September 19, 2009

Timing Issues

This was also the time of Alexander the Great... who was destined to be cut off by sickness in another part of the world. (VIII 3)


Livy puts this comment into the middle of Book 8 but says almost nothing else about Alexander the Great. Mentioning Alexander at this point exposes something about his thinking and that of his audience. The first is that it establishes his chronology- as though for example I were to describe the discovery of certain ideas of quantum mechanics as occuring just before or just after World War 2- it locates what he is describing. In that sense, what Livy's locator gives testimony too is the centrality of Greek history to a Roman understanding of the past. When we think about the way that Roman elites thought about politics, we should never think about Roman history alone but also the Greek comparison. Perhaps this is clearest in the work of Plutarch, a Greek, who wrote accompanying lives- one Roman, one Greek- but this reference exposes its relevance for Livy. Writing a history of Rome, Livy wants to fix it to some familiar dates in his readers' minds- one set of well established and familiar dates are the Greek dates and events- hence we see Alexander the Great arrive on the scene very briefly.

September 18, 2009

The dangers of Empire

Livy's approach to empire through looking at the First Samnite War highlights both the ways in which imperium can be justified and the ways in which dissention from the city's sphere can boil over into the imperial sphere. But Livy, in addition to being a theorist of empire and the contract that underlay it, was also keenly aware of what empire did to a state's external relations and ultimately fortunes. The relationship between domination and success was, in his view and that of modern historians, far from simple. The best example of Livy's subtle treatment of this theme comes at the end of the First Samnite War. The Samnians had sued for peace and the Romans rewarded them with it (VIII 1), however the Samnians were still at war with another group within Italy, the Sidicini. Despite the fact that the Sidicini appealed to Rome and were rejected, Rome's allies- the Latins and the Campanians announced that they would support the Sidicini against the Samnians (VIII 1). Rome's allies committed themselves so far as to draw up a large army and oppose the Samnians on the field- at which point, understandably, the Samnians came back to the Romans and asked them what kind of a treaty was it that permitted a war to continue (VIII 3).

Livy's description of the Roman response is interesting. Despite the fact that the Romans were in no way responsible for their allies' decision, he shows that they were unable to say that they would not protect their allies:

To this plea, they [the Samnians] were given an ambiguous reply; for the Romans disliked having to admit that they no longer had the Latins under their control, and were afraid of provoking them to disaffection if they censured them. The Campnians they said were on a different footing because they had come under Roman protection by surrender, not by treaty, and therefore should maintain peace whether they wanted it or not; but there was nothing in their treaty with the Latins that enabled the Romans to prevent them making war on anyone they liked. (VIII 3)


Notice that the Romans clearly divided two groups- the Campanians whom they had recently rescued who had to follow Roman policy and the Latins- who were their allies in a confederation that Rome led. This latter group provided an informal foundation of their empire but in this case the informal empire threatened to drag the imperial centre into quarrels it wished to have no part in.

What this episode suggests and the fact that both Campania and Latium went to war with Samnium afterwards, is that external policy as much as internal dissention could shake any dominant power. The Romans for their own reasons did not want war- their fellows in Campania and Latium did and ultimately were determined enough to go to war without the Romans. That faced the Romans with a dilemma, either acknowledge the loss of Campania and Latium and fight with the Samnians to regain them or to let their subordinates lead them. In a different sense what Rome discovered during the First Samnian War and what Livy brings out is the difficult nature of imperium: we tend to think of empire as a simple relationship- the imperial centre gives orders, the provinces follow- but actually it is incredibly complicated. The provinces can lead the centre and their different relationships to the centre govern how far the centre perceives itself to have sway. By entering upon even the small dominance and empire that it exerted at this early stage, Rome did not close down Italian politics: she merely transferred the languages of politics and transformed the balance of power within that politics.

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.

September 14, 2009

A Great American passes


Norman Borlaug died on September 12th 2009. No newspaper or blog I read covered his death. But in a sense Borlaug's acheivements stand on a par with anyone in the twentieth century: it is quite possible that he personally saved more lives than almost anyone else. What Borlaug did was to work methodically and industriously on one of the greatest problems to confront the world in the mid-century: how to create a strain of wheat that would survive in the third world. He managed to cross various varieties of the plant, to breed types of wheat that could survive in almost any conditions and to sell those both to Mexico and eventually to India and Pakistan. The consequences of his revolution were phenomenal: in Pakistan between 1965 and 1970, wheat production doubled, India turned from a net importer to a net exporter of food. According to the New York Times about half the world's population goes to bed every night having eaten something that Dr Borlaug and his colleagues invented- for that acheivement he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I could annex all this to an argument but I think that would do a disservice. I don't really know enough about Dr Borlaug nor about his methods to make a sensible case: what I do know is that on September 12th a great American passed away, its my hope that in the laboratories and universities of the world we see his like again.

September 13, 2009

Some things memorably considerable in the conditions, Life and Death of the ever blessed and now eternally happy Mris Anne Bovves

Of all the multitude of sins in the English civil war, one that still hits home is bad poetry- take this from a hagiographical pamphlet dedicated to Anne Bovves and published in 1641:

Never fleshe lesse fear'd to dye
Nor soul fled more cheerfully

The rhyme does not work and the rhythm of the two lines is completely distinct. However as a means to close off the pamphlet the sentiment is right. The argument of the pamphlet is about Anne Bovves's religious leanings and the way that she died. She was born in 1598/9 and died at the age of 41 in 1640. She appears to have been unmarried, living in close congress with her brother and his family (like one imagines many single women of the time) who fulfilled her as far as a social life goes. Apart from that we know very little from the pamphlet about Anne Bovves- the writer rather than going into the particulars of her life includes some generic compliments, we get praise of her faithfulness, modesty, pity, gratefulness, business, forgiving nature and much else of the same tint- leading of course to a commendation of 'the excellence and sweetnesse of her naturall disposition'- but that does not tell us much about who Anne Bovves was and why we should remember her.

The reason I think for this is that the writer, whoever he or she was, of the tract is less interested in Anne than in Anne as an example of a religious life. In that sense all those conventional epithets make sense- you could tie them to Anne but equally they are things anyone could acheive. Hence I think it is interesting to look at the latter part of the pamphlet in which the writer defines Anne's religious practice- both the writer and Anne have a particular position within the theological struggle of the seventeenth century and reading what the author says about his subject allows us some access to what a normal person might be expected to do if they were a puritan. The first thing that we should note is that Anne was not, as modern commentators (and not historians believe) averse to 'Musick, sportings and divers Christmas solemnities'. She also took dreams and indications from the almighty seriously- in her last days her conviction that she would go to heaven and was redeemed by God was confirmed by the vision of a 'white sheet or a large foure square linnen cloath... let down to her by cords from heaven'. Anne's religious nature accepted both dancing and dreams.

The tone of the pamphlet's description of Anne's religion places her for me into the puritan side o the debate. She was 'for certain inwardly and ardently most religious', a 'severe judg of her selfe: a dayly weeping and broken-hearted penitent: never satisfied enough in the strength of her faith, measure of repentance and sufficiency of charity'. Priests in the pamphlet are called 'ministers'- something Archbishop Laud had striven to drive from the English language. Anne's religion was scriptural- 'it was very ordinary to hear her pray, and most joyously to sing whole Psalms in her sleep'. She clung to her sense of the mercy of God and the promises of 'her dear saviour'- the rhetoric as always in the seventeenth century is physical and has a sexual overtone: the writer includes an image of Anne with her arms clinging to Christ's body. The writer himself compares Anne's suffering in her final illness subtly to that of Christ's temptation in the desert- she like him suffers for 40 days before she acheives redemption and death. The tone of the pamphlet is about piety and puritan piety at that (the latter observation is the more uncertain one) and it drives the reader forwards to her or his own salvation.

Religion for Anne and for the writer thus was scripturally focussed and inwardly motivated. Anne attended Church services of course- but no minister is mentioned in the body of the text as providing her with sustenance. It is scripture and the teachings of her own conscience which confirm Anne's religious nature. We tend to think of puritanism though as an exclusive creed- exclusive of merriment on the one hand and superstition on the other. Such an understanding, in Anne Bovver's case is clearly wrong: she did not assail her brother for dancing but seemed willing to attend an occasion where it was on the agenda. Neither did she reject the influence of dreams. The key part of her religion was her relationship with God- conceived through the idea of Christ physically carrying her up to heaven- and her relationship with scripture. Like Oliver Cromwell, Anne evidently knew the Bible well enough through repeated readings to be able to cite it without a text- in her sleep! Despite the bad poetry, this pamphlet gives us a pretty good idea of what popular piety in the seventeenth century might have looked like- the picture is complicated but it is also interesting.