October 05, 2009

Religion in Politics

During Book 8, Livy reports an incident that reveals both his intelligence as a historian, his credulity as a beleiver and his insight as an observer of politics. The difficulty for anyone in the modern world reading him is to separate out those three things- or to decide whether they are possibly separated at all. He reports that Annius, a representative of Latium, came to the Roman senate and insulted Rome, the consul Manlius turned to the statue of Jupiter in the senate and asked it to bear witness to the Latin insult. Annius insulted Jupiter himself in the tumult and left the senate. Livy refuses to endorse rumours that he fell down the senate steps, knocking himself unconscious, that as Annius insulted the Senate and the God, a clap of thunder broke in the sky. He mentions these facts but adds the rider that 'such things may well be true, or they may be invented as aptly portraying the wrath of the Gods'. (VIII 4)

Livy reports this, I believe, as is shown by his second sentence to demonstrate part of the art of rule that Roman rumours were part of. These things might have been 'invented' because they would aptly portray the wrath of the Gods- the Gods must be angry and how else could they be but by thunderbolt and bloody nose. But it cannot be an accident that almost immediatly afterwards Torquatus arrives on the scene and announces over Annius's body that the Gods have endorsed a war against Latium. Placing the incidents in the order that Livy writes them and with his expression of doubt, there may be an element of endorsement here for the strategy of using religion, divining the course of events to support the Roman state. On the other hand, Livy's doubt may be a throwaway expression- he does at another moment say these stories are 'almost certain' and Torquatus we are told, without qualification pronounces his sentence over the body of the stunned Annius. In that reading, this is a providential moment in Roman history. Or perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate: Livy wants us to admire the Roman statesmen who divined the act and supported the rumour as well as the Gods who vindicated their own honour.