Diego Lafuente’s personal blog

November 1, 2014

The Roman Severity


In the era of the Roman Republic, the values that defined the famous Roman virtue, or "virtus," were frugality, severity, righteousness, dignity, and service to the country above all else. These were the values that were taught as personal goals to every Roman citizen. All of these values comprised the Roman Virtue and were a basic characteristic of success and renown that every noble Roman pursued, in addition to combating baldness and being physically fit to enhance their masculinity. Today, I want to tell you about the severity that characterized the Roman people, how it was forged, and what role it played in their development.

Brutus and the Republic

"When death, the great reconciler, comes, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity."

According to Livy, the Roman Republic, as we know it, was founded based on the actions of Lucius Junius Brutus around 509 BC. Brutus was a noble patrician from the Junius family who, upon learning that Sextus Tarquinius, son of King Tarquinius Superbus, had raped Lucretia, decided to start a revolt that would cause the beginning of a new government. Killing a patrician was a delicate matter and was chosen as a last resort knowing that it would bring many consequences. The patricians dominated the Roman scene, and many people depended on them, people who were known as clients, but they also controlled the political and military scene, so they were people who had to be taken care of. The Roman system was patronage-based, and patricians were untouchable in this system. Lucretia had a significant dowry and had a well-known cognomen in Roman society, she was the daughter of Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus. Besides, she was the wife of Collatinus, who was Sextus Tarquinius's cousin. For these reasons, both because of her patrician background and her marital union, Lucretia had a reputation and honor to maintain, even above her own life. Dignitas (reputation) was a very serious matter in Rome.

It all began with a military gathering in a camp outside the Latin city of Collatia — about 15 kilometers north of the city of Rome. The Roman soldiers, while drinking and warming themselves near the fire, discussed who the most beautiful Roman woman was. They all began to throw out names between laughs and camaraderie. In the group were two important figures, Tarquin — son of the Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud — and Collatinus — son of Aruns Tarquinius Collatinus, nephew of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome. Tarquin was handsome, with renown and a reputation as a lover who had many women, but these women were with him for who he was, not for his qualities. When it was Collatinus's turn, he mentioned that the most beautiful woman in Rome was his wife, Lucretia. He described Lucretia in such a way, both in terms of physical description and personal qualities, that the group was amazed at the number of qualities that this Roman woman possessed. Some of the soldiers and Tarquin, unbelieving, decided to ride on horseback to the city of Rome to see Lucretia in person. Arriving at the portal of Collatinus's house, they saw Lucretia in her daily activities and confirmed what Collatinus had said. Lucretia was a very beautiful Roman woman, dressed in patrician fashion, working at her loom and directing the slaves in her house. The soldiers returned to the camp convinced that Collatinus was a truly lucky man and that Lucretia was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman in Rome. In the following days, the famous conversation about the women became a distant memory, but Tarquin could not stop thinking about Lucretia and how fortunate Collatinus was. The feeling of envy grew and corroded him, and the sense of jealousy corrupted him and seemed to have no end.

Tarquin, jealous of Collatinus and fervently in love with Lucretia, took advantage of the fact that he was out of his house to ask Lucretia for hospitality. Once inside her house and taking advantage of the fact that it was night, he went to her bedroom, surprising her already in bed. Lucrecia, upon seeing Sextus in the porch, was quite upset, because she knew what was coming next. She did not fear for her life. A patrician was educated in such a way that it was more worthy to die than dishonor. Sextus Tarquinius knew this detail and although he had her threatened with his sword, he plotted a better extortion: he threatened to kill her, but in addition, killing also the most beautiful slave of his house, and then joining both naked bodies in bed. In this way, Sextus could argue that he had caught Lucretia in the act with a slave. Sextus, in case of killing Lucretia and the slave, would be saving the honor of Publius Valerius Colatinus, his relative and best friend (very good friend, right?) therefore his alibi would be seen as an act not only noble, but honorable and within the patriarchal system. All this, plus the fact that it would put Lucretia and her entire family before a public humiliation of which would have harsh consequences within the Roman society. The beautiful Lucretia, faced with such a warning of consequences, thought of her family and had no choice but to accept Sextus' demand, allowing herself to be raped without attracting attention inside her house. At the end, Sextus left her alive. But even though she was breathing, Lucrecia, faced with such an offense, felt more dead than alive. As the days passed, her appearance was pitiful: a ragged look, with her hair in disarray, her clothes torn and scratches all over her body, including her face. Very unbecoming of a Roman matron. She decided to call her father and her husband who were still concentrated in Colatina while King Tarquin the Superb was besieging the city of Ardea. When they arrived home, they were surprised to see Lucretia in such a state. Three men arrived on the scene: Spurius, Colatinus and Brutus, Colatinus' friend. Spurius, seeing his daughter in such a state, took her in his arms while demanding an explanation of what had happened and, before both of them, between sobs and with a tone of rage, he told what had happened, claiming revenge against Sextus Tarquinius. The anger and disbelief of all the men towards Tarquin was indescribable. But while they were deliberating what to do, Lucretia, in order not to suffer any more the humiliation of having let herself be raped, extracted from her torn clothes a dagger and with determination plunged it into her belly, tearing a great amount of tissue, shouting: "I am not going to let myself be raped!

"No woman will be authorized by the example of Lucrecia to survive her dishonor!"

As Lucrecia plunged the dagger into her own belly, she collapsed in Espurio's arms in front of the others, who felt helpless. Her father, Espurio, became enraged and carried her, still bleeding, to the steps of a temple with Colatino and Bruto, her best friend who was also with them. Bruto, who had already been plotting the overthrow of the monarchy, saw an opportunity to incite a revolt with the common people and he did so. He took the dagger with which Lucrecia had taken her own life and, holding it up in the air, swore vengeance against Tarquinio and his entire family. The public, who were easily incensed, went into a frenzy, causing a revolt throughout the city. Rome was somewhat accustomed to revolts and politicians always tried to avoid them at all costs, but this one was so successful and caused so much indignation that it would end up resulting in the expulsion of the Tarquinio family and all those in favor of the monarchy. When the revolt had calmed down a bit, a power vacuum was created. This was quickly resolved by creating a chamber made up of the most important aristocrats who would form what is known as the Senate. They appointed two magistrates with the ultimate responsibility of executing the decisions of the chamber, first called praetors and later consuls.

Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus —husband of the deceased Lucretia— became the first consuls of the Republic. Brutus publicly swore to defend the Republic with his life if necessary, and he forced the population to make the same oath: to never accept a monarchy. Once in government, Brutus's first action was to expel his fellow consul, Collatinus, because he was directly related to the Etruscan Tarquinii family, and at that time, having the Tarquinii surname was not desirable. The curious thing about this fact is that Brutus was the son of Tarquinius Superbus's sister, so paradoxically, he had a closer relationship with him than Collatinus.

But the story and the example of Bruto's severity don't end here. After the establishment of the Republic, a series of events, conspiracies, and betrayals perpetrated by the expelled Tarquinios and some of their followers who remained hidden within the walls of the city of Rome took place. These followers, as illogical and amusing as it may seem, continued to try to recover the monarchy instead of being free citizens under a republican government. Among these conspirators were none other than Bruto's own sons: Tito and Tiberio Junio Bruto. When the plot was discovered, Bruto did not hesitate to take action and demonstrate the severity of his being; but above all, the seriousness of his oath and the impartiality he possessed. He ordered the capture of his sons and the rest of the conspirators. And so it was, in a public act where he ordered his lictors to decapitate each conspirator with their fasces, including his own sons, as a proof of his commitment to the republic, to the amazement and disbelief of all the people gathered there. This event became one of the first acts of true severity of the Roman citizen possessing the genuine virtus and duty to the fatherland. Several centuries later, another Bruto, this time Marco Junio, along with another group of senators, assassinated Julius Caesar to free the republic from another dictatorship.

The Severity of Titus Manlius Torquatus

In modern times, it is unthinkable for a father to kill his son, even if the latter has committed a serious mistake. However, in ancient Rome, this was not a problem. Titus Manlius Capitolinus Imperiosus Torquatus, or simply "Torquatus," was another one of those Romans with authentic virtus and was considered for a long time as a favorite hero of Roman history. Except for Caesar or Augustus, he was quite decorated. From Titus Livius, we can discover that Titus Manlius was a person with a lot of discipline, courage, and he was also famous for his primitive and extreme severity, something that even his compatriots criticized for applying it always excessively. To demonstrate his intransigence, two events in his life stand out and are worthy of recounting.

The first event that earned him his nickname and subsequent "immortality" occurred during his youth in 361 BC, when he was in the army under the command of the dictator Titus Quinctius Pennus in the midst of a war against the Gauls. According to the accounts of Titus Livius, both armies were facing each other but refraining from skirmishing. While the Gallic side never ceased provoking the Romans with insults and occasional projectiles, discipline and self-control reigned among the Roman troops. The entire unit maintained their line, and no one acted on their own to go cut the enemy's hair. The discipline in the Roman army was always known to be strict and applied uniformly, sparing no one. This discipline enabled the legion to move as a living, organized unit, in contrast to the general chaos of armies formed by barbarian tribes.

The story, which has been exaggerated to a greater or lesser degree by different historians, recounts that a massive Gaul emerged from the enemy lines, challenging the Romans to a duel to see which people were superior. When the stoic Roman army refused, the giant Gaul began to taunt them, sticking out his tongue and making gestures while continuing to challenge the enemy. This was a common practice in war, to have the two champions fight each other in a duel and thus decide the outcome of a war without further casualties. But over time, this ancient practice – perhaps Greek in origin – lost interest for the Romans, and from this point on, they stopped accepting duels. Nevertheless, this gesture deeply offended Titus Manlius, who fully armed himself and went to the dictator Pennus to ask for permission to go and kill that Gaul, according to the accounts of Titus Livius:

"General, without your permission I would never fight outside the formation, even if I saw a certain victory! If you permit me, I want to show that beast, who so fiercely struts among the enemy standards, that I am descended from that family that expelled the Gallic troops from the Tarpeian Rock."

After due argumentation, the dictator Penno acceded to the request of Titus Manlius, who, fully determined, went to the position of the Gaul and accepted the challenge. The physical difference between the two was well evident: Titus Manlius was short and slight, while his opponent was tall and robust. Even with this disadvantage, when the duel began, after underestimating his opponent with taunts, the arrogant Gaul began his attack with a blow of brutal force but of ineffective technique, something that could be contained with the shield of Titus Manlius without any problem, and he, in response, with a textbook move, pushed aside with his shield the lower part of the round and small shield of the Gaul and thrust the point of his gladius into the groin of the Gaul. In the blink of an eye, another thrust followed to the belly, turning the hilt to open the wound more, as the centurions always advise in training, leaving the giant to collapse on the ground. While the Gauls were known for their size, strength, and bravery, they usually fought in a frenzied and unstructured way, while the Romans were trained in the art of war and particularly in the use of their sword with shield, something that Titus Manlius applied to perfection.

Mortuo canis rabies finita est. The enemy, upon seeing their champion fall within seconds, fell silent. But if the humiliation of watching their best and bravest fighter die wasn't enough, Titus did not pass up the opportunity to decapitate the Gallic giant and wear on his own neck the most precious possession of a Gallic nobleman: a torque of gold. The torque was an ornamented collar that determined, in a certain way, the importance of that person in Gallic society. Not just anyone wore a torque, and those who had one defined that person's importance in society based on its size and the ornamentation work it had. It was like the car of this era; whoever had the best car was seen as the most successful, and the same went for the Gallic torques. From this famous event, Titus Manlius earned the agnomen of Torquatus, a nickname that lasted for generations.

The second example, which earned him the hatred of young Romans for generations, was the example he demonstrated in the Latin Wars, which pitted the Roman army against the coalition of the Latin League in 339 BC, 170 years after the founding of the Republic. It was in a battle, known as the Battle of Vesuvius, that ended up defining the superiority of Rome throughout Latium. Titus Manlius Torquatus and Publius Decius Mus were in charge of the armies and decided to bring back all the ancient values of army discipline. Thus, with both armies encamped, the consuls announced that no Roman should engage in single combat under penalty of death. Even with this warning, young Manlius, son of Torquatus, and several of his friends from the army responded to the provocations of some of the enemy warriors, and he saw the opportunity to win glory by accepting the challenge of one in particular. According to Livy, a noble champion from the enemy ranks named Geminus Maecius managed to provoke Manlius' son. He accepted the challenge, killed his opponent, and carried the trophy of blood in triumph to his father. When Titus Manlius Torquatus found out that his son had disobeyed, he called the legion to form up and, in a display of severity, executed his son right there. With this action, Titus Manlius earned the reputation of being the most severe man of his time. It must have been a shocking scene to see a fellow soldier die for bringing triumph. From this came the famous term Manliana imperia (Manlian discipline).

Over the years, the army continued to follow examples of severity. The famous decimatio (decimation) was feared in the army, as we can read from Suetonius, but rarely practiced. Marcus Licinius Crassus applied this punishment in his army after having fled in battle against the slave army of Spartacus. And although Crassus was severe, he was no different from any successful Roman leader of his time in command of troops. And although he applied an ancient and terrible punishment, in my opinion, this role did not characterize him, nor did it overshadow the severity of the aforementioned individuals.

The real purpose of this entry is not to assess severity as a virtue to be followed or anything of the sort. That is for each person to evaluate according to their own standards. But every time severity is discussed, there is a lack of data showing extreme examples of it. In all of the fascinating history of Rome, severity played an important role, and it was so much so that without it, there would not have been the discipline that armies could adopt to defeat and impose themselves in the countless battles they fought, nor would many men of virtue have taken notable measures of progress for their time. To a certain extent, Rome would not have been what it was, and perhaps not even a republic.