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A Head on the Body Politic? Figuring Authority in Livy's First Pentad

Julia Mebane

A particularly enduring metaphor of political thought is that of the head-of-state, in which the authority of the individual over the many is naturalized by analogy to the head’s command over the body. This discourse can be traced to the Roman principate, where the princeps was conceptualized as the head of the body politic (Cancik; Béranger). Ovid celebrates Augustus as the caput orbis (Trist. 3.5.46), while Velleius calls Tiberius the rei publicae lumen et caput (2.99). A story yet to be told, however, is how this metaphor came to be integrated into the political language of the principate.

That the head-of-state metaphor was taken up at all under the Julio-Claudians is surprising, for it was associated with kingship during the republic. The head provided an apt comparison for singular authority because many considered it the locus of reason and hence commander of the body. Cicero cites Plato as the source of this knowledge: Plato triplicem finxit animum, cuius principatum, id est rationem, in capite sicut in arce posuit (Tusc. 1.20). The singularity of reason is used to justify monarchy in de Republica (1.60). Even those who located reason elsewhere in the body invested the head with regal connotations. Lucretius refers to a king’s scepter as the capitis summi praeclarum insigne (5.138). As a result, the head never positively figured magisterial authority under the republic.

In order to be adopted under the principate, the metaphor had to lose its monarchical implications. The princeps was, after all, a figure whose autocracy was resolutely denied in contemporary discourse. Livy’s political thought, the subject of much recent attention (Vasaly; Lushkov; Hammer), reveals one avenue by which this happened. The first pentad stages the need for a head atop the body politic. When the narrative opens, the kings fulfill this role. After Romulus’ death, the patres look for a replacement head: et esse igitur aliquod caput placebat (1.17). But the establishment of the republic prompts a new model of governance exemplified by Menenius Agrippa’s Fable of the Belly (Koschorke et al.). Authority is localized in the senate, which is represented as a stomach regulating the distribution of food to its members, the people. Notably, the head plays no role. In demonstrating how popular rebellion endangers the whole organism, he constructs the ideal of concordia to which republican politics should aspire: comparando hinc quam intestina corporis seditio similis esset irae plebis in patres, flexisse mentes hominum (2.32). The reconciliation of patrician and plebeian interests, rather than the presence of a head, becomes the prerequisite for the health of the body politic.

Despite Menenius’ initial success, Livy’s narrative undermines his model through imagery of a diseased body politic. The Etruscans call Rome’s discordia intestina the unum venenum able to destroy it (2.44), while Livy describes the city’s infection by urbanae seditionis contagione (5.12). The metaphor, realized literally in the recurrent urban plague (Dutoit), underscores the extent to which discord prevents the republic from embodying the ideal polity. By the conclusion of Book 5, a new remedy is needed. It is found in the figure of Camillus, who is called back from exile after Rome realizes that it needs a head: sed corpori valido caput deerat (5.46). He retains the role as the city rebuilds after the Gallic invasion: caput rei Romanae Camillus erat (6.3). Putting a head atop the republic tellingly coincides with the revitalization of the body politic. Far from a marker of kingship, the head signifies the ideal republican magistrate.

In this way, the first pentad stages the republic’s need for a head-of-state. By applying the metaphor to exemplary figures like Camillus, Livy diminishes its negative associations and makes it available for political appropriation. Augustus’ own self-fashioning as a second Camillus verifies its contemporary resonance (Gaertner). As is characteristic of the era, the republican past becomes the means by which present institutional arrangements are explored, negotiated, and perhaps justified (Ando; Gowing). 

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Livy and the Construction of the Past

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