April 21, 2009

Nails and Temples

Rome, in 363, was suffering from the plague. We have already seen that Livy ascribes the origins of theatre to this point in time. However whatever the theatre's importance for later Roman history, it failed to stop the plague.

And so when Gnaeus Genucius and Lucius Aemilius Mamercus (for the second time) were consuls, and the people's minds were more affected by their search for a means of appeasement than their bodies were by disease, the older men remembered (so it is said) that at one time an outbreak of the plague had been reduced by the dictator's hammering in a nail. Their anxiety prompted the Senate to appoint a dictator for the express purpose of hammering the nail: Lucius Manlius Imperosius was chosen... There is an ancient law, recorded in archaiac script and language that on the Ides of September the chief magistrate shall hammer in a nail: the tablet was fixed on the right side of the temple of Jupiter the Best and Highest, where the sanctuary of Minerva stands. This nail, it was said, served to mark the number of years at a time when there was little knowledge of letters, and the law was assigned to Minerva's shrine because number was her invention. Similar nails to mark the passage of time can be seen at Volsinii, hammered into the shrine of Nortia, an Etruscan goddess, so Cincus declares, and he is a scrupulous authority for records of this kind. (Livy VII 3)

This is one of the most puzzling passages in Livy. Much ink has been spilt over its importance for Roman magistracy in the early Republic (what precisely does the concept of a 'chief magistrate mean in a society ruled by consuls?) and some thoughts are sketched out here. I do not pretend to have the expertise to elucidate that: but what I do think is interesting about the passage and worthy of note is the way that it reveals Livy's historical method and his view of history.

Take for a start that the passage is clearly derivative: Livy tells us about two sets of sources, the first is a set of ancient writings, the second is the work of Cincus. I do not think that it is much of a leap to argue that it was Cincus not Livy who decyphered the ancient writings and that what Livy's history here is doing is relying on Cincus. There are several features that might suggest this- firstly the story is arranged out of sync with the rest of Livy's history, he mentions earlier events that might have fitted with an earlier year, one gets the feel of Livy sitting (as historians do) with a source he knows he needs beside him and writing down his thoughts. Secondly he writes in an anthropological vein- note the comparison of the custom in Rome to the Etruscan custom in Volsinii- again that is unusual for a historian who prefers political chronicle to anthropological chronicle. Lastly there is the fact that Livy, unusually, tells us the name of his source and praises his ability with the sources: one does not do that unless one seeks to rely upon the work of the person that you praise. More frequently Livy extolls piety and its worth noting that here he explains the piety of later ages rather than using it as an exemplar.

Livy's account of the nails opens up a Rome that the historian very seldom unfolds to us. Rome in Livy's account is masculine and warlike, rational and statesmanlike and calm. That is the Rome that he praises throughout the history- counterposing it to slaves, women, plebeians, those who feel but do not think and ultimately do not fight. This story though hints at a more interesting and complex history of Rome in which religion and irrationality play a part: in which a dictator is appointed merely in order to knock a nail into the wall. But it also makes explicit two things that we already partly know- that religious authority is linked to political authority and that religious authority mattered in ancient Rome. Both of those statements receive support from Livy's argument- but furthermore we can see in a sense that the point Livy is making embeds religion even more into the life of the city and into his own history. For effectively he is arguing that time itself was measured in religious forms within Rome: we are used of course to this idea what with the bells of the church and the AD suffix for years, but it is important to realise how important religion was to time in the ancient world as well. Whether Livy and Cincus were right about this particular custom, the fact that they thought they were right is important- it links time, religion and politics together and links all three to the city itself.

Livy's anthropological turn therefore does more than just providing an interesting anecdote, it also furthers the main point of his patriotic history: to establish Rome as the religio-politico centre of the Meditereanean world through emphasizing its aristocratic piety and favour from the Gods. This story demonstrates that the very vocabulary of the story of the history- the years themselves- are the swell in the tide of religion that swept through ancient Rome.