Roman Historiography: Politics & Morality


 

History has the purpose of telling people who they are, where they came from and teaching lessons. It is the purpose of the historian to tell a story, whether it is cultural, political, biographical, etc. The Roman people learned the art of history from the Greeks who first began recording history. Roman historians quickly became interested in one specific area of history: politics. It was important for them to record for posterity why it was their body politic was as successful as it was. Various historians took it upon themselves to tell the story of Roman res publica through a variety of different methods include general history and biography. Roman history is divided between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, but both still maintain similar features. Roman historiography focuses around politics and the role of morality is maintaining the body politic.

One of the earliest Roman historians, Polybius, concerned himself with the foundation of the Roman city. His historical study would lay the foundations for future historians of Rome by describing how it was the city of Rome came into existence and how it had been maintained. There are three periods in Roman history: Kingdom, Republic and Empire. Of the former we know next to nothing aside from what later historians wrote about it. The Republic and the Empire, however, were recorded during the time they existed and we therefore know more about them than we do about the Kingdom of Rome. Polybius helped to identify Rome as a political order in his Histories.  In this work, Polybius describes the foundation of a constitution and the various forms of government identical to the Greek philosophers. He then turns his attention to the Roman Constitution and identifies three reasons as to why Rome has succeeded: the Consuls, Senate and People. The strength of the Roman Constitution is described by Polybius:

For whenever any danger from without compels them to unite and work together, the strength which is developed by the State is so extraordinary, that everything required is unfailingly carried out by the eager rivalry shown by all classes to devote their whole minds to the need of the hour, and to secure that any determination come to should not fail for want of promptitude; while each individual works, privately and publicly alike, for the accomplishment of the business in hand.[1]

The Roman Constitution is the hallmark of Rome and therefore the focal point of Roman history. Only through extreme wealth and power could Rome’s Constitution become a victim of decay.[2] Polybius demonstrated that the Roman should heed their history.  The excesses of Roman life were, according to Polybius, what would bring about the destruction of Rome itself. The balance of power needed to be maintained in order for Rome to continue. Polybius placed an emphasis on examining the qualities of individuals and constitutions in order to understand their history. Polybius established a foundation of using history none historical purposes and was uninterested in telling Roman history unless it was to tell about the greatness of the city.

 Roman history maintained a similar usefulness for future historians in later centuries. However, it transitioned to lamenting the loss of the ethic that Romans once possessed. Where Polybius would describe the greatness of the Roman Constitution because it courted Fortune, as the Romans continued to distance themselves from the moral law Fortune seemed less on the side of Rome. Sallust wrote, as many historians, in the past tense when speaking about the city of Rome. To him Rome was already lost to a bygone era and there was only hope that the Roman people could once again reestablish old Rome. Like Polybius, Sallust saw the greatness of Rome in the people. It was the people who overthrew the kingship and established the republic. Through the republic, “Good morals…were cultivated in the city and in the camp. There was the greatest possible concord, and the least possible avarice. Justice and probity prevailed among the citizens, not more from the influence of the laws than from natural inclination.”[3] The loss of morality was what ultimately brought about the destruction of the republic. Sallust, like others of his time, lamented that the people were becoming complacent in their behavior and no longer honored the past generations. Only through history, which taught the lessons of the past, could Rome begin to regain the greatness it lost.

The source of Rome’s decay was the result of Roman superiority. The defeat of so many princes and most especially Carthage led the Roman’s to deviate from morality. “At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil.”[4] Money ultimately created a new class of politician, one who only needed to bribe people into supporting their career. Men like Julius Caesar were able to establish their own armies, which gave way to them gaining immense power through intimidation. The people, for their part, fell away and allowed these new oligarchs to take control over the city.[5] During the end of the Roman Republic, Roman history took a distinct tone of lamentation. Roman history was praise for a Rome once existed but because of decay in the morality of the people that Rome was lost and replaced.

Roman history became closest to moral philosophy at the time of the Roman biographer Plutarch. Rather than appeal directly to Roman history, Plutarch took the aim of appealing to individuals in both Greek and Roman history. Through the lives of these great heroes, one could learn how best to live. The imitation of persons long since dead was not a totally new concept even centuries before Plutarch. The Roman people had a history of accepting aspects of the lives of those whom they conquered. Plutarch expanded on what had come before him and brought a new level of achievement to the field of biography. Plutarch’s Lives brought the ancient heroes of Greece and Rome to a new audience living under the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire was first created under Caesar Augustus, it was important for the new emperor to maintain the façade of the republic. The Caesars who followed were less interested in the façade and more interested in acquiring wealth for themselves. The purpose of history had changed from the study of the constitution to the study of human virtue.[6] Through human virtue one might become familiar with how best to live, which in turn might lead back to the old Rome.

Changes in Roman historiography can be attributed to the decline of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Romans began to contemplate the reasons for this change. Polybius understood that if Romans did not maintain their virtuous ways they would inevitably decline. By the time the Republic was on the way out, historians turned to imploring individuals to imitate the lives of their ancestors and to reacquire the morality that they had lost. Livy, speaking directly at this decline said:

I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.[7]

Roman historians began to look not at what might happen but why it happened in order to provide an answer for the men who took charge of the city.

Roman history began in an attempt to understand where Romans came from and to explain the Roman constitution. By the time the Republic fell, Rome’s historians were looking at why the constitution had failed. Rome’s historians had always been interested in the moral virtue of the citizens, believing that only through morality and virtue could Rome succeed.

 

 

Bibliography

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Amazon Kindle. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Edited by Beatrice Radice. England: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Plutarch. Lives. https://edge.apus.edu/access/content/group/168444/Main/plutarch.html (accessed August 28, 2011).

Polybius. Histories. https://edge.apus.edu/access/content/group/168444/Main/polybius.html (accessed August 28, 2011).

Sallust. The Conspiracy of Catiline. https://edge.apus.edu/access/content/group/168444/Main/sallust.html (accessed August 28, 2011).

 

 


[1] Polybius,  Histories. 30

[2] “And as this state of things goes on more and more, the desire of office and the shame of losing reputation, as well as the ostentation and extravagance of living, will prove the beginning of a deterioration.” Ibid. 32

[3] Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline. 9

[4] Ibid. 10

[5] “These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterwards, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable.” Ibid.

[6]“We should not waste this good desire on trivial pursuits, but should study human virtue.  In the acts of great men, we find a proper and natural object for our attention.  The reader will inevitably grow in wisdom and eagerness to imitate their good example.” Plutarch, Lives: Pericles, the Olympian.

[7] Livy, The Early History of Rome, ed. Beatrice Radice(England: Penguin Classics, 1971) 34.

 

Notes on The Tragedy of Caesar


When looking at Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar it is important to consider first and foremost the situation of Rome at the time the play takes place. In his unofficial Tetralogy of Roman History, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is the third installment following the “Rape of Lucrece” and Coriolanus. To consider the situation of Rome one need only look at the beginning of the play. A group of commoners are confronted by Flavius, a Patrician. The commoners are not recognized as citizens by Flavius and they are not wearing badges indicating their position. The great Roman war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great has ended and the commoners are calling for a celebration, a holiday. Yet, this call for a celebration is an indication of the fracturing of Roman politics and the dissolution of the Republic. Only victories over foreigners were traditionally celebrated by Rome, and so celebrating Caesar’s victory over a great Roman general is an important element to observe in the play.

From this point the play takes two positions, one as the Tragedy of Julius Caesar and the second as the Tragedy of Brutus.

In regards to Caesar, the commoners view Caesar as a “Super” Tribune though he held no official office. Historically speaking Caesar was a dictator at the time but there is question over whether the Senate recognized this office. If they didn’t recognize it, then Caesar was left to strive for something even more: the crown of King. This is the situation of the play, as Caesar has returned home there is discussion of naming Caesar Dictator for Life and providing him with a crown (albeit the Senate will insist it only be worn outside the city.) In addition to seeing him as “Super” Tribune, the people generally regard Caesar as a living god which some suggest is what Caesar is truly after. However Caesar suffered from epilepsy, got sick, and lost a swimming race, all of which may call into question the divine nature of Caesar.   One thing is very certain though, Julius Caesar was a very accomplished conqueror.  Caesar is also a shrewd politician who is well aware of the nature of the Roman people and so despite any desire to hold the crown he will refuse it knowing the people’s hatred of monarchy.

Throughout the play Caesar speaks of himself in the third person and refers to himself as the “unmoved mover”, which those familiar with theology and Aristotelian metaphysics will note that the unmoved mover is God. And to drive this point home further, Caesar calls himself Jupiter who was the Chief god of the Romans.  As a result of this  Shakespeare departs from his source (Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans) who suggests that Caesar struggled with his assassins and yet Shakespeare’s Caesar does not. This may indicate that Shakespeare’s Caesar desired some more than the crown of King or Dictator.

Caesar’s assassination calls the audiences attention to problems within the Roman Republic. The people’s devotion to a man who may or may not have desired to become King or at worst a god suggests that the people cannot rule themselves and are in need of a Caesar. This may be a result of the nature of the Roman Republic, which is also an Empire. One of the faults of Empire is that Republic is not possible. This is in part because you will constantly be on extended military adventures and will need a General willing to lead these exhibitions. As a result the soldiers that make up that General’s army will become devoted to their General more than to the republican government. A Republic exists so that no one person can say that anything is done according to their will, yet in an Empire such proclamations is feasible.

Caesar’s death comes early in the play and Brutus’ struggle to understand himself dominates the rest of the play. At Caesar’s death  Shakespeare reports his last words as “Even you Brutus?” However, despite Shakespeare placing Latin words into Caesar’s mouth he is reported historically to have used Greek. The translation of Caesar’s historical Greek last words are, “Even you child?” Causing the question to arise, was Brutus Caesar’s bastard? Brutus’s view of the “self” is that it is only possible to see and know oneself through others. Brutus views himself as his ancestor who helped to overthrow the Tarquin Kings. Every action he takes are with this image in mind; Brutus portrays himself as a lover of “res publica” and opposed to the private goods. The Roman Republic is his chief concern, not his private fears. His devotion to the cause of the Republic links him to the persons of Lucretia and Junus Brutus (his ancestor.) He places a strict emphasis on honor, but unlike Coriolanus who places an emphasis on honor without regard to the ancestral, Brutus sees honor very much in the light of the ancestral. Brutus, therefore, regards Rome under Caesar as not different than Rome under the Tarquins. It is at this point that Brutus chooses to take part in the assassination of Caesar.

Two important questions are to be considered in Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy. First, what should a responsible Roman, committed to the common good, consider when deliberating joining a conspiracy against Caesar, which will end in his death? Secondly, the issue of Republic: how do you maintain Rome as a republic with Caesar’s death in particular when only a handful of people take part in the assassination?

As a result of taking part in the conspiracy Brutus objects to the attempt by the others to recruit Cicero to the cause; Shakespeare departs from Plutarch on this point. Brutus may fear that Cicero may take all the honor from the assassination, stealing Brutus’s role as savior of the Republic. In addition, Brutus is careful to make want Caesar’s death look as a sacrifice and not as a murder. Brutus is so high minded that he neglects seeing the assassination as others may see it: a crime.

In his speech following the death of Caesar, Brutus appeals to “Friends, Romans and lovers” in contrast to Antony’s “Friends, Romans and Countrymen.” For Antony the people are primarily fellow citizens and Romans but for Brutus they are less fellow citizens and more as lovers and friends. Brutus’ devotion to honor causes him to betray his Countrymen and his Friends causing him to have to exile from the city in the midst of a war. The speech is important to note as well because it is given in prose, typically Shakespeare used verse for the educated and noblemen and prose for the base.

Brutus’ suicide is a result of two factors: A. Brutus believes he can stand outside himself and view his actions and B. because he cannot be honest with himself as a result of the conflation of honor and justice. Ultimately, his suicide is a result of his persistence to see the assassination of Julius Caesar as an act of justice and because he still believes he is seen as Junus Brutus.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 221 other followers