Sunday, March 15, 2009


Livy Rome and the Med

Livy begins with the aftermath of the second Punic war, and the start of the second Macedonian war against Philip V of Macedon. In XXXI, 7 the consul addresses the people, and urges them to send troops to fight Philip in Macedon rather than waiting for Philip to bring the fight to Italy. (Need I add that this is reminiscent of the argument that it is better to fight Al-qaeda in Iraq than in New York.)

In 11, there is an envoy to king Masinissa. The giving of gifts is an important diplomatic ritual, and giving an anchovy to someone who offers you a forty pound salmon is just insulting. When Agamemnon takes back the girl Briseis, whom Achilles has grown rather fond of, it sets in motion the tragic events of the Iliad. The Roman envoys take along a number of gifts to woo the king. These gifts are: “gold and silver vessels, a purple toga, a tunic embroidered with palm leaves together with an ivory sceptre, and a toga praetexta, together with a curule chair.” The purple dye for the toga comes from one of the snails of the genus Murex, which was mentioned in our discussion of Exodus. The toga is not a cheap, off the rack toga, but is equivalent to a Brioni suit. The same goes for the tunic, and the other gifts. These are expensive things, and while it could be said that they are a bribe, they are primarily ego stroking gifts that show Masinissa how much the Romans value his friendship. There were no quick stops at the praetor’s gift shop to pick up toy figures of the XIII legion, and no return of statues of their ally’s greatest leader.

Livy is not a great lover of democracy, i.e., direct rule by the people, and he condemns those who inflame the people in XXXI, 44. “There is never any lack at Athens of tongues ready and willing to stir up the passions of the common people; this kind of oratory is nurtured by the applause of the mob in all free communities; but this is especially true of Athens, where eloquence has the greatest influence.” He then comments on the way the Athenians waged war against Philip, largely by passing resolutions against him: “This was the Athenian’s war against Philip, a war of words, written or spoken; for that is where their only strength lies.” Sounds rather like the tranzis at State or in the UN.

Livy has an interesting observation, one that fits in with his “no worse enemy, no better friend” theme that we’ve seen earlieer, “A foe under arms should be encountered with a spirit of hostility; towards the conquered the dominant feeling should be that of gentleness.” (XXXIII, 12)

In XXXIII, 33 Livy gives the reaction of the Greeks to the news that Rome will fight on their side against Philip “This outburst of joy was no merely momentary excitement; it was renewed day after day by thè gratitude feit in men's minds and expressed in their conversation. There really was, it seemed, a nation on this earth prepared to fight for thè freedom of other men, and to fight at ber own expense, and at thè cost of hardship and perii to herself; a nation prepared to do this service not just for near neighbours, for those in ber part of thè worid, for lands geographically connected with her own, but even prepared to cross thè sea in order to prevent thè establishment of an unjust dominion in any quarter of thè globe, and to ensure that right and justice, and thè rule ofiaw, shouid everywhere be supreme. By thè single utter- an ce ofthe heraid ali thè cities ofGreece and Asia had been granted liberty. To conceive such a hope had needed a bold spirit: to bring that hope to realization was a proof of boundless courage and good ! fortune without limit.”

Somehow that all seems vaguely familiar in sentiment.

At XXXIV, 3 We have the women acting up, and Cato, the ancestor of the Cato who ended every speech with “Carthago delenda est” and of the Cato who opposed Julius Caesar, attacking their demands for repeal of the Lex Oppia. This was a temporary measure passed in the early days of the war with Hannibal that limited possession of jewelry and finery by women. Cato says, in the best misogynistic fashion, “Give a free rein to their undisciplined nature, to this untamed animal, and then expect them to set a limit to their own licence! Unless you impose that limit, this is the least of the restraints on women by custom or by law, which they resent. What they are longing for is complete liberty, or rather,—if we want to speak the truth—complete licence.”

Cato is opposed by a tribune who makes this oft forgotten observation: “At the same time I see that laws which have been called for by certain emergencies, are, one might say, mortal and subject to change with changing circumstances. Laws passed in peacetime are frequently cancelled by war; and peace often repeals the legislation of wartime; just as in the handling of a ship some methods are of service in fair weather, other methods in time of storms.”

Bernard Shaw in a section of his preface to St. Joan, discusses the limits of toleration, and mentions that in wartime drastic restrictions, including restriction of freedom of speech, are imposed that would not be tolerated in peace time. Shaw knew this lesson, whether he read Livy or not, but it’s forgotten today.

Livy makes frequent derogatory comments about the Gauls, but is a bit more generous towards the Spanish, of whom he says,”They were a people of fighting spirit who felt that life without weapons was no life at all” (XXXIV, 18). Right on! Molon labe!

Livy had some experience with government officials, and their predilection for leaking everything to the nearest newshawker: “For it is in the character of royal courtiers to be unreliable in all matters of trust, including the keeping of secrets (XXXIV, 36).” Can anyone say Mark Felt or Richard Armitage?

As I said, Livy has little use for the Gauls. Here is an anti-Gaul sentiment from XXXIV, 37: “The Gauls are physically soft and lacking in stamina, and they have very little tolerance for thirst.”

In XXXIV, 49 when the campaign in Greece has ended, the consuls says, “that they had gained their freedom through the arms of others; it had been restored to them by the faithfulness of aliens; let them guard and preserve it by their own watchfulness, so that the Roman people might be assured that liberty had been given to men who deserved it, and that theri boon had been well bestowed.”

Rome had its share of financial difficulties too. This included private debt, “The fact was that another concern was exercising the Fathers, namely the burden of interest-payments that was weighing on the public” (XXXV, 7). Livy then goes on to discuss some of the proposals for dealing with the issue.

Livy didn’t give much detail about elephants in the sections dealing with the second Punic war, but he goes into more detail in the present volume. He says that the African elephant is not equal to the Indian elephant: “African elephants cannot stand up to Indian elephants even when numbers are equal, either because the latter outmatch them in size—they are in fact very much larger—or because they are superior in fighting spirit” (XXXVII, 39). The elephants carried five people, the driver and four men in a tower on the elephant’s back.

Readers who have seen Ben-Hur will remember the chariot race. Messala drives a chariot with a scythe on it. In the movie it appears to project out about 6 inches or so. Livy’s description is somewhat different. “These chariots were generally armed as follows: they had sharp blades on either side of the pole sticking out like horns three feet from the yoke, with which to pierce anything they met, and at each end of the yoke two scythes projected, one level with the yoke, the other pointing downwards towards the ground, the former to cut up whatever came in its way at the side, the latter to reach men who had fallen and came under the chariot; also from the axle of the wheels at both ends two scythes were fastened in a similar manner, one level, the other pointing downwards” (XXXVII, 41).

The Rhodians plead their case to Rome and say “Nations take up arms for different reasons—reasons that are for them honourable and reasonable: to gain possession of territories, or of cities, or of towns, or of harbours and some of the coast&hellip.The motive for your wars has been the enhancement of your reputation and the promotion of your glory in the eyes of all mankind, which for so long has looked upon your name and your sovereign power as next to the immortal gods” (XXXVII, 54).

In the following paragraph Livy describes the envoys from Antiochus. They begin by confessing their errors, and the beseeching the Senate to remember its forgiving spirit. This is a rhetorical strategy known as confession and avoidance. The idea is to stand there humbly, confess, and by your confession make an appeal to ethos of the audience. A murderer who wishes to avoid the death penalty may appeal to the people and the governor by saying that he did the deed, and he’s changed, so that he’s no longer the same person that did the act. He’ll try to offer some proof that will persuade the audience that the change is real. A less drastic example would be the guy, or girl, up on a DUI. Yes, he was drunk. He’s seeking help, and he has a steady job, etc. All of this falls under the heading of confession and avoidance.

At XXXVIII, 17 we get another of Livy’s comments on the poor qualities of the Gauls as fighting men.

There is a fairly traditional contrast between Western toughness and Eastern luxury. You find it in Herodotus and in a good deal of Greek literature in which the East, usually Persia, is depicted as somewhat soft and effeminate. The contrast appears in a movie like 300 in which Xerxes is slender and effeminate, while the Spartans are contestants for Mr. Olympia. This precedes a description of the Bacchic cult as it was practiced at Rome.

Livy devotes several pages to a description of the suppression of the cult of Bacchus at Rome. This happened in the second century BC, 187 BC to be precise. So religious persecution was not something that was invented under the Empire. I’m calling the events described by Livy religious persecution, but Livy describes it as a criminal conspiracy. According to Livy the participants in the Bacchic cult participated in orgies that included lesbianism and homosexual activity. The particpants also indulged in murder and other vile acts.

No one now believes the accusations leveled against the early Christians, charges of incest and actual cannibalism, as opposed to the symbolic ritual of communion. Many later stories, such as those of Boccaccio and Chaucer, are comfortably dismissed as stories of anti-clericalists, and the Reformers of a later era are anti-Catholic bigots. There is also the blood libel, which we saw in Chaucer, and anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the ages. (Some people make a distinction between anti-semitic and anti-Semitic, I use both more or less interchangeably, because I can’t remember what the distinction is.)

Religious persecution can also function as a means of accruing wealth. Henry VIII amassed millions from the closure of the monasteries. The money was spent not for God’s purposes, or the monks’ purposes, but for Henry’s, i.e., the states. The Nazi persecution of the Jews also enabled Goering, et al. to confiscate art works, gold, jewelry, and property from the Jews. The economic motive, money; the sociological motive, power; and the religious motive are often inextricably linked. This linkage makes separating out the facts about religious sects difficult. The state has every reason to lie, and few reasons, or none, to tell the truth about the religious cults under investigation. This holds true for the Bacchic cult, Christianity, Judaism, and even Branch Davidians.

So was the Bacchic cult as bad as Livy says? It’s hard to say based solely on Livy’s evidence. We know that Euripides, in The Bacchae, depicts violence due to a violation of the sanctity of the cult, but what other evidence there is I’m not sure.

One of the consuls gives a warning about the Bacchic cult and its suppression.

“When the will of the gods is made an excuse for criminal acts, there comes into the mind the fear that in punishing human misconduct we may be doing violence to something of divine sanction that is mixed up with the offences. But you are set free from such scrupulosity by countless decisions of the pontiffs, resolutions of the Senate, and, for good measure, responses of the soothsayers. How often in the times of our fathers and grandfathers, bave the magistrates been given the task of forbidding the performance of foreign ceremonies, of excluding the dealers in sacrifices and soothsaying from the Forum, the Circus and the city, of searching out and buming prophetical books, and of abolishing every system of sacrifice except the traditional Roman method? For men of the deepest insight in ali matters of divine and human law carne to the decision that nothing tended so much to the destruction of religion as a situation where sacrifices were offered not with the traditional ritual but with ceremonies imported from abroad” (XXXIX, 16).

Here is a critical issue that affects religious liberty. We know that religion can mask political conspiracies. In English history we’ve got the Babington conspiracy that cost Mary Stuart her head, and the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes. More recent plots include the 9/11 hijackers. There are also instances of political malevolence that come from theocratic states, such as Iran, and to some extent the Saudis. (The Saudis are intent on spreading their form of Islam, which is generally intolerant and repressive. Saudi textbooks that are used in its Islamic schools in this country have come under fire for anti-Semitism, anti-Christian sentiments.)

While the Constitution is clear that freedom of religion is the norm, how do we investigate and monitor religious/political movements that oppose the very freedom they enjoy?

The events of 9/11 and after have weakened any good feelings I had towards Islam. After 9/11 and the various beheadings, torturings, and murders associated with it, I’m inclined to view Islam with suspicion. So I’m more or less in favor of taking the tack that we took during the Cold War. Infiltrate the mosques, and take note of the sermons, and the people who respond to anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic statements.

At XL, 29 we have another passage that touches on religious liberty. Livy describes the finding of some books supposedly written by Numa. The books are passed around among some of the better Romans, but because they contain Pythagorean doctrines, which in some ways are inimical to the interests of the Roman state, they are burned.

Now most of us think of Pythagoras in terms of the Pythagorean theorem, which we learned about in high school geometry, and then did our best to forget. He was also a philosopher, and apparently a bit of a politician. We get knowledge of some of the philosophy through Plato, though I don’t recall any political ideas credited to Pythagoras.

As I said, this episode touches on religious liberty. We have a general attitude, or some people do, that all religions are more or less alike, good and benevolent, or evil and malevolent, if we’re like Hitchens. So the Amerinds get painted as 18th century deists in the mold of Franklin, or of gentlemanly Confucianiists, and they were neither, and you get people lamenting the Spanish destruction of the religious books of the Meso-Americans. A few years ago I got into an argument over this issue with a lady on an internet mailing list. I contended that some religions were vile and evil, and that we were better off with their religious books obliterated. I made particular mention of the Carthaginian religion and the meso-American religions, both of which practiced human sacrifice.

When the West signed off on the idea of religious liberty, wasn’t in part because the wars of religion had left us exhausted, and we realized that it was better to argue with words rather cannons and muskets? The settlement in the West came about because of the huge blood cost that the wars had inflicted. But how do you deal with a group that has not signed off on the idea of toleration?

At XLI, 20 we meet Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus the God Manifest, or Manifest God). Hiss, boo! He’s not dealt with at any length by Livy, but he plays a major role 2nd century BC Judaism. He’s the bad guy of Maccabees. The one responsible for Hanukkah. Here’s part of Livy’s description:

“Antiochus Epiphanes used to bave an ivory chair set up, in Roman fashion, and from there he wouid dispense justice and settle disputes, even on the most trivial matters&hellip. Neverthe- less in two important and honourable activities he showed a truly royal disposition - in benefactions to cities and in tributes to the gods. To the people of Megalopolis in Arcadia he gave an undertaking that he wouid build a wall round their city, and he paid the greater part of the cost; at Tegea he began the building ofa magnificent marbie theatre; at Cyzicus he provided golden vesseis for one table in the prytaneum - the city hall where men who bave been granted the privilege dine at public cost. To the Rhodians he made no one outstanding benefaction, but he bestowed all manner of gifts on them, whatever their needs required. As evidence ofthe magnificence ofhis ideas in relation to the gods one may cite the temple ofJupiter Olympius at Athens, the oniy temple in the worid planned (though it was not finished) on a scale proportionate to the greatness ofthe god; besides this, he adomed Delos with splendid altari and an abundance of statues, and he promised at Antioch a magnificent temple to Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely with a ceiling panelied with gold, but with jts walis also covered with gold leaf; but this temple, like many other works he promised in other places, he did not succeed in finishing, because his reign lasted so short a time.

Furthermore, in the magnificence of his entertainment of every sort he outdid the earlier kings. His shows in generai were put on in their own normal fashion and with artists supplied by Greece; but he also staged a gladiatorial exhibition in the Roman style which was at first received with more alarm than pleasure by spectators unaccus- tomed to this kind of show; but later on, by giving more frequent performances, by sometimes allowing the combatants to go no fur- rther than the infliction ofwounds, sometimes allowing fights without quarter, Antiochus made this spectacle a familiar and even a pleasing sight, and he kindied in many of the young men an enthusiasm for arms. The consequence was that whereas at the start his practice had been to fetch gladiators from Rome, procuring them at high prices, he now had his own supply available.”

We’ll be seeing more of Antiochus when I blog about Maccabees. Antiochus is also referred to in Daniel 7. See this article for a discussion of Daniel and Antiochus.

At XLII, 3 we get a description of one of the censors taking the tiles from one temple to repair another. This was an act of desecration to the Romans, and he gets called on the carpet for it.

Oddly enough, a few centuries later when the old time religion was dying out, the Christians scavenged building materials for the new churches from the old temples.

When a people are debating whether to ally themselves with the Romans or the Macedonians, Livy, no friend of the common man, says “While these were the sentiments of the kings in the matter of the war, among the free peoples and nations the commons everywhere were, as usual, almost wholly on the wrong side, being inclined towards the king and the Macedonians” (XLII, 30).

At 47 we get a story about how a battle was one through deception. Livy gets all puffed up, and prefers the straight out slaughter of the enemy. There’s a moral question here that has to do with lying. The answer that Aquinas gives on deceiving the enemy is that it is wrong. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong.

The prohibition of the commandment as I understand it, and I may be wrong, is not against lying as such, it’s against perjury, and it’s against perjury that injures another person. In this framework it presumes a legal process, and that process has as its aim justice. But what if the legal process is perverted, so that its aim is no longer justice, but persecution. Think of the Star Chamber, the NKVD, KGB, the French Revolution, any Fascist/Communist/totalitarian regime you care to name. There the aim of the judicial system is not justice, but something else. So if Fr. Roncalli issues baptismal certificates for those who have never seen the inside of a Catholic church, does he sin by lying? Since the aim of the regime was to murder people for their religion or ethnicity, thus violating the concept of justice, I would say that Fr. Roncalli was under no obligation to assist the regime, but he was under an obligation assist its victims. A more realistic example, one that is applicable to more people is as follows: One night back in 1970 I was working the midnight shift at the worst Federal agency ever conceived by the devil who inspires bureaucracy, GSA, and I was walking to the bus. A guy pulled a gun on me, and demanded my money. He threatened to blow my brains out. Now this guy was obviously a product of public education because he was pointing the gun at my stomach, but I didn’t correct his faulty notions of human biology, and gave him my money. Was I under an obligation to give him any other money that I might have concealed on my person, or was concealment and deception permitted in that case? He was violating my right to my property, which is an injustice to me, so my obligation was to do justice to both of us. This I would be able to do by concealing or lying about whether or not I had any additional money.

Livy’s problem though is not with either of those two examples, it is with lying and deception in war. Here two things are in play. There is my obligation to my fellow citizens, my fellow soldiers. I have an obligation to them and to their families to fight in such a manner that as many of their lives are spared as possible. My obligation to the enemy is much less. Second is the concept of justice again. If the enemy is unjust, if he’s a Nazi, or a Japanese imperialist, am I under a moral obligation to engage in a slug fest with him just to prove my moral superiority? If I can convince the enemy that I plan to attack Greece, or somewhere, and then land in Sicily, am I wrong to minimize the losses to my men? If I feint that the main attack is at the Pas de Calais, and the landings at Normandy are a diversion, have I done wrong? Is it wrong for me to protect the fact that I’ve broken your codes?

The norm, however, is that one operates under the assumption that the existing system is just, and that it aims at justice, not at genocide, or at robbery, so that any deviation from truth-telling is morally wrong.

Livy has been at great pains throughout his writings to record prodigies and monsters, two-headed goats and the like. At XLIII, 13 he makes a comment on the decline in religiosity in his day.

At XLIV, 22 we get a speech by consul Lucius Aemilius Paulus before he departs for Macedon. In part of it he addresses the Roman equivalent of today’s botoxed smilers and dead squirrels who fancy themselves to be competent generals: “In all thè clubs and even - heaven help us! - at dinner parties, there are strategists who take armies into Macedonia, who know where camps' shouid be sited, which places shouid be held with garrisons; they know thè right moment for thè invasion of Macedonia, and thè right pass to use; they know where granaries shouid be placed, what routes on land and sea shouid be employed for thè transport of supplies; they know when we ought to join battle with thè enemy and when it wouid be better to remain inactive. And they do not just lay down thè law about what ought to be done; when anything has been done contrary to their decision they accuse thè consul as if he were standing in thè dock!”

Paulus goes on to describe those from whom he will take advice, his comrades in the field, but the botox and squirrel crowd should stay out of his way.

At XLV, 18 we get a nice summary of the Roman position on the war. Macedonia and Illyria are free so that the world can see that the Roman people do not enslave the free, but liberate the slaves.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Barry had said something like that. Of course, his ancestors weren’t liberated by Union soldiers.

Next up is Appian, a Greek historian, on The Civil Wars.

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