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The Fragility of Fate

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The ancient historians had many goals and purposes for writing their respective histories; whether they wished to provide facts and historical accounts of events or a dramatic retelling of their past, all seemed to aim as well for the more difficult task of examining and explaining the way the world works. This objective, though well intentioned, is somewhat ironic in light of the recurring theme that spans the book of each author: the inescapable truth that no amount of foresight and logic can completely and accurately predict the future. Although one can make the most sensible arrangements and preparations given the present circumstances, there is always room for a sudden or accidental change of fortune, which ostensibly leads to mental discord and dysfunction among the denizens of an empire. For the ancient historians, the single greatest cause of an intense emotional response and attitude change among a group of people – whether towards delight or despair – is the unexpected reversal of previous expectations. Minor setbacks are to be somewhat expected, but when a plan takes a 180º turn for the worse, the subsequent despair experienced by the people is devastating to both their cause and, in some cases, their very humanity. Indeed, nothing is more tragic for an empire than the chaos created by such an unexpected turn of fortune.

Both Thucydides and Livy realize that the emotions and passions of humans, in addition to considerations of wealth and might, are great catalysts for action – albeit to a different extent for each author. The two have radically different styles of writing and beliefs, owing to the very different societies in which they lived: Thucydides, as a purely logical thinker and unbiased historian who lived in a time of Greek faction and disunity, attempts to be as dispassionate as possible in his relation of the war. Livy, on the other hand, lived much later in the Roman empire, which was considerably more united than Peloponnesian War-era Greece despite having fluctuations of war and peace; he has a deep affection for Rome and often lets his personal opinions and emotions shine through in his writing. However, both books share a similar motif regarding the danger in being overconfident in a certain outcome, as even the best plans can be shattered by an unlikely turn of events. Thucydides shows his opinion by holding in high esteem those people who are wise enough to recognize the uncertainty of the future and refrain from dangerous arrogance, and later demonstrating how this mindset benefits that person or group of people in the end. Just after the start of the Peloponnesian war, Archidamos, the king of the Lacedaemonians, addresses his army and warns them to be mindful of this important reality: “…the commander and soldier of each city is to have expectations of danger in his own right. For everything is uncertain in war, and attacks usually come at short notice, out of passion. And often an apprehensive smaller force is better able to fight off larger numbers caught off guard through overconfidence” (Thuc. 2.11). The Lacedaemonian leaders give similar speeches throughout the book; as the winners of the overall war, Thucydides emphasizes the advantages of such an approach. Livy takes on the issue from another direction, by demonstrating the folly of acting with overconfidence and especially denouncing those who repeatedly commit injustices. For example, he no sooner introduces the change of constitution from consuls to decemvirs than he mentions that “this magistracy grew to excessive proportions and consequently collapsed quite soon” (Livy 3.33); surely the decemvirs are naïve to imagine that they can hold on to their power forever. Livy suggests that Appius Claudius is not only selfish but foolish to abuse the power of the decemvirate so harshly, as it surely would not end well for him. This outcome is further foreshadowed when his own father implores him to be more moderate, “more for his sake than for that of the state. Indeed, the state would seek justice from them whether the decemvirs were willing to grant it or not. Great passions, he said, were almost always aroused as a result of a great struggle and he shuddered at what might come out of this” (Livy 3.40). Because Appius does not heed this advice, the plebs continue to be oppressed until they inevitably revolt and destroy the decemvirate, and Appius goes down in history as a selfish tyrant – surely a lesson in temperance and foresight for Livy’s readers.

Thus the general views of the historians have been established in regards to minding one’s confidence. However, it would seem that the majority of players in both books are unfortunately not as astute as the authors themselves; these people are all the more susceptible to the negative aspects of the sudden reversal of expectations. Examples of this phenomenon can be found in both times of war and peace, as a surprising event can occur at any time. One of the first misfortunes to befall the Athenians in the History of the Peloponnesian War is the plague, which caused the destruction and suffering of many people. Thucydides himself was a survivor of the terrible disease, the symptoms of which he describes in lurid detail as he takes a break from his normally straightforward tone to reflect on the powerful emotionality of the plague. “What was most terrible in the whole affliction was the despair when someone realized he was sick (for immediately forming the judgment that there was no hope, they tended much more to give themselves up instead of holding out)” (Thuc. 2.51). The resulting misery and hopelessness affects the people to such an extent that society begins to break down, and lawlessness prevails; honesty and piousness no longer matter as people focus on short-term pleasure rather than long-term security. The shocking and sudden impact of the plague causes the Athenian populace to become anxious and doubtful about the war they had made extensive preparations for and just recently begun; Pericles reprimands them for their discouragement and hostility towards him. “Since a great reversal has befallen you, and that with little warning, your attitude is too feeble to persevere in what you resolved. For that which is sudden and unexpected and which comes with least accountability is what enslaves the spirit; this has happened to you…on account of the plague” (Thuc. 2.61) The tendency of a populace to turn their resentment towards a leader in times of unexpected misfortune is also seen in Livy’s History of Rome, after the mysterious disappearance of Romulus. The king was so beloved by the people that when he disappeared one morning – assumed to have been taken up to heaven by a storm – the citizens were left in panic and despair, “stricken with fear as if they had been orphaned” (Livy 1.16). In addition to their sorrow and longing for Romulus, the people are resentful of the resulting struggle for power among the senators. Since nobody would concede authority to another, the senators share the rule of the people amongst themselves, each one ruling for a five day period and rotating; this quite inefficient form of government lasts for an entire year, much to the bitterness of the Roman citizens. “The people were grumbling that their servitude had been multiplied: they now had a hundred masters instead of one” (Livy 1.17). Nevertheless, harmony and stability is restored fairly quickly in Rome, as is typical of the episodes that Livy records – an example of the stark differences of the time periods documented by the two authors.

Some of the most tragic and long-lasting calamities that befall a society are brought about in times of war. Livy captures particularly well the shock and despair experienced by the Albans when they are conquered and forced to leave their city behind forever to go and live in Rome. “Grim silence and speechless grief so overwhelmed the minds of all that, in their fear, they could not decide what they should leave behind and what they should take with them” (Livy 1.29). The dumbfounded citizens can do nothing more than look on as the Romans completely destroy their homes and temples; Livy especially laments the swift destruction of “the work of the 400 years in which Alba had stood” (Livy 1.29). Perhaps the best example of the long lasting effects of unexpected misfortune is the Syracusan defeat of Athens to end the war. The Athenians, who had for so long been the most confident and arrogant side of the war, did not recognize the size and strength of the Syracusan fleet which they had expected to overpower, and suffered an astonishing defeat. “They were at a loss even in their previous circumstances and very much more so after they had been defeated with their fleet, something they could never have believed” (Thuc. 7.55). But even beyond the intense sorrow and astonishment that one would expect such a defeat to bring to the soldiers, the most truly sincere and tragic emotion to be experienced by the Athenians when they are forced to retreat after their final loss is the extreme guilt they have as a result of their participation in the war. “There was also a certain mortification and strong self-condemnation. For they resembled nothing other than a city stealing away after capitulation to a siege, and no small city” (Thuc. 7.75). That these Athenians, who were so arrogant in their hunger for power that they showed no mercy to many innocent cities and destroyed them in the course of the war, could be moved to experience this amount of shame and remorse by such an unforeseen occurrence, is a truly Thucydidean reminder of the fragility of our future.

While this theme of reversals of fate and subsequent emotional reactions is by no means the overarching theme of either book, it does demonstrate that although these writers lived in vastly different worlds, there are basic realities of life and nature that humans have observed for millennia. Both Thucydides and Livy focus on different aspects of human nature, but this concept is one that they clearly both wished to stress to their readers as an important lesson to bear in mind.


Aglids 19:43, May 12, 2011 (UTC)

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