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Exemplary Tyrants: Livy on Violence, Due Process, and Protecting the State

Jacqueline Pincus

The early books of Livy famously contain three episodes of would-be tyrants and the subsequent reaction of the Roman government. While the perpetrators, Spurius Cassius (2.41), Spurius Maelius (4.13-16), and Marcus Manlius Capitolinus (6.11-20), are all executed on the grounds of seeking regnum, the legitimacy of such violence to protect the state is challenged in all three cases. In this paper, I argue that Livy’s depiction of these three episodes highlights the dangerous disunity caused by internecine violence and illustrates the proper way for the state to address such threats without violating the constitutional rights of Roman citizens.

The exemplary nature of these stories has long been established by Ogilvie and Oakley, while Panitschek has emphasized their coherence as a unit. All three men are variants of the archetypal villain who seeks absolute power through the manipulation of popular legislation, an important instance of Livy retrojecting a contemporary issue back into his history of early Rome. Further work by Chaplin has demonstrated how the three stories play off each other, as the villains in each case fail to heed the lesson of their predecessors. Manlius Capitolinus has received the greatest amount of attention of the three, both because of his prominent position within the work, bridging the first and second pentad, and the elaborate, climactic nature of his story. Building upon recent studies by Kraus and Jaeger, I suggest that Manlius’ trajectory represents the correct version of how the archetype should be handled.

I begin by briefly examining the negative exempla of Spurius Cassius and Spurius Maelius, demonstrating how Livy focuses on those qualities that make their subsequent executions morally and legally ambiguous. In the case of Spurius Cassius, although he occupies the dubious position of being the first Roman to put forth agrarian legislation, nowhere does Livy make it clear that his motives are tyrannical, in stark contrast to other accounts such as that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. While Spurius Maelius unmistakably aspires to absolute power, it is the action of the state that Livy problematizes, as Gaius Servilius Ahala ruthlessly cuts him down in clear violation of the Roman constitutional right of provocatio. These episodes serve as the negative backdrop to the story of Manlius Capitolinus’ rise and fall. Starting at Manlius’ transformation from hero to power-hungry villain, I show that Livy’s narrative of Manlius initially follows an identical course to the stories of Cassius and Maelius, just as the state under the dictator Camillus similarly confronts the very concerns that led it to take ambiguously violent action before. In this case, however, Livy carefully illustrates how the state correctly navigates the threat and comes to a resolution that is both effective and constitutional. In a triumphant conclusion, after an official trial and unanimous condemnation of Manlius, Livy describes how all parts of the Roman state—dictator, Senate, tribunes, and people—unite to throw him off the Tarpeian Rock.  

Although Livy laments that his present time can endure neither the current ills nor their remedies (quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus, pr. 9), I argue that his exempla are both explanatory and prescriptive. Here, Livy identifies a fundamental conflict for the Republic between protecting the state and protecting the constitutional rights of its citizens. In the first two narratives, he criticizes the way the state handled internal threats, and demonstrates that its disregard of citizen rights and lack of a viable system for resolving internal conflicts contributed to the Republic’s eventual self-destruction. By elaborately describing the tale of Manlius Capitolinus, however, Livy also proves that it is possible for all facets of the Republican government to function harmoniously—if its leaders behave responsibly.

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Livy and the Construction of the Past

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