Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dilemmas Under the Yoke

I'm enjoying book IX of Livy's History more than any part since book I. Unlike most of what I've read so far, book IX offers an extended story involving a single campaign, several difficult decisions, and a shameful defeat of a Roman army.

The story begins with consuls Titus Veturius and Spurius Postumius setting forth on what they assume will be a typical Roman campaign: locate, engage, and defeat the enemy. Instead, they lead the legions into a trap at the Caudine Forks and find themselves surrounded with no hope of victory or escape. The Samnites, like the surprised citizens of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in The Mouse that Roared, have no idea what to do with the victorious situation and call upon old Herennius Pontius for advice. Pontius tells them they have two choices: kill every last soldier, or let them all go scot free. The Samnites, ignoring the advice of their elder statesman, look for a middle way and decide to humiliate the Roman soldiers by taking hostages, dictating terms, and forcing the leaders to walk under the yoke, an ancient practice that gives us our word subjugate. But Pontius warns them: this plan will neither secure friends nor eliminate enemies.

Pontius proves right, of course. The Romans come back another day, find better ground, and utterly defeat the Samnites. The Samnites thought they were prudently avoiding extremes, but Pontius' argument and the outcome show that they had found themselves in a situation in which the ethical golden mean (as formulated by Aristotle and adopted by my beloved Thomas Aquinas) doesn't apply. Our lives present these situations every day. Sinning just a little, for instance, is still sinning. Temptations must be rejected entirely or else indulged; they will not be half spurned. Sometimes the road of life simply forks. One cannot partly accept a job offer, and proposals of marriage rarely lead to casual friendships.

So the Samnites offer their terms to the surrounded legions. Now the Roman consuls face a dilemma: should they accept the terms or fight with courage, honor, and assurance of death? The problem with the second option is that the favorite Roman virtues lead to the annihilation of the force that protects the Eternal City's future. So the generals make what for Romans is an unusual decision and sacrifice what they value even more than life: their dignity. Accepting the terms, they pass under the yoke, leave the hostages, and return home with heads hung low.

The Senate now faces a dilemma. If only victory matters, they can just send the army back for a rematch. But the terms have been accepted on the field, as usual, under the witness of the gods. Postumius argues that they are under no obligation to honor the bad agreement he was forced to make because of his tactical blunder. But the fathers of the city don't want to offend their divine protectors.

In the end, Postumius tells them to send him back bound as a traitor with a herald who will announce acceptance of the terms. "Trust me," he says, "I have a plan." When they arrive at the Samnites' state house, the herald shows the fetters on the disgraced consul and announces the Romans' acceptance of defeat. But then Postumius shouts, "I am now a citizen of Samnium!" He kicks the herald and explains, "Now you can declare war on us with impunity for your official has been publicly insulted by a Samnite." The Samnites roll their eyes at the ploy. "You Romans always pass off faithless acts with a veneer of piety," they say, and then they list several dastardly tricks the Romans have pulled previously. But the Romans proceed with the attack, win, and run the Samnites under the humiliating yoke.

I learned two things about Livy this morning. First, the author's family were originally plebeians. I noticed it when Livy mentioned a Livius as tribune of the commons at this time. So I searched for the name elsewhere inn the History and found an earlier mention of a Livius as the first to stage a musical show with a plot (actors and musicians are not generally thought of as patrician material). An internet search revealed that Suetonius confirmed the plebeian origins of the Livii. Second, Livy sticks with his valorization of the heroes of the Republican age, even after telling this humiliating story and including the Samnites' damning list of Roman betrayals of honor. Livy explicitly validates all the Romans' actions in this story and says of these days that no time "was ever more productive of virtuous characters."

Just at the point I quit reading this morning, Livy takes the opportunity of the Roman victory and of the contemporaneous rise of Alexander the Great to argue the superiority of Rome over all other historical empires. Alexander, he says, may have won every battle over the course of his thirteen-year career, but the Romans have had many undefeated generals and have never lost a war in eight centuries. If Alexander had ever attacked Rome, he would have learned a lesson the Persians could not teach. Livy bases his entire argument on military strength and political power. Yesterday I adopted these values for the sake of argument and celebrated the Romans' quick annexation of the entire Mediterranean world. But the Great Sea at the Center of the World is after all but a drop of water in the grander universe. In all the time the Romans were expanding their horizons, they never discovered the true enemy. And only as the Empire began to break apart did they begin to know the true Hero.


  1. Jennifer L. said:

    I was struck by your observation, "Temptations, for instance, must be indulged or rejected entirely". I've been mulling this idea over all day.

    Will you refer me to others' writings on the subject or tell me more about your own view?


  2. I'm just saying that you can't give in "only a little" without sinning. Either it's a sin or it isn't. Looking back at it, I think I phrased it ambiguously. As it stands, it sounds like "entirely" could apply to both "indulged" and "rejected." I should have said "Temptations must be rejected entirely or else indulged."

  3. Jennifer L. said:

    Okay, that makes more sense to me. Thanks for the clarification! :-)