September 17, 2009

The rewards of Empire

My last post about Livy focussed on the first Samnite War and what that showed us about Roman imperialism and Livy's understanding of the bargain between imperial subject and master. Livy argued that Capua did a deal with Rome: in exchange for protection from the barbarous Samnites, Capua gave up its independence to Rome. Thinking about that point involves Livy in making a couple of important claims about the nature of empire and the nature of soveriegnty. Sovereignty for Livy (as for many who followed him- Machiavelli the most important) is a function of military might. You cannot call a nation sovereign that is obliged to its allies for defence- in Livy's view few of the countries of Western Europe were sovereign properly during the cold war because they relied on American aid. Furthermore Livy would argue the military security offerred must be real: he describes how Italian city states gradually drifted towards Rome once they realised that it was the only guarentor of security in the Italian peninsular. The reputation of being able to provide security is a source in this case of power. However there is another side to this bargain- the imperial power must be able to protect and overawe its subjects, but it must also offer protection.

In that sense Livy once again is making a point about domestic politics and in particular contrasting plebeian and patrician politics. He tells us that in the aftermath of the first battles against Samnium, Rome had to choose between an act of policy that would have contravened the imperial bargain and one that would not. Livy locates the temptation within the army: he tells us that

Capua was even then a most unhealthy spot for military discipline, seducing the minds of the soldiers by all the pleasures it could provide, so they forgot their homeland and began to plot in their winter quarters how they could take Capua from the Campanians. (VII 38)


Livy's narrative here locates the temptation to break up the Roman imperial contract in an army of plebeians who suddenly become richer in their winter quarters and grow less fond of stringent marches. The tone of their complaint is unmistakable:

Why should the Campanians hold the richest land in Italy and a city worthy of the land when they were incapable of protecting themselves or their property rather than the victorious army which had expelled the Samnites by its own sweat and blood? Was it right that men who had surrendered to them should enjoy the delight's of that fertility when they who were worn out with campaigning had to struggle with disease ridden, arid soil outside Rome, or endure inside it the deep-seated evil of usury which went on every day? (VII 38)

However it violates the imperial contract- why would the Capuans back the Romans if they were not provided with protection. Livy ultimately links the Roman cause with the cause of imperial subjects against the plebeian army: I highlight in bold the word army above because I think Livy used it deliberately to indicate that this army beleived that it was higher than the Roman state itself. The point is that the army had failed to identify that the rewards of empire went to the state not to the individual citizen and that the imperial relationship would break down without the Roman army's commitment to protect any subject who appealed to it.

We have noted that Livy's history was patrician not plebeian and in a sense this is a further example of why it was such a history. Livy wanted Rome to behave as a reasonable imperial power- it could not rape and steal its empire's good with impunity for that would create tensions and problems. It could not behave as its own soldiers did outside Capua. Those soldiers were prompted by the kinds of demands that only plebeians might have- they wanted an easier life. Livy both understands that demand- it is part of his class analysis of Roman politics- and also dismisses it as a concession to luxury. Whether the argument is that the patricians, who eventually supress the revolt and save Capua, are more able to take a long view or simply more moral: the ultimate argument of this passage in the context of the speeches to the senate is that Rome's empire rests upon its ability to make the slavery of its subjects servicable and that in turn rests upon Rome's ability and its patrician's ability to control its armies.

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