Livy’s history was the hunt and peck book for generations of philosophes. Machiavelli wrote his discourses about it; Montesquieu studied it for L’esprit de lois; and, I’d contend, Rousseau opens his Du Contrat Social, an essay that begins with an epigraph from the Aeneid, with a reference to it: “L'homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.” As LI has been pointing out (with my usual autistic artistry, winding theme around theme) in my Man in Chains posts, the chain looms large in the history of freedom – and it seems that the ideologues of freedom have been a little too hasty in consigning the chain to the figurative, all the better to speak of freedom as a matter of will, or of rights. But the figurative does seem to operate a return of the repressed, a memory of irons, of yokes, of chains, which runs through Rousseau’s essay and contacts the plebian notion of freedom, as expressed in such fons et origo texts as Livy’s history.
In George Dow’s Slave Ships and Slaving, there’s an account by J.B. Romagne of life aboard La Rodeur, a slave ship that entered the Calabar river in 1819, and loaded up with Africans, intending to sell them in Guadaloupe. This was life in the chains completely:
“ Since we have been at this place, Bonny Town in the Bonny river, on the coagt of Africa, I have become more accustomed to the howling of these Negroes. At first, it alarmed me, and I could not sleep. The Captain says that if they behave well they will be much better off at Guadaloupe; and I am sure, I wish the ignorant creatures would come quietly and have it over. Today, one of the blacks whom they were forcing into the hold, suddenly knocked down a sailor and attempted to leap overboard. He was caught, however, by the leg by another of the crew, and the sailor, rising up in a passion, hamstrung him with a cutlass. The Captain, seeing this, knocked the butcher flat upon the deck with a handspike. “I will teach you to keep your temper’, said he, with an oath. “He was the best slave in the lot.’ I ran to the main chains and looked over; for they had dropped the black into the sea when they saw that he was useless. He continued to swim, even after he ahd sunk under the water, for I saw the red track extending shoreward; but by and by, it stopped, widened, faded, and I saw it no more.”
Dow records an auction of items ‘suitable for a Guinea voyage’, held at the Merchant’s Coffee house:
One iron furnace and copper, 27 cases with bottles, 83 pairs of shackles, 11 neck collars, 22 handcuffs for the traveling chain, 4 long chains for slaves, 54 rings, 2 travelling chains, 1 corn mill 7 four pound basons, 6 two pound basons, 3 brass pans, etc., etc.”
In Livy, Book 2, a section is devoted to the first secession of the Plebs – which forms the background, incidentally, to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – which occurred as the plebians and the patricians fought over liberty in the city after the successful conclusion of three small wars, the final one against the Volscians. The disturbances in the city, according to Livy, were always about the same thing – debt. The first story that gives rise to uproar is this one:
“An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, `Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?' He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father's and grandfather's farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death.
Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash.
On seeing and hearing all this a great outcry arose; the excitement was not confined to the Forum, it spread every where throughout the City. Men who were in bondage for debt and those who had been released rushed from all sides into the public streets and invoked `the protection of the Quirites.' The formula in which a man appealed to his fellow-citizens for help."
Livy mixes news of the wars with news of the uproars of the plebians. Finally a dictator was chosen, and the Volscians were defeated. But still there was debt, the increasing power of the creditors over the debtors.
“The moneylenders possessed such influence and had taken such skillful precautions that they rendered the commons and even the Dictator himself powerless. After the consul Vetusius had returned, Valerius introduced, as the very first business of the senate, the treatment of the men who had been marching to victory, and moved a resolution as to what decision they ought to come to with regard to the debtors. His motion was negatived, on which he said, `I am not acceptable as an advocate of concord. Depend upon it, you will very soon wish that the Roman plebs had champions like me. As far as I am concerned, I will no longer encourage my fellow-citizens in vain hopes nor will I be Dictator in vain. Internal dissensions and foreign wars have made this office necessary to the commonwealth; peace has now been secured abroad, at home it is made impossible. I would rather be involved in the revolution as a private citizen than as Dictator.' So saying, he left the House and resigned his dictatorship. The reason was quite clear to the plebs; he had resigned office because he was indignant at the way they were treated.”
It was then that the plebians made the famous decision to withdraw in a body from Rome. The patricians sent Menenius Agrippa, to address them, “an eloquent man, and acceptable to the plebs as being himself of plebeian origin. He was admitted into the camp, and it is reported that he simply told them the following fable in primitive and uncouth fashion. `In the days when all the parts of the human body were not as now agreeing together, but each member took its own course and spoke its own speech, the other members, indignant at seeing that everything acquired by their care and labour and ministry went to the belly, whilst it, undisturbed in the middle of them, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures provided for it, entered into a conspiracy; the hands were not to bring food to the mouth, the mouth was not to accept it when offered, the teeth were not to masticate it. Whilst, in their resentment, they were anxious to coerce the belly by starving it, the members themselves wasted away, and the whole body was reduced to the last stage of exhaustion. Then it became evident that the belly rendered no idle service, and the nourishment it received was no greater than that which it bestowed by returning to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and are strong, equally distributed into the veins, after being matured by the digestion of the food.' By using this comparison, and showing how the internal disaffection amongst the parts of the body resembled the animosity of the plebeians against the patricians, he succeeded in winning over his audience.”
Thus, the famous apology of Menenius Agrippa. It is striking to me that the stomach, which is described as the hub of the body – it returns nourishment by way of blood to all parts of the body – is maintained by the chain-like actions of the body’s ‘accidents’, its minors, its rude mechanicals – Hands to mouth, teeth to mouth, mouth to stomach. Here the body divides into two, one part of which is linked together by a chain of debt that must be paid to support the other part, the center and hub. An invisible chain links together all those acts by which we survive, and the body’s possibles – its particulars, its bits – become, each separately, slaves, insofar as the slave is defined, practically, as the one who is in irons. Until, of course, we are useless: “…for I saw the red track extending shoreward; but by and by, it stopped, widened, faded, and I saw it no more”