Best Defense

Remembering War (IX): Can republican virtue serve imperial ends?

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on January 29, 2016.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on January 29, 2016.

Editor’s Introduction 

Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the Roman writers Horace and Livy. But few of us understand the substantial difference between their views of the citizen-soldier or the objectives of military service to the state. Divergent narratives of the same history are, of course, a feature of our own discourse on national security. The contrast between Horace and Livy illuminates our own differences. And since our history is not yet entirely written, it illuminates our options as well. 

— Paul Edgar, series editor

By Steele Brand
Best Defense guest columnist

Julius Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, a decision that precipitated the collapse of the Roman Republic. While Caesar wrote his own account of the conquest, what did the surviving generation think of war and the imperial peace that replaced the Republic? The Roman authors that replaced Caesar and Cicero often wrote under the supervision of imperial patrons leery of subversive rhetoric. Two authors, Horace and Livy, responded differently and left us independent and timeless insights on military virtue and the objective of military service to the state.

Horace was studying in Athens when Marc Antony and Augustus attacked the republicans who had murdered Caesar. Briefly moved with republican sentiment, Horace joined the republican army and participated in the Battle of Philippi. At Philippi, he experienced a crushing defeat at the hand of the imperialists. Fortunately for Horace, he was pardoned and later earned a place in the elite circle surrounding Augustus. Surprisingly, Horace, who had fought against imperialism, used his position in the Augustan court to idealize imperial warfare, adorning it with a republican patriotism that was disconnected from its original context.

Horace famously describes the republican ethos in Ode 3.2, where he exalts the citizen dedicated to martial pursuits. The citizen-soldier is battle-hardened and ruthless compared to a royal prince who has never tasted combat. Moreover, the republican’s civic-minded militarism compels him to sacrifice everything for the state. For him, “it is sweet and right to die for his country.” Horace’s phrase, of course, would be drummed into the minds of patriotic schoolboys before World War I, prompting the British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen to call it “the old Lie.”

Horace himself had experienced the lie at the Battle of Philippi. In Ode 2.7 he praises the valor of the republican soldiers, but he also describes how the survivors prostrated themselves into the earth like humiliated beasts before the victors. From now on, Roman military virtue would serve an autocratic, imperial end.

Ode 2.7 also recalls Horace’s own cowardice when he abandoned his shield in order to hastily flee the field. Keeping one’s shield even unto death was the mantra of the citizen-soldier. Horace’s decision to flee the battlefield and make peace with the new regime demonstrated the value he placed in civic virtue; it was not worth sacrificing a comfortable life in the imperial court. He venerated the Republic and its virtues, but Horace did not seriously wish their return. Instead, he unscrupulously applied sublime, inspirational republican virtues to a regime that would never truly accommodate them.

Through his writing and his lifestyle, Titus Livy offered a counter narrative to Horace. Livy was born in Padua, Italy, around 59 BC. He was 10 years old when Caesar crossed northern Italy en route to the Rubicon. As a teenager Livy may have witnessed operations in the civil wars launched by Caesar’s heirs. The Battles of Forum Gallorum and Mutina in 43 BC occurred near Padua and Padua was harassed by Marc Antony’s army.

Unlike Horace, Livy sincerely longed for the civic militarism shared by citizens willing to kill and die for a republic. Unwilling to compromise, Livy avoided the elite circle of Augustus and became known for his “Padua-ness;” he preferred the conservative culture of his hometown to the urbanity of Rome. Livy, seeking inspiration from the past, wrote an exhaustive history of Rome in 142 volumes. But Livy did more than tell us what the Romans did. He described who a Roman republican was and how he dedicated his life to the common good. Most often, Livy illustrated this civic ideal through republican statesmen that demonstrate heroic leadership in battle. Livy’s heroes are definitively not imperial or autocratic.

Lucius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic in the 6th century BC, comes to life through Livy’s history. At first, Brutus plays a harmless fool, serving a tyrannical king and waiting for the right moment to revolt. When he does revolt, his own sons plot against him in order to stabilize the monarchy. Undeterred from his vision, Brutus responds by executing his own sons. And like many of Livy’s heroes, Brutus’ civic service culminated in death on the battlefield, defending the Republic. Whether sacrificing his sons or himself, the object of Brutus’ service was the Republic.

Fabius Maximus is another of Livy’s republican-minded soldier-statesmen. Fabius was the indispensable man during the Roman war against Carthage. Hannibal inflicted three crushing defeats against Rome between 218-216 BC, and only Fabius had the insight and courage to do what was necessary. He insisted that Rome could only defeat Hannibal by not fighting him. As a commander, Fabius stalked Hannibal around Italy, refusing to offer battle unless the circumstances were nearly perfect. In doing so, despite being ridiculed by his contemporaries, he frustrated Hannibal’s genius. Earning the epithet Cunctator, meaning delayer or cowardly lingerer, he stuck to his strategy and saved Rome in the process. Martial virtue for its own sake was not important to Fabius or to Livy. The Republic was the essential object of service.

In Livy’s day, legendary leaders like Brutus and Fabius contrasted sharply with Caesar, Antony, and Augustus. Livy’s narrative of Roman history was a challenge to the imperial regime, a damnation of the Augustan peace. Augustus may have brought decades of violence and civil war to an end, but the soul of the Republic — its freedoms, civic culture, and virtues — were destroyed in the process.

Horace’s and Livy’s memories of Roman history transcend their original context. They offer divergent models of military virtue and the objects of military service. Understanding the difference between the two narratives is especially important for Americans. The 20th century forced America to think and act more like an empire than a republic. Like Horace, we use the language of republicanism. But is our specialized, professional military serving republican ends? Horace and Livy — especially Livy — informed and inspired early American leaders like George Washington. They can inform and inspire us, too.

Steele Brand is Assistant Professor of History at The King’s College in New York City, where he teaches courses on Western Civilization and ancient history. Brand’s research explores how agrarian, constitutional ideals engendered civic virtue and civic militarism throughout Western Civilization, from ancient Israel to classical Greece and Rome and from Anglo-Saxon England to the United States. He served in combat as an Army intelligence officer. 

Photo credit: Robert Lowe/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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