God, War, and Roman Nationalism (Nick Ziller, 2019)
Abstract: Livy, ever the believer in an innate cultural superiority amongst Romans, sets out to support his intense patriotism with a mythologized account of Rome’s origins. In this text, the historian attributes the city’s undeniable military accomplishments to the a set of overarching values which defined Roman character. Foremost among these are virtus and pietas, defined respectively as courage in battle and devotion to religion. Both are presented as complementary aspects of the ideal Roman through a heroic trope which he assigns to several legendary figures, each of which demonstrate a characteristically Roman commitment to both faith and war.
Taking up the mantle of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, Titus Livius Patavinus “Livy” crafts his chronicles of the ancient world with the same narrative flair as his predecessors. Classical historians such as these often neglected to satisfy modern standards of rote historical accuracy, tending to favor a compelling story over a factual one. Livy was no exception to this practice and his epic account of Rome’s beginnings features heroes, villains, divine will, and dialogue. Although a noteworthy portion of Livy’s text is dedicated to providing an academic account of the political proceedings that would shape Roman legislation, these blandly informative sections serve mainly as corollary inclusions to provide context for Livy’s more flavorful accounts. Focusing on virtus and pietas, two cardinal ethics of Roman culture, Livy establishes religion and warfare as dual cornerstones of Roman culture through an epic saga made up of military triumphs and supernatural occurrences. These tales, more akin to detailed fables than historical writing in a modern sense, do hold considerable insight not only into the minds of the Romans who, seeing religion and warfare as mutually dependent aspects of virtue, set out to build a mighty empire in the name of their gods.
Virtus, an adjective form of the Latin word vir, meaning man or hero, is the root of the modern word virtue but is more closely associated with martial prowess than its modern equivalent. Romulus, the mythic founder of Rome, is depicted by Livy as virtus incarnate. As would be expected from the bastard son of Mars, the god of war, Romulus’ reign as first King of Rome was a self-righteous bloodbath, from the fratricide of his twin, Remus, to the Rape of the Sabine Women (Livy 37; 41-6). Though undeniably ruthless in his tactics, Romulus is absolved of his bloodlust in the eyes of Livy partly by right of his alleged divinity but mainly because his actions were taken in the name of Rome and succeeded in furthering her interests. This ex post facto justification of violence is a fundamentally Roman practice based on a general metric that weighed the morality of one’s actions against their net benefit to Rome. By extension of this principle, Romans had little tolerance for the excessive use of force, intent on remaining dignified in their violence. The extent of this caveat is displayed by Livy in two extreme instances of overkill (so to speak) during the reign of Tullus Hostilius. Tullus, third King of Rome and second only to Romulus in his demonstration of virtus, was rebuked by Livy for his decision to draw and quarter the traitorous Alban Mettius Fufetius, describing the incident as “…the first and last time that fellow-countrymen of ours inflicted a punishment so utterly without regard to the laws of humanity” (65). Despite his heroic triumph over the Curiatii, Publius Horatius receives similar criticism for the subsequent murder of his sister in cold-blood—an act that was only partially reconciled by the lapse in her loyalty to Rome (61-2). As depicted by these tales, virtus was not a universally applied tenant but rather a guideline by which the consequences of one’s actions could be judged.
Compared to the contingent interpretations of virtus, the Roman sense of pietas, or piety, is easily defined. Juxtaposed with the ad nauseam political deliberations recorded by Livy, the Roman views on religion are surprisingly straightforward and can be summarized thusly: demonstrate proper pietas and good things will happen, fail to demonstrate pietas and bad things will happen. However reductive an interpretation that may be, it is safe to say that the Roman gods worked in far less mysterious ways than any more modern conceptions of divinity and the Romans understanding of them was largely on a cause-and-effect basis. As for the virtue in question, pietas, like virtus, is presented by Livy in human form. Numa Pompilius, Rome’s mystic second King, serves as a pacific counterpart to his fearsome predecessor and is almost synonymous with pietas in the Roman psyche. Rather than conquest, Numa focused strictly on the metaphysical and is venerated for his founding of a collection of permanent state priesthoods, including the sanctified Vestal Virgins, along with his standardization of religious ceremony (51-5). Numa’s drastic departure from the methods of Romulus added an important second dimension to the Roman character and where “Once Rome’s neighbors had considered her not so much a city as an armed camp in their midst threatening the general peace; now they came to revere her so profoundly as a community dedicated wholly to worship…” (54). This shift in perception was not only in the eyes of onlookers but was shared whole heartedly by the Roman public, who came to see the fulfillment of religious ritual as the utmost civic duty. In many ways a foil to both Romulus and Numa, the ill-advised exploits of Tullus Hostilius often serve as negative reinforcement for the virtuous precedents set by his predecessors. Following in the footsteps of Romulus, Tullus concerned himself with warfare and “…thought preoccupation with religion utterly unworthy of a king…” (68); an attitude that would cost Tullus his life. Struck down by Jupiter’s lightning during a botched attempt to complete one of Numa’s rituals, the legend of Tullus Hostilius ended with grim warning to any impious Roman (68). While this story is almost definitely a diversion into fantasy on Livy’s part, it is indicative of the imperative nature of Roman worship and the expectation that the strength of a Roman leader would be properly tempered by reverence.
Thus, as Rome grew from a town ruled by kings to the dominant imperial power of the Mediterranean Roman identity remained, rested on the same pillars of warfare and religion that were once erected by the legendary pair who “…in opposite ways, added strength to the growing city: Romulus by war, and Numa by peace” (55). In conjunction with one another, these dual values served as a general template for the ideal Roman—someone whose righteous will is backed by their absolute loyalty to sacred Rome; a dignified conqueror. This Roman can be seen reincarnated in nearly every subsequent episode of Livy’s History, each time bearing a different name and each time facing unique circumstances but always triumphing by way of innate superiority and moral fortitude. Within this Roman, virtus and pietas are united as complimentary and inextricable forces, with success on the battlefield being directly attributed to divine favor. From Brutus, Collatinus, Fabius, and Valerius to Horatius and Mucius “Scaevola”, Livy’s history is built around stories of the ideal Roman and the bold acts of virtus that, when validated in the eyes of Jove by pietas, won them eternal glory for Rome (104-89). Although Livy deems each of the aforementioned protagonists as being worthy of this esteem, none exemplifies a greater combination of military acumen and religious zeal than Marcus Furius Camillus, Livy’s champion of Book V.
An epitome of both virtus and pietas, the character of Camillus is presented as a model Roman in three episodes. The first begins in the midst of a long and arduous conflict with Veii, a nearby Etruscan city and bitter rival of Rome. Having suffered embarrassing setbacks in their ongoing siege due to disgruntled troops and incompetent commanders, Rome’s only hope lay on the lips of an enemy soothsayer who foresaw that the draining of the Alban Lake would ensure the defeat of Veii (179-81, 186-8). Driven by their pietas, the Romans saw to it that the Lake was drained and, perhaps coincidentally, “…the doom of Veii was at hand. Marcus Furius Camillus, the man destined to destroy that city and save his country was appointed Dictator…” (391). Camillus was swift in his defeat of the Veientes and, having plundered the city and enslaved its population, found himself in the awkward position of apportioning his spoils (395-7). Every bit as pious as he was skilled, Camillus was torn between pressures to relinquish the treasure to the public and his pledge to the god Apollo, to whose providence Camillus felt he owed the victory. His request to commission “a golden gift to Apollo, worthy of his godhead and of the splendor of his temple…failed to satisfy the commons and increased their hostility toward Camillus” (396-7). This event, the first of Livy’s testaments to Camillus, introduces him as a formidable soldier of unwavering faith, even going as far as to draw subtle comparison between him and the revered former Dictator Cincinnatus, stating that afterwards he “…resigned his office—his duties to religion and to the State being all accomplished” (396).
In Livy’s detailing of the siege’s aftermath, another ideal demonstration of Roman virtue can be seen in the conduct of Marcus Furius Camillus. Despite widespread criticisms regarding his religious priorities, it would have been impossible to bring the martial capabilities of Camillus into question. Even so, the savagery of Tullus Hostilius and Publius Horatius in Book I had shown that even the most skilled soldier can taint the status of his virtus by violating the unspoken rules of engagement associated with the virtue. Camillus, however, was no such man, and proved beyond a doubt his unparalleled virtus during the following conflict with a neighboring city, Falerii, when a traitor offered him kidnapped Falerian children to hold hostage (400-1). A disgusted Camillus returned the children to Falerii and was rewarded by the gracious Falerians with a willing surrender and laudation of his incorruptible integrity: “‘[Camillus], the victory which you…have won over us neither God nor man could grudge you…From this war two things have emerged which humanity would do well to lay to heart: you preferred honor to an easy victory; we respond to that noble choice with unforced submission…You will have no cause to regret your trust in us, nor we to repent our accepting your dominion’” (402). Again Camillus returned to Rome victorious, this time at no cost of life in what may be the most remarkable of his ventures, and is certainly the most pertinent to the greater study of Roman culture. This peaceable resolution is not a singular occurrence and is reminiscent of Gaius Mucius’ earlier success over King Porsena of Clusium, in which a captive Mucius intimidated Porsena into surrender by burning off his right hand in his own funeral pyre, earning the nickname of “Scaevola” or “left-handed” (121-3). Beyond being merely entertaining, Livy’s inclusion of such tales of voluntary submission to Rome in his History would have been highly effective in stoking the fires of Roman nationalism. The very notion that a sworn enemy could be so impressed when faced with Roman virtue that they would lay down their arms would have to have been intoxicating to a Roman patriot.
It is this intense national pride, what may well be the quintessential Roman trait, that is ultimately derived from their pervading obsession with the duality of warfare and religion, virtus and pietas. Livy’s epic finale, Camillus’ third and final triumph of the Gauls, is a brilliant piece of Roman propaganda and is in strong support of this claim. In this story the aging Camillus, driven into exile by political opponents hoping to relocate to Veii, is reluctantly called upon to drive out a massive host of invaders from Gaul. Whether by way of creative liberty or eerie coincidence, the collection of details of Livy’s tale seem to be written as a means of bolstering the Roman ego. First: the dispute that lands Camillus in exile is over a proposition to leave Rome, a prospect which Camillus is adamantly opposed to on account of the city’s sanctity and tradition (404-6). Second: Rome was specifically beset by a force of foreigners, barbarians, according to the Romans, upon Camillus’ departure (413-9). Third, and most importantly: even in exile, Camillus’ loyalty to Rome remained staunch, a reaction accentuated by its juxtaposition with that of Coriolanus, who promptly swore allegiance to Rome’s enemies when banished (420-1; 151-7). The story’s ending comes as no surprise. Camillus’ ultimate victory is accompanied by a sermon that is the summation of Roman nationalism as a philosophy borne of a twofold passion for war and religion. Camillus finishes the oration with this closing remark, encapsulating his view of Rome in all her righteous glory and foreshadowing the rise of the Roman Empire: “Should you go [to Veii], I grant you may take your brave hearts, but never the Luck of Rome. Here is the Capitol, where in days of old, the human head was found and men were told that on that spot would be the world’s head and the seat of the empire; here, when the Capitol was to be cleared for the sake of Jupiter’s temple, the two deities Juventas and Terminus refused, to the great joy of the men of those days, to the moved; here are the fires of Vesta, the sacred shields which fell from heaven, and all our gods who, if you stay, will assuredly bless your staying.” (434). This self-assured sense of superiority was not unique to Camillus and was the natural product of successful conquest in the name of God, a powerful combination of precepts that have since driven a procession of claimants through history, toward that coveted world’s head, that prized seat of the empire.
Livy. The Early History of Rome. Trans. by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Penguin Books, 1960. pp.