October 25, 2008

A Hint of Sicily


One other thing happened during the course of this eventful year: the Carthaginians- destined one day to be our bitterest enemies- crossed for the first time into Sicily to take sides in a local dispute. (IV 30)

It is pretty easy to guess why this isolated sentence comes into Book Four of Livy's history. He wants to indicate what is about to happen- and what several books later will become a theme of his history- the conflict for dominance in the Western Meditereanean between Rome and Carthage- a conflict that we shall obviously consider later. But for now, I think its more interesting to wonder about why Livy writes this- we know why he wrote it, but where did he come across the fact that Carthage was intervening in Sicily (a fact he tells us has nothing to do with Rome at this point) and decide to include it in his history. We know that Livy was interested in Roman historians and in senatorial records- but I would conjecture that what this extract reveals is that Livy was interested in another kind of history, which threw a light on what happened in Rome.

In the south of Italy and in Sicily for years a thriving Greek culture had developed. The earliest Greek colonies were founded at some point in the 8th Century BC. They had become important centres within the Greek world. The playwright Aeschylus spent some of his declining years in Syracuse and may well have died in Sicily and Sappho the poet may well have been exiled there from Mytilene a century before. By the 410s Syracuse was a major Greek power- and amongst the most important actions of the Peloponesian war was the invasion of Sicily by Athens- an invasion successfully resisted. So Sicily was important and was part of the civilised Greek world- which meant it was probably literate and probably had its own- now lost- histories. That would suggest that Sicilians recorded the event described in Livy- there is no reason for a Roman chronicler to have recorded it as according to the historian this event did not effect the Romans. So it would seem a fair assumption- that Livy took it from a Sicilian chronicler- but why was Livy reading things in Sicily?

Here I think we have something more important than Livy's warning to his readers- we have an indication of how he worked at early Roman history and about one of the non-Roman sources that Livy used. This argument is not conclusive- though it is backed by the scholarly introduction of the edition I'm using- but it would seem likely that Livy was reading Sicilian chronicles and probably southern Italian chronicles (where there was also a Greek culture) to learn about events further north in the peninsular. He must have grabbed this particular incident- the first mention of Carthage and decided to put it in his history. That would indicate that behind some of Livy's history lies the sources he mentions- the Roman historians, the records in the temples that we have discussed and of course his own intelligence as a historian- and behind other parts lies a hidden Greek influence from the lands Magna Graeca (southern Italy and Sicily). I say influence because it may have been refracted through other historians- that we do not know about- but somewhere at the source of some of Livy's history of Rome are accounts of the history of Sicily and southern Greece which mention, occasionally, events to the north and allowed Livy to realise the date of the first Carthaginian involvement in Sicily.

October 23, 2008

Cossus

Livy is not renowned for his irony or for his wit. But he has both- and he can use both destructively- both to write about and to write around tyranny. There is a wonderful example in the fourth book of his history, concerning a minor Roman hero Cossus. Cossus was a hero in a battle against other Italians- seizing their general's arms and striking down their leader. He was awarded the right of putting the arms of that vanquished general inside the temple of Jupiter. But Livy faced a real problem- a problem to do with the definition of the arms that might be placed in the temple- traditionally in his own day that was the consul's prerogative. Fair enough, you might say things had changed: but Livy faces another problem on the one side we have the ancient chroniclers and on the other the temple records, from the temple of Jupiter. But examine closer what Livy says about those records in the temple and we notice this important line- put in I'm sure by accident- that it was Augustus Caesar himself who found the name of Cossus with the inscription consul beside it, after he had renovated it, surely Livy says it would be 'sacrilege to deprive Cossus of so great a witness to his spoils as Caesar, the restorer of that very shrine'. (4.20)

What Livy then does is unfold every reason why Cossus could not have been consul in that year. Other records in Rome, held in the temple of Moneta, do not show him holding the consulship in that year. Great historians like Licinius Macer have followed them and how they got it wrong is, a lovely touch, 'anybody's guess'. We can't shift the date of the battle- as we know that Cossus's actual later consulship was many years later 'within a three year period in which there were no wars at all' (4.20). Three years later he did fight another notable cavalry action as a military tribune but that is an independent story- and then Livy finishes his account by noting that

In all this there is room for conjecture, though in my own view it is unneccessary; for one need hardly attend to other people's guesses when the man himself who fought the battle having laid his new won spoils in their sacred resting place, in the visible presence of Romulus and Jupiter to whom he dedicated them- awful witnesses whom no forger would take lightly- inscribed his name as Aulus Cornelius Cossus, consul.

Of course Livy wants us to conjecture- that's why he has included all the other evidence above- and he wants us to link Augustus's restoration of the temple to Cossus's distinction. All the sources point one way and a newly restored temple points the other way- faith in Caesar means that we must beleive the temple mustn't we.

I don't think for a moment that Livy believed that Augustus faked this inscription deliberately- there isn't much I can imagine Caesar gaining from such a forgery about a battle long gone. But I do think that Livy is making a point about tyranny. Augustus made a mistake- but because he made a mistake- presuming that the ancient writing must have referred to Cossus consul- everyone else in Rome must believe that Cossus was the consul when all the evidence and an earlier meticulous account from Livy suggests that he wasn't. We have everything on one side and the word of Augustus on the other- but it is impossible now in Rome to not take the word of Augustus seriously- even when it commits a forgery (perhaps an honest one) in the temple of Jupiter with Romulus watching on. Both religion and truth are here the servants of tyranny- history or our perception of it twists around the finger of the emperor and ultimately we must believe, because he has said so, that Cossus was a consul- even though we know he is not.

That little anecdote I think captures perfectly the dilemmas that Livy and later historians faced- and the mode that they confronted them with. For resistance to tyranny was accomplished both by Livy, and his later successor Tacitus, using irony. For Tacitus this became the chief tool of history- because he wrote about the imperium- Livy was writing about the republic so his tone was more celebratory but I think in this piece of writing we see what a Livyan history of the Principate might have looked like. It would have been ironic- it would have been aware of the way truth vanishes at the tyrant's throne and it would have been, in that sense Tacitean.

October 22, 2008

Farewell Topsails

Part of the BFI's great set of DVDs which hold British documentaries from the 1930s, Farewell Topsails is one of the shortest and one of the most impressive documentaries that I have ever seen. Humphrey Jennings makes a documentary filled with the haunting melancholy notes of the accordion which is itself haunting. In Jennings' own day the trade which ran out of the southwest was dying- the sail ships were being abandoned for motorised industry and steam (this was the world before Beeching when Britain's railways spanned the country in triumph). "Once there were hundreds" he tells us "but now there are only half a dozen left. The children have even commemorated some of them stone, in the nearby harbour... others are rotting away finished, they are gone and their crews with them." The sadness and gentleness of those lines represents the tenor of the entire piece- it may be short but it is poignant- and throughout it runs this line of accordion music, a thread which connects the ships to the sailors and to sentiment.

Sentiment may not be important- who am I to say. But this is a world that we have lost- a world that was passing as this film was being made- a world that cinema came just in time to capture- ten more years and the ships would have sailed for a last time and we would not have this monument to a type of life that endured for hundreds of years. Watching it inspired me with admiration for the skill that sailing required- the number of ropes and knots, the strength of the sailors and the majesty of the ship gliding upon the still waters of the Eastern Atlantic. Obviously there are reasons that this kind of life died- but that is no reason not to admire and appreciate its beauty. Amongst the saddest sights of Jennings' film is the sight of ships rotting in harbours, sailors standing by docks in hope that the age of Drake and Hawkins will return. Captain Dudley running the Alert is filled so Jennings tells us with the poetry of the sea in his soul- for him the ship is alive- a beast for whom he feels affection. It is a nostalgic film- but it portrays something that we will never see again that cinema arrived just in time to capture and that we need to see to understand something of the experience of those who came before us.

This film raises for me one of the strengths of cinema- I'm minded of it when I read James's excellent commentaries on early football- we are incredibly lucky to have these early documentary films- they are amongst the jewels of world cinema. We are incredibly lucky to have early films at all- we can see through them a little of the world that we have lost. Seeing is important because it can tell us things that the greatest book or fullest record cannot- it can bring us face to face with the faces of the past. When I see something like 'Farewell Topsails' I am catapulted into another era in all its immediacy- of course it was authored but it is still authentically from the thirties in a way that the best modern historical drama cannot be- and that gives me a sense of how close the thirties are to us and how strange they are. But it also gives me another sense which is a sadder one- because we stand in the first eddy of the cinematic and televisual age- our great grandchildren will see centuries back. Think of what we have lost- imagine what James could do with a film of football as played before the Association drew up rules in the 1870s, think of what it would be like to see rugby as played before Rugby. Watching 'Farewell Topsails' made me aware of something- this is a film about the decline of the sail but we have nothing from the time that sail was triumphant and dominated shipping- our vision of the past is limited.

I think part of that sense is amongst the reasons Jennings made this film- the commentary definitely suggests it. There is an attempt here to capture something before it dies- so that we can remember it. And I think it succeeds- eight minutes is too short- but this is a visual poem, composed of commentary, shot and music- the accordion plays us in and plays us out, giving it a musical rhyme. The poem though tells a story of how clay made in St Austell is shipped out to Glasgow and London- and how the means of its shipping is the sail boat for now- but how that industry is dying. The story is not the point- the point is the pictures of the sailors waiting on the docks, pulling down the sails and of the proud ships making their way into the night- both metaphorically and literally.

October 21, 2008

Lift to the Scaffold


The point about Lift to the Scaffold is that it is a film that could only be made in its precise time- it is a postwar film- made about the conflict between the old and the young and even more so between memory and forgetfulness. We open in one of the great scenes of French cinema- an industrialist sits at his desk, and is murdered by one of his employees- a paratrooper- who fought in IndoChina and Algeria. As the paratrooper- Julien- attempts to cover up for this murder, his mistress roams the streets of Paris trying to find him and two youngsters, having stolen his car, set off in it towards a motel at which they will eventually kill two Germans. The story may seem implausible at times- it all hinges on two elementary mistakes by the murderers- a rope left on a balcony and a set of photos forgotten at a shop- but it encapsulates important statements about postwar France and the relationships between youth and age, war and peace.

We have here a quartet of lovers- two in what must be their late twenties, two in what must be their late teens. Malle's observation of the difference between the two couples is acute- the teenage girl and guy are obviously worse matched than their older comrades. The younger woman is actually the most pleasant character in the drama- her boyfriend is a scoundrel without redeeming features. The two older characters are fatally damaged. She has married the industrialist Carala- an amalgam of establishment vices- who profits from war and devastation. He works for Carala- but was formerly a soldier. Carala's contempt for Julien is quite devastating- he calls him an 'angel'- he tells him that paratroopers are angels and mocks his virtues. Julien though has his darker sides- he is a ruthlessly efficient killer, quiet and effective. As for Moreau's character- she is single minded and possessive. Here we have a commentary on youth and age- but more importantly a commentary on the division between the twenty year olds who have been to fight and the teenagers who haven't. You saw it in the 1920s (something C.S. Lewis remorselessly mocks in the Pilgrim's Regress) that men who had not been to war felt that they needed to complain about it more, because they had not fought. Likewise the younger guy in this film seems to need to act the soldier, the brutal murderer, the protester against Algiers and Vietnam, because he was not there. The true face of the war is psychopathic, silent and efficient.

I think this film represents one of the many highs of Jeanne Moreau's career- as an actress she is perfect here. She holds the camera from start to finish with a fine expression of fatalism- but what really captured me was less her interventions in the actual action- she doesn't do that much in the film- than in her soliloquies. Moreau's character is lost for the majority of the film- lost in a labyrinth and attempting to find her lover- either to find him within the walls of mistrust that are built up after their plan goes awry or to find him once the law is closing in around him- once he is taking the lift right to the scaffold. Sherlock Holmes described Irene Adler as 'the woman' and there is a quality of that about Moreau in this film- she is incredibly able, able to disarm the teenagers and deal with the police. But what she is unable to do is to deal with the exigencies of fate- there she is lost within the labyrinth that her love has taken her into. Her love here is an animating force that dominates her- destroys her- it renders her mad, as ignorant to the realities of life as she is to the realities of the cars that race past her on the street as she wonders it searching for Julien.

Over the top of this film is the haunting music of Miles Davis- the music is perhaps itself a character within the movie and ties together the strands into a coherent whole. Moreau's character and the issues of war torn France become a unity which moves irreconcilably towards a close. What Davis's music symbolises is the innate corruption of French society- the society over which Carala presides. Even the police are here seen as corrupt or at least brutal- one of the most effective scenes in the film is a police interview with Julien which displays as well as any scene on film the terror of the tyranny of the state. Julien is surrounded by policemen, whirling around him in the dark, the light is focused on him and they keep on asking the same questions- again and again and again- not letting him relax. Superb cinematography, superb score and the image of encroaching doom combine to make that scene effective: but all of those also place it in the context of a plot where the war has moved from the foreign world of colonial territories, back to the home front where techniques learnt in Algiers, and practiced by the Caralas of the world to make money on the back of broken bones, become the normal instruments of justice.

This is a film with a political message- but its a message for its own times. We may forget how close Europe was to war in the fifties and sixties- watching a film like Lift to the Scaffold reminds us how close it- especially France- was. At the end of the film, the heroine proclaims that her pathological love for Julien will survive her old age- it is entirely true- she thinks she is proclaiming the endless nature of love, in reality she proclaims that the wounds of war and the pathology of the bloodiest century of the human era will be with us for a long time to come.

October 20, 2008

Livy's view of the death of Maelius

Spurius Maelius had, according to Livy, attempted to use food as a weapon to bring down the Roman Republic. The Senate appointed a dictator to bring him to justice- a dictator who happened to be Lucius Cincinnatus- and Cincinnatus managed to solve the food crisis, confiscate the grain that Maelius had stockpiled, and then he sent for Maelius. Maelius refused to come and was summarily executed by Servilius, who Cincinnatus had sent to take him to the dictator. Cincinnatus then addressed the people of Rome, who had supported Maelius. This speech is interesting- because what Cincinnatus was doing was describing the reason for an illegal act- the murder of Maelius- an act that Livy tells us that some tribunes had attempted to prosecute the perpetrator. (IV 16)

Cincinnatus makes an argument in the forum- that has a contemporary relevance for Livy (something we shall pass onto)- which justifies the action of Servilius. Cincinnatus tells the forum that that Maelius had not been killed for his treachery, for that he would have been tried, but for having 'used force in an attempt to avoid a trial' (IV 14). Cincinnatus goes further and attacks Spurius Maelius's character. He argues that Maelius was not merely a parvenu- but also inexperienced. Whereas Appius Claudius and others might have been rightly killed for their tyrannical ambitions- at least there was some justification in their lineage and acheivements for their high ambition. As Cincinnatus argues that 'He fondly imagined that we, who could hardly think of him as a senator without a pain in the belly, would endure him as a King... why the thing is not merely a crime it is a monstrosity' (IV 15). Cincinnatus's contempt for Maelius's ambition is partly based on aristocratic hauteur and partly upon the basis that Maelius had no desert for it. But the core of the argument lies in the suggestion that the system must be protected against the individual. Maelius's death fits into this ideology wonderfully, as his death was met in opposing the process of judicial inquiry, just as his own political career was devised to destroy judicial inquiry and replace it with tyranny.

Livy's view of this has a contemporary resonance- much of the argument that Cincinnatus makes against Maelius ressembles the arguments that Cicero had put against Catilina. The issues of the late Republic- ambition and its opposition to law- are the issues that Livy wants us to place in the forefront of our mind. Yet again Cincinnatus is here an image of the virtues of the old republic- respect for law, lineage and experience- as opposed to Maelius and possibly others in the more recent past. The 'Maelius' incident substantiates the thesis that there is a connection between tyranny and democracy- but it does something else- Cincinnatus's speech associates (what for Romans was a powerful association) the lineage and experience of the senate with the majesty of the law. In that sense- his speech both defines a kind of republicanism and defines it within a culture that is aristocratic and unequal. What Cincinnatus does here is define a aristocratic republicanism which runs through Livy's history. Because of the connection between the events of the past and present, we could guess that Livy perceived that strand running down even to the Principate itself.

October 19, 2008

Famine


Modern Industrial society seems impervious to the threat of food shortages: Amartya Sen argued in a famous paper that democracies in particular avoided famine much better than any other regime in the past. Because of this, we forget I think how important the supply of food was to states in the ancient and medieval world. The political system of a state in the ancient world could be grievously affected by issues surrounding the supply of food. Livy chronicles in his fourth book just such a moment in the history of Rome- and it does not take more than a shrewd guess (particularly given the unusual number of temples built at this time) to suggest that Rome during its social conflicts suffered from frequent problems with food supply. The Livyan example is interesting though in its own right.

In the consulship of Proculus Geganius Macerinus and Lucius Menenius Lanatus Livy tells us that Rome suffered a 'black' year 'in almost every respect'. As he suggests 'had war been added to the list of miseries scarcely by all the help of the Gods in heaven could the country have survived' (IV 11). Livy tells us that in this year a famine began- the first thing that is interesting about his statement is that he also tells us what he thinks its causes might have been, either a 'bad season' or that 'the pleasures of city life and the excitement of politics which had kept people from attending to their farms'. (IV 11) It is worth noting this in two ways: firstly because it demonstrates descriptively how Livy thought about famine- it could be the product of a moral judgement upon those that suffered it- hence in the end it could bring into question the actual basis of the city. Furthermore the idea that Romans faced famine because they spent their time arguing about politics- brings up in an ancient context a very real problem with democracy- it is, unlike most other activities, something in which the division of labour does not function and consequently it creates an issue with people's attention either being diverted from their job to be a citizen, or sleepwalking into disaster, whilst doing their job professionally.

Livy's discussion of the famine though goes further- and what he describes are the limitations of an ancient world state in confronting a terrible moment in its history. He describes the poor flinging themselves into the Tiber to avoid starvation by drowning. The problem for an ancient state in confronting this famine was two fold. Firstly as we learn from Livy, the methods they had of dealing with it were not really adequate. Lucius Minucius (appointed Controller of Supplies) went round neighbouring states attempting to get corn, he forced people to declare their stocks, diminished the rations for slaves and roused popular feeling against speculators (IV 12). But as Livy declares 'these inquisitorial methods did less to relieve the scarcity than to reveal its extent'.

There was a second kind of response to the famine- which brought into question the stability of the Roman state. Spurius Maelius, a knight, bought up stocks of corn in Etruria (which as Livy says stopped the government buying the corn) and used it to obtain a following in order to mount an attempt upon the crown. His 'generosity won their [the poor's] hearts and crowds of them followed him wherever he went' (IV 13). Livy tells us through the mouth of Minucius that Maelius had bribed the tribunes and assigned the mob leaders tasks (IV 13)- this comes from a senatorial source, and rather than accepting it, it is worth remembering what Livy said earlier about the poor and their food supply. Essentially Maelius got their support through distributing grain- and his political following was a consequence of his wealth and potentially his support in Etruria (Livy just a page before gave us an example of Rome supporting a faction in a town for its own political ends (IV 9-9), I do not think it implausible that Etruria was returning the favour by using famine as a weapon against Rome). Maelius's rebellion failed because a dictator- Cincinnatus making his return- was appointed and arrested and executed Maelius before he could gather his forces. But it is an interesting incident that reveals how vulnerable the Roman state was to its food supply.

Ultimately Rome was a society of a number of wealthy people surrounded by the poor- who were dependent on the harvest. We do not understand the dynamics of its politics unless we understand the problems that a bad harvest presented. As we have noted, the poor were the military strength of Rome's armies- numerically more various than the patricians. Of course the principle danger to the patricians lay in a strike from the poor when another state's army attacked Rome. But there was another danger- in a famine food became a means to control the populace- and as in the case of this famine if the patricians lost control of the food supply, they ceded the loyalty of the plebeians to the controller of that supply. Livy understood this which is why he believed that the revolt of Maelius was so severe- it also points out to me the advantages of empire- we see it so often as a negative, but the scale of empire permitted a politics which was not driven by the harvests in particular small areas. In the days of empire, Rome was supplied by the grain fields of Africa and Egypt- in the days that we are discussing here Rome's stability rested upon whether a harvest succeeded or failed- failure could lead to revolution and civil war- empire addressed that weakness.