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Livy: On the political utility of starting unprovoked wars

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

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Livy (59 BC–AD 17),
From History of Rome, Book 3
Translated by Reverend Canon Roberts

Gaius Terentilius Harsa was a tribune of the plebs that year….[H]e spent several days in haranguing the plebeians on the overbearing arrogance of the patricians. In particular he inveighed against the authority of the consuls as excessive and intolerable in a free commonwealth, for whilst in name it was less invidious, in reality it was almost more harsh and oppressive than that of the kings had been, for now, he said, they had two masters instead of one, with uncontrolled, unlimited powers, who, with nothing to curb their licence, directed all the threats and penalties of the laws against the plebeians. To prevent this unfettered tyranny from lasting for ever, he said he would propose an enactment that a commission of five should be appointed to draw up in writing the laws which regulated the power of the consuls. Whatever jurisdiction over themselves the people gave the consul, that and that only was he to exercise; he was not to regard his own licence and caprice as law.

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The Sibylline Books were consulted by the “duumviri,” and a prediction was found of dangers which would result from a gathering of aliens, attempts on the highest points of the City and consequent bloodshed. Amongst other notices, there was a solemn warning to abstain from all seditious agitations. The tribunes alleged that this was done to obstruct the passing of the Law, and a desperate conflict seemed imminent.

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As though to show how events revolve in the same cycle year by year, the Hernici [Roman allies] reported that the Volscians and Aequi, in spite of their exhaustion, were equipping fresh armies….On this information being laid before the senate, orders were given for a levy….

The tribunes, even in face of the consuls, filled the Forum with their shouts declaring that the story of a Volscian war was a prearranged comedy, the Hernici had been prepared beforehand for the part they were to play; the liberties of the Roman were not being repressed by straightforward opposition, but were being cunningly fooled away. It was impossible to persuade them that the Volscians and Aequi, after being almost exterminated, could themselves commence hostilities; a new enemy, therefore, was being sought for; a colony which had been a loyal neighbour was being covered with infamy. It was against the unoffending people of Antium that war was declared; it was against the Roman plebs that war was really being waged. After loading them with arms they would drive them in hot haste out of the City, and wreak their vengeance on the tribunes by sentencing their fellow-citizens to banishment. By this means – they might be quite certain – the Law would be defeated; unless, while the question was still undecided, and they were still at home, still unenrolled, they took steps to prevent their being ousted from their occupation of the City, and forced under the yoke of servitude. If they showed courage, help would not be wanting, the tribunes were unanimous. There was no cause for alarm, no danger from abroad….

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. rosemerry
    May 10, 2011 at 6:11 am

    We can see how far we have advanced and how much we have learnt in 2000 years!!!

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