Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.40-41

Woodcut illustration of Verginia’s trial before Appius Claudius and her death at the hand of her father Verginius, from the Penn Provenance Project, by kladcat


Returning to his discussion of the decemvirate, Machiavelli gives us an extended reflection on how that institution managed to destroy both the laws it was created to preserve and its own tyrannical rule.

To remind ourselves, this institution was created to reform Rome’s code of laws. To facilitate this task, all other magistracies were suspended for a year and the decemvirs were given maximum authority and power (auctoritas et imperium) in making their reforms. With a copy of Solon’s Athenian code in hand, the decemvirs did their jobs well at first:

These Ten conducted themselves very civilly… Although they had absolute authority, nonetheless, when they had to punish a Roman citizen for homicide, they summoned him into the presence of the people and had him judged by it. They wrote their laws on ten tables, and before they confirmed them, they put them out in public so that everyone could read them and dispute them, so that it might be known if there was any defect in them so as to be able to amend them before their confirmation. (I.40.3)

After review, the ambitious decemvir Appius suggested adding two more tables (eventually giving us the famous “Twelve Tables” of Roman law), which meant another year of the decemvirate. The other decemvirs were apparently suspicious of Appius’s motives, so they allowed him to propose the plan to the people, “believing that he would observe the limits of others in not proposing himself [to stand again for office], since that was an uncustomary and ignominious thing in Rome” (I.40.3).

To nobody’s surprise except the other decemvirs, Appius nominated himself and nine like-minded people. These were duly appointed to office for the second decemvirate. Where the first had been restrained and competent, these decemvirs functionally established a tyranny. By providing entertainment for the nobles and oppressing the plebeians, they managed to keep both sides from overthrowing their rule. Even when both factions eventually realized their situation, they lacked the constitutional means to rectify it since all other offices had been suspended. It was only when war was declared by an external power that the weakness of the decemvirate became clear, since “without the Senate they could not order for the war, and if the Senate met, it appeared to them they would lose the state” (I.40.4). And so “compelled by necessity” the decemvirs finally brought the Senate into session (I.40.4). They were finally and ultimately removed from power when Appius’s personal lusts—for the daughter of a nobleman, hence echoing the rape of Lucretia—turned both the army and the common people against the decemvirate. Consequently “Rome was brought back to the form of its ancient freedom” (I.40.4). I have to imagine that this last is somewhat ironic, since at the time of the decemvirs (~450BC), the monarchy had only been gone for about forty years—hardly an “ancient” freedom…

So what are we to learn from the story of the decemvirs? First, we learn how tyranny arises in a republic:

from too great a desire of the people to be free and from too great a desire of the nobles to command. When they do not agree to make a law in favor of freedom, but one of the parties jumps to favor one individual, then it is that tyranny emerges at once. (I.40.5)

This idea is at the heart of Adcock’s excellent little volume Roman Political Ideas and Practice. Namely, the Roman Republic existed as a balance between the desire of the common people for libertas, that is, freedom from domination by the nobility, and the desire of the desire of the nobility for dignitas, or dignity within the state. So long as these two desires reached an institutional compromise, the republic was preserved. When one chose a champion contrary to the established institutions, a Sulla, a Caesar, or a corrupt decemvirate was born. Machiavelli expands this principle to apply to all republics: balance between the common people and the nobility is key.

On the occasion that this balance is broken by a champion of the people, he must take certain steps if he wishes to establish himself as a true tyrant. Namely, at the right time and in the name of the libertas of the people, he must eliminate any nobility opposed to him. Only then can he oppress the people freely, “at which time, when the people recognizes it is servile, it has nowhere to take refuge” (I.40.5). Imbalance in the state in favor of one faction or the other means the end of freedom and the rise of tyranny.

Tyrants themselves need to be aware of this and stick with the side they pick. Appius lost his tyranny when he switched from favoring the people to favoring the nobility. His fall was only hastened by his tendency to change his public persona quickly and without apparent cause. “For whoever has appeared good for a time and wishes for his purposes to become wicked ought to do it by due degrees…” (I.41.1). Changing too quickly alienates old friends before new ones can be made. I find it endlessly fascinating that even in tyranny, Machiavelli believes that patience and prudence are virtues…

Second, we learn from the example of the decemvirate that it is generally a better idea to pursue a tyranny from a popular base than from an aristocratic one: “those tyrants who have the collectivity as a friend and the great as an enemy are more secure, because their violence is sustained by greater force than that of those who have the people for an enemy and the nobility for a friend” (I.40.6). If a tyrant must rely on the nobility, Machiavelli says, he will have to turn to external forces (mercenaries, for example) in order to maintain his position.

Finally, we see from this case that “the Senate and the people made very great errors in the creation of the Decemvirate” (I.40.7). This is not to say that they were wrong to want to reform the law codes, they were just wrong in how they went about it. Where they should have left the institutions of the Republic in place in order to give the magistrates “some hesitation about becoming criminals” (I.40.7), both sides agreed to remove all restraints in the hopes that they would get what they wanted out of the reforms. Tyranny was the inevitable result of such actions. The final lesson of the decemvirate is that if we try to accomplish the goals of our faction by overturning the established orders and all the protections they offer, we will end up with a tyranny far worse than anything we started with.

As a quick ending personal note: the Roman history nerd in me absolutely loved this section. How much fun would it have been to sit through a “Machiavelli teaches ancient Rome” seminar?


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

3 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.40-41”

  1. gabe

    Appius Lives!!!! – as a nine-headed hydra garbed in Black Robes.

    “How much fun would it have been to sit through a “Machiavelli teaches ancient Rome” (or the Supreme Court) seminar?” – Both would be fun.

    To my eye, I see quite a lot of similarity between the decemvirate and the modern court although the origins of the two may be somewhat different.

    USSC has also destroyed (or diminished) the virtuous institutions of the regime and have suspended countless laws. The Legislative is now subordinate to the Court with a corresponding enhancement of the Executive (via Admin Agencies) and the Courts long support for the same. In doing so, the court has suspended numerous protections (i.e., due process rights) and destroyed the structural balance (federalism) of the regime. This is analogous to “cho(osing) a champion contrary to the established institutions” – I need not name the new champion as I suspect that many readers will be able to identify the faction(s) that seek such pre-eminence.

    Again, Nicci’s grasp of “on the ground” conditions” and the inherent weakness of human nature is spot-on. While some rightly (?) critique him as primarily being concerned with techne, there is nevertheless a pretty clear understanding and implied criticism of human nature that one would be foolish to deny.

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, well, again I’m a bit hesitant to blame it all on the Court. The Warren Court just walked through a door opened by Roosevelt’s New Deal, which in turn was only possible because of Congressional action.

      Maybe all of this is just shorthand for “the anti-Federalists were right after all,” but darn it I like the Constitution…

      Great comment Gabe, as usual…


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: