Sunday, April 24, 2011

Doomed to Repeat It

During the reign of Caesar Augustus, Livy wrote a history of the city of Rome in 142 books. Sadly, only thirty-five of the books have survived, and for some arbitrary reasons lost to me now, I decided to put the first ten books on my reading plan. Books 6-10, my allotment for this year, don't provide the easiest, most gripping reading; they don't constantly tempt me to turn "just one more page" as, for instance, Herodotus and Plutarch do.

This part of Rome's history (the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) comprises a confusing, constant stream of wars with neighboring city-states. Knowing how many times the Romans fought the Veiians or Tusculans under which consuls just doesn't seem instructive to life today, and perhaps that irrelevance, coupled with Livy's long, complex sentences, has led to the work's being almost completely ignored. Maybe it led to the loss of 107 of its books. But scattered in its litany of consular campaigns, Livy's history also provides many fascinating characters and stories that should be read: we know what happens to those who ignore history.

Camillus was one of the great heroes of early Rome; the Senate turned to him over and over to face challengers to Roman peace. In one campaign, as Livy reports it, Camillus' army expressed some concern about facing a force outnumbering the Romans 100-to-1. After pointing out to the legions that their superior weapons did much to even the odds, Camillus reminded them of a much more important consideration: "What has the enemy ever been to you," he asked them, "but an opportunity for glory? The same thing will happen this time that has always happened: the enemy will run, and you will be victorious." We need models of courageous determinism like this today. Life is easier than war in a lot of ways: even circumstantial defeat can be glorious as long as we continue acting virtuously.

Later in his life, Camillus served as second in command to the consul Lucius Furius. Believing that war was the province of the young, Furius put Camillus in the back of the formation. But after he led the legions into a trap, he found that he needed the old guy to save the day once again. Later, the Senate put Camillus in charge again and asked him who his lieutenant would be, and Camillus named Marcus Furius. The great war hero could have sent the man who humiliated him earlier into political oblivion. But imagine what benefit he gained by recognizing Furius' experience, honoring the loyalties of the men who had served under him, and showing humility and mercy, even though these virtues come so much more easily in an old age that remembers many glorious victories.

The follow-up story is just as good. Camillus leads his army against the rebellious Tusculans, only to discover that the enemy had taken up "the one weapon that could stop the army of Rome": the Tusculans had decided not to fight. Finding their gates open and their market goods lining the streets, Camillus walked into the city, commended its leaders, and returned home.

Livy, writing for one of history's most powerful emperors, stroked his patron's patriotic pride by telling these glorious stories of past Roman virtue. But amazingly, he also found the opportunity to criticize the Rome of his own day; his overall purpose in writing the history may in fact have been to demonstrate the decadence of his society by comparison with the virtues of its fathers. At one point, he says that the extreme dangers the Republic experienced made it strong. A little earlier, he tells a story of a very large army the Romans raised and opines that the much larger Empire of his day could scarcely raise such a force because it pursues only riches and luxury.

OK, skip ahead if you don't like political heresy, but I sometimes wonder similarly if today's United States could have fought World War II. Did the tragedy of the Depression strengthen us and enable us to help keep western Europe (and quite possibly our own shores) free from Nazi rule? Could choices for mercy and peace actually bring political strength? Where logic or ethics don't provide a clear answer, there's only one laboratory for testing life decisions like these. We can't afford to ignore it.

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