The Dueling Censors

A fun part of reading Livy is puzzling out the working of the Roman state.  What’s a pro praetor?   A plebeian aedile?  Sure, I could read Wikipedia or even a book, but that would mean less time reading the war with Hannibal.  Besides, how do historians figure out all that stuff?

One of the highest Roman offices was the censorship.  At first, the two censors were charged with carrying out the census, but it appears that under Rome’s democratic but not egalitarian system the power entailed in counting the citizens and enrolling them in the proper electoral list brought the office closer to what we now understand by “censorship”.  The censors were involved in a strange episode towards the end of the Second Punic War, but I have to go back a little way to describe it.

Right in the thick of the war, the consul Marcellus suggested that he and his fellow consul Crispinus take a few horsemen and ride out to reconnoiter some hills near camp.  They were caught in an ambush; Marcellus was killed and Crispinus mortally wounded.  It was an ignominious end for the general who had taken the rich Sicilian city of Syracuse and inadvertently killed one of the great mathematicians of all time.  Rome found itself in need of military talent.

As Livy tells it, they turned to Gaius Claudius Nero first, and then, seeking to balance his wildness, sought out the disgraced ex consul Marcus Livius.  After conviction on unspecified charges he had exiled himself in the country and only returned a short time before, when he was still so angry he wouldn’t change his shirt until he was made to.  Nero was affronted and Livius felt it.  Somehow Livy gives him an underdog appeal; I admit I was cheering for him when the senate went out of its way to reconcile them, and later when Nero with a rapid march up much of the length of Italy combined forces with him to inflict a fatal defeat on Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal.

So the two won a famous victory and later were elected to the censorship.  Apparently they had a falling out again, and this is where, for the first time in Livy, I found myself almost laughing out loud on the subway.  While revising the list of knights, Nero, who as censor must have had power over such technicalities, forced Livius to get rid of his horse.  Livius did the same to him.  Then Nero demoted Livius to the lowest class of citizen (aerarii), whereupon Livius

declared the entire Roman people, thirty-four tribes of them, as aerarii because they had unjustly condemned him, and then, despite the condemnation, made him first consul and then censor

Then Livy opines:

As a squabble between the censors… this was a most improper proceeding, but as a sharp criticism of popular frivolity, it was in the true tradition of the censors’ office and worthy of the high seriousness of those days.

I don’t really know what to make of this.  I’m afraid of taking it too seriously.  Livy doesn’t seem to make many jokes and this would be a good one.  If it isn’t, I guess it goes to show just how seriously he took the impossible task of the censors.  It’s tragic.  It always seems like public morals are declining and the electorate deserves a rebuke, but who can deliver it?

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