November 01, 2008

Military Service

The basis of Rome's strength as a city was her ability to mobilise her citizens in the pursuit of the objectives of the senate and people. War played a large part in Roman politics- and we have already seen influenced the contours of her domestic politics. As we come to the end of the fifth century though we see a massive change in Livy's history of Rome: in an act that Livy informs us proceeded from the generous heart of the senate, the Roman army was paid for its services for the first time in a campaign against Veii. (IV 59). 'The joy' Livy tells us 'at this innovation was unprecedented'. (IV 59). What instantly emerges though from Livy's account is the way that a paid army transformed the Roman state- Livy attributes the discussions and arguments about a paid army to the jealous passions of the tribunes (and there may be something in the argument that they resented the new popularity of the senate) but there is something else here that we ought to bear in mind when considering the change that this brought to Rome's position.

Firstly paying the army meant simply that Rome would need more money to fund its wars. The tribunes stated, in an argument to be repeated ad infinitum down to our times when the issue of tax arises, that the senate had merely been 'generous at others' expense' (IV 60). The argument has merit. The tribunes attempted to forment a tax strike- particularly as they argued it was unjust for veterans who had served before the change, when a soldier had to support himself on campaign, to contribute to this tax to allow their sons and nephews to have a softer time. Livy tells us that the senators overcame this by contributing voluntarily to the tax collection- but he gives us some idea of its size when he mentions that 'as there was not yet a silver coinage, some of them made quite a spectacle by driving to the treasuy with wagonfuls of bronze bars' (IV 60). What we are seeing here is a massive fiscal expansion of the Roman state.

Secondly paying the army changed the terms of service for men at the front. During the war between Rome and Veii, the Roman army camped outside of Veii during the summer and the winter. The tribunes were suspicious of this 'new idea of winter campaigning' and perceived a design to keep out of Rome 'large numbers of able men who are the strength of the popular cause'. (V 1). More interesting to us than this political conspiracy theory, is the answer of Appius Claudius the patrician's representative in the debate to the argument. For Claudius argued that the contract between the state and the soldier, the state and the citizen had fundementally changed: 'might not the state say "You have a year's pay so give a year's work"' (V 5). Appius's argument was simple- Rome was now paying the soldiers that it conscripted- they had no need to return to their farms to cultivate them if Rome paid them to fight. He mentions only to discard the notion of a 'mercenary' army (V 5) but then makes a further and more interesting appeal to the citizen as a citizen. Appius argues that the shift in military service benefits all because it benefits the state- he argues that such a shift makes Rome more powerful and more able to defend itself against Veii (V 5).

Whether this actually happened at the moment that Livy says it did is a matter that we cannot know- but I think the debate here is actually more interesting than the timing. What Livy demonstrates is that the shift from a volunteer unpaid army to a paid army has vast consequences for the internal politics of a Republic. It creates a great fiscal need that the state has to fulfill on the one hand and on the other it means that the state has much greater power over the soldier- and can demand more from him than before. In that sense it creates the state- it gives that organism much more power than it had before and allows it to project that power further. It does that though at a cost- for the tribunes were right, what the state had done was ultimately to deprive some of the brute force that the populace had to withdraw its labour. It is much easier to withdraw your labour when your income does not depend on it- by financing wars through taxation and paying soldiers, the state had made the Roman population less capable of resisting its instructions.

No matter on when that happened- that must have been a momentous change and one with great consequences for the future of Rome.

October 29, 2008

The Story of Marcus Postumius Regilensis

The story of Marcus Postumius Regilensis (which is probably untrue: Livy says that he was a military tribune whereas other writers mention him as a censor) is important in assessing Livy's understanding of the dynamics of popular politics. Postumius was, according to Livy, a commander in a further war against the Aequians. Postumius for Livy was an example not of great military leadership or poor leadership, but of domestic political folly. Postumius was, according to Livy, soon after his victory over the Aequi, stoned to death by his own troops. It is worth pausing over this event- disregarding whether it actually happened or not- and analysing for a moment why Livy believed that a Roman commander might be killed, in such a bloodthirsty way by his own troops. What according to Livy were the principles of the management of politics that Postumius had disregarded which led to his dreadful death?

When Livy introduces Postumius, he tells us that he was 'in some respects a bad man, though the defects in his character did not become apparent until the campaign had been brought to a successful end'. (IV 49). As is typical with Livy's technique- he introduces a character by giving us in parenthesis the indication of their later fate- it is a way of preparing us to read even his praise in a double edged way in order to spot this flaw. Thus for instance when he commends Postumius's 'great energy' in raising troops (IV 49) the reader is automatically drawn to consider what the inverse quality of great energy might be- these subtle strokes of Livy's brush have already painted for us a character, whose details we are searching for. What Livy establishes quickly though is the reasons for Postumius's instant unpopularity with the troops- he promised them the spoils of the town, Bolae, that they had captured, but refused to give them them (IV 49).

However upsetting your troops was a fairly regular occurrence according to Livy- what turned Postumius from an unpopular to a murdered commander was not necessarily his eagerness in offering his troops plunder and then refusing it to them, as his rashness when he returned to Rome. In the forum he announced that 'Unless my men keep their mouths shut on that matter, they had better look out' (IV 49)- Livy prefaces this comment by telling us that it was 'surely unworthy of any reasonable or intelligent person' (IV 49) and after it tells us that the senate and everyone in the assembly were 'shocked' (IV 49). The reason for their shock is presented to us by Livy through the words of the tribune Sextius, he responded to the 'heartless and brutal comment' (IV 49) by shouting 'Men of Rome... do you hear how he threatens his soldiers as if they were slaves.' and Sextius makes much of the 'gasp of horror' that the speech drew forth and then tells his audience that this is how the patricians think of them. (IV 49)

So we have the character sketch provided to us- the indications of great energy, the rash promise followed by the failure to fulfill, the rash statement in the forum- but Livy adds a last touch. When Postumius arrived back at his army, he was hated (IV 50). But again Livy presents us with an account of why he worsened the situation- a quaestor Sestius attempted to punish the troops and was unable to- Postumius

was sent for and made everything worse by his remorseless inquiries and savage punishments and at last, when the crowd had gathered at the cries of some wretched victims whom he had ordered to be crushed to death under a hurdle, he lost control of himself altogether, left the tribunal and ran like a madman to where the attempt was being made to stop the executions. The lictors and centurions were doing what they could to disperse the mob of enraged soldiery, but to no effect: such was the fury of the troops that Postumius was stoned to death- a commander-in-chief murdered by his own men.

I quoted the whole passage because I think it is important to realise how Livy's entire account has been building to this moment- from the moment that he tells us that Postumius had great energy, to the rash sayings in the forum, he wants us to get an impression. We have a steady build up or revelation of character- and from the first we know that the effect will be that Postumius will be revealed to be 'bad'. Livy's art here is of taking this single incident and unfolding to us the cause- or rather letting us discover the cause.

The art though serves a purpose. What Livy wants us to do is to see Postumius as a dangerous politician. Not because he is unable to command men or because he is cowardly but because he is unwise- and rash. We are shown that Postumius throughout lacks the ability to understand the consequences of what he is saying and evaluate those consequences- that Livy is telling us is fatal in a man in a political community consumed by conflict (any political community worth the name one might rightly think). The artistry reinforces the point- because Livy makes an argument through the unfolding events- seeking to display the connection between the 'great energy' of raising troops, all the way to rash promises, speeches and eventually actions and death. Postumius may not have existed- but he does offer us an example both of Livy's style and of a lesson Livy wants to teach about politics. The legacy of Postumius was one of division and suspicion (IV 50): this is important because it reminds us that these kind of actions (and not merely Postumius's hot blooded wrath but his soldiers' hot blooded response) kept the poison of faction from being dissipated.

Livy therefore uses this historical episode to show us something- that temperament in a politician is a key indicy of success. Postumius could have survived had he been a sober patrician- his death was attributable to his rash thoughtless actions and those rash thoughtless actions had an after effect that poisoned Roman politics.

October 28, 2008


Throughout the period that we are analysing within Livy's history, Rome was fighting several Italian cities and tribes. We shall turn to its successes and failures in a future post- though your blogger confesses that his interest does not lie as much in military history as in its constitutional consequences. But military victories led to results outside of Rome, that early on confronted the nascent Republic with a challenge of both government and of political strategy. What was the attitude of Rome to conquered peoples and even more importantly to conquered territories? The problem that Rome confronted was dual- firstly that Rome was 'originally founded upon alien soil' and 'had hardly any territory but what had been acquired in war' (IV 48) and the second being the more central and perplexing issue of maintaining control over these areas.

The first issue gave rise to great political quarrels- which for the moment we shall leave. The second though ran alongside it. Often Rome conquered territories that were not close to the city itself- were beyond the territories of Rome's allies and were in parts of Italy that would not enable people to return to Rome easily. The standard ancient way of dealing with this problem was to found a colony- a city made up of citizens from another city which would ally itself with the other city. Famous examples of colonies included places like Massilia and Syracuse in the Greek world- and one is tempted to think that the practise spread (like so much else from southern Italy). Of course not every city stayed allied to its mother city- Corcyra fought in the opposite side to Corinth in the Peloponesian war for example- and mostly they were very independent of their mother city.

Romans though saw the use of following this method- founding strategic colonies in the north of Latium to resist the Etruscans. They also reoccupied old city sites and fortified them after victories in war. Labici went to war with Rome alongside the Aequians in the 5th Century. Roman armies victored over the Labician armies and the senate 'passed a resolution to send settlers to Labici and 1500 people left Rome to settle there, with a grant of about one and a half acres each' (IV 48). One can see the attraction of leaving immediatly- the grant of land to the settlers was enough to make it a worthwhile cause for the poor- one can also see the dangers, the settlers in Labici were swiftly attacked by the Bolae and Aequians (IV 49) no doubt a testiment to the wisdom of their arrival. The Aequians interestingly enough did the same thing in Bolae (IV 49). We often think of the Roman empire as a provincial institution- but actually in the early days, Rome extended its territory by founding colonies which guarded hinterlands and positions.

In a sense this throws into relief an important thing to remember about early Rome- she was neither an empire nor a world power- but a central Italian city state, struggling with others. One of the ways that she did this was sending out excess population- that she could not provide for- to colonise places that her armies had conquered and driven the previous inhabitants from. In a sense, the impression Livy gives- and I think there are good reasons based partly on the availability of records and stories about the foundations of towns to beleive him- is of a great chess game across Latium being played by various powers sending out colonists. The relationship between these colonists and the mother city is not something Livy discusses much at this point- if there is a point at which I believe he is being coy, it is here, there is enough evidence from Greece to suggest that colonies took an independent trajectory at times.

The point I am making here is not that stunning- but it is important. We cannot think of the early Roman environs of being like the later ones- we have to think of Rome as a city state with allies and colonies rather than an empire with provinces and territories. Once we see that, we begin to understand the kind of political environment in which early Roman foreign policy operated- and also that one of the causes of the Republic's early social problems was (if we are to beleive Livy) the question of the distribution of land within these new colonies.

October 27, 2008

Roman religion

Men's minds fell sick as well as their bodies; they became possessed by all sorts of superstitions, mostly of foreign origin, and the sort of people who can turn other men's superstitious terrors to their own advantage set up as seers and introduced strange rites and ceremonies into private houses, until the debased state of the national conscience came to the notice of the leaders of soicety who could not but be aware in every street and chapel of the weird and outlandish forms of new prayer by which their hag-ridden compatriots sought to appease the wrath of heaven. Then the government stepped in, and the aediles were instructed to see that only Roman gods were worshipped and only in the traditional way. (IV 30)

This passage within Livy's history demonstrates two central truths which dominated the history of Roman religion. The first is that Roman religion was influenced from abroad- who knows what 'foreign' customs Livy is talking about here. Influences came to Rome from Etrusca- where for instance the custom of lictors proceeding before Kings came in and some of the other 'Roman' customs arrived from. Many religious customs in Rome- the Sibylene prophesies for example- have even their professed origins as coming from abroad. It does not seem extraordinary to me to see that Rome borrowed and was borrowed from in a commerce of religious ideas that went throughout the Italian peninsular following the paths of trade and war. Of course the paths led south as well as north- we find the Romans borrowing Greek customs too. The story of Romulus and Remus has its antecedents in Greek myth- and even the entire idea of various Roman Gods- Apollo most importantly- came early and from Greece (according to Professor Burket at least.) This trend carried on through Roman history- the cults of Isis (Egyptian), Mithras (Syrian), Christ (Palestinian) and many others remain visible in the historical record to demonstrate to us the cosmopolitan nature of Roman religion: it is even visible in the worship of the Emperors themselves- a process that Tacitus tells us started in the Eastern Provinces and then came to the Imperial city.

Alongside this continuous process of religious adoptation of the ideas of others- and the adoptation might be philosophical too witness the Stoics- the Romans felt a deep anxiety about the corruption that these cults introduced. This passage reflects that anxiety. In particular Romans suggested that adopting the new Gods might lead the citizens to abandon the old ones who had served Rome well. Such new rites could often have a distabilising effect on individual lives- akin say to the fear about scientology today- an ancient Roman might see the Orphic cults of Greece as promoting sin, moral decay and leading young men and women astray. Livy's language with its warnings about the exploitation of the superstitious by those who set themselves up as 'seers' comes from that tradition. But the broader anxiety was focussed upon the very nature of the Roman republic- when Rome absorbed all these customs and ideas from abroad, how Roman did Rome remain? But this cultural mix flowed from Rome's engagement with and importance in patterns of trade and warfare that it wished to dominate- in which case without this fertilisation from abroad, the Republic risked becoming static and ultimately declining.

This tension at the heart of Roman history lies at the heart of Livy's history, it is a tension familiar to all imperial states. The tension lies between the idea of the imperial heartland and its importance as a centre- and the fact that in order to continue to govern its territories successfully, it has to absorb, observe and ultimately sympathise with them. Rome's destiny as an imperial state was eventually to sublimate the history of the city within the history of the empire- that is the heart of the revolution that Livy did not see- wherein the principate changed to an imperium- but Livy was already aware that Rome itself was becoming less Roman in his own day and that it had made its way in the world through adoptation and expropriation rather than purity. The Aediles stepped in to make sure Roman gods were worshipped alone- but how did they tell which were the Roman Gods (afterall almost all would have been influenced by foreign customs) and furthermore they were evidently not successful, as Rome was.

Machiavelli once said, commenting on Livy, that Rome as a republic forsook stability for expansion- the passage aboves testifies that this was a conflict that was alive in the minds of Romans like Livy- even if it was resolved in favour of expansion eventually.

October 26, 2008

Burn after Reading

The future of Hollywood comedy has sometimes seemed unsafe: the terrible teens (American Pie et al.) or Eddie Murphy's latest atrocities seemed to reduce comedy on the silver screen to a matter of masturbation and massicating. But as C.S. Lewis once said, to every Sophist a Socrates is raised, or words to the same effect- and if the last years of the 20th and first years of the 21st century showed us plenty of examples of how comedy should not be done: then the Coen Brothers have provided us with a couple of examples of how comedy should be done- including their latest film, Burn after Reading.

Burn after Reading is about a CIA agent, who gets sacked, whose wife is in bed with a friend that he doesn't like. His wife steals his financial records to get an advantage in the divorce she is planning- but the lawyer's secretary manages to leave the CD containing them and other semi classified material in a gym- where they are picked up by an instructor who is dating the wife's boyfriend, and who with the help of another instructor goes down to attempt to sell these records to the sacked CIA agent and the Russian embassy. Got that? Or rather don't worry if you didn't- this has a plot that goes round in circles, up and down, and always provides another surprise. Quite simply it is in the best tradition of absurdist Hollywood comedy- sitting alongside His Girl Friday for example- both for the complexity of its plot and the intelligence of its dialogue.

Ultimately its the characters that mean you don't care that you lose the thread of Burn after Reading. They are brilliantly realised- and brilliantly absurd. Whether its John Malkovich attempting to get his revenge on his wife, dressed in a dressing gown, or Brad Pitt dancing to his stereo in a car in his suit- the characters, their actions and the actors are all perfectly aligned. If anyone has seen Pitt make a better movie then I'd like to see it- this is the kind of performance that gets Oscars. These characters are completely mad- but also completely beleivable. Another Oscar winning performance potentially, in my view, comes from Frances McDormand (amongst the best actresses in Hollywood), playing a thick gym owner who thinks she is on to the Da Vinci Code and can finally sell it to get a breast implant. Tilda Swinton is cold as a knife, George Clooney can't resist agreeing with anything in a skirt to get them into bed, and as for J.K. Simmons's part as the head of the CIA- I'm not sure there are many parts with so few lines and so many laughs in the history of cinema.

There is not a great message here- but it is wholesome comedy. Unlike Norbit say, the jokes actually run on a great truth about the human condition- we are a bit lost. We don't know what we are doing- as the CIA chief says at the end of the movie, lets not do that again, fuck knows what we did. He gets something pretty true though- the point about this film is that noone is particularly guilty- noone is particularly innocent. Everyone is muddling through and end up where they end up, thanks not to some supernatural evil plan, some genius of mendacity or even moral failure- but because they are idiots, like we all are. We can laugh at them- but we also or I also could see myself in them. I think that's what made it so funny- yes its amusing but despite the absurdity, it is also true that human beings muddle rather than plan through life.

As you would expect this is dark humour- you listen to the lines and think as the actors say them, this must make sense and realise quickly that it doesn't. There are some fine satirical touches- a wonderful plastic surgeon for example and an amazing dismissal introduce McDormand and Malkovich's characters. Partisans for divorce lawyers will not be happy and there is a scene in which Swinton confronts a difficult child with all the impatience of a busy doctor at work. But it is the absurdity that keeps the film going and the tremendous energy- this is not one of the Coens' best films by a long shot- but it beats most of the competition hands down and is well worth seeing. There isn't much to analyse- but there is a great deal to enjoy and if you have an empty evening- I'd fill it with this.