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The Nature of Fear

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Fear is an emotion that manifests itself in many diverse ways throughout the works of eminent classic authors like Thucydides, Sallust, Herodotus, and Livy. One such manifestation is political fear, which causes internal strife while uniting the masses under oppression. The rise of new forms of government brings forth individuals who either collectively or independently may govern the masses tyrannically due to personal gain. An example can be seen in Livy’s The History of Rome when discussing the decemvirate period. Livy writes, “On entering office they [the decemvirate] marked the first day of their administration with a demonstration of terror…if anyone should utter a word that was reminiscent of liberty, either in the senate or before the people, the rods and axes were immediately at the ready, if only to frighten the rest” (Livy 3.3.6). Even though the patricians had selected these men as leaders, the decemvirate exercised their dominion with fear for covetous reasons instead of the interest of the people. Because the decemvirate’s tyranny focused mostly on the plebeians, it was the plebeians who began opposing the Senate and eventually, the decemvirs find themselves fighting a two-front war among other problems with both foreign invaders (The Aequi) and the people of Rome itself, causing it to dissolve shortly after. Livy shows us that the unity of the Roman people, shown by the collective animosity of the senators and plebeians towards the decemvirs, can therefore be seen as a consequence of fear from an internal source, but the divide between the decemvirate and the people shows a lack of unity in terms of Rome’s stability overall. A similar case is present in describing Alcibiades in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars. During the debate of launching the Sicilian expedition, Thucydides describes Alcibiades as being “held in such esteem among the citizens that he indulged himself in expenditures…and to a great extent it was this with destroyed the Athenian city. The masses, frightened by the magnitude of his license…developed hostility toward him as an aspiring tyrant” (Thucydides 6.15). Due to his excessive spending and prior knowledge of what tyranny does to the people, the Athenians unite in suspicion against the effectiveness of Alcibiades’ reign, a point Thucydides mentions when writing, “For the people, understanding through hearsay that the tyranny of Peisistratos and his sons had become harsh in its last stage…were in constant fear and saw everything as suspicious” (6.53). Alcibiades is later brought in on charges against the city for mutilating the herms and showing impiety towards the Mysteries by the masses, once more showing the union of people against their tyrannical leaders, yet the lack of unity in Athens in general. However it is important to recognize that Alcibiades’ tyranny differs from the decemvirate because his end was brought by fear of his potential tyranny, whereas the decemvirate’s fearful tyranny was asserted directly upon the plebs. Therefore, internal influences on fear aren’t just dependent on tyrannical acts over the oppressed, but the masses’ view of its leaders, too.

Fear isn’t solely based on internal influences such as civil wars and new regimes, but can also be found as a result of external factors. An example from Herodotus illustrating a form of external fear can be found within a dialogue between Xerxes and Demaratus concerning Spartan military virtue, in which Demaratus states, “They [the Spartans] obey a master called Law, and they fear this master much more than your men fear you. They do whatever it commands them to do, and its commands are always the same: Not to retreat from the battlefield even when badly outnumbered; to stay in formation and either conquer or die” (Herodotus 7.104). Here, fear is portrayed as a unifying factor against the Persian forces of Xerxes instead of causing domestic issues. Demaratus’ words also propose an interesting fact of Spartan fear: they use internal fear (the Law) in order to prevail against their enemies (the external force). Fear as a unifying tactic is not an uncommon theme in accounts of war, and it can bring temporary relief in times of trouble to those facing large threats. Thucydides’ accounts exhibit this point on multiple occasions. When Hermokrates is rallying the Sicilians against the Athenian threat, he speaks of fear both due to the incoming Athenian fleet and that between rival cities and states, “let us arrange for the enemies who have presented themselves to leave the country, and ideally let us reconcile for all time, but if not, let us make a truce for as long as possible and put off out individual quarrels until later” (Thucydides 4.63). Even though the people of Sicily are separated internally, together they unite under fear of being subjugated to Athenian rule and loss of liberty. Thucydides applies the unifying force of fear as the basis also for the establishment of the Athenian empire by having the Athenians stating, “We were compelled from the first by the situation itself to expand the empire to its present state, especially out of fear, then prestige as well, and later out of self-interest” (1.75). Here, we see an interesting transition of fear: initially external fear of Persia causes Athens to unite with other polis, but as its own power grows, the fear shifts from external fear to internal fear within Greece, with Athens being tyrannical over numerous city-states. Thus, Athens began to be viewed as an external fear to those oppressed like the Sicilians, which caused the oppressed to unite and rebel. The fluctuation of internal and external fear in this scenario demonstrates that fear’s morality depends on perspective and the situation. External fear, however, isn’t limited to geographically foreign entities. In The History of Rome Livy demonstrates a different kind of fear, one different from that of the decemvirate. Numa Pompilius, worried about his subjects slipping into idleness, decides to “instill in them a fear of the gods, on the assumption that it would be most effective with a populace that was unskilled and, for those days, primitive” (Livy 1.19). The divine wrath of gods is the source of external force which unites the Roman people together and keeps peace during Numa’s reign. Had Numa made his kingship the source of fear, the people would have the capability to overthrow him if necessary. After all, it’s harder to rebel against the gods than against a king. However, since the peace in Numa’s reign did not continue afterwards, one can question the effectiveness of this instilled fear. By creating a common enemy, external fear can bring together people under one banner, even if for temporary reasons.

While the general trend of the two categories of fear can be seen through given examples, there are interesting cases in the relationship of both categories. There are many instances where the fear of external influences and fear of internal influences may seem closely intertwined. As we saw in the example of The Demaratus/Xerxes dialogue in Herodotus, the Law which the Spartans feared truly served as a unifying factor in rallying troops together against the Persian threat, but the Law, being an intangible concept, also seems to function in the same way divinity functioned during the rule of Numa Pompilius. The Spartans do not seem to fear the Persians, whereas Numa fears both internal struggle (hence his insistence of peace) and external conflict (the neighboring tribes who pose a threat to Rome). The difference of fears showcases the mentality In Sparta and early Rome, making a point about fear and its role in politics and military. The fluctuation of internal and external fear in the rise, rule, and decline of the Athenian empire can also be applied to the fear felt in early Rome, since during its early days Rome was still trying to establish itself as a powerful new city in Italy. While Athens went to varying periods of fears, the fears in early Rome changed much more sporadically. With the internal debates between patricians and plebs occurring, Rome itself was not at peace, while right outside its borders were tribes willing to attack Rome while it’s vulnerable during this period. At times the external fears caused the internal fears to halt temporary, as they did in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, but when the external fears were quelled the city turned to its internal ones and disunited quickly. The relationship between the fears is certainly a complex one.

Among the works of Thucydides, Sallust, Herodotus, and Livy, the concept of fear is mentioned repeatedly. However, the relationship between fear and its usage in the various texts is most intriguing. Sometimes fear can be seen as a negative factor which causes disruption in society, whereas at other times it may lead to unity within a community. Overall, I find that fear can be categorized as either good or bad depending on the situation. Generally, fear of external influences leads to unity and improved morale, while fear of internal influences causes disunity and strife. While this may be the case, notable exceptions do appear on occasion and the relationship of these two categories can be witnessed in varying texts.

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