Men of chains

“The Roman law as to the payment of borrowed money (pecunia certa credita) was very strict. A curious passage of Gellius (xx.1) gives us the ancient mode of legal procedure in the case of debt, as fixed by the Twelve tables. If the debtor admitted the debt, or had been condemned in the amount of the debt by a judex, he had thirty days allowed him for payment. At the expiration of this time, he was liable to the Manus Injectio and ultimately to be assigned over to the creditor (addictus) by the sentence of the praetor. The creditor was required to keep him for sixty days in chains, during which time he publicly exposed the debtor on three nundinea, and proclaimed the amount of his debt. In no person release the prisoner by paying the debt, the creditor might sell him as a slave or put him to death."

This story, under the entry Nexum in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities, is of interest not only for the amusingly suggestive idea that the creditor was named an addictus, but for the idea that the chains worn by the debtor were simply the visual and material endpoint of the chain he had invisibly agreed to wear when he took on debt. Nexus comes from necto, to bond. The nexum is often coupled with mancipium, sale, which is of course at the center of emancipation.

The image of the man in chains is a powerful one. Dickens, that great instinctive mythmaker, brilliantly switches the chains to the addictus in A Christmas Carol:

The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant's cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.

The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound,and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

"It's humbug still!" said Scrooge. "I won't believe it."

His colour changed though, when, without a pause,it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, "I know him; Marley's Ghost!" and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him,
and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.”

Now, nexum wasn’t the literal Latin for chains – but as the transaction it named could all end in chains, the figurative here is like Marley’s ghost – the nexum is transparent, and you could look through it to the chains wound about the exposed debtor.

In philosophy, the notion of the chain of being is well known, especially since A.O. Lovejoy’s book. However, Lovejoy was a traditional intellectual historian. He wasn’t one to ask about the shifting between the material and the figurative, that interplay which, of course, is as ice cream and pie to a deconstructionist minded guy like LI. However, though we have pored in libraries over various books on archaeology and anthropology and ancient history, we still have not come across an account of the invention of the chain. The wheel, writing, bronze, the chariot – you can always find speculative accounts of these things. The chain, on the other hand, seems to have been forever familiar. In the Iliad, Book 8, one of the most famous references to chains occurs in Zeus’s flyte:

“Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth, and Zeus that hurleth the thunderbolt made a gathering of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus, and himself addressed their gathering; and all the gods gave ear: "Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods. Nay, come, make trial, ye gods, that ye all may know. Make ye fast from heaven a chain of gold, and lay ye hold thereof, all ye gods and all goddesses; yet could ye not drag to earth from out of heaven Zeus the counsellor most high, not though ye laboured sore. But whenso I were minded to draw of a ready heart, then with earth itself should I draw you and with sea withal; and the rope should I thereafter bind about a peak of Olympus and all those things should hang in space. By so much am I above gods and above men."

Macrobius’ comments on this passage are the locus classicus of the chain of being – for, in his Neo-Platonic way, Macrobius metaphorized and metaphysicalized the chain simultaneously. Lovejoy seized on the passage in Macrobius as his starting point:

“When, for example, Macrobius, in the early fifth century, gives, under the guise of a commentary on a work of Cicero’s, a Latin abridgment of much of the doctrine of Plotinus, he sums up the conception in a concise passage which was probably one of the chief vehicles through which it was transmitted to medieval writers; and he employs two metaphors – of the chain and of the series of mirrors – which were to recur for centuries as figurative expressions of this conception:

Since, from the Supreme God Mind arises, and from Mind, Soul, and since this in turn creates all subsequent things and fills them all with life, and since this single radiance illumines all and is reflected in each, as a single face might be reflected in many mirrors placed in a series; and since all things follow in continuous succession, degenerating in sequence to the very bottom of the series, the attentive observer will discover a connection of parts from the Supreme God down to the last dregs of things, mutually linked together and without a break. And this is Homer’s golden chain, which God, he says, bade hang down from heaven to earth.”

Now, I spy with my little eye a curious thing. The curious thing is that the divine order of being uses, as its organizing metaphor, an instrument associated with debt slavery and capture. It is said that the Roman armies traveled with chains for their prisoners of three types, iron, silver and gold, which corresponded to the prisoners they expected to take, with Princes and Kings getting the gold chain. To conquer was not just to abolish the property relations holding in the conquered territory – the law of res nullius exposed all to the chain, to the property one holds in oneself.

Well, I haven’t gotten to Livy’s men in chains running in the streets of Rome, where they ran and ran until they appeared in Rousseau’s essay on social contract – but I’ll get there some day. I am struggling with work, at the moment, and barely have time to do research! Sorry, sorry, sorry.

To finish off, a quote from Henry Maine:

“The Law of Warlike Capture derives its rules from the assumption that communities are remitted to a state of nature by the outbreak of hostilities, and that, in the artificial natural condition thus produced, the institution of private property falls into abeyance so far as concerns the belligerents. As the later writers on the Law of
Nature have always been anxious to maintain that private property
was in some sense sanctioned by the system which they were expounding, the hypothesis that an enemy's property is res nullius has seemed to them perverse and shocking, and they are careful to stigmatise it as a mere fiction of jurisprudence. But, as soon as the Law of Nature is traced to its source in the Jus Gentium, we see at once how the goods of an enemy came to be looked upon as nobody's property, and therefore as capable of being acquired by the first occupant.


P.M.Lawrence said…
"...we still have not come across an account of the invention of the chain". Prometheus, anybody? There is an obscure variant of that myth in which he is eventually set free, but has to wear a ring in formal compliance with Zeus's enduring oath that he should be chained eternally.

On res nullius, consider the significance of terra nullius in Australian history.
roger said…
I know that Prometheus was chained. And I think Hephaestus had to make the chain - and of course he famously makes a metal net of chains to catch his lovely wife in flagrante delecto, I believe. But unlike the stories of Hermes inventing the flute, or Prometheus stealing fire, the chain just goes back and back. Hephaestus, though, would seem to be its natural inventor, don't you think?
Arkady said…
I wonder if chains go back further than metal, to hawsers made of rope that's been looped and threaded through with the running end.
roger said…
Well, even in that quote from the Iliad, the translator moves from chain to cord. And there are wooden chains - aren't there? There's at least yokes, fetters - as in this film I saw yesterday that everybody and her dog should see!