May 07, 2009

Fathers and Sons

When Lucius Manlius was appointed Dictator at Rome he was hated for his harshness. Livy tells us that the tribunes plotted to bring down Manlius and in particular to use his son to do so. Manlius had sent his son away from Rome on account of the fact that his son had a speech impediment, he had forced him to do hard labour and to work in isolation 'practically in a prison or a penitentiary'. (VII 4). Amongst the leading tribunes accusing Manlius was a man named Pomponius. When Manlius junior heard of his father's plight though, he came to Rome armed with a dagger. He came into Pomponius's house, the servants believing that he came to aid their master destroy Manlius, but instead threatened Pomponius with death unless he swore to leave Manlius alone. Following this act, the accusations against Manlius petered out and the Roman populace respected the father for the son's sake and even elected the son to high office.

I suspect that this story may not be true- it sounds too picturesque to be entirely accurate- but it may be purposeless to enquire of its accuracy, we are hardly likely to ever be able to know whether these events happened. What I think is interesting though about the story is what it tells us about the attitudes that Romans had to parenthood. We see in this story competing values about parenthood emerge. Livy puts his own case for clemency towards the son through a rhetorical question: 'Should his father not have tried to help this natural infirmity if he had any humanity in him instead of castigating it and making it conspicuous through his persecution'. The question though betrays the anxiety which Livy believed motivated Manlius- the conspicuous disability threw dishonour upon the Manlian house and upon Manlius himself. Livy argues that persecution merely made such shame worse- rather than lessening it as 'helping' this natural infirmity might have done.

Disability was something to be ashamed of- but then so in this example is severity. It is worth also pointing out that Manlius's attitude towards his son came over into his attitude towards his state. Manlius treated Romans, like his son, as clay that might be moulded adequately or discarded. In this sense the story about parenthood which may sound quaint to modern ears is a vital revelation for Livy's audience of what Manlius was like as a statesman and why he should be criticised and possibly prosecuted. To treat your son like this and fail to ameliorate his problems, suggested that you would treat the state in the same way.

If Manlius's actions teach us a lot about his attitude to politics, then what of his son, what do his actions teach us? Manlius's son behaves with admirable pietas towards his father- this is the point at which Livy suggests to us that the son's love redeems and saves physically the father. Manlius's son also acquires honours through his actions- his physical imperfections are unwritten by his moral perfections. I think what is key here though is that Livy stresses the healing power of faith towards one's elders. In this sense the tale furnishes an example for parents of how not to behave and yet an example of unconditional childhood love that is supposed to redeem the parents. It is odd to consider in a culture where unconditional love is most often talked about flowing the other way, from parents to children, that Livy here talks about a situation in which unconditional love flows from children to parents (the love of the parent is conditional upon the success of the child in avoiding social stigma). The political implications of this are profound: if one links the idea of city or nation with that of father, or the idea of the ruling class with that of the father- I don't have time to explore the implications fully but it is interesting to find this tale nonetheless exploring that view.