A Year With The Romans

"A Year With The Romans":

Open Letters has endorsed a project by that name, in which their monthly magazine will feature reviews of Roman writers' works -- I gather, every month for the year. The author, Steve Donoghue, has the first piece here, reviewing Quintus Curtius Rufus' writings on Alexander the Great.

I'm encouraged by the comments section of the piece, which suggests that the readers are not taking any foolishness. Mr. Donoghue will have to up his game to satisfy them, which will probably be good both for him and for his future pieces.

One part of the review, toward the end, touches on something I have been thinking about from some other readings. You have here a Roman reflecting on Macedonian conceptions of what it means to be "a free man," and on the proper relationship between a free man and his state (in this case, his king). The occasion is a mutiny by Alexander's men. The classic Greek warrior -- and remember, Alexander modeled himself consciously on the heroes of the Iliad -- was led by a "first among equals" king, not an absolute monarch. It was the Persians who believed in kings who were set far above their subjects. The Greeks fought in a warrior band:

You wanted Macedonians to kneel before you and worship you like a god! You betrayed the memory of your father Philip, and if some fashion elevated a god over Jupiter, you’d despise Jupiter too! We are free men – are you surprised we can’t endure your vanity? What can we hope for from you, if even innocent men must face death, or worse than death?
It’s possible that by this point in his world conquest, Alexander really did fancy the idea of Persian-style absolute monarchy over the hillbilly egalitarianism of his native Macedon. We lack the written records to say for certain, but men have been known to become thus corrupted.
"Hillbilly egalitarianism" is a terrible phrase. It misses the spirit of the warrior band, who are "egalitarian" only among themselves: heroes, who are brothers against the world!

It also misses the real issue of the Roman system, and particular the Roman law. Henry Charles Lea captures the issue in The Duel and the Oath, his work on judicial duels and oath-swearing in European law.
The Roman law concentrated all power in the person of the sovereign, and reduced his subjects to one common level of implicit obedience. The genius of the barbaric institutions and of feudalism localized power.
Lea's "barbaric" nations were chiefly the Germans, Franks, Angles and Saxons whose traditional laws were in competition with the Roman law among Medievals trying to determine the right way to write laws of their own. The Roman law generally speaking preferred to place power in the hands of authority. The Germanic peoples preferred to place power in the hands of men of honor: that was why they favored systems of compurgation, which would allow men of honor to establish your innocence by swearing that they believed in it; and systems involving trial by combat.

The official Medieval understanding of trial by combat was that God would defend the right, so that the just cause would win. The underlying root is that sense of honor that runs the risk of sacrificing life for what is loved: if a man loved something enough to peril his life for it, that love and honor stood before the court as overwhelming evidence unless it was equalled by another champion on the other side. If it was, they would fight.

You can see how this is a system that would appeal to warriors, far more than a system of submission to higher authority. That latter system might impose any humiliation on them, and indeed, the very act of submission to it in the first place was a humiliation. All this system of judicial combat asked was that they be ready to die when they could no longer win. As that was the daily fact of their lifes in the days of combat by shield-wall -- and, likewise for the Greeks in the days of the phalanx -- it was an entirely acceptable bargain.

If they were self-interested in that way, the champions of the Roman law were likewise driven in part by the expectation that they could benefit under their preferred law. The Papacy's special authority was exercised by men not always practiced in physical combat, but expert in argumentation, logic, and intricate legalism. The main advocate of the Roman law was the religious, who pressed for submission to authority as a way of maintaining their predominance in the law. Lea:
An important step was gained when in 1146 Henry II, as a concession to the papacy, agreed that ecclesiastics should not be forced to the duel; but this did not extend to the Scottish Marches, where by law an ecclesiastic was as liable as a layman to personal appearance in the lists; if he presented a champion he was held in custody till the event of the duel, when, if the champion was defeated, his principal was promptly beheaded.
The papacy remained a stern enemy of judicial combat, and especially of forcing churchmen to it. Their success was uneven and limited, however, and Innocent IV resolved certain issues confronting his papacy through wager of battle. He was successful in this regard, probably reinforcing the notion that God was in fact defending His favorites. Even so, the Popes preferred law by evidence and argument, not by the sword, or the oath of trusted men.

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