December 13, 2008

Dictator: Marcus Furius Camillus

Livy tells us immediately that Rome 'stood at first by leaning upon its chief citizen, Marcus Furius Camillus' (VI 1). What he means by that becomes evident very quickly- the Romans appointed Camillus as dictator and effectively handed him control of the Republic. This office had an ancient and important pedigree within the history of the Republic and it is important to understand why Livy thought it was necessary. In my view the case of Camillus illustrates this importance and provides an illustration of how Livy saw the Roman republic meet a political situation, common to all regimes, which might destroy the Republic. We can best understand the situation and the resolution if we understand the situation in which Camillus was appointed dictator and the consequences of that appointment for Rome.

The Gallic invasion had consequences which were not merely domestic- but international. Rome, Livy tells us, was, as a consequences of its fall, 'held in contempt' even by its allies (VI 2), its enemies the Volscians beleived 'that all their [Rome's] young men were wiped out by the Gauls' (VI 2). We should not lose sight of the political implications of that sense that Rome was weak. Livy tells us of three concrete consequences- and implies a fourth. He tells us that the Latin allies of Rome decided to seize back their autonomy, that the Etruscans gathered together to discuss invasion and that the Volscians decided to invade (VI 2). Rome's allies, Sutrium for example on the border with Etrusca, were threatened by armies. Rome herself was under threat from both the north and the south. This was at a point when Rome herself was depopulated: some citizens having died in the wars against the Gauls, others defected to the neighbouring city of Veii (where they did not need to rebuild their houses but could occupy vacant ones). As soon as the strategical situation eased, Rome sought to recover the citizens who had moved away and extended grants of citizenships to others (VI 4): before that though her resources of man power were low. The strategic situation was dire.

One might well ask though why that situation impelled one to select a dictator. Firstly as Livy is very aware- politics is a matter of perception, of signs delivered to others about your intentions. Secondly we need to understand that Livy and others did not believe in a Republic, because they believed that extraordinary merit amongst its citizens could not be found. Rather Livy did agree that some citizens had extraordinary ability- and at this point in time, it is quite evident from his account that he saw such ability within Camillus. Merely appointing an experienced and able general to the dictatorship had an immediate effect, Camillus was able to suspend laws and conscript those not normally conscripted (VI 2), the appointment threw the Volscians into 'panic' and he relieved and recaptured Sutrium from the Etruscans (VI 2-4). That was partly the effect of his generalship- Livy mentions several of Camillus's strategical ideas having a real impact (VI 4), but also it was the effect of Rome sending a signal- that it was committed to warfare. In a sense what Livy describes- and the way that he describes Camillus's techniques of reanimating the Roman war machine- is the effect of morale on warfare.

This problem is a textbook problem within early modern and ancient philosophy. It is normally called the problem of necessity- in some sense as Geoff Baldwin has argued, it underlay the crisis of 1641 which led to civil war in England. What Livy describes is a situation that threatens the state- and his remedy to that situation is to suspend the slow acting constitutional processes and appoint a temporary dictator, that appointment both sent a signal of the seriousness with which the state took the crisis and delivered the best leadership in the current crisis. Its flaws as a system are easy to perceive- Gaius Caesar and Cnaeus Pompeius were to be dictators- but we need to understand, if we are to comprehend the reasons for the later crises, the reasons why the office was instituted. The wars of Camillus provide us with a textbook case of how the institution worked and why it was brought in: they are thus an illustration of the way that a dictator might contribute to the survival of the state.

December 12, 2008

Top Banana in the Shock Department

Breakfast at Tiffanies- the story not the film- is a bleak encounter with the modern world. It is a work that could only have come from the pen of someone who knew small town America and left it: the small town America whose heroes and villains were made epic by the author’s great friend, Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Truman Capote does not focus so much in his story on what small town America did and would do about race- as about what the city did and would do with people- especially the young woman at the heart of the story Holly Golighty, traveller. Capote’s interest lay in the fact that this self described ‘independent’, like her tom cat a roamer with no home, finds modern society both the source of her dreams and the source of her inability to find them- like a diamond from Tiffanies, the modern world glistens and is cold.


Holly is a wonderful creation- in my fairly wide reading experience I do not think I have come across a woman so delightfully sexual In the whole of literature. She is a courtesan but no whore- having as she tells the narrator only slept with eleven men (not counting those before she was thirteen or the man she married when she was fourteen!) But she is incredibly seductive- our narrator ends up bewitched and as readers it is hard not to either be bewitched by this charm, this insouciance that proclaims that it hates snoops and mixes irreverently between languages and the cool speech of upper new York- ‘top banana in the shock department’ indeed! But charm is deceptive- throughout this novella, Holly is in trouble and part of our affection and that of the narrator for her is the affection of chivalry and protectiveness- a protective chivalry that on his part is misplaced because he no more than her is caught up in a process of society- the urbanisation of America.


Holly is a creature of anonymity- she is deliberately vague about where she has come from, deliberately vague about where she might be heading. She is introduced to us by the revelation that she might be in Africa. Throughout the novel, she is always moving. We find her in South America, we find her in Los Angeles, in New York and in Texas- as a friend of hers says ‘you don’t know if she’s a hillbilly or an Okie or what?’ We discover though what Holly is- she is like a bee, searching for the perfect flower- searching for a scent of home. She dwells in constant movement both because she is attracted by the prospects opened up to her as a citizen of the world, and because she cannot find a village to be a city of. She seeks a home- but she seeks a perfect home, rejecting what her mothers might have accepted- marriage to a dull Texan who wants her to bring up his dead wife’s children- but longing for the perfect home. It is the fate that the world has opened up to most of us- not by the way a condition of women alone but of all humanity who face a world in which we seek to find the perfect familiar in the strange.


How achievable is this vision, is this dream? Truman Capote faced the same issues as Holly Golighty- he like her was an immigrant from the small town to the big city, from the stultification of simplicity and solitude to the scary city with its boundless possibilities and opportunities for destruction. What Capote gives us is a vision of survival- it’s a vision of how to survive in this world of danger- of besetting problems. Golighty is both naïve and sensible- in the first lies her appeal and her craft, she inspires others to protect her and help her. Its what makes men give her hundreds to go to the powder room. And yet, and yet, she also knows her value- she is cynical enough to know the going rate to go to the powder room- and a suitor who sees her as a naïve little girl is in for a nasty surprise (as we see in her entry to the story proper when she reminds a retreating suitor who took her home that she won’t have sex with him and what’s more, she thinks that he is cheap!) Don’t think that that combination of naivety and cynicism is only sexual- it isn’t- it applies when she gets arrested, involved because of her naivety in delivering messages to a gangster, but cynical enough to know that noone will care if she just runs away- avoids bail and that whilst in New York, it might damage her reputation, no-one will know in Brazil! Ultimately Holly is wiser than our narrator, a penniless narrator for whom art is the thing, for Holly everything is interesting but ultimately only dollars can feed you.


Seeing Holly as a creature of sociology enables us though to see something else. What Capote exposes is the insecurity of living in a world of strangers. We have to trust others- of course- and normally that works. For Holly it does more often than not- and though perhaps she has to trust in her line of ‘work’ more sordid individuals, she finds as we all do that human beings are generally rats but only rats when they actually have to be. What Holly understands is that this nature of humanity makes us both vulnerable and safe in the world of the city- we are vulnerable because ultimately anyone can walk away from us, they can find a new friend, a new associate, a new partner- but we are secure because so can we. Anonymity is a loss because it is a loss of permanent relationships- a loss of permanence- but it is also a gain because relationships which do not work, the man who bites during sex classically for Holly or the selfish flatmate can be left behind like the flotsam and jetsom they are.


Modernity and its most basic condition- the great and teeming city- have bred a new kind of human relationship, farewell the chain of custom and everlasting friendships, welcome the fleeting felicity of closeness followed by forgetfulness. Whatever you think of that movement and that moment, it is a sociological fact, bred not so much by any moral change as by the growth of the great cities of the modern world. Holly Golighty is a heroine of the Jazz Age- she is its spirit and the age is not over- the music goes on and we choose and change partners as we will! That as Capote reminds us is neither good nor bad necessarily- it has good and bad aspects- but it is a change and its one that will dominate our era, and change the nature of our relationships in ways that really will be top banana in the shock department. The process began with Holly, quite when it will end or if it will reverse or what form our societies will finally take is anyone’s guess.

December 11, 2008

The Dubrovnik Renaissance

Dubrovnik, port and entrepot sat on the boundary between the East and the West from the split of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. Such a position as Venice was to find to spectacular effect was incredibly lucrative- but also as Zdenka Janeković-Römer explains in a recent article in the Dubrovnik Annals it facilitated cultural exchange between the East and West, smoothing the way for Greek culture to spread throughout Europe and becoming a centre for the idea of the reunion of the Church and the reconquest of the Balkans in the late Middle Ages.

Dubrovnik originally had been part of the Byzantine Empire. But as the empire began to fall backwards- particularly after the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204- the city began to take an independent course. In particular its history was shaped by the decision to convert not to Greek Orthodox Christianity but to Latin Christianity. However just because it followed a different confessional faith from the Byzantine Empire, as we shall see, it still maintained links with Constantinople. In particular its trading links survived- both with Constantinople with which Ragusa had trading links right up until the 1450s- and with the Greek successor despotic states with whom trade agreements have been found into the 1460s. But it is its cultural links that here we are interested in because Dubrovnik's cultural links both were part of a political and ecclesiastical agenda and were part of a historical process connecting the East and West.

The cultural links that Dubrovnik developed with the East were largely through the reabsorption of the Greek language by the elites. What you see are that cultured men had to know Greek as well as Latin- though translations were faulty, they still existed and notable authors like Hesiod and Isocrates were translated in Dubrovnik, with the translation of Isocrates in particular still important today. Greek texts were also important as they came out of Dubrovnik: we owe our text of Athenagoras's Apologia to scholars in Dubrovnik who maintained it. Ptolemy's Geometry was another document whose Western provenance is owed to Dubrovnik's scholars. No less a Western scholar than Erasmus himself used manuscripts preserved in Dubrovnik in his edition of the New Testament published in the early 16th Century.

This cultural efflorescence based around the Greek language was secondary to a political purpose. From the mid 15th Century onwards, the politicians and priests of Dubrovnik faced an incredibly harsh and severe threat, the Turks. Having conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Turks were not merely an insult to Christendom but a threat to the maritime republic. From then on, the Ragusan Republic sold the idea to the West of an attempted reunification of the Western and Eastern Church. They argued for a conciliar approach to church reunification- and sought to maintain the links between East and West. Of course, as we know, the conciliar approach was rejected by the Papacy, and historical tensions between East and West made reunification impossible.

So the real achievement of the Dubrovnik renaissance lay not so much in a Balkan reconquista- as in a cultural renaissance. The citizens of the republic published and translated Greek texts, provided a centre for philhellenic scholars from the West to find texts from the East and led both to a cultural flowering in the city (the translations and original productions in ancient Greek were acheivements in their own right) and contributed to the rediscovery of Greek literature and language in the Latin West.

December 10, 2008

Leo Abse

A biography from the BBC that is well worth watching of Leo Abse, former Labour MP, who died recently. Well worth a watch- though it will be only up for a week.

December 09, 2008

Milton's Birthday

WHAT needs my Shakespeare, for his honoured bones,
The labour of an age in pilèd stones?
Or that his hollowed relics should be hid
Under a stary-pointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou, in our wonder and astonishment,
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
For whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath, from the leaves of thy unvalued book,
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took;
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble, with too much conceiving;
And, so sepulchred, in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

John Milton was born three hundred years ago today. This is what he wrote about Shakespeare. The thing is that it is as true of Milton as it was of Shakespeare.

December 08, 2008

The secrets of the new foundation

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

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

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

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

December 07, 2008

Fire and destruction

The history of the Romans from the foundation of the city to its capture, first under the Kings, then under consuls and dictators, decemviri and consular tribunes, wars abroad and dissensions at home, I have set out in five books, covering matters which were obscure both through their great antiquity, like objects dimly perceived in the distance and because in those days there were few written records, the only reliable means for preserving a memory of past events. A further reason was the loss of most of such accounts as were preserved in the commentaries of the pontiffs and other public and private records when the City was destroyed by fire. From now on a clearer and more reliable account can be given of the City's civil and military history, after it made a second start, reborn as it were from its old roots with increased vigour and productivity. (VI 1)

The first paragraph of Livy's sixth book introduces two important themes we need to consider before moving on to the meat of the book. Livy was a textual historian- his understanding was based on written materials because, as he says here, they were 'the only reliable' means for preserving the past. Therefore Livy's historical abilities were limited- by the fact that his hindsight went back as far as the history of literacy and the extant record. That is true of historians today: history is tied to writing. What Livy faced therefore was a project in the early sections of his book of reconstruction: we are looking at an assembly of fragments into a coherent whole rather than a construction of a whole out of the material of evidence. All historians do something of the first- I have heard historians of the modern world claim that ancient history is more difficult precisely because it involves more of the first type of inquiry. We live with limited means and like Livy any inquiry into that distant a past, where records are scant (today we are worse off than Livy was in terms of the written records for the period). Part of Livy's frustration is that he is forced to rely upon an oral tradition that he considers intrinsically unreliable- he is forced to tales of family history and to fables about the Roman past- and we should not see that tendency stopping with the Gallic conquest and retreat- but rather stopping much later, when Rome's history starts being written.

If that process of a change between reliable written and unreliable oral history- in Livy's view- took place later than this passage implies, then why does Livy suggest it took place earlier. What I think is going on here is that Livy wants to set a second beggining to his history- this paragraph functions as an announcement to the reader. Here, Livy is saying, begins the history of Rome as it can be written. Before this, there was obscurity- but here we have the state that will turn into an empire and into the empire that you and I know. That marriage- expressed fundementally through the character of Camillus, Rome's second founder for Livy, is something that is central to the ideology of Livy's text. Its centrality informs this discussion of the historical record- before this we had a fire and have no records, after this we have records. Livy's point may be based on historical occurence- however no archaeological suggests there was such a fire and we know other Roman historians found documents running back into the fifth century. The key fact here though is less about whether Livy was right about the fire- uncertainty in his history continues after this for a long time- but about the point he wanted to make. Here on in, the story of Livy's history is about Rome's advance- through the conquest of the Samnites, the wars with the Etruscans, the Greeks in the south of Italy and eventually the Carthaginians and the conquest of the world. We have a bracket- on the other side of it is the primitive and distant past about which nothing can be said- on this side is empire, the rise of Rome, the rise of civilisation and the written record.

Livy's ideological purpose therefore gives colour to his discussions of the limitations on his historical enquiry. This third foundation of Rome is a moment at which Livy beleives that the continuous history of Rome down to his day begins.