MODELS OF VIRTUE AND VICE
IN LIVY'SAB URBE CONDITA, BOOK III
Virginia K. Hellenga, Classics
Illinois Classical Conference at Rockford College
October 11, 1997
Livy focuses our attention on outstanding examples of virtue or vice, challenging us to choose which we want to imitate. He encourages us to live our lives embracing a sense of responsibility, doing what we said we would do, living in harmony, with self-discipline and good sense, being reasonable, forgiving, developing inner strength, knowing when to be serious and when to laugh, and living a simple, natural life true to our own nature and with dignity. Penetrating to the individual, human level, the flesh and blood of history, Livy wants us to be active participants in examining the lives of people of the past, to see how they acted, what they thought, what they felt, what their values were, how they were driven by passion or led by high principles to do the things that they did, and especially to notice the outcome of their thoughts and actions.
As Livy brings individuals on stage, as it were, he is asking us to make moral evaluations, and to follow standards of proved value. The past offers examples of every possible type of human character, and by seeing the relationships between mental attitudes, values, actions and their consequences, we are able to evaluate and to clarify in our own minds what is beneficial, what promotes life, what will produce harmony, peace and happiness. At the same time, he persuades us to release what is no longer useful to us, holding only to what is of ultimate value in life for ourselves, and for the world in which we live.
Through Livy's device of presenting models or examples, Roman leaders and their accomplishments come to life, and the nature of the national Roman character is delineated and vivified, bringing inspiration and edification. Livy uses exempla (the lives and actions of people) to teach lessons which are so persuasive they work toward the improvement of life. We can wisely shape our own lives in light of the experiences of the past, and this is Livy's hope. By focusing on individual exempla, Livy wants us to look beyond the action, beyond a particular episode, beyond the events of the past to see the mental and moral qualities of the persons involved. His main concern is with how people shape events, and how moral qualities ranging from virtue to vice shape people. Space is allotted to a person in proportion to the individual's importance. Those who play leading roles are seen again and again, each time a different facet of character is revealed, the person's inner nature is expressed in action, or we gain insight into the person's nature through remarks or speeches.
A key individual is presented in such a way that only his exemplary, salient qualities are emphasized. An exemplum functions as a model; thus Livy focuses on either what is noble and to be imitated, or what is harmful or corrupt, to be avoided. Because we do not have a full characterization of all aspects of any personality, it at first seems that Livy is giving us a stereotype instead of a human being, but actually, Livy has distilled the essence of virtue to inspire us; and the essence of vice, to give us warning. Ultimately, virtue works for the growth and stability of individuals within society, while vice undermines stability, creating life out of balance. Livy does not want to distract or to confuse us by giving a model who "tempers his virtue with a little vice." With his black-and-white portraits, distinctions are made very clear. Beginning in 467 BC when there were no written laws, Book III sees measures taken to safeguard liberty through laws, and ends in 446 BC with the foundation of the Roman legal system to assure fairness, balance and stability.
Ambition of individuals (especially Appius Claudius), jealousy of classes or factions (patricians and plebeians are always at each others' throats), and the hostility of outsiders (Sabines, Volscians and Aequians attack Rome yearly): these are the major problems facing the newly independent Roman people in the mid-5th century BC after the expulsion of the kings. The major solution is moderation, bringing extremes back into equilibrium (moderatio), and Livy shows us through striking exempla just how difficult it is for the Romans to achieve any degree of balance: we see instances of success when moderatio is observed, and disastrous results when it is not, even to the point of threatening the whole future of Rome. Livy's skillful handling of the three major exempla in Book III convinces us of the importance of balance. Cincinnatus and Quinctius Capitolinus are moderatio in the flesh in the fullest sense. Appius Claudius is the embodiment of immoderatio at its worst: his ambition destroys his former dignity, leads him to a tyrannical oppression of others, and results in his own disgrace and exile. Livy excels in the characterization of these three men.
Cincinnatus (whom we praise for dropping his plow to become dictator, doing what needs to be done, then dropping his dictatorship to return to the plow) is first seen defending his son Caeso, exercising discretion in not emphasizing his son's military prowess, native genius and worth to Rome (as the other three advocates at Caeso's trial had done), but humbly asking indulgence for his son's mistake and his youth, begging that Caeso be acquitted as a favor to his father, who had offended no one in either word or deed. When Caeso runs away into exile before the trial is settled, the bail which he thus forfeits is exacted cruelly from his father, Cincinnatus. As a result, Cincinnatus is obliged to sell all that he has and to live, as if he himself has been banished, in a lonely peasant's hut across the Tiber. He remains strong through the loss of everything, even the heart-breaking loss of his son.
Something within us vibrates in recognition and affirmation when we hear Cincinnatus speak. His two major speeches reveal him to be a man of greatness, unaffected by what is false within those around him who tempt him to abandon his firm adherence to what he knows is right. Elected consul with the greatest enthusiasm, 460 BC, he turns on the senators, castigating them for their feebleness in allowing tribunes of the plebs to hold office indefinitely, a type tyranny. It is the senators who are ultimately responsible for the welfare of Rome, and yet they are the ones permitting this abuse of power by the tribunes. They, as senators, must be stronger in exercising their responsibilities instead of weakly letting the tribunes dominate them, repeatedly opposing the efforts to levy troops to meet enemy attack. The tribunes are bent on destroying the state by their blind selfishness, and Cincinnatus severely criticizes even his strongest supporters for allowing this. His speech takes effect; senators take courage. When the senators want to return Cincinnatus to office as consul the next year, he is indignant, indeed outraged, and he refuses. Limited tenure is one of the safeguards of liberty, ensuring that no one will have indefinite, unlimited power, power which can easily grow into tyranny, as I will show that the contrasting example of Appius Claudius illustrates: power tends to corrupt progressively more the longer it is retained. Cincinnatus respects the need for sharing, not holding onto, power.
Livy shows Cincinnatus as an example of virtue, prudence, balance, right thinking. He also presents him as a clever and competent military commander, able to organize and direct troops and operations of war with utmost efficiency and success, a model of discipline.
In his final, famous appearance, from plow to dictatorship, Cincinnatus demonstrates that great honors and individual worth are independent of wealth. Indeed, wealth seems insignificant compared to his tremendous strength of character. His personal dignity comes from inner strength, remaining vibrant whether he is consul, dictator, or plowman. Respected for what he is in himself, Cincinnatus is a man who lives up to high standards with courage, uncompromising steadfastness, and incorruptible integrity, regardless of external circumstances. In moral and spiritual qualities, he stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries, Appius Claudius, the tribunes, and the senate, just as his son had stood above his peers as a physical giant. Men follow his direction not out of fear but respect. He is considered the one hope of the Roman people because his actions and character have been consistently and entirely trustworthy. He is like a benevolent father, guiding, directing, correcting and reproving, seeking the best for the Roman people. Because he is the man he is, he attracts cooperation and support. Insight and foresight combine with his ability to grasp a situation in its entirety and implement effective solutions.
Cincinnatus is reluctant to assume office, performs what is needed, brings the action to completion and resigns. In contrast is Appius Claudius, who intrigues for power, misuses it, and has to be forced to abandon it. We may ask, "In what ways is Appius Claudius a model or an example of what we must avoid in ourselves, and what must be avoided in the exercise of power? In what ways is he a bad leader?" His outstanding negative characteristic is lack of restraint (immoderatio), which leads to tyranny and cruel actions. Greed for power drives him to subordinate the needs of others to his own personal ambition, passions, and desires. He abuses his position of power by getting himself re-elected, intending to extend his power indefinitely. To protect his caprice and enforce his arbitrary decisions, he surrounds himself with twelve lictors, marks of pride and violence. His actions, and Livy's observations about him, expose his fickle nature, impropriety of conduct and lack of political decency. His influence on others is mirrored in their imitating his worst, most violent qualities; and by the change in the Decemviri, the commission of ten headed by Appius Claudius, appointed to write, regularize, and publish the laws which became known as the Twelve Tables. People notice the change in the Decemviri from superhuman purity to arrogance, inaccessibility, intrigue, oppression and ruthless domination. Their behavior arouses such anger and indignation that people demand their abdication.
Taking advantage of the fact that there is no right of appeal for the people against his decisions as presiding judge of the court of justice, Appius Claudius manipulates the legal procedure , securing a false decision in the case of the young woman, Verginia, declaring that she had been born a slave in the house of his freedman. He intends to "possess" her for his own sexual pleasure, taking her away from the man to whom she was engaged to be married, the former tribune Icilius, a man Appius had recently used to gain popular favor for himself. Overriding the just protests of the people against his decision, Appius uses deceit and trickery to keep Verginia's father from appearing at her trial. The outcome of this situation is the shocking sacrifice of this beautiful, innocent young woman. To save her from Appius Claudius, and to preserve her honor, her father kills her with a butcher's knife.
Irresponsible freedom degenerates into license: Appius Claudius is the cause not only of her destruction, but of his own, as well. He is an example of a leader whose focus on himself blinds him to this responsibilities, destroying what it is his task to build up: the life and well being of his fellow citizens.
Appius' problem is that he is afraid of being a nobody: without the role of leader in the state, he has no identity, hence he is unwilling to relinquish his power when his lawful term of office is up. When the people finally force him to abandon his position, he slinks away into exile, hooded in black.
Occupying the central section of the book, Appius Claudius is set off on both sides, as it were, by two leaders whose contrasting exemplary conduct shows us how very insensitive he actually is to the needs of the people, and how unable or unwilling he is to put aside his own self-seeking actions long enough to be the leader the community urgently needs to provide defense against its enemies, and to guide the freedom so recently obtained. He certainly does not inspire courage as do Cincinnatus and Quinctius Capitolinus, who embody the paradox that in the giving up of ourselves to service in society we become fully human and enhance our own lives as we promote the lives of those around us. There is something very compelling in the two leaders who give of themselves generously, and whose wise and competent leadership, combined with high standards of manly strength, selflessness, and restraint guide the state back to healthy stability.
Let's turn to Quinctius Capitolinus. Appearing at the beginning and at intervals throughout the book, he is most memorable for his brilliant speech near the end, when he summarizes the events and problems of this period in history. He challenges the people to reassume their fathers' and their own native strength of character which, he promises, will enable them to establish peace at Rome. His active life of service in peace and war throughout this period enhances his credibility and persuasiveness. He has already been consul two different times when we meet him at the beginning of book III. Elected consul for the third time in 466 BC, Quinctius proceeds to defeat the Aequians, bringing to a speedy end the war that has dragged on for three years. After his appearances as consul, as victorious military leader, as advocate in the trial of Caeso, as quaestor' always acting as justice and loyalty demand, Quinctius is brought forward again. Tribunes and plebs are fighting against patricians, Aequians and Volscians are devastating the lands up to the Esquiline gate when Quinctius takes office as consul for the fourth time (446 BC). He summons the people to an assembly, and in one powerful, resounding speech, cuts into the heart of the trouble, bringing the Romans to their senses. Condemning the discord between the classes, he denounces both the patricians' greed for excessive power and the plebeians' greed for unrestrained liberty. This is no flattering appeal to win popular favor: we are reminded of Livy's comment in the preface that complaints even when necessary are never agreeable. Quinctius is not trying to be agreeable; he is trying to get the Romans to be agreeable, to set aside their quarreling over petty self interests and to cooperate to defend Rome, to build a harmonious community, no longer attracting enemy attack by internal division and dissension.
Livy intends for this speech to work on us, to continue ringing in our ears, recognizing the power of the past to influence and help build up the present. Ideally, the fruit of equilibrium and balance is stability, as excellence in a leader draws people together in support and pursuit of common interests and shared life. This speech achieves the best possible effect: cooperation. Rarely, says Livy, has any speech been more acceptable to the people. At last, the young men look forward to defending Rome; the tribunes no longer oppose the levy of troops. Quinctius' style is one answer to the problem of effective leadership. He has the courage to model for others old-fashioned virtues; to sway the multitude instead of being swayed by it; to sacrifice personal convenience for a higher good: the well being of all concerned. He does not seek power for selfish reasons as Appius Claudius does, but accepts power, willing to serve even when he deserves to retire from public office, proving his unselfish devotion to Rome.
Both Cincinnatus and Quinctius are men of vision, a vision which encompasses 1.) the past: its customs and manly strength which successfully work toward the preservation and growth of the state and freedom of the individuals within the state; 2.) the present: what the crisis is, what the conflicts are, what are the causes of internal and external strife which are so dangerous to a newly independent people; 3.) the future: what the consequences would be of continuing dissension within the state, what action is needed, what values must be adhered to in order to guard and to preserve Rome, enabling it to grow and to flourish into greatness.
In viewing the motives and actions of Appius Claudius, we are convinced of the need for moderation; in contrast, Cincinnatus and Quinctius persuade us of the importance and desirability of leaders who realize that stability can only be achieved and maintained through reaching a point of general equilibrium and balance. Livy's method of characterization operates full force in each of these exempla, producing models of virtue and the reverse which speak to us of the obstacles Rome had to face and to rise above, and by what means this was either hindered, delayed, or achieved.