Posts Tagged ‘History’

Livy IV: Dawn of the Roman Empire

November 13, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXXI-XL
The Dawn of the Roman Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2000) [c.20 BC]
xxxvi + 612 p.

The previous volume in this edition of Livy’s Roman history had ended with the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus and the consequent end of the Second Punic War. It was Rome’s first victory over a major regional power, and it was a signal to the other political powers in the Mediterranean basin that the Romans were a force to be reckoned with.

An ally of the Carthaginians during that conflict had been Philip V of Macedon, a ruler a few generations removed from Alexander the Great, presiding over a much-reduced but still extensive territory to the east of the Adriatic. In Books 31-40, which are the topic for today, the Romans go to war against Philip and other Mediterranean powers, especially King Antiochus of Syria. They eventually emerge victorious, thus establishing themselves not only as a European and African power, but an Asian one as well, and in consequence the territory later generations would know as “the Roman Empire” began to take on recognizable shape.

The particular conflicts described in this sequence of books are known to historians as the Second Macedonian War and the Roman-Seleucid War. The period covered is 201-180 BC.

**

Livy remarks at the outset that his task seems to be becoming unmanageable:

“I plainly perceive that, like those who, tempted by the shallows near the shore, walk into the sea, the farther I advance, I am carried, as it were, into a greater depth and abyss; and that my work almost increases on my hands which seemed to be diminished by the completion of each of its earlier portions.”

It is beginning to become unmanageable for the reader too, or at least for this reader, not because of its length but on account of its complexity; when the Romans moved into Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor they encountered a bewildering variety of small kingdoms, with alliances and enmities already formed, and then broken and re-formed in response to the Roman threat, and the course of events by which the Romas eventually came to dominate fits no neat narrative the way the conflict with Carthage and Hannibal had. One hardly knows where to look for the main story. Nonetheless, a few significant events can be picked out.

It is worth noting that when the Romans first came into Greece they did so, publicly, as liberators, to free the Greek peoples from submission to Philip of Macedon. And Livy leaves open the question, so far as I can tell, whether this cry of liberation was genuine or merely a front for Roman imperialism. Certainly there were those in Rome who thought it foolhardy to start another war so soon after the victory against Hannibal had been concluded, and it is not obvious that there was a widely shared appetite for expansion of the Roman sphere of influence.

Yet, be that as it may, in 200 they commenced hostilities against Philip, and, after a series of convoluted developments, came to a decisive battle with him in 197 at Cynoscephalae, a battle in which they were victorious, in the aftermath of which the consul Flamininus declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. A few years later the Romans were again victorious against Nabis, the “tyrant of Sparta”, and again declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. For later generations this pronouncement acquired an ironic tone, for whatever their intentions at the time, the Romans never did relinquish influence over these areas, and eventually, some decades later, annexed them as Roman territories, the liberators having become the masters.

Sensing a power vacuum with the ousting of Philip, the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who ruled over a large territory to the north and (primarily) east of the Mediterranean, entered Greece in 192 with an army intent on expanding the Seleucid Empire. Whereupon several Greek cities appealed to the Romans for help, which they very obligingly did.

In fact, this venture by Antiochus occasioned one of the most memorable events of this period of Roman history: another face-to-face meeting of Scipio Africanus and Hannibal. It happened in this way: in the aftermath of the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio, Hannibal had temporarily fled Carthage, but when he returned the Carthaginian authorities saw him as a liability likely to inflame Roman wrath, and they forced him out. He fled to the court of Antiochus III, where he began to encourage Antiochus to take up arms against Rome. Antiochus was convinced; he sent his troops across the Hellespont into Greece, bringing about the Greek appeal for Rome’s assistance that I mentioned above. Opening with a diplomatic move, Rome sent Scipio Africanus to meet with Antiochus for discussions, and Antiochus, with a flair for the dramatic, hosted a dinner and invited them both to attend.

A memorable conversation is reported to have taken place. Scipio, perhaps seeking to tweak Hannibal’s ego, asked him, “Who is the greatest general?”

Hannibal answered, “Alexander, king of Macedonia; because, with a small band, he defeated armies whose numbers were beyond reckoning; and because he had overrun the remotest regions, the merely visiting of which was a thing above human aspiration.”

Scipio then asked, “To whom do you give the second place?” and he replied, “To Pyrrhus; for he first taught the method of encamping; and besides, no one ever showed more exquisite judgment, in choosing his ground, and disposing his posts; while he also possessed the art of conciliating mankind to himself to such a degree, that the nations of Italy wished him, though a foreign prince, to hold the sovereignty among them, rather than the Roman people, who had so long possessed the dominion of that part of the world.”

On his proceeding to ask, “Whom do you esteem the third?” Hannibal replied, “Myself, beyond doubt.”

On this Scipio laughed, and added, “What would you have said if you had conquered me?” “Then,” replied the other, “I would have placed Hannibal, not only before Alexander and Pyrrhus, but before all other commanders.”

This answer, turned with Punic dexterity, and conveying an unexpected kind of flattery, was highly grateful to Scipio, as it set him apart from the crowd of commanders, as one of incomparable eminence.

It’s a great story.

The diplomatic route went nowhere, so Rome went to war against Antiochus. This conflict was not so convoluted as that against the Macedonians, but it was not straightforward either. An important battle took place at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartans had, centuries earlier, attempted to defend Greece against the Persians. Antiochus chose the ground, thinking it would give him at advantage, but it was not enough; the Romans flanked him and he was routed. There followed a sea battle; the Romans triumphed again. Finally, the Romans, led by Lucius Cornelius Scipio (brother of Scipio Africanus), crossed the Hellespont and forced Antiochus to accept terms. This was important not so much because Antiochus was defeated, but because it marked the first time a Roman army had crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. They would find that they rather liked it there, and would be disinclined to leave.

One of the conditions the Roman consul, Flamininus, imposed on Antiochus as part of the peace negotiations was that Hannibal be turned over to the Roman authorities. He was their greatest opponent, and it rankled that he was still at large. Hannibal, of course, was unwilling to go peacefully, and fled to the court of Prusias, king of Bithynia, where, however, the Romans caught up with him. He chose death before dishonour. Livy gives us an account of Hannibal’s end that is worth quoting at length:

“The Carthaginian had always foreseen some such end of his life; for he knew the implacable hatred which the Romans bore him, and placed little confidence in the faith of kings. Besides, he had experienced the fickle temper of Prusias, and had, for some time, dreaded the arrival of Flamininus, as an event fatal to him. Encircled by enemies on every side, in order to have always some path open for flight, he had made seven passages from his house, of which some were concealed, lest they might be invested by a guard. But the imperious government of kings suffers nothing to remain secret which they choose to discover. They surrounded the circuit of the entire house with guards in such a manner, that no one could escape from it. Hannibal, on being told that some of the king’s soldiers were in the porch, endeavoured to escape through a back door, which was the most private, and from which the passage was most secret; but, perceiving that to be guarded by a body of soldiers, and every avenue round to be blocked up by the guards that were posted, he called for poison, which he had long kept in readiness to meet such an event, and said, “Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since they think it too long to wait for the death of an old man. Flamininus will gain no very great or memorable victory over one unarmed and betrayed. What an alteration has taken place in the behaviour of the Roman people, this day affords abundant proof. Their fathers gave warning to Pyrrhus, their armed foe, then heading an army against them in Italy, to beware of poison. The present generation have sent an ambassador, of consular rank, to persuade Prusias villanously to murder his guest.” Then imprecating curses on the head of Prusias, and on his kingdom, and calling on the gods who presided over hospitality, and were witnesses of his breach of faith, he drank off the contents of the cup. This was the end of the life of Hannibal.” (XXXIX, 51)

Hannibal was not the only major figure to pass from the scene in these years. Scipio Africanus had died as well, a few years earlier, and Philip of Macedon died shortly afterward, in 180. The time of giants was passed, it seemed.

**

The great majority of Livy’s attention in these books is focused on military affairs. I have not even begun to try to convey the immense complexity of the story, which took place not only in Greece and Macedonia and Asia Minor, but also in Spain, and in Gaul, and in Liguria, a region that still retains the same name today, near Genoa. (Livy quips of the Ligurians: “This enemy seemed born for the purpose of preserving military discipline among the Romans, during the intervals between important wars.”) Yet from time to time we get a glimpse of domestic politics in Rome, and these glimpses are quite enjoyable.

Livy tells us, for instance, about a controversy that arose when it was proposed that the Oppian Law be repealed. This law, a war-time measure, had forbade Roman women to buy or wear ostentatious clothing or jewelry; they could show no signs of luxury while the men were in harm’s way and the public coffers were empty. However, with the coming of peace a move was made to remove the law. A drama arose when Marcus Porcius Cato (viz. Cato the Elder), one of the chief statesmen of his day, opposed the repeal. Livy gives us his splendid speech, in which he argued, in effect, that though the need for the law had been occasioned by the war, its effects had been, on the whole, beneficial, as tending to maintain an honourable austerity and suspicion of luxury, and that it should therefore be retained in perpetuity. The restrictions had been put in place to combat a real problem. Although Cato’s conservatism has irked some modern commentators — with one calling him a “self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude” — Livy admires him immensely.

About 10 years later (c.183) we read about a controversy which arose over the introduction of the Bacchanalia in Rome. These religious rites were an import from Greece, and were an occasion of scandal when the nature of the rites (drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, mixing of classes) and the extent to which they had infiltrated Roman society were made known. How much of Livy’s reporting of these matters is faithful, I am not sure, but in his telling the response of Rome’s civil leaders was swift and brutal, and the rites were suppressed.

Another religious controversy arose when some books, purporting to date from the reign of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, were discovered on the Janiculum Hill. The religious authorities found the books to be unsound inasmuch as they would tend to cast doubt on Roman religious practices. They were, accordingly, burned. Unfortunately Livy does not explain what was objectionable in them, but his brief account nonetheless exposes to view, like a crack in the foundation stone, the vulnerability of Roman religion.

Also, a note about domestic politics in Rome: in the early days of the republic the most important political posts had been those of the two consuls, and in this period the consuls remained important but were joined by six praetors and one censor. The praetors, like the consuls, were also military leaders, and were each assigned a theatre of conflict to manage, but the role of the censor is less clear from Livy’s account. What we do learn is that the censor had at least two roles in Roman life: he counted the number of Roman citizens (hence, our modern “census”) and he oversaw maintenance of Roman public morals (hence, our modern “censor”). It’s just interesting to see how these two quite different ideas came to bear the same name for us because they were originally conjoined in one Roman office.

**

This volume of Livy’s history was, for me, the most challenging thus far, principally on account of the tangled, disjoint, multi-faceted military history it has to tell, which I found difficult to follow. But the overall picture is clear enough: Rome expanded her sphere of influence into Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Syria, and the Roman Empire, or something very like it, was born. The next volume in this edition, which contains the last books of Livy to survive (Books 41-45), treats of a renewed challenge to Rome that arose in Macedonia after the death of Philip. Sometimes, it seems, a victory has to be won more than once before it takes.

[Liberty]
“Of all blessings none is more grateful to the multitude than liberty.” (XXXIII, 32)

[Jealousy]
“No personalities are as susceptible to jealousy as those of men whose strength of character does not measure up to their pedigree or status, because these people hate quality and merit in another.” (XXXVIII, 43)

[Reactionary politics]
“As diseases must necessarily be known before their remedies, so passions come into being before the laws which prescribe limits to them.” (XXXIV, 4)

Livy III: Hannibal’s War

October 15, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXI-XXX
Hannibal’s War
Titus Livius
(Oxford, 2006) [c.20 BC]
xlviii + 740 p.

We last left Livy as he narrated, at the end of his Book X, the conclusion of the Samnite Wars in c.300 BC, by which time Rome had emerged as a regional power controlling most of the Italian peninsula. In Books XI-XX, which have been lost, he would have recounted the history of the next 80 years, covering first the conflicts in southern Italy against the Greek forces led by Pyrrhus, and then the First Punic War, in which conflict with Carthage arose, principally over control of Sicily.

The present volume, about the Second Punic War, covers a period of just 20 years, but they were years of high drama and memorable incident in which Rome faced her greatest threat yet: the invasion of Italy by Carthaginian forces, led by the famous general Hannibal.

Though Rome had been triumphant in the First Punic War, Carthage had not been crushed in the defeat, and tensions had continued to roil. The story is told of a young boy, Hannibal Barca, who

at about the age of nine, was in a boyish fashion trying to coax his father Hamilcar into taking him to Spain. Hamilcar, who had finished off the [First Punic] war in Africa and was on the point of taking his army across to Spain, was offering sacrifice. He brought Hannibal to the altar and there made him touch the sacred objects and swear to make himself an enemy of the Roman people at the earliest possible opportunity.

Hannibal took his vow seriously. At the age of just 25 he became a general in the Carthaginian army, and decided that the time was ripe to begin.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to simply attack Roman territories; ever the strategist, he conceived a plan to force Rome to declare war on him. He chose Spain as the place to make his first move. At that time Carthage controlled much of Spain south of the Ebro river, while the Romans controlled the territories north of the river. However, there was a city, Saguntum (modern Sagunto, a little north of Valencia), which, though south of the river, was allied to Rome. Hannibal laid siege to the city, and the Romans came to its aid, at the same time sending a delegation to Carthage to formally declare war.

This was all the invitation Hannibal needed to take his troops onto Roman soil, and in Book XXI Livy relates the famous story of how Hannibal led his army north, over the Pyrenees, through Gaul, and then south over the Alps and into Italy. The daring of the journey impressed itself strongly on the imagination of the times: with a huge army, including a set of awe-inspiring war elephants, beset by attacks from the suspicious and worried people who lived along the route, and without roads through the snow-covered mountains, he persevered and emerged onto the plains of northern Italy, where he was met by a Roman legion commanded by Publius Scipio, the father of the man who was, eventually, to prove too much for Hannibal to handle.

But that time was yet to come; now it was Hannibal’s turn to prove too much for the Romans to handle. The Romans met him in three consecutive battles, first along the shores of the Trebbia River, then at Lake Trasimene, and finally, and most famously, at Cannae. In each of these battles Hannibal drew the Roman into a trap — pinning them down, ambushing them, and executing brilliant tactical manoeuvres on the battlefield — and the Romans suffered horrendous, lopsided defeats in each case. The slaughter peaked at Cannae, where Hannibal used a pincer movement to encircle the Roman army, and only a few, who ever thereafter suffered shame, survived. Livy says that more than 40000 Romans were killed that day, and some historians put the death toll even higher.

These were devastating defeats, and had Hannibal pressed his advantage and marched to Rome, it is possible that the course of the war might have played out very differently. Perhaps I would be writing now, in Punic script, about how, despite its promising beginnings, the Roman civilization, known to us only through archeological investigations and a few scattered historical references, was subsumed by the Carthaginian empire.

But that is not what happened; instead, Hannibal took time to rest his troops and tend to supplies, and this gave Rome, with what Livy calls “the spirit of Roman constancy under adversity”, the time it needed to calm its panic, raise new legions (12 of them!), and formulate a defence plan. Fabius Maximus was elected dictator, and he led the new legions out. Considering that they were trounced each time they confronted Hannibal in battle, Fabius made a sensible decision: not to confront him. Instead, his army shadowed Hannibal’s: moving along the ridges when Hannibal was in the valley, keeping the invaders always in view, disrupting their supply lines, but not committing to a full fight. This strategy — which bears Fabian’s name even today — drew intense criticism from the Roman people, who regarded it as cowardly and un-Roman. (Indeed, it was only when he was forced to share command with a consul, Varro, that the disaster of Cannae occurred, for it was Varro who led the army into that trap.)

At this point the scope and complexity of the conflict widened, and I’ll not attempt to trace its complicated course in detail. Hannibal crossed the Alps in 217 BC; by 213 the Romans had 23 legions in the field. Over the next few years, there were numerous regions in which Rome and Carthage came into conflict: in Italy, especially around the city of Capua, which was taken by Hannibal and held for most of the duration of the war, in south Italy (the region of Bruttium, in the toe of the Italian boot), but also in Spain, Gaul, and Sicily. The Romans had a staunch Sicilian ally in Hiero, king of Syracuse, and the Carthaginians courted Philip V of Macedon, who did indeed intervene but to little lasting effect, except perhaps to encourage an increase in the size of the Roman navy.

In 212 BC Hannibal made his closest approach to Rome. During the previous year the Romans had been laying siege to Capua, and Hannibal, in a bid to draw them off by threatening Rome itself, marched his army north and encamped about 8 miles from the city. He himself came within 3 miles, and saw the city with his own eyes for the first, and, as it turned out, last time. The people of Rome were frightened, but her leadership were not spooked, and they resolutely kept their armies where they were. Seeing that Hannibal’s bluff has failed, Capua surrendered.

In the same year a new and momentous figure entered the war: Publius Cornelius Scipio, the aforementioned son of the elder Publius Scipio who had first met Hannibal on his entry into Italy. The elder Scipio had been killed in battle in Spain, along with his brother, in the previous year, and the Roman forces in Spain were leaderless. Scipio the younger, though still in his 20s, volunteered to assume leadership, and the Senate accepted his offer. Upon arrival in Spain, Scipio made an impression immediately. Livy relates two stirring speeches, one to this soldiers, to convince them to accept him as leader (Bk XXVI, 41), and another (Bk XXVI, 43) to justify, as his first military mission, an attack on New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the principal Carthaginian port city on the Iberian peninsula. His troops’ confidence in him was well founded, for by a series of brilliant tactical moves, the Romans took control of the city in a single day of fighting. Scipio won, by acts of magnanimity, the praise of the conquered people too, who described him as “very much like the gods”. He was a man, says Livy, “whose valour was such that he never thought he had achieved enough, and whose search for true glory was insatiable”.

As the contest in Spain turned in favour of the Romans, an army commanded by Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, repeated Hannibal’s feat of marching from Spain, through Gaul, and over the Alps into Italy. It was easier going this time, on account of the roads that Hannibal had built during his passage, but it was no easier upon arrival, for he was met by several Roman legions, and, clashing with them, the Carthaginians were soundly defeated, with Hasdrubal himself killed, and, Livy tells us, as many as 50000 Carthaginians slain. The Romans saw the battle as something of a repeat of Cannae, but with victory now on their side, and they declared a festival of thanksgiving.

By 206 BC the situation was roughly this: Hannibal was still in Italy, but his movement was confined to the southernmost part of the peninsula; in Spain, the Carthaginian presence was confined to the coastal area around modern Cadiz; and Sicily was safely in Roman hands. The time was right, thought Scipio, for Rome to send a force to Carthage, and so to bring the war to an end at last. Livy relates two excellent speeches delivered to the Roman senate, the first by Fabius Maximus (he of the Fabian tactics) arguing against an invasion, and the second by Scipio arguing in favour. Scipio carried the day, and began his preparations.

The Romans sailed for Africa in 203, and, landing, earned a quick victory over the main Carthaginian force by setting fire to their camp at night. In the wake of this disaster for Carthage, Hannibal was recalled from Italy, and, his sixteen-year sojourn ended, he reluctantly obeyed:

Rarely, they say, has anyone departing into exile from his own country displayed such distress as Hannibal did then as he left the country of an enemy. It is said that he often looked back at the coast of Italy, levelling accusations against the gods and men and even invoking curses on himself and his own head for not having led his men straight to Rome when they were covered with blood from the victory at Cannae. (Bk XXX, 20)

Hannibal and Scipio, “the greatest generals not merely of their own day, but of the whole of history down to their time” (Bk XXX, 30), finally met one another at the Battle of Zama. Given the creativity of the two generals, it was a surprisingly straightforward affair; the Romans, though slightly outnumbered, carried the day. Hannibal went to the Carthaginian senate and recommended that they accept terms from the Romans, and then, to elude capture, boarded a ship bound for Antioch. The ship bore him away, and out of this history for the time being, though of course he has retained a permanent place in the memory of Roman civilization and its branches. Scipio, on the other hand, returned to Rome in triumph, and was granted the cognomen by which he is known to this day: Scipio Africanus.

And so this segment of Livy’s history comes to a close.

*

The relationship between Roman politics and Roman religion continues to be an interesting aspect of these books. We don’t hear as much about the sacred Roman chickens as we used to, but religion continues to exert a significant influence over affairs of state in this period. Each year, when the consuls were elected, the principal religious figures for that year were also chosen, and Livy takes care to keep us informed of both. The Senate frequently orders sacrifices, and they were willing to suspend military affairs until honour had been duly paid to the gods. Festivals of thanksgiving were held; temples were built after significant victories. The Romans were a pious people.

Hannibal’s presence in Italy was momentous, and this was emphasized by the number of strange prodigies which occurred during these years. An ox climbed to the third floor of a building and threw itself to its death; glowing figures appeared in the sky; a six-month-old child shouted “Triumph!” in the vegetable market; a spear at Lanuvium moved on its own; a crow entered the temple of Juno; men dressed in white were seen wandering at a distance; stones fell from the sky like rain; a wolf stole a sentinel’s sword; soldier’s spears burst into flame in Sicily; two shields began to bleed; the sun appeared to shrink; burning stones fell from heaven at Praeneste; at Arpi the sun seemed to fight with the moon; at Capena two moons were seen at once; the spring of Hercules flowed with blood; in Antium the ears of wheat were found to be bloodied; sweat appeared on the statue of Mars on the Appian Way; goats grew wool; a hen turned into a cock; the sea caught fire; a cow gave birth to a foal; ravens nested in the temple of Juno Sospita; in Apulia a palm tree caught fire; a shower of chalk occurred at Cales; lightning struck the Capitol and the temple of Vulcan; a spear of Mars moved on its own; a Sicilian cow spoke; a woman in Spoletum turned into a man; an altar was seen in the sky; a swarm of bees entered Rome; the temple of Jupiter was struck by lightning at Aricia; phantom warships were seen on the river at Tarracina; the river at Amiternum ran with blood; the sun turned red; a huge rock seemed to fly; a tower at Cumae was destroyed by lightning; a mule gave birth at Raete; a lamb was born with an udder full of milk; in Anagnia the ground before the city gate was struck by lightning and burned for a day and a night; birds abandoned the grove of Diana; snakes of amazing size jumped from the water like fish at play; at Tarquinii a pig was born with a human face; statues sweated blood; a shower of stones fell at Veii; a wolf entered Capua and mauled a guard; two snakes entered the temple of Jupiter at Satricum; a two-headed pig was born; two suns were seen; an ox spoke; a vulture flew into a shop in a crowded forum; it rained milk; a boy was born with the head of an elephant; mice gnawed a golden crown; a swarm of locusts descended on Capua; a foal was born with five feet; at Arpinum a sinkhole opened. Care was taken to expiate these prodigies with appropriate sacrifices.

*

The Second Punic War was the most extensive that Rome had fought, and it was a watershed in her history. At its end, her influence extended not only through Italy and Gaul, but also Spain and North Africa. She was beginning to look something like the Mediterranean Empire that she was to become. The next books of Livy’s history will, I believe, relate how she turned east and conquered the Greeks, a development that was to have long-term cultural consequences for the West.

In the meantime, few episodes in Roman history had been, or would be, as full of memorable incident and character as the Second Punic War. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account.

*

It rarely happened that good fortune and sound judgement were bestowed upon men at the same time. (Bk XXX, 42)

Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy

October 2, 2017

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius
Niccolò Machiavelli
Translated from the Italian by J.C. & P. Bondanella
(Oxford, 2003) [c.1515]
xxxii + 413 p.

Casting about for supplementary material to accompany my reading of Livy’s Roman history, I discovered that Machiavelli had written this analysis and commentary on Livy’s first ten books, covering Rome’s history from her origins down to the end of the Samnite Wars, c.300 BC. Intrigued, and anticipating that reviewing important episodes in Livy would help to cement my knowledge, I thought that I would glance at it, and I ended up reading it cover to cover.

Machiavelli wrote these Discourses at a country villa near Florence beginning in about 1513, at around the same time that he was writing The Prince, but, like that more famous volume, it was not published until after his death. (The Discourses appeared in 1531.) I am probably one of the few modern readers for whom the Discourses are my first encounter with his writing; he has a reputation as an amoral but brilliantly perceptive analyst of politics and strategy, and I was curious to see to what extent that reputation would be confirmed in this context.

The book is not a section-by-section commentary on Livy, but a collection of wide-ranging political and military analyses, with historical illustrations drawn principally, though not exclusively, from Livy’s Books 1-10. From time to time he draws also on later books of Livy, from other ancient sources, and, quite often, from Italian history of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. As such, the Discourses can, I think, be seen as belonging to the tradition of Italian Renaissance humanism, for which antiquity was a special source of interest and inspiration for contemporary intellectual and political life. He states his purpose as follows:

“I shall be bold to speak freely all I think, both of old times and of new, in order that the minds of the young who happen to read these my writings, may be led to shun modern examples, and be prepared to follow those set by antiquity whenever chance affords the opportunity. For it is the duty of every good man to teach others those wholesome lessons which the malice of Time or of Fortune has not permitted him to put in practice; to the end, that out of many who have the knowledge, some one better loved by Heaven may be found able to carry them out.” (II, preface)

It is a book that displays to very good effect his talent for keen analysis of complicated political problems. That said, the Machiavalli I met in these pages was not the ruthless strategist whom I had expected to meet, but rather a thoughtful and careful student of human nature and history, with a distinct preference for honour and honesty, about which more below.

***

The book is divided into three sections, the first dealing mainly with matters of internal politics, the second addressed mainly to military affairs and international politics, and the third being something of a grab bag (or, at least, a section for which Machiavelli states no particular objectives). Each section is divided into about fifty topics, usually treated analytically and augmented with historical data as evidence. It is, therefore, a difficult book to summarize, but I will try, in what follows, to pull on a few of the common threads that I found woven through it. There is, for those interested, a quite detailed overview of the contents on the book’s Wikipedia page.

Machiavelli is interested, for instance, in the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government. He sketches out six principal types, corresponding to the same six defined by Aristotle, as principality, aristocracy, and democracy, and their corrupted forms of tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. He sees something bad in all of them: the corrupt ones are bad, of course, from their nature, but the good ones are also defective on account of their generally brief duration. He is not an advocate for any one form, and in fact recommends (which I think Aristotle also did, if memory serves) that different forms be instantiated at different levels of governance, so that each may serve as a check upon the others. He is interested in how political power is exercised; he praises the Romans, for instance, for replacing the kingship with the consulship, an office having the same powers but having their exercise distributed among persons and alternating in an orderly fashion.

To the question of whether nobles guard freedom more effectively than do the people, he answers in the affirmative, citing the examples of Sparta and Venice in contrast with that of Rome. But he then later argues that “a people is wiser and more constant than a Prince”, especially when judging of particular, concrete matters (I, 43), and are wiser than a prince when choosing men to fill political offices so long as they are comparably well informed (I, 34). On the other hand,the people are vulnerable to flattery and demagoguery, for “large hopes and brave promises easily move them” (I, 53). A great leader is of inestimable value — citing the example of Camillus, he writes that

“a great man is constantly the same through all vicissitudes of Fortune; so that although she change, now exalting, now depressing, he remains unchanged, and retains always a mind so unmoved, and in such complete accordance with his nature as declares to all that over him Fortune has no dominion.” (III, 31)

Yet even the power granted to such a man must be circumscribed and defined, for hazards attend the giving of too much power to any one man:

“Where an uncontrolled authority is given, no security is afforded by the circumstance that the body of the people is not corrupted; for in the briefest possible time absolute authority will make a people corrupt, and obtain for itself friends and partisans. Nor will it be any hindrance to him in whom such authority is vested, that he is poor and without connections, for wealth and every other advantage will quickly follow” (II, 35)

There is much in these pages about good governance. When, for example, a citizen attempts to gain power through false accusations, he points to the example set by the Romans as a remedy:

“The Romans demonstrated exactly how false accusers must be punished. Indeed, they must be turned into public accusers, and when the public indictment is found true, either reward them or avoid punishing them, but when it is found false, punish them as Manlius was punished.” (I, 8)

(Manlius, I remind you, was thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.) To preserve justice, a state must always uphold the rule of law:

“In a republic, nothing should be left to be effected through irregular methods, because, although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be violated for ends which are not good.” (I, 34)

There must, for example, be no-one who is above the law, whether because of their wealth, power, or renown:

“Nothing, I think, is of worse example in a republic, than to make a law and not to keep it; and most of all, when he who breaks is he that made it.” (I, 45)

“No well-ordered State ever strikes a balance between the services of its citizens and their misdeeds; but appointing rewards for good actions and punishment for bad, when it has rewarded a man for acting well, will afterwards, should he act ill, chastise him, without regard to his former deserts. When these ordinances are duly observed, a city will live long in freedom, but when they are neglected, it must soon come to ruin.” (I, 24)

By way of illustration he cites the example of Horatius, a man celebrated for his courage and credited with saving the city from destruction, but then subsequently found guilty of homicide and punished in accordance with the law.

He seems not to have much to say on economics, though he does argue that “it should be the object of every well-governed commonwealth to make the State rich and keep individual citizens poor” (I, 37). He is endorsing here the Roman ideal of the farmer-statesman, especially exemplified by Cincinnatus, who was summoned from ploughing his family farm to the office of dictator in a time of crisis.

He is also aware of the importance of a shared vision and common values for a healthy polity. He advocates a kind of political ressourcement, because “for a sect of commonwealth to last long, it must often be brought back to its beginnings”. The United States, with its strong civic emphasis on the founding fathers, illustrates this virtue. Machiavelli illustrates the principle with reference to the Catholic Church:

“For had not this religion of ours been brought back to its original condition by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, it must soon have been utterly extinguished. They, however, by their voluntary poverty, and by their imitation of the life of Christ, rekindled in the minds of men the dying flame of faith; and by the efficacious rules which they established averted from our Church that ruin which the ill lives of its prelates and heads must otherwise have brought upon it.” (III, 1)

The Machiavelli we know from The Prince — the master of the tactical art of politics — can also be found in these Discourses. The centrepiece of this aspect of the book is unquestionably the section “Of Conspiracies”, a long (~35 pages in this edition) analysis of types of conspiracies that arise in a state, their origins and objectives, the conditions under which they succeed and fail, and how they can be countered and exposed. It’s an excellent, potted example of Machiavelli’s talent for analysis.

He warns rulers about the dangers that arise when a leader harms those under his authority:

“never … think so lightly of any man as to suppose, that when wrong upon wrong has been done him, he will not bethink himself of revenge, however great the danger he runs, or the punishment he thereby brings upon himself.” (II, 28)

When such dangers do arise, he advises that “it is safer to temporize with than to meet it with violence”, and this, I think, applies when the danger arises from below. But the situation is reversed when one is threatened from above, or by a superior power, for in that case he counsels confrontation as the better tactic, and the passage is worth quoting in full:

“It is better that a thing be taken from you by force than yielded through fear of force. For if you yield through fear and to escape war, the chances are that you do not escape it; since he to whom, out of manifest cowardice you make this concession, will not rest content, but will endeavour to wring further concessions from you, and making less account of you, will only be the more kindled against you. At the same time you will find your friends less zealous on your behalf, since to them you will appear either weak or cowardly. But if, so soon as the designs of your enemy are disclosed, you at once prepare to resist though your strength be inferior to his, he will begin to think more of you, other neighbouring princes will think more; and many will be willing to assist you, on seeing you take up arms, who, had you relinquished hope and abandoned yourself to despair, would never have stirred a finger to save you.” (II, 14)

There is no one size fits all solution for those threatened unjustly by an authority, but those finding themselves in such a situation would do well, I think, to take a good, long look at this passage.

Machiavelli does not dwell in these pages on the relationship of politics to religion, but he does make a few brief comments that illuminate his views. He notes, quite properly, that religion had an essential civic role for Romans, who saw it as “absolutely necessary for maintaining a civilized society” (I, 11), and he seems himself to endorse this view when he says that “there can be no greater indication of the ruin of a state than to see a disregard for its divine worship” (I, 12). But his attitude to religion appears to be rather practical rather than devout; he speaks of the advantages of religion “when it is properly used” (I, 15), and thereby makes it subservient to political ends. Still, his general view on the close affiliation of politics and religion, especially considered as an echo of the ancient understanding, serves as a corrective to what I think is a fairly common misapprehension today — namely, our tendency to think that the union of politics and religion was a peculiarly medieval phenomenon undone in the early modern period, whereas in truth this union was strong in the ancient world, was stressed, teased apart, and clarified by distinctions in the medieval period, only to be recovered in its more ancient form, in the vogue for antiquity, during the Renaissance (Machiavelli being a case in point) and early modern period. It was not until the eighteenth century that the assault on the fittingness of this close alliance began in earnest.

Another recurrent theme throughout these Discourses concerns the risks and advantages of “regime change”, of efforts to alter the form of government of a people. Machiavelli understands that the virtue of a people (or its absence) is relevant to the type of government appropriate to that people (“different institutions and ordinances are needed in a corrupt State from those which suit a State which is not corrupted; for where the matter is wholly dissimilar, the form cannot be similar.” (I, 18)) and that, therefore, no one form of government is suitable for all (“Let a commonwealth, then, be constituted in the country where a great equality is found or has been made; and, conversely, let a princedom be constituted where great inequality prevails. Otherwise what is constituted will be discordant in itself, and without stability.” (I, 55)). The attempt to introduce democracy to a polity that has previously been under a powerful prince is especially fraught, and one must, in Machiavelli’s words, “kill the sons of Brutus” — that is, remove all those tho had specially benefitted under the prince, lest they conspire against the new order. That this counsel might be pertinent to our contemporary affairs has not been entirely overlooked.

Many hazards attend efforts to change social institutions:

“It is no less arduous and dangerous to attempt to free a people disposed to live in servitude, than to enslave a people who desire to live free.” (III, 8)

Rapid social or political change is disruptive and requires or produces violence, and slow change is difficult to motivate and manage. He sees slow change as being, on balance, preferable, and counsels authorities to proceed by subterfuge and misdirection:

“Whoever takes upon him to reform the government of a city, must, if his measures are to be well received and carried out with general approval, preserve at least the semblance of existing methods, so as not to appear to the people to have made any change in the old order of things; although, in truth, the new ordinances differ altogether from those which they replace. For when this is attended to, the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities.” (I, 25)

Even in ideal circumstances, however, when foresight and cunning are used conscientiously, success is elusive, and this for a basic reason that is one of the main grounds for a principled conservatism:

“In close vicinity to every good is found also an evil, so apt to grow up along with it that it is hardly possible to have the one without accepting the other. This we see in all human affairs, and the result is, that unless fortune aid us to overcome this natural and common disadvantage, we never arrive at any excellence.” (III, 37)

***

I mentioned at the beginning that the middle section of the book is devoted to an analysis of international affairs, including warfare, and there is a fair bit of material about specifically military strategy and tactics. He writes focused analyses, for instance, of the role of artillery in warfare (II, 17) and on the disadvantages of fortresses (II, 24). (The Romans, he notes, conquered many fortresses and, upon conquering them, invariably pulled them down.) He discusses the causes of war, the value of strength over reputation, and the dangers of using hired soldiers. Occasionally he lets drop a sentence that has something of the aphorism about it:

“We should never hazard our whole fortune where we put not forth our entire strength.” (I, 23)

“Men fighting in their own cause make good and resolute soldiers.” (I, 43)

“Not gold but good soldiers constitute the sinews of war” (II, 10)

His main argument is that military leaders of his own time were incompetent because they failed to follow the military example set by the Romans.

***

In order to bring this long discussion to a close, I’d like to return to the question of Machiavelli’s reputation as an immoralist, or at least an amoralist. These Discourses do not really support that appraisal. It is true that he does not hesitate to describe ruthless or underhanded tactics that will be effective, but this is not the same as endorsing those tactics. The most morally troublesome argument I could find concerns what actions may or may not be licit in the conduct of war; he takes an extreme position:

“When the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene.” (III, 41)

This is inconsistent not only with modern standards, but with the Just War tradition as a whole. It is also inconsistent with what he says elsewhere, as, for instance, when in a section that would seem to be an illustration of the above principle (“That Fraud is fair in War”), he qualifies it in important ways:

“I would not have it understood that any fraud is glorious which leads you to break your plighted word, or to depart from covenants to which you have agreed; for though to do so may sometimes gain you territory and power, it can never, as I have said elsewhere, gain you glory.”

Similarly, after describing candidly the violence which a king will sometimes have to commit in order to preserve in existence a corrupted state, he remarks as follows:

“These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind.” (I, 26)

All of which makes me think he might have been, after all, a pretty decent fellow.

***

My interest in these Discourses was first aroused on account of their relation to Livy, and I certainly did appreciate the chance to revisit episodes in his history, but, as is probably evident from the comparative lack of references to Livy in these notes, I soon found that the book took on independent interest. Reading The Prince has never been very high on my list of priorities, but it is now higher than it was before.

**

[Law and custom]
Just as good customs require laws in order to be maintained, so laws require good customs in order to be observed. (I, 18)

[Power, real and statutory]
Power may readily give titles, but not titles power. (I, 34)

[Gratitude and vengeance]
Tacitus said, “Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness: the truth is that gratitude is irksome, while vengeance is accounted gain”. (I, 29)

[Ambition]
…which has such dominion in their hearts that it never leaves them to whatsoever heights they climb. For nature has so ordered it that while they desire everything, it is impossible for them to have everything, and thus their desires being always in excess of their capacity to gratify them, they remain constantly dissatisfied and discontented. And hence the vicissitudes in human affairs. (I, 37)

[A hierarchy of praise]
Among all men who are praised, the most highly praised are those who have been leaders and founders of religions. Close afterwards come those who have founded either republics or kingdoms. After them the most celebrated men are those who, placed at the head of armies, have enlarged either their own realm or that of their native country. To these may be added men of letters… (I, 10)

[Adversity unifies]
The causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquillity, while the causes of union are fear and war. (II, 25)

Livy II: Rome’s Italian Wars

August 10, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri VI-X
Rome’s Italian Wars
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2013) [c.20 BC]
448 p.

The first volume in this series covered the history of Rome from its legendary founding down to 390 BC, the year of Rome’s “second founding” after the city was sacked by the Gauls. This second volume continues the story for another century.

This was an important period in the history of Rome. After the Gauls sacked the city there was serious consideration given to abandoning Rome altogether, and she had, in any case, been little more than a local power up to that point. However, by the end of this period Rome was the dominant power in the region, ruling most of the Italian peninsula. The story of how this transformation came about — essentially, through a series of wars — is the central thread of Livy’s narrative in these books.

Livy remarks at the beginning of Book VI that his history will be presented henceforth “with greater clarity and certitude” than was possible for the history prior to the Gallic sacking, for the simple reason that the sacking had destroyed the records. We can therefore probably (?) be quite clear and certain that it was Camillus, the man who had led the army in the successful, last-ditch effort to drive out the Gauls, who convinced the Roman people to remain and rebuild their devastated city, and who is therefore honoured as “the second founder of Rome”.

Rome’s neighbours, seeing her in her weakened state, pressed their own advantage, and Camillus led the Roman army in a series of battles with these unneighbourly neighbours: the Volsci, Aequi, Etruscans, Latins, Tibur, Tarquinii, Falisci, Veitrae, Aurunci, and Hernici. The fact that these names are unfamiliar tells you something of how they fared; Rome was, almost invariably and certainly ultimately, victorious in these skirmishes. Her usual pattern, both now and in future, was to defeat the opposing army, subdue the population, pull down fortresses, and, in many cases, send Roman colonists to establish a permanent Roman presence in the conquered city. In some cases she granted a degree of Roman citizenship (which came in carefully graduated kinds). Defeats were seldom permanent however: we often read of Roman victories over so-and-so, but then so-and-so pops up again and again, ready for another drubbing. As we’ll see, even the Gauls, the boogeymen of the Roman psyche, came back.

Although Livy’s focus in this segment of his history is strongly focused on military affairs, we do learn about some of the principal developments in Rome’s internal politics during the rebuilding period. There had always been tension between the patricians and the plebs, and the plebs now sought greater power through a series of reforms: they wanted debt-free loans to finance the rebuilding of their homes, they wanted limits placed on the amount of land any one person could own, and they wanted the consulship to be open to plebs. They were partly successful: interest rates were reduced but not eliminated, land ownership was regulated, and the patricians granted that one of the two consuls could be a pleb (although it would be some years before a pleb was actually elected). In response, however, the patricians created several new offices, the praetorship and curale aedileships, open only to themselves. It was ever thus.

A memorable drama occurred during the rebuilding: Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, who had been trapped on the Capitol during the Gallic siege, and who had thrown down several attacking Gauls attempting to scale the Capitol, thinking himself the saviour of Rome, began to seek power for himself by giving gifts to the plebs and sowing seeds of conflict with the patricians. This aroused suspicions, first of the patricians and soon of the plebs, and he was eventually charged with aspiring to kingly power, high on the list of the worst offences a Roman citizen could commit. The Romans acted decisively: he was thrown to his death from the Tarpeian Rock, his house was razed to the ground, and patricians were henceforth barred from being named Marcus Manlius. Half measures were not the Roman way.

The Gauls returned in 349 BC, and occasioned the emergence of one of Rome’s great heroes: Marcus Valerius Corvus. The story is rather similar to that of David and Goliath: young Marcus volunteered for a one-on-one fight with a Gallic giant who was taunting the Roman army. As he approached, sword in hand, a raven is said to have descended, landed on his helmet, and then, in dramatic fashion, to have attacked the face of the Gallic foe, helping Marcus to a victory, and earning him his cognomen (corvus = raven). The Romans invested great importance in the behaviour of animals, and especially of birds (parenthetically, an entertaining history of Rome could be compiled simply by recounting all of the interventions into Roman politics and international relations made by Rome’s sacred chickens), and the good omen that attended Corvus’ rise to fame foretold good things to come, and so it proved, for it was Corvus who became the principal military leader in the conflicts which would eventually propel Rome into a major regional power, waged against a foe that was the most challenging that she had yet encountered: the Samnites.

The Samnites lived in the hilly country to the south and east of Rome. They were a reasonably wealthy people, their armies were highly disciplined and tenacious, and they were not afraid of the Romans. Rome was to wage three distinct wars against them: the First Samnite War (343-341 BC) opened the hostilities and allowed the two armies to test their strength against one another in three main battles, each of which was won by the Romans, albeit with some difficulty; the Second Samnite War (326-304 BC) was a much more serious and protracted conflict that required the Romans to occupy Samnite territory in order to secure a victory; and, finally, in the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC) the remnant Samnites joined forces with the principal powers surrounding Rome — the Gauls, the Etruscans, and the Umbrians — but even this alliance could not defeat Rome. When the dust settled, her enemies destroyed, what didn’t kill her had made her stronger: Rome was a major regional power.

Part of the reason for Rome’s consistent military success was that she invented new battlefield tactics. During the First Samnite War she deployed soldiers in the phalanx system that served the Greeks so well. However it was found that on hilly terrain the phalanx was too clumsy, and was especially vulnerable to flanking maneuvers. Therefore during the interval between the First and Second Samnite Wars, while they were fighting another campaign called the Latin War, the Romans developed the maniple system that would become their standard fighting formation for centuries: three staggered lines of small groups of men arrayed along a front. The maniple allowed tired soldiers to be replaced by fresh ones in an orderly way, and because of the reduced size of each group they could be more responsive and flexible than the phalanx had permitted.

The Second Samnite War very nearly ended in catastrophic defeat for the Romans. By cunning use of counter-intelligence the Samnites managed to lure the marching Roman army into a gorge — the Caudine Forks — where they became trapped. The Samnite leader consulted his aged father for advice about how to proceed, and the advice came back: let them all go unharmed. Balking, and thinking it must be some mistake, he sent again for advice, and this time the advice came back: kill them all. Confused, he sought clarification, and was told that only two courses were open to him: let them go and thereby make the Romans lasting friends, or kill them and thereby destroy their power to attack. This was wise advice, but he chose instead a middle course: he made the Romans surrender, but confiscated their weapons and humiliated them by making them pass under a yoke as they marched home. Predictably, this did nothing to harm Roman military might, but it did inflame Roman pride and a desire for revenge, and it wasn’t long before the Roman army was back on the field, this time with a focus and power that the Samnites would not withstand.

One of Rome’s great political and military leaders (and Roman leaders tended to be both) during this war was Papirius Cursor, a man whom Livy feels comfortable comparing to Alexander the Great. In fact, there is a very interesting digression (Book IX, 16-19) in which Livy pauses to speculate on how various Roman generals would have fared against Alexander.

Another important figure in Rome during this time was (another) Appius Claudius — in this case, the Appius who conceived and spearheaded the effort to build a major road running south from Rome so as to enable faster and more reliable transport of troops and goods into war zones and occupied territories. It was the first such thoroughfare the Romans built, and it served as the model for many such roads that would eventually cover the Empire; to this day, the road bears his name.

As I mentioned above, the Third Samnite War drew in a number of regional powers who saw it as being in their interest to contain the bourgeoning Roman power, but they proved unequal to the task. When this war ended, Rome was the sole power in central Italy, her rule extending from the Alps in the north to the southern parts of the peninsula, where, however, the Greeks retained control over some coastal regions and of Sicily. Naturally, the Romans would fight them before long, and soon another power from across the sea would enter Rome’s ambit, a power that would be her most formidable opponent yet: Carthage. But that is a tale for another time.

I greatly enjoyed reading this segment of Livy’s history. Whereas the first five books were a nice balance of internal politics and military history, in these five books the military matters moved very much into the foreground. While the long series of battles and skirmishes was sometimes confusing, Livy leavened the narrative with enough asides and personal portraits to hold my interest, and the overall arc of the story was clear. Unfortunately Books XXI-XXX of Livy’s history, covering roughly 290-220 BC, have been lost, so I will have to resume with Book XXXI, which treats of Hannibal and the Second Punic War. I’m looking forward to it.

Treasures of heaven

June 13, 2017

I recently watched this interesting BBC documentary on sacred relics and reliquaries. Like many such productions, it has the whiff of anthropology about it, as though this, our own still-living tradition, was that of an alien people (which, I know, is how it would seem to some significant section of the audience), but it’s worth persevering in order to see the wonderful relics they examine, including one of St Edmund Campion and another of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, both English martyrs. The reliquaries, especially a tiny one built to house one of the thorns of Christ’s crown, are breathtaking in their intricate beauty. I found it all both interesting and edifying. The duration is about 1 hour.

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Anonymous
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

Just praise of the past

May 31, 2017

“Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present, and are so much the partisans of what has been, as not merely to cry up those times which are known to them only from the records left by historians, but also, when they grow old, to extol the days in which they remember their youth to have been spent. And although this preference of theirs be in most instances a mistaken one, I can see that there are many causes to account for it; chief of which I take to be that in respect of things long gone by we perceive not the whole truth, those circumstances that would detract from the credit of the past being for the most part hidden from us, while all that gives it lustre is magnified and embellished. For the generality of writers render this tribute to the good fortune of conquerors, that to make their achievements seem more splendid, they not merely exaggerate the great things they have done, but also lend such a colour to the actions of their enemies, that any one born afterwards, whether in the conquering or in the conquered country, has cause to marvel at these men and these times, and is constrained to praise and love them beyond all others.

Again, men being moved to hatred either by fear or envy, these two most powerful causes of dislike are cancelled in respect of things which are past, because what is past can neither do us hurt, nor afford occasion for envy. The contrary, however, is the case with the things we see, and in which we take part; for in these, from our complete acquaintance with them, no part of them being hidden from us, we recognize, along with much that is good, much that displeases us, and so are forced to pronounce them far inferior to the old, although in truth they deserve far greater praise and admiration. I speak not, here, of what relates to the arts, which have such distinction inherent in them, that time can give or take from them but little of the glory which they merit of themselves. I speak of the lives and manners of men, touching which the grounds for judging are not so clear.

I repeat, then, that it is true that this habit of blaming and praising obtains, but not always true that it is wrongly applied. For sometimes it will happen that this judgment is just; because, as human affairs are in constant movement, it must be that they either rise or fall. Wherefore, we may see a city or province furnished with free institutions by some great and wise founder, flourish for a while through his merits, and advance steadily on the path of improvement. Any one born therein at that time would be in the wrong to praise the past more than the present, and his error would be occasioned by the causes already noticed. But any one born afterwards in that city or province when the time has come for it to fall away from its former felicity, would not be mistaken in praising the past.”

— Niccolò Machiavelli,
Discourses on Livy.

Livy I: The Rise of Rome

May 14, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri I-V
The Rise of Rome
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by T.J. Luce
(Oxford, 2008) [c.25 BC]
xxxiii + 372 p.

The Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundations of the City) is one of the epic authorial feats in world history. This history of Rome occupied Livy throughout his life and in the end consisted of 142 books covering the period from Rome’s legendary founding (traditionally dated to 753 BC) down to Livy’s own time (9 BC). Although only 35 of these books have survived, they alone require about 2500 pages of text in a modern edition. Pliny the Younger tells us of a young man from Spain “who was so impressed by the name and reputation of Titus Livius that he journeyed from the end of the inhabited world just to see him, looked, turned about and went back home”, and it’s little wonder.

These first five books of Livy’s history cover the mythical foundation of Rome, the history of the seven kings, and then the course of republican Rome down to 390 BC, when the city suffered its first major military defeat, at the hands of a Gallic army. How much of this is real history and how much legendary embellishment is hard to say. Livy, who did not pretend to be an original historian and who is open about his reliance on pre-existing sources, notes that few written records survived from this period owing to the calamitous burning of the city that accompanied this same military defeat. Probably we are dealing with an admixture of legend and history, with the proportion of legend greater the more distant the past, roughly speaking.

Livy’s is an annalistic history: he narrates events year by year, rather than following story arcs one at a time and back-tracking. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but I appreciated that I always knew where I was on the timeline.

Everyone knows the two founding stories of Rome — that Aeneas founded the city after fleeing Troy in the aftermath of the Trojan War, and that the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf and somehow founded the city too — but not everyone, I think, knows how the two stories are related. Aeneas was indeed taken to be the remote founder of Rome for having established what was to become Roman stock on Italian soil, but it was many generations before the city itself was formed, and Romulus and Remus were the proximate founders of the city. They argued over which of the seven hills of Rome should be the initial foundation — Palatine or Aventine, respectively — and Romulus (or one of his followers) killed Remus, and went on to become the city’s first king. The Romans dated these events to (what we now call) 753 BC.

Romulus was credited with establishing the basic political structure of Rome, dividing the people into patricians and plebs, and founding the senate. He formed an army and led it into battle against Rome’s neighbours. (One of these outings was the famous rape of the Sabine women.) The subsequent king, Numa Pompilius, was said to have founded the principal religious rites of the Romans. In later centuries Romans looked back at the actions of these first two kings as having established the Roman character as that of a fighting people who honour the gods (as opposed, say, to seeing themselves as a pious people who fight when necessary — an important difference of emphasis).

As time went on, succession of the kingship became gradually more contested, and with the seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who took the throne by murdering his predecessor and those who stood to receive the crown before him, Rome had a genuine tyrant on its hands. He was eventually overthrown and, in 509 BC, the Romans re-founded their government as a republic, maintaining a horror of kingship thereafter.

(It is interesting that the date assigned to the founding of republican Rome might be an instance of the Romans trying to upstage the Athenians, who established their democracy in 508 BC.)

In place of a king, the Romans established the office of consul. Consuls were elected by the senate, two at a time, and governed for a period of one year. The plebs, however, protesting that the consuls, drawn from the patrician class, governed with only their own class’ interests in mind, pressured their leaders to establish a second office, that of tribune, to be elected by the plebs and granted certain powers.

From this point, with the principal pieces of Roman government in place, there are two main threads to the history. On one hand, there are the military and political conflicts with regional powers, and, on the other, persistent internal conflict between the patricians and plebs.

The principal regional powers with whom Rome came into conflict in this period were the Veii, Volsci, and Aequi. It is worth emphasizing just how small Rome’s reach was at this time: their most threatening neighbour was Veii, located just a dozen miles from Rome; so these “wars” are really local skirmishes. Many wonderful stories are woven into this military history — Horatius at the bridge, the courage of Mucius, the vengeful fury of Coriolanus, the reckless lust of Appius Claudius, and the splendid civic virtue of Cincinnatus. It was farmer-general Cincinnatus who led the Romans to one of their first great military victories, against the Volsci and Aequi, around the year 450 BC.

As for Rome’s internal politics, it was a slow-boiling conflict that occasionally spilled over into violence. Around the middle of the 5th century the plebs began to push for the introduction of written law, so as to be less vulnerable to the whim of the consuls. Rome sent a delegation to Athens to study Solon’s reforms, and finally committed to the production of ten (later twelve) large, public tablets outlining Roman law. To produce these Twelve Tables, the Romans temporarily replaced the two consuls with a new form of government by a group of ten men called (sensibly enough) decemvirs, but the power of this office was so badly abused that it lasted only a few years, reverting to the trusted consulship. The Romans also created the office of dictator, a temporary position to be granted to one man in times of emergency, and the office of censor, originally intended to be responsible for taking a periodic census but later destined to become one of the most powerful positions in Roman government.

In Book V Livy narrates two episodes of great importance. The first is the war with Veii. The Romans and the Veii had long been in conflict with one another over land and access to precious resources (like salt). Veii was a strongly fortified city, and a formidable opponent. As matters came to a head, the patrician Camillus, one of the most honoured figures in Roman history, was named dictator and took charge of the army. He directed that a great tunnel be secretly made that burrowed under the walls of Veii and into its sewer system. This was successfully done, and, in an echo of the story of the Trojan Horse, a group of Roman soldiers was able to surprise the citizens of Veii by appearing inside their walls, throwing open the gates and allowing the whole army to enter. The victory was decisive, and the survivors were sold as slaves, leaving the city empty.

It was, to that point, Rome’s greatest victory, but the celebrations were short-lived, for a new enemy appeared on the scene: the Gauls. Livy doesn’t go into great detail about where they came from, but I understand that they were a tribe from north of the Alps who descended into Italy and proved too strong for most to resist. Exactly how they came into conflict with Rome is unclear — Livy gives a few different versions of how and why — but somehow the Romans found them approaching the city walls. Although they mustered an army, the Gallic forces were intimidating and the Roman defenders buckled and fled. The gates were not even secured, and the Gauls entered the city to loot and burn it. Only the Capitol remained defended, and the Gauls began a siege. As the Roman summer wore on, however, the Gauls fell ill as the Romans starved, and eventually the two sides agreed to terms: the Romans would pay and the Gauls would depart. Yet, so the story goes, as the payment was being prepared the contempt of the Gauls so angered the Romans that Camillus, rallying his weakened troops, ordered a sudden attack, and the Gauls were driven out.

Rome was so thoroughly devastated that the people made plans to relocate to the now-empty city of Veii, abandoning Rome for good, but Camillus, in a stirring speech re-imagined by Livy, convinced them to stay and rebuild. For this reason, he was later honoured as the “second founder” of Rome. But though they did rebuild, the memory of this first sack of Rome remained in the Roman imagination as a great horror, and they resolved that it should never happen again. (And, indeed, their resolve was strong, for it would be 850 years before another enemy force breached the walls.)

**

So ends this first volume in Livy’s history. My knowledge of Roman history is middling to weak, so most of this has been new to me, and all of it has been enjoyable to read. I am looking forward to the next volume.

**

“Whatever activity is rewarded in a state invariably thrives the most.” (Book IV, ii)

Lecture night: Pope vs. Hitler

November 16, 2016

The Pius Wars, contesting the role that Pope Pius XII played in World War II, seem to have waned in recent years, but a new book on the subject, by Mark Reibling, has been getting a fair bit of attention. Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler is based in part on newly available documents which reveal not only that Pius XII was aware of numerous plots to assassinate Hitler, but that he actively aided the conspirators and acted as an emissary between them and the Allies.

Though legitimate questions remain, I think, about whether Pius’ strategy of subterfuge and oblique criticism of Nazism (as opposed to open and vociferous opposition) was the wisest course, the evidence marshalled by Reibling should lay to final rest the old accusations that he was secretly on Hitler’s side, as was once claimed.

Here is an extended interview about the book that Reibling gave to NPR:

There is also a television documentary, based on the book, that is quite good.

Cobbett: The Protestant Reformation

October 17, 2016

220px-william_cobbettA History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
William Cobbett
(TAN Books, 1988) [c.1825]
432 p.

I do not know much about William Cobbett, but based on this book he seems the sort who had a habit of placing his index finger on the sternum of his conversation partners, who made honest but uncomfortable remarks at dinner parties, and who was a nasty thorn in the side of the establishment. He burned with zeal for justice. In this book he sallies out to slay a giant — the historiography of the English Reformation, which he calls “a mass of the most base falsehoods and misrepresentations” promulgated by “crafty and selfish revilers of the religion of our fathers” who are full of “presumption, impudence, inconsistency, and insincerity”.

Cobbett was himself a Protestant, but he despised the way the history of English religion since Henry VIII had been white-washed. Curiously, in this book he evinces little interest in “rites and ceremonies and articles of faith and rules of discipline”; he has no theological purpose. His wants simply to set the historical record straight, and then to argue that, quite apart from doctrinal matters, the Reformation was a social disaster for England.

His general view can be summarized, as gently and succinctly as possible, in the following way:

Now, my friends, a fair and honest inquiry will teach us, that this was an alteration greatly for the worse; that the “REFORMATION,” as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.

In other words, to counter the prevailing history in which Protestants did no wrong and Catholics did no right, Cobbett threw his weight heavily in the opposite direction, arguing not only that the motives and methods of the Protestants were evil, but that England before the Reformation was a kind of terrestrial paradise, untroubled by the problems besetting the sceptered isle in his own time. The lopsidedness of this view makes it vulnerable for many of the same reasons that the standard history was vulnerable, but, at the same time, it is rather thrilling to follow his take-no-prisoners approach.

A word-mincer he is not. He cites with evident relish Martin Luther’s description of Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”, and then piles on by calling the king a “savage monster” and “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld”. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious, most impious, most blasphemous caitiff expired, at last, amidst those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” Cromwell is “slavish and base”, “the most insolent and cruel of ruffians”. Elizabeth, lauded by Protestant historians as “good Queen Bess”, Cobbett dubs “ripping-up Betsy”, “inexorable apostate”, “horrible lynx-like she-tyrant”, “terrible she-tyrant”, “termagant tyrant”, and “the worst woman that ever existed in England, or in the whole world, Jezebel herself not excepted.” Reformers in general he calls “ruffian devastators” for whom “plunder, sacrilege, adultery, polygamy, incest, perjury, and murder were almost as habitual as sleeping and waking”. By contrast, the Catholic queen Mary — “Bloody Mary” by convention — he cites as an “example of fidelity, sincerity, patience, resignation, generosity, gratitude, and purity in thought, word and deed”. The standard history he assaults from every side.

**

Though Cobbett, as I said, does not try to argue specific doctrinal points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, and indeed seems to think them almost matters of indifference, he does not forbear to prosecute the case of inconsistency against the Protestant reformers. He wryly notes that the Protestant polemic against Catholicism — the “Scarlet Whore” — risks proving too much: so great was the Established Church’s debt to Catholicism that each polemical assault on the latter could not but weaken the former as well. The Protestant devotion to the Bible, for instance, could only survive in the company of anti-Catholicism so long as the Catholic origins of the Bible were ignored:

To a pretty state do we come, when we, if we still listen to these calumniators, proclaim to the world, that our only hope of salvation rests on promises contained in a book, which we have received from the Scarlet Whore and of the authenticity of which we have no voucher other than that Scarlet Whore and that Church, whose worship is “idolatrous” and whose doctrines are “damnable.”

Similarly he lampoons the notion that there could be any legitimate national head of the Church who promulgates teachings in contradiction of the Pope’s, and yet somehow not have the unity of that national Church with the Church universal be impaired:

It is perfectly monstrous to suppose that there can be TWO true faiths. It cannot be: one of the two must be false. … How is the faith of all nations to continue to be ONE, it there be, in every nation, a head of the Church, who is to be appealed to, in the last resort, as to all questions, as to all points of dispute, which may arise? How, if this be the case, is there to be “one fold and one shepherd”? How is there to be “one faith and one baptism”? how are the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” to be preserved? We shall presently see what unity and what peace there were in England, the moment that the King became the head of the Church.

This is not a theological problem, as such, but simply a logical one: the Church of England cannot both be and not be part of the Catholic Church.

**

But inconsistencies of this sort don’t matter greatly to Cobbett because he believes they didn’t really matter greatly to the Reformers themselves. Instead, to his mind the intellectual case against Catholicism, cobbled and threadbare as it was, was simply cover for the real motive: plunder. There was “plunder at the bottom”; plunder was “the mainspring” from which the rest flowed.

I won’t pretend to adjudicate the motives of the Reformers, but I will agree with Cobbett that it would be foolish to consider those motives without taking plunder into account. There was immense wealth at stake: Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the confiscation of their lands and goods, and then appropriation of Church valuables, and his decision to give that wealth to the co-operative noble families of the realm meant that the nobility had powerful incentives to let Henry have his way in religious matters. Cobbett argues that the treatment of Catholics was harsher than that meted out to other religious groups at odds with the king, such as Quakers and Jews, and he attributes this to the simple fact that the Catholics had the wealth that the king wanted.

Whatever their motives, the dissolution of the monasteries was, for Cobbett, the chief calamity of the English reformation, for it did immeasurable harm to rural England. The monasteries had been more than simply houses of prayer: they were the chief landowners, and landlords, in the nation. Each monastery was a central hub for agriculture and commerce, on which ordinary people depended for their livelihoods, and monasteries were, by and large, good for those who depended on them:

…The Monastery was a proprietor that never died; its tenantry had to do with a deathless landlord; its lands and houses never changed owners; its tenants were liable to none of many uncertainties that other tenants were; its oaks had never to tremble at the axe of the squandering heir; its manors had not to dread a change of lords; its villagers had all been born and bred up under its eye and care; their character was of necessity a thing of great value, and, as such, would naturally be an object of great attention. A Monastery was the centre of a circle in the country, naturally drawing to it all that were in need of relief, advice, and protection, and containing a body of men, or of women, having no cares of their own, and having wisdom to guide the inexperienced, and wealth to relieve the distressed.

And was it a good thing, then, to plunder and devastate these establishments; was it a reformation to squander estates, thus employed, upon lay persons, who would not, who could not, and did not, do any part or particle of those benevolent acts, and acts of public utility, which naturally arose out of the monastic institutions?

When the monasteries were seized and the monks and nuns evicted, all those who depended upon them suffered, for the nobles who received the properties did not, by and large, live on those estates, but governed them from afar, and without the personal investment and sense of responsibility that had previously prevailed. Cobbett argues that in time this sea change in English economic and social life gave rise to a new English type: the pauper, the truly destitute citizen who had nowhere to turn for help. It harmed everyone except the most powerful:

To turn the possessors of so large a part of the estates out of those estates, to destroy establishments venerated by the people from their childhood, to set all law, divine as well as human, at defiance, to violate every principle on which property rested, to rob the poor and helpless of the means of sustenance, to deface the beauty of the country, and make it literally a heap of ruins…

[The dissolution of the monasteries was] “a breach of Magna Charta in the first place; a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place; and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigents, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”

This line of argument is, for me, among the most interesting and, assuming that the facts are straight, compelling that Cobbett offers. I’d not really considered the Reformation from an economic point of view before, my own interests tending in other directions, but I can certainly see that the “transfer of ownership” (forgive the euphemism) of all those abbeys — and there were hundreds at the time of the Reformation, dotting the landscape across the whole of England –churches, and lands must have had a significant effect on the tenant farmers of those lands. Cobbett follows this thread right down to his own time, arguing that, one thing leading to another, the rise of Protestantism in England was a cause of much of the economic devastation he saw around him, and even led to the national debt (by way of funding wars against Catholics)!

**

It is fair to say that Cobbett sees no redeeming features in the reign of Henry VIII, and his successor Edward VI doesn’t fare much better. He cites David Hume’s History of England — the “lying book, which the Scotch call our history” — which says that

“All English historians dwell with pleasure on the excellences of this young king, whom the flattering promises of hope, joined to many real virtues, had made an object of the most tender affections of the public. He possessed mildness of disposition, a capacity to learn and to judge, and attachment to equity and justice.”

To which Cobbett offers the acerbic rejoinder:

Of his mildness we have, I suppose, a proof in his assenting to the burning of several Protestants, who did not protest in his way; in his signing of the death warrants of his two uncles; and in his wish to bring his sister Mary to trial for not conforming to what she deemed blasphemy, and from doing which he was deterred only by the menaces of the Emperor her cousin. So much for his mildness. As for his justice, who can doubt of that, who thinks of his will to disinherit his two sisters, even after the judges had unanimously declared to him, that it was contrary to law? The “tender affection” that the people had for him was, doubtless, evinced, by their rising in insurrection against his ordinances from one end of the kingdom to the other, and by their demanding the restoration of that religion, which all his acts tended wholly to extirpate.

So much for Edward VI.

**

As I mentioned above, Cobbett’s general strategy of switching the labels on those traditionally designated unimpeachably-good or irredeemably-bad leads him to say kind things about Mary I. Now, the tradition had dubbed her “Bloody Mary”, which is, to say the least, rather one-sided, so Cobbett’s defence of her has merit simply as a corrective. In fact, he’s more nuanced in his defence of her than is typical for him: he defends her not as being above criticism, but as being no worse than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, and in some respects better.

He argues, for instance, that she was, at least, not a hypocrite: she persecuted those who held a faith contrary to her own, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who held a faith that she herself had previously professed and defended. Moreover, she persecuted those who departed from the faith of their parents, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who adhered to it; she defended the virtue of filial piety. Also, he argues that she acted as she did to contain and correct a situation created by her predecessors, not one of her own creation; she was a defender rather than an aggressor.

These and other arguments can be legitimately made in Mary’s defence (and other historians have expanded on the case). Though the lengths to which we will go to defend a woman who killed 283 (Cobbett thinks 277) of her religious opponents is necessarily limited. About these executions, Cobbett’s treatment is a mixture of fair and foul. Among his praiseworthy contributions is to point out that, although it is true that Mary re-instated statutes permitting the burning of heretics, statutes that had been previously repealed by Edward VI, it is not often noted that the reason Edward had repealed them was not from a surfeit of tender-heartedness, but because the statutes in question specifically authorized the burning of those who taught “contrary to the Catholic faith”, an awkward fact for Edward since it authorized the burning of his own party rather than his opponents. And although Cobbett correctly notes that Elizabeth executed more of her religious opponents than Mary did, he fails to note that Mary achieved her total in just a few years, as opposed to Elizabeth’s few decades.

**

Cobbett’s treatment of Elizabeth I is also fairly nuanced. It is true that he peppers his prose with a litany of devastating sobriquets, some of which I cited earlier. Here he sums up his case against her:

Elizabeth was as great a tyrant as ever lived; she was the most cruel of women; her disgusting amours were notorious; yet, she was the most popular sovereign that had ever reigned since the days of Alfred; and we have thousands of proofs, that her people, of all ranks and degrees, felt a most anxious interest in everything affecting her life or her health. Effects like this do not come from ordinary causes. Her treatment of great masses of her people, her almost unparalleled cruelties, her flagrant falsehoods, her haughtiness, her insolence and her lewd life, were naturally calculated to make her detested, and to make her people pray for any thing that might rid them of her.

We seem to have a puzzle before us: Elizabeth was cruel and detestable, but her people nonetheless rallied to her and were anxious for her well-being. The reason is not far to seek: the alternative to her was, by and large, considered worse. The alternative was subjection of England to foreign powers:

According to the decision of the head of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was an usurper; if she were an usurper, she ought to be set aside; if she were set aside, Mary Stuart and the King of France became Queen and King of England; if they became Queen and King of England, England became a mere province, ruled by Scotchmen and Frenchmen, the bare idea of which was quite sufficient to put every drop of English blood in motion. All men, therefore, of all ranks in life, whether Protestants or Catholics, were for Elizabeth.

The “decision” alluded to was Pope Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull which condemned Elizabeth’s birth as illegitimate and her claim to the throne as empty. Both charges were true, but if there were ever a case study to illustrate the value of a prudent silence, this is it, for the Pope’s bull put Elizabeth herself in an impossible position, provoked an intense persecution of English Catholics, and, in the end, nearly erased Catholicism from English life. Elizabeth acted from self-preservation:

In short, she saw clearly, that, if her people remained Catholics, she could never reign in perfect safety. She knew that she had no hereditary right; she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”

And so she prosecuted a policy of sustained and quite aggressive persecution of Catholics in her realm, a campaign that has been well-studied and about which I have written before (here). Cobbett also reviews the main features of this policy, and is quite good at conveying the experience of Catholics under what was, in effect, an early police state:

The Catholic gentleman’s own house afforded him no security; the indiscretion of children or friends, the malice of enemies, the dishonesty or revenge of tenants or servants, the hasty conclusions of false suspicion, the deadly wickedness of those ready to commit perjury for gain’s sake, the rapacity and corruption of constables, sheriffs, and magistrates, the virulent prejudice of fanaticism; to every passion hostile to justice, happiness, and peace; to every evil against which it is the object of just laws to protect a man, the conscientious Catholic gentleman lived continually exposed; and that, too, in that land which had become renowned throughout the world by those deeds of valour and those laws of freedom which had been performed and framed by his Catholic ancestors.

In the end, Elizabeth is portrayed as a ruthless and unprincipled monarch, but one whose hand was forced by papal imprudence and who acted to defend England.

**

With the accession of James I, Cobbett’s history begins to move more rapidly, and he returns to an emphasis on the social and economic consequences of the English Reformation. He argues, for instance, that the decision of the English monarchs to fight “no popery” wars on the continent led to the establishment of the English national debt, a millstone around the necks of all Englishman that continued to be borne in his day (and ours). (Yet I note that he does not consider the possibility that a Catholic England might have similarly fought “no popery” wars on the continent, but fought on the other side.) He describes the Penal Laws against Catholics that continued for generations after the Reformation, barring them from universities, civil or military service, and imposing other disabilities. He argues that James II was overthrown precisely because he suspended these laws and granted liberty of conscience; I don’t know this history well enough to know how plausible that claim is.

Although the French Revolution is not exactly part of English history, Cobbett can’t resist comparing the typical response of the English establishment to militant French atheism with the facts of England’s own history:

Now, in the first place, they saw about forty sorts of Protestant religion; they knew that thirty-nine of them must be false; they had seen our rulers make a church by law, just such an one as they pleased; they had seen them alter it by law; and, if there were no standard of faith; no generally acknowledged authority; if English law-makers were to change the sort of religion at their pleasure; why, pray, were not French law-makers to do the same? If English law-makers could take the spiritual supremacy from the successor of Saint Peter, and give it to HENRY THE-WIFE-KILLER, why might not the French give theirs to LEPEAU? Besides, as to the sort of religion, though ATHEISM is bad enough, could it be WORSE than what you tell us is “idolatrous and damnable”? It might cause people to be damned; but could it cause them to be more than damned? Alas!

And so it goes, as he brings his history up to the events of his own time.

**

The title of the book indicates that it is about the Reformation in England “and Ireland”. I haven’t said much about Ireland in these notes, and that because while Cobbett does occasionally refer to events in Ireland, he doesn’t give it a sustained treatment, and I don’t know enough to fill in the gaps. The Irish Penal Laws are his chief interest.

**

This is a highly enjoyable book. Yes, it is cranky, and surely a comparably-toned book written today would rub me the wrong way, but we make allowances for dear English eccentrics, and Cobbett is certainly one, in the best sense.

At the close of his book, he sums up his admirable motives in writing it, and it seems fitting to quote them in conclusion:

I have now performed my task. I have made good the positions with which I began. Born and bred a Protestant of the Church of England, having a wife and numerous family professing the same faith, having the mains of most dearly beloved parents lying in a Protestant church-yard, and trusting to conjugal or filial piety to place mine by their side, I have, in this undertaking, had no motive, I can have had no motive, but a sincere and disinterested love of truth and justice. It is not for the rich and the powerful of my countrymen that I have spoken; but for the poor, the persecuted, the proscribed. I have not been unmindful of the unpopularity and the prejudice that would attend the enterprise; but, when I considered the long, long triumph of calumny over the religion of those, to whom we owe all that we possess that is great and renowned; when I was convinced that I could do much towards the counteracting of that calumny; when duty so sacred bade me speak, it would have been baseness to hold my tongue, and baseness superlative would it have been, if, having the will as well as the power, I had been restrained by fear of the shafts of falsehood and of folly. To be clear of self-reproach is amongst the greatest of human consolations; and now, amidst all the dreadful perils, with which the event that I have treated of has, at last, surrounded my country, I can, while I pray God to save her from still further devastation and misery, safely say, that, neither expressly nor tacitly, am I guilty of any part of the cause of her ruin.