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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How did they keep it together?

(This is the last installment in my Livy top five.)

By far the most enthralling aspect of Livy is the working of the republic itself and the never ending struggle between the people and the patricians, the rich and the poor.  Rome came close to civil war more than once in the period covered by his first ten books, down to 290 BC or so.  The contentions were clearly rooted in money and class.  Veterans were enslaved for debt, there were illegal appropriations of public land, famine followed outbreaks of plague.  When especially aggrieved, the people refused military service, and twice they abandoned the city.  Somehow they held it together.  Livy is straightforward about these causes of political strife, and Machiavelli devoted one of his discourses to arguing that Rome was powerful precisely because of it.

It’s easy to become invested in this account and the question of how free or how equal Rome became.  On one hand, over more than a hundred years there was a broad trend of increasing rights for the plebeians.  Shortly after the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud, the people became so incensed over their debts that they left Rome in a body and encamped peacefully outside the city.  They returned only after the tribunes were created, officers to whom the people could appeal and whose personal safety was solemnly guaranteed.  Later it became legal for plebeians to marry patricians, and still later they won the right to be elected consuls and priests.

On the other hand, the issue of land distribution was, after two hundred years and ten books of history, not really settled, and the rare outbreaks of actual violence sometimes broke out are hard to interpret.  A consul named Cassius was put to death after bringing up land reform.  Livy implies that the people began to suspect him of aiming at kingship, and that the conviction was legal, but the story is vague.  Maelius supplied the people with grain, and then was suspected of gathering arms for an attempt on the state.  When he was accused by the Dictator, he fled.  As the Master of Horse rode him down, he cried to the people, “because I was your friend!”

Of the classical historians I’ve read, Livy presents the strongest temptations to sympathize and to draw topical conclusions.  It’s been a while since I read them, but Herodotus seems too broad and dramatic, Thucydides too narrow and gloomy to go where Livy takes us, which is somewhere very close to home.  Perhaps the dishonest way class warfare is nowadays invoked as a terrible bogey when people so much as talk about economic inequality and taxation accounts for why I found Livy’s frank treatment so interesting.

Decius Leads Enemy Armies Down to Hell

(This is the last but one of my Livy top five.)

In 340 BC the Romans were dealing with the revolt of their closest allies and neighbors, the Latins.  As Machiavelli emphasizes, these men had fought beside the Romans and knew their way of fighting as well as they did.  The night before the battle, both consuls had the same dream: The gods of the underworld wanted one army and one general, and they would take them from opposing sides.  The consuls agreed that whichever wing faltered first, the consul in command there would sacrifice himself.  So Publius Decius Mus, when his side began to give way, performed the devotio.  He put on purple, stood on a spear, said a simple prayer to the gods “new and native”, and rode into the enemy ranks, where he made such an impression that it was some time before he was brought down with ranged weapons.   Needless to say, the Romans won.

343 BC: Things Get Serious

It’s hard to keep one’s bearings in the unrelenting string of alarms, battles, campaigns, etc. that make up Rome’s military history, but fortunately Livy tells us exactly when Rome went from being one belligerent city-state among many to an empire in the making: 343 BC, when the First Samnite War started:

From now on the wars described will be of greater importance.  Our enemies were more powerful, and campaigns lasted longer and were mounted in more remote areas.

I’m over-dramatizing this, but only a little.  Of course there are indications of Rome’s gathering strength prior to this war, and it lasted for many inconclusive years, but it seems to me that Livy has a good case for the importance of the decision in 343 and he presents it in style.  The more I think about this, the more convinced I am that Livy has not only historic vision but consideration for his readers.

From the expulsion of the Tarquins in 509 to the aftermath of the Gallic invasion of 390 the Romans seem to have engaged in fighting only their nearest neighbors, namely certain of the Etruscans, the Volsci, Aequi, Sabines, and even the Latins, who were more closely tied to them by treaty and presumably kinship.  In these campaigns it was normal to encounter the enemy a day after leaving Rome.  Dictators resigned mere days after being named.  For widely different dates Livy gives a figure of ten legions as the utmost of Rome’s strength, and while this could mean different things at different times (a very rough estimate would be 5,000 men), it seems to suggest that Roman power was not growing by orders of magnitude.  On the other hand, shortly before the Gallic disaster, Roman soldiers did begin to be paid.  This was devised during the prolonged siege of Veii, a rich city, but again not far from Rome.  They traded up and down the coast of Italy and had contact with Greeks to the south, but a diplomatic mission to Athens in 451 was a very big deal.

Compared with what the Romans had done before 343, the campaigns against the Samnites were certainly more distant and prolonged.  The Samnites lived in the mountains above the bay of Naples and were friendly with the Romans until an attack sent the rich Capuans of the lowland running for help to Rome.  As the war dragged on, others seem to have realized the danger they were in, and Rome faced a coalition of Samnites, Etruscans, and others like the Umbrians who had scarcely figured in the story before.  Rome also changed the way things were done.  Consuls remained in the field for longer than their usual terms and reduced so many cities that they had to make the soldiers sell their spoils so as not to be encumbered.   The famous Appian Way was constructed during these wars.

Livy remarks that we who read about the wars should not tire of them if those who fought them did not.  I don’t think that’s a great rule to follow, but it shows sympathy.  He also indulges in a long recreated speech about the beginning of the war that had me looking both back to Thucydides and forward to Machiavelli.

(Penultimate installment: Class struggle or black magic?  I can’t decide…)

“That Mob”

Livy does not scruple to call the early settlers of Rome “homeless and destitute”.  More than that, he says (in Penguin’s Selincourt translation) “That mob was the first real addition to the City’s strength, first step to her future greatness.”  When I think about it, it’s of a piece with the story of Romulus and Remus being exposed, nursed by a wolf, and raised by shepherds to share in their rustic adventures.

I wonder if Livy is seeking a deliberate balance between this and the story of the aristocratic Aeneas.  In his telling, the Trojan prince Aeneas settled in Latium, his son founded Alba Longa, and after many generations were born the twins who, having discovered their identity, founded Rome a few miles away.  This twofold legend of Rome’s foundation needs some explanation.  On top of that, Livy records the importance of the Etruscans (via the Tarquins who ruled Rome) and Sabines in the earliest times.

In any case it seems clear that Livy loves Rome (“no country has ever been greater or purer than ours”) and all of its people.  I’ll try to bear this in mind when thinking about his account of the struggles of the plebeians and patricians.

(This is the second of my Livy top five. Stay tuned.)

The Top Five Things I Read in Livy

Livy wrote the history of Rome ab urbe condita, that is, from its legendary foundation in 753 BC, down to his own time.  When he died in AD 17, he had completed 142 long chapters, or books, of which about a quarter survive.  For the last month I’ve been working on the first ten.  Now I’m toying with Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.

Instead of summarizing four hundred some years of Roman history, here are five cool things from Livy:

5) The Romans were surprisingly superstitious.  I’d known this in a general way, but I had not expected religion to play such a role in political life.  There were frequent instances of consuls, other magistrates, and even dictators resigning from office based on some sort of religious flaw in their election.  At least twice Livy describes a dictator, the most powerful possible officer of state, being chosen simply for the ritual of hammering in a certain nail during a plague.  It wasn’t that the Romans lacked priests.  In fact, the priestly offices were among the last to be opened to the lower class, long after plebeians had been elected consuls and dictators.

Towards the end of the Samnite wars, around 290 BC, Livy describes what happened when the auspices did not turn out favorably before an important battle.  At first the augurs lied, and told the dictator that the birds had behaved appropriately.  When the dictator was told the true story, he went ahead with the battle, saying that the spirit of the ritual had been fulfilled.  Machiavelli says this shows that Roman religion was merely a show to keep the people in line, and the leaders knew better.  The degree to which the Romans mixed church and state is still striking.

(To be continued…)