November 08, 2008

Non-combatents at Falerii

Falerii was conquered by the Romans shortly before the Gallic invasion which concludes Livy's story. Its conquest though is worth pausing over for a minute because it gives us an idea of what Livy (and his audience) thought were the laws of war. Falerii was surrounded by Camillus. Having been surrounded, we are then told by Livy that a school master to the senior men of the town took his charges for strolls of greater or lesser extent.

One day he saw his chance for a longer stroll than usual and took his young charges right through the enemy camp to Camillus's tent. (V 27)

The obvious consequence was that Rome for a moment held important hostages and could have potentially forced the surrender of the city, but Camillus refused to do so. Rather he addressed the schoolmaster,

Neither my people nor I, who command their army, happen to share your tastes. You are a scoundrel and your offer is unworthy of you. As political entities there is no bond of unity between Rome and Falerii, but we are bound nonetheless and always will be by the bonds of a common humanity. War has its laws as peace has, and we have learned to wage war with decency no less than with courage. We have drawn the sword not against children who even in the sack of cities are spared, but against men, armed like ourselves.... These men, your countrymen, you have done your best to humiliate by this vile and unprecedented act: but I shall bring them low... by the Roman arts of courage, persistance and arms. (V 27)

Camillus thus sent the schoolmaster and his charges back to the city- the boys whipping the schoolmaster as they went. The citizens of Falerii were so impressed that according to Livy they surrendered the city immediatly to the Roman commander.

As ever who knows how true this story is. But the important point is not the story- the capture of Falerii was not a world changing event- but the point that Livy seeks to make through the story. Camillus here represents the ideal Roman response to the position he was placed in. The ideal Roman response was to reject the offer- for two key reasons. Firstly and this is important to understand, this story illustrates the boundaries of Roman doctrines of war. It demonstrates that Livy and his audience thought that children should be excluded from war as a matter of course. Secondly it illustrates the degree to which such strategems were thought to be opposite to the kind of courage that Livy and Camillus see as a political virtue. The laws of war set out expectations for each side and thus allow both to anticipate the other's moves- the arts of war are the arts of courage- and can be united in the adjective Roman because of this. War takes place in the open.

Lastly it is worth noting that Livy attaches a reward to following these laws. Good behaviour produces good results- this is very notable in Livy's discussions of religion as well. You do the right thing and you are rewarded for it. In this sense Livy's conception of morality- something to follow which is right and will give you success- differs from some modern understandings of morality where you do something because it is right and irrespective of whether it delivers success. In that sense we are closer to the medievals than the classics.

November 06, 2008

Quantum of Solace


Watching the most recent James Bond film, I wondered about something. Lets put some things to rest immediatly: Daniel Craig is the best Bond since Sean Connery- or possibly Roger Lazenby. He is neither a comic turn (Mr Moore take your bow) nor a pale imitation of a comic turn (Brosnan). There are other reasons to welcome 'Quantum of Solace' to our screens- it is no Casino Royale. The first Craig Bond film was much better- but it is also shorter than Casino, whose last half hour dragged. The story is confused. Some parts are hardly developed at all- Gemma Arteton is required to do stern, orgasmic, confused and lastly naked dead and that's the sum total of her part. The story, taken seriously as political analysis, is something that Umberto Eco would love to deconstruct: this is Foucault's Pendulum for the visual age- replace the Illuminati or the standard villains of second rate thriller writers like Dan Brown with the modern spinners and political businessmen and you've got the picture. And yet there is a good film in there somewhere.

What the film has is darkness. Bond is a sadistic killer. That should come as no surprise- it is his job afterall. But its something worth reminding ourselves of. The old vision of the secret services as places of sadness, distrust and depression, so visible in Alec Guiness's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People (both fantastic serieses), is worth cultivating and its hinted at here. Bond is a man who has decided, after the death of a girl he loves, to forget about human emotion and live only in the vicarious and vicious second. He has become a secret agent- and as Smilley would think that kills. However this darkness is not given context- again I compare to Alec Guinness's performance. For with Guiness you saw the sadness drip off the man like the grimy rain falling around him: you saw him for what he was, an old man, bent below the wind. Bond is younger- but in this film you don't feel the inner torment- he is even allowed to act for the good side and in a sense, the justice of his cause makes him a less not a more interesting character.

That's the issue with this film ultimately and its something that makes it an example of what doesn't work in modern cinema. Ultimately the film falls down not on special effects (of which there are plenty of good ones), not on actors (Mr Craig can act- as can Miss Kurylenko and Dame Dench) but on dialogue. In order to have a good film, you need a good script. The problem is that these guys can't write a good script. Bond could turn into one of the classic flawed heroes of cinema- here even the Bond girl has almost been written out- Bond beds Miss Arteton but in a half hearted way, and then goes on to kiss but not bed Miss Kurylenko. The film makers have intelligence- they are happy to reference other Bond films in the past- when Miss Arteton lies dead on her bed, naked and covered in oil the reference to Goldfinger is obvious. When Felix Leiter returns, the indications are clear- these guys know their Bond. But dialogue is vital in order to turn that intelligence into something worth watching and listening to- it is the rail on which the actors hang their performances.

This film you see brought me back to a genre filled with flawed heroes- film noir. There is a reason that Quantum of Solace cannot compete- it could with its actors, with its effects- but it cannot so long as the dialogue remains this poor. Even a story can be incomprehensible (Raymond Chandler had no idea who did one of the murders in the Big Sleep) though it helps to be comprehensible- but you have to earn your right to be intelligent and more often than not its the words you use that earn you that right. There are exceptions of course to every rule. But here I found myself wondering about whether directors start from a script or from an action choreography, I would love the former, I regret to say I fear the latter is true. Quantum of Solace isn't a bad film- its enjoyable and a perfectly pleasant way of losing a couple of hours- but there is so much more that could be done with the flawed Bond and with these performances. Get a good script, sort out a good story and the rest will follow because of the quality of the people involved.

The film is no failure- but neither is it as successful as it should be- if Bond films are going to be, as both Casino Royale and this demonstrate, more than a Carry On Franchise, they have to be judged by the standards I would expect of any other film. Quantum of Solace meets the criteria for one of the better films of this year- but it will not be remembered as a great film and nor does it deserve to be.

November 05, 2008

History or story

There is an old story that while the king in Veii was offering a sacrifice, a priest declared that he who carved up the victim's entrails would be victorious in the war; the priest's words were overheard by some of the Roman soldiers in the tunnel, who thereupon opened it, snatched the entrails and took them to Camillus. Personally I am content as a historian, if in things which happened so many centuries ago probabilities are accepted as truth; this tale, which is too much like a romantic stage play to be taken seriously, I feel is hardly worth attention either for affirmation or denial.

When Livy says this, he marks an important distinction between himself and another kind of tale about the past and also he establishes that that kind of tale is one of his sources. Livy's reliance on stories to tell him about the Roman past should come as no surprise- the texture and colour of his narrative is about character and character survives, not through the kinds of senatorial and consular records that Rome might have had of its remote past, but through stories, passed down through the ages. Now Livy in my view understood that such stories had a value- he did not dismiss them but used them within his narrative to flesh it out- and prized the faculty of memory rightly as something that can pass something of the truth down. But he distinguished between what he did and these stories.

That's the next interesting judgement for us to make- what distinguished Livy's art from say a storyteller's art was the distinction that Livy draws immediately in this passage- between the romantic theatre episode and the true history. True History involves everything that the story does- but it involves more- it involves what Livy does to the story- he changes it. He changes it through the agency of reason, through the agency of an assessment of probabilities. He does not merely repeat, but he evaluates. And he evaluates against a standard- not of what will entertain but of what will educate. This difference is key- because is the difference between a student and a story teller. One evaluates a story by reason of its entertaining status- the other suspects entertainment as something that might be embellished- for him it is the detail, the little incident that doesn't fit that sounds credible. Its here that Livy establishes for me his reputation as a historian- not in the decision to include stories but in the decision to reject.

We have a historian here not a folklorist. There are many virtues to a folklorist- but amongst them is not the virtue of being a historian- why should we evaluate someone by that standard who has no wish to be so evaluated. Livy though is not a folklorist- he uses the products of the folklorist, the singer of songs, but evaluates them and places them in his narrative because he believes them to be true. He even places those in his narrative he believes to be false in order to present his reader with a fuller picture. The King of Veii never probably had his sacrifice stolen from him in this way- it would have been a picturesque detail- but Livy the historian sacrificed it on the altar of attempting something else, history.

November 03, 2008

The uses of a Fiscal Bonus

In the dictatorship of Camillus (c. 396 BC) Rome finally captured its great rival Veii. Livy tells us that Camillus recognised immediatly that the city 'would yield more in plunder than all the previous campaigns put together' (V 20). Even if we discount Livy's words as hyperbolic, Veii was still an impressive capture and an important one for Rome- and not merely in strategical terms. It was an important city within the Etruscan confederation. Rome had had to exert new fiscal and military strategies- including a paid army which served all year- in order to put down its rival. But they also confronted Rome with a new problem- a problem that Camillus recognised that even as dictator he could not deal with- the problem of a sudden amount of plunder. As he beseiged the city- he sought advice from the senate about what to do with the plunder he might acquire.

There were two positions within the senate. Livy makes us privy to the arguments. It is noticable that the typical Roman position which had focussed on the land that they had conquered was not amongst the position in the senate- wealth not land was the key to the importance of Veii within domestic Roman politics. The first position, identified with Publius Licinius, was that Rome should invite its over taxed people to go to Veii and strip the town of its wealth- they should earn the plunder as a 'real relief' from the vast taxation that they paid. (V 20). In opposition to Licinius, Appius Claudius argued that the money should be taken into the Roman treasury and 'the money should be used for paying the troops. Every family would feel the benefit and city idlets would be prevented from laying greedy fingers on a prize that should go by rights to men who had fought bravely for their country'. (V 20). Eventually the senate decided to go with Licinius- fearing the anger of the population if they took Appius's course (V 21).

Whether they were right or not is something that is difficult at this distance to say. But what I think this debate throws into relief is the continuation of a modern issue. To be provocative, as my title indicates, one could argue that Rome had received an unexpected fiscal bonus: the state was suddenly rich with expected plunder. The question between Licinius and Appius was what to do with that bonus- whether to grant it as a direct gift to the people or to use it to reduce taxation in the long term. What we have here is a debate about the distribution of this good- whether it should go to the classes paying the taxes, or to those who were most likely to go to plunder the city. In a sense this is a debate about the distribution of fiscal bonuses- and it is perhaps the most modern thing I have yet seen in Livy. The modern state is a state which collects taxes- as soon as you have taxes, you have issues about their distribution and something which approximates to modern debates about the way that the state's finances both are used and are paid for. This fiscal bonus indicates a 'modern' facet to Roman politics which was directly related to the development of taxation and to the development of war.

As President Eisenhower might say, the military-industrial complex had arrived in ancient Rome with all its issues- that we as moderns are familiar with.

November 02, 2008

A function of Religion

Mostly readers of this blog will live in states where religion and politics are separated- either by law (as in the United States of America) or as in the UK de facto. Even those who wish for a more religious source for modern law do not share the outlook on religion which shaped the experience of the ancient Romans or the medieval or early modern Christians. When we seek to understand the past we have to understand the different functions that religion had in the past as opposed to our present. Our religions- in the West (and I include the Middle East in that west) are largely monotheistic and based around the action of prayer- they have public manifestations but they are also private, about the individual's relationship with God. In the ancient world, that was not as true or rather the public aspects of religion were stressed- and perhaps here our religions have become over time more individualised (a process that has produced both fundamentalism and liberalism in religion). That strays from my point- which is this different nature of religion in the ancient world- we can see that different nature if for example we examine Livy's discussion of religious observance in Rome in the early 4th Century BC.

The period immediately after the introduction of the taxes I described in my last post resulted in Romans being subject to huge costs. But they were also harsh periods agriculturally. Livy describes a terrible winter which was so cold that Rome was cut off as roads and rivers froze and became impossible or difficult to pass along. (V 13) That was followed by a summer of unprecedented severe heat- which caused or helped to cause in Livy's view a plague, 'neither human beings nor animals were immune' and the disease was 'incurable'. (V 13). This came alongside a series of military defeats- against Veii and others- Livy has the tribunes refer emotively to the Romans seeing 'our battered troops stagger in fear and disorder through the city gates.' (V 11) The Tribunes' statement gets at something that we have to recall- the effects of defeat or plague were not seen on a television screen from thousands of miles away, reduced the dull whirr of the set and the correspondent's voice, but realities, visible and imminent for every citizen of Rome who watched his neighbours die, who could not get grain from his farm and saw the troops come home in disgrace.

In this sense, the words national calamity have a real meaning- and Livy leaves us in no doubt as to what the response was. The senate consulted the Sybillene Books of prophesy- but more interestingly they also created a new ceremony. 'For the first time in Rome, the ceremony of lectisternium or the draping of the couches' was performed. (V 13). This ceremony took the form of three couches been left outside in the open air for the Gods to stay on. Livy informs us though of something like a carnival atmosphere in Rome at the time- 'a similar ceremony' was performed in private houses (V 13) and friends and neighbours were invited in and entertained. Viands were left out for whoever desired and men invited even their enemies to dine with them. Moreover the prisoners, held by Rome, were released from their chains and ultimately allowed to remit their sentences. What we see here is a spasm of religious fervour which allows a society to rebond together after calamity- a response to the disasters.

But the response went further- in this heightened atmosphere various religious signs were noticed by the Roman citizenry- in particular the Alban lake rose. The Romans, Livy tells us, were wont to rely on Etruscan soothsayers- none of whom were in the city at the time to consult and so sent a mission to Delphi. Also though two Roman soldiers came across and kidnapped an Etruscan old man who seemed to be a soothsayer- interpreting the plight of Rome's armies at Veii as being indicated from heaven (V 14). After the mission to Delphi had returned and confirmed the old man's interpretation, the soothsayer was 'held in the highest esteem' and he was employed to direct the Romans in ways to appease the Gods- the leading magistrates in the Republic had to resign and replacements had to be elected as their appointment had been done illegitimately (V 15), games were celebrated and the Alban lake drained- as Livy comments- these steps having been performed 'the doom of Veii was at hand' (V 20). I mention this not to ridicule the Romans but because it emphasizes how important religion was within the Roman polity and how political it was. Political office was tied to religion and political success tied directly to the will of the Gods.

This faith of the community is something that Livy himself believed in: Rome would be prosperous so long as it kept faith with its Gods and performed their rituals in appropriate ways. As historians, it hardly matters to us whether the sequence of events that Livy described happened exactly as he describes- what matters I think with this story is the mentality it uncovers. Firstly it suggests that religion functioned as a civic safety guard. One of the things that is noticeable throughout this tale is the stress that the Republic was under and the way that the population were emotionally supported through the use of their religious ceremonies. The cathartic carnival atmosphere of the day of the draping of the couches springs to mind.

Furthermore and secondly these ceremonies gave them reasons why they had failed- a bad winter and a bad summer could only be the product of the will of the Gods and could be solved. It promoted a constructive outlook on bad fortune which served the state and people well- in that sense religion was a useful psychological mechanism by which the Romans could understand their situation and move forward. It was also deeply empirical- after all errors were always likely to be made or be remembered in religious ritual. Lastly and probably most terrifyingly, religion could propel people to the front of politics incredibly quickly- the old man that the Romans had captured became a significant figure within the Republic because he seemed to hit upon a practical method of assuaging the fears of the commons. This had revolutionary potential in times of crisis- it suggests that religion at this point could perform the function of explaining popular distrust in their leaders.

The function of this civic religion was important within Ancient Rome. There is a last element to this which is that stories such as this reinforced a sense that Rome would survive- that Rome was blessed by the Gods. We have to understand this civic function in order to understand how the Roman state managed to survive- of course other cities in Italy no doubt at the same time had similar beliefs and the Roman state's survival against them had much to do with other factors- luck, favourable situation, skill etc.- but if we are to answer some important questions like how did this state or other states like it endure through plague, famine, misfortune and defeat then part of the answer is to be found in religion. Livy indicates this whilst also believing in it- we don't have to believe it, but we do have to understand it and keep it as a background if we are to understand Roman history.