November 05, 2009


One of the emblems of Rome was discipline. I think here it is worth understanding what discipline was: on the one hand it was the assertion of the authority of the state over its citizens, on the other the assertion of the authority of age over youth. The case of Titus Manlius illustrates both principles neatly. Titus commanded in his father's army sent out to battle the Latin forces, summoned in response to events discussed earlier. He rode close to the Latin camp as a scout and was accosted by Geminus Maecius. Insults flew and the outcome was that Manlius and Maecius fought a duel which Manlius won and took the body of Maecius back to his father, surrendering to the justice of the consul who had ordered the entire army not to engage before he had decided it should. His father's response is what interests me here though: the model up till now is familiar, a champion fights a champion for honour. His father's response carved out a niche which was to some extent Roman.

Manlius, the consul, told Manlius the son

You have respected neither consular authority nor your father's dignity; you have left your position to fight the enemy in defiance of my order and as far as was in your power, have subverted military discipline, on which the fortune of Rome has rested up to this day; you have made it neccessary for me to forget either the republic or myself. We would therefore be rather punished for our own wrong doing than allow our country to expiate our sins at so great a cost to itself; it is a harsh example we shall set, but a salutary one for the young men of the future. As far as my own feelings are concerned, they are stirred by a man's natural love for his children, as well as by the example you have given of your courage, even though this was marred by a false conception of glory. But since consular authority must either be confirmed by your death or annulled for ever by your going unpunished, I believe that you yourself, if you have any drop of my blood in you, would agree that the military discipline which you undermined by your error must be restored by your punishment. (Livy VIII 7)

Manlius the son was bound to a stake by lictors, and then executed as a common criminal.

The punishment, Livy tells us, caused a 'shudder' at the time (VIII 8) and there is no reason to suspect that the historian was not aware of its barbaric nature. But it is worth pausing over the consul's argument for it is an argument that reappears in Roman history and in Livy. The argument is basically founded upon a distinction between the public and the private. Manlius divides his personality in two: he acknowledges duties to his child as a private individual but tells us that his duties to the state as consul takes precedence. The second thing that is important here is the prominence that this gives hierarchy: the young aristocrat riding forth and challenging his enemy for honour's sake cannot be bound by hierarchy. Manlius the consul tells us that hierarchy is more important than a personal sense of honour. What we have here is a fusion of the state and the natural hierarchy of age, prudence and civil command. That must, according to Manlius the consul, be backed up even to extremis by actions- a father slaying his son- in other circumstances rightly deemed terrifying. The world may shudder but Manlius the consul operates with impeccable logic.