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The Cruelty of Roman Discipline: Titus Manlius

For the past few weeks I've been working my way through Livy's History of Rome, one of the few books from antiquity that has survived reasonably intact.

Livy was writing well after the fact, and like many historians of his time, saw his task as using the past for moral lessons about the present as well as a chronicle of things that had gone on before.  Where the two collide, drama and story generally win the day over unpleasant facts.

One celebrated episode in Roman history took place in 340 B.C. when Rome faced enemies on multiple fronts, the most dangerous one being a revolt of their Latin allies.  A stern man, Titus Manlius (love the names they had!) was elected consul for that year and his task was to crush the Latins.

I should mention that under the Roman Republic there were two consuls -  executives elected to one-year terms.  The idea was to prevent a return of monarchy and the consolidation of power into a single individual.  The Roman solution to this frequently was to create two identical offices which shared responsibility.  In times of great danger, however, the Senate could appoint a dictator (their term) with absolute power to defend the state, but only for a limited amount of time, usually six months.

In practice, the dictator was assigned a specific task and then expected to surrender their authority. 

Anyway, back to our story.  Passions are running high, and the Romans are eager to get to grips with their enemy.  Titus Manlius is worried that a chance encounter - say a duel among patrols - could lead to a skirmish and escalate into a battle, wrecking his plans.  He instead wants to maneuver the Latins into a position where he can crush them decisively.

He therefore gives an order that no one is to engage the enemy without his orders upon pain of death.

Naturally, this is tested and the example historians give is that his own son (also named Titus Manlius) was baited into battle by insults and totally defeated an enemy champion in a duel.

Manlius Junior not only wins the fight, but strips his fallen enemy of his weapons and armor (a big deal in ancient times) and brings the trophies back to his father.  Daddy Manlius looks at his son and orders the army to form up, presumably so he can give his son an award in front of them.

The troops fall into their ranks and then as expected, Manlius Senior announces that his son has distinguished himself in battle and awards him a medal.  He then announces that the duel was against orders and has his son beheaded.

This sends a shock wave through the whole army, which hitherto had been a bit lax about discipline.  After watching the general execute his son, they get serious about it.

I mention this episode because it is celebrated in Roman history.  Livy is writing more then 300 years later and he tells the story in a way that indicates that his readers already know it, they just don't know the context and the exact time period.  He's basically saying "Okay, so this is when that famous Titus Manlius thing took place.  We all know the basics of the story, but let me get into the details."

There are of course countless other variations of this storyline where a soldier disobeys orders in order to save lives or win a battle and gets simultaneously rewarded and punished, but this is to my knowledge the oldest version of it.

In more modern variations, the reward and punishment are less severe - a soldier gets promoted for valor and then demoted for insubordination, for example.  Or he wins a medal and is then put in the stockade for a few months.  The Romans, however, took pride in what they considered to be firm discipline.  To us, it looks cruel.

Objectively speaking, it is, and while the Romans (and Greeks) had many of the same virtues, their pagan culture was decidedly weak on mercy.  They knew it as a quality, sometimes praised it, often begged for it, but rarely granted it.  In the pre-Christian era, mercy was optional, something one might do to win a reputation or perhaps because it strategic value.

What I'm driving at is that there was no particular requirement for it.  Over the last few decades, Christianity has been subjected to heavy cultural criticism for supposedly being patriarchal or oppressive and (of late) even racist.  All of this is nonsense, and we're already getting a glimpse of the cruel morality that is intended to replace it - a "cancel culture" where apologies are demanded but never accepted and mercy is shown only to those who have sufficient clout to merit it.

Every moral question is reduced to the classic "who, whom" formulation, where there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, merely a question of who derives benefit.  If it's your team, it's okay.

Titus Manlius is an example of who one can take the virtues of discipline and courage and turn them into something absurdly cruel.

I should add that Game of Thrones was another great example in the popular culture of just how vicious a non-Christian world can be.  Some of the nastiness was simply low-talent writers trying to paper over their plot holes with salacious materials, but at its core the story has no real heroes.  Everyone remotely admirable gets killed or turned into a villain.

Even a cursory glance in Roman history shows that this isn't all that far-fetched.

 

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