into his body' (2.7). The Battle of Lake Regillus is similar in type in that it sees great cavalry charges against particular leaders- we Tarquin Superbus (now an old man) charge Postumius the Roman dictator, Aebutius the Master of Horse charge the Tuscan commander Octavius Mamilius, Marcus Valerius was killed attempting to kill one of the younger Tarquins and Titus Herminius killed Mamilius at last. (2.19) Its one of the most exciting accounts of a battle in Livy- but it is all about charges, personal duals and the use and disposal of cavalry forces upon the field. Livy confirms this for us by telling us that the dictator- Postumius- vowed a temple as soon as the battle finished to Castor, one of the Gemini, and an individual associated religiously with horses. (2.21) The accounts of the early Roman battles in Livy therefore support an account of Roman military history that puts cavalry before infantry in the line of Roman development.

However by the time of Lake Regillius, it is already true to say that Roman armies had an infantry component. The army that marched to Lake Regillius was a 'powerful army of combined cavalry and infantry' (2.19)- if we do not hear of the infantry in the battle, their presence testifies to the development of infantry fighting underneath the account of cavalry charges at Regillus and earlier battles. But its only after Regillus, that Livy directly comments on the importance of infantry- and he does so in the context of social strife. I have described the accounts of earlier battles- compare those with their charges and personalised warfare to this account Livy gives us of a battle with the Volscians the year after the battle at Lake Regillus:

Verginus, the Roman commander, bided his time: he instructed his men to ground their spears and wait in silence, until the enemy were upon them. Then they were to be up and at them, using the short sword only, hand to hand. The Volscians had come on at the double, shouting as they came, and persuaded that sheer terror had fixed the Romans to the spot; by the time they were within striking distance they were already tired, and when they found they were met with vigorous opposition and saw the flash of Roman swords, the shock was as great as if they had fallen into an ambush. (Livy 2.30)

That description is so obviously different from how Livy described previous battles. Verginus the commander is not a hero here but a general- the soldiers are disciplined and instructed tactically to do something which they perform. We see no noble charges at other leaders- indeed apart from Verginus there are no other noblemen mentioned. This is a textbook infantry engagement from the classical era- and a textbook example of why infantry formations, strictly commanded and tactically aware, would beat a cavalry charge. By the Volscian invasion we have clear indications from Livy that this is how the Roman army was fighting all engagements- a slightly earlier engagement with the Volscians substantiates that conclusion:

One charge was enough; the enemy fled. The Roman infantry gave chase as far as it could, striking at the fugitives backs and the mounted troops pursued them to their camp, which, in its turn, was soon surrounded. (Livy 2.26)

The key thing here is the second sentence- the passage I have highlighted in bold. You would not use infantry to chase or charge unless they were the mainstay of your army. We are seeing here an army of infantry and light skirmishing cavalry who will follow the enemy's retreat- we are not seeing a classically Homerical army. Somewhere between the battle of Lake Regillus and the war with the Volscians, Livy decided that the way that Rome fought its wars had changed- cavalry had been replaced by infantry as the core Roman fighting force.

And that has consequences for Roman politics. I don't want to dwell on the indirect revolutions possibly caused by this change in Roman warfare. What I want to do is to show that some of the administrative changes that Livy suggests were happening at Rome were to do with this tactical evolution. The Servilian reforms, Livy suggests happened in the mid-sixth century, had divided Romans into classes and we have already seen created for Livy the situation which led to the Republic. It is neccessary to appreciate how these new forces were raised. The social crisis of the 490s reveals in detail what happened in order for the consuls to raise a new legion. The legions that fought the Volscians were adhoc forces raised by the consuls who would declare a need for men to serve. In some cases Livy suggests an edict was passed in the senate or proclaimed by a dictator (2.30), in others the consuls would take their stand on the tribunal and name individuals to serve in the army and call for volunteers (2.27). What we have to recognise is that in both cases- the state was subject to the whim of the populace- an adhoc army could only be raised by a popular government. A citizen was most likely to be engaged in war if summoned by his consul individually- something that could interrupt and even ruin him economically (2.23). Livy's approach suggests therefore that the nature of the legion changed the nature of Roman politics- citizenship became a matter of service within an army and as that grew in importance, so did the importance of the citizen himself by virtue of his service.

The development of the Roman army therefore is crucial in the Roman state. A last word of warning about Livy's history here. Firstly it is neccessary to remember that the legion may have shared a name but probably not a tactical awareness with the legions of the later Republic. Livy may well be transplanting back in time legionary tactics- like the use of the short sword- which were common in his own day. I would also be cautious about Livy's dates here- he himself warns us that chronology in this period is doubtful- but I see no reason particularly given Postumius's temple to critique his wider thesis that Rome's military organisation changed during the sixth and fifth centuries.

It is far more likely that the original legion, rather than being like an Augustan legion, was like a Greek phalanx- and that shouldn't dispel our impression of the social change that was consequent on this development- because we have the example of the Greek city states to verify that the creation of an infantry force, and the dismissal of an aristocratic cavalry force to the margins of warfare, had vast political and social consequences. Both timocratic Sparta and democratic Athens were the creations of the military structure that the use of hoplites enforced. The fact that there were several solutions to this problem, implies that determinism would be wrong- but it is equally wrong to say that the development of an infantry army did not have a large effect upon the state that developed it. To put it simply, the Roman Republic's peculiar history and constitutional form was in part a creation of the legion that defended it.

Dancing Nina


I promised Nina Simone's version of Mr Bojangles here a couple of weeks ago- listen this is beauty in words- she had the most amazing voice of almost any singer I have ever heard and I think this is her song as much as it is Jerry Jeff Walker's who wrote it or Sammy Davis Jr. who popularised it. The pity that she puts into her rendition, the sadness in her voice, the nostalgia- is the kind of thing that only the spoken word can capture. This is beauty captured for all time in a recording. The last movement- Mr Bojangles dance- captures the reason that I love this song as much as any other song I have ever heard. It captures that moment, the moment of performance, the moment of loss. Mr Bojangles really existed- he was a man that Jerry Jeff Walker saw dance in a cell- he wrote this song in his memory- but it exists as a testament to art and things of beauty wherever they live. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, said Keats- the lying poet, thanks to these words and Simone's beautiful delivery of them we get a sense of what we've lost.