Monday, April 1, 2013

The Official Style in Ancient Rome

By Hillary L.

            The Romans of the ancient past were obsessed with building an empire comprised of men and women who displayed every characteristic of good Roman citizenship. Titus Livius, better known as Livy, was an ancient Roman historian who used five Latin words to describe these characteristics: gravitas, pietas, virtus, industria and constantia. The first characteristic, gravitas, is translated to mean seriousness. The second, pietas, meant duty to family and to country. Virtus is the Latin word denoting the belief that the weak should be conquered by the strong.  The fourth characteristic is the ability to be hardworking at survival, or industria, and the last word, constantia, is the ability to be fiercest when faced with extinction.  The Romans regarded these qualities as being nothing short of holy, but such was also their reputation. Therefore, in order to maintain Rome's place of power, a set of laws were established in order to produce true roman citizens and to purge from their ranks any spot or blemish that would compromise their good name. However, the Romans also valued justice, and to be considered barbaric and unjust would be shameful, which in their culture was worse than death. So they had to come up with a way to justify their power, no matter what it cost. The result was a strategic use of the official style by Roman lawmakers. Yes, I am afraid the gods of antiquity gained their powerful empire through complex sentences, bureaucratic language, and euphemisms. Yet with every word they sought to enforce one of the qualities of a good Roman citizen, and while all five can be found in the laws, I have chosen three examples highlighting virtus, industria and constantia.
            In the opening section of The Enactments of Justinian: The Digest or Pandects Book 1, the Romans define two categories of laws: laws that are enforced by nature, called the Law of Nations, and laws that are enforced by a state, called the Civil Law.

All nations who are ruled by law and customs make use partly of their own law, and partly of that which is common to all men. For whatever law any people has established for itself is peculiar to that State, and is called the Civil Law, as being the particular law of that state. But whatever natural reason has established among all men is equally observed by all mankind, and is called the Law of Nations, because it is the law which all nations employ.

The author is manipulating the then common belief that all of mankind is bound by a set of laws enforced by nature. Rome was not the first to claim the existence of these laws, but they were most certainly ones to enforce them. You see, the Law of Nations justifies virtus, the conquering of the weak by the strong, and so by establishing its credibility the Romans could defend themselves when they waged war against another nation simply because that particular group of people was smaller or weaker than them. But the author was careful about the way he structured the sentences because although the Romans valued the Law of Nations, they needed to ensure that the nations they conquered also valued those laws. For example, he generalized his audience by beginning the statement with, "All nations who are ruled by law and customs..." and this created an ultimatum for any nation not under Rome. Either they considered themselves a nation ruled by law and customs- an honorable nation- or they considered themselves barbarians- uncivilized and uncouth. In a culture that sought to fortify itself against shame and dishonor, the nation would have to proclaim itself ruled by laws and customs. The above passage would then apply to the conquered people and they would have no grounds on which to deny the justice or the virtus of Rome. 
            In another example, we come face to face with industria, the ability of the Roman people to survive.
When children are born in lawful marriage they follow the condition of the father, but one that is conceived in promiscuous intercourse follows the condition of the mother.

In antiquity, a family line was considered to be of the utmost importance. Authors of the books of the Bible put great effort into establishing a lineage that began with Abraham in order to prove the Messiah to be descendant of the line of Judah. The Romans put an equal effort into establishing a pure ancestry. In antiquity, there was a heavy weight placed upon a person's family history. If a person was unable to show who their father was, there was no way of knowing whether the blood that ran through their veins was good, clean, Roman blood, or evil, dirty, Etruscan blood (the Etruscans being a neighboring group who were not on good terms with Rome.) Therefore, in order to maintain pure Roman citizenship, the lawmakers turn once more to vague, meaningless terms. For example, you might be wondering what the word "condition" could entail when it is applied to a man versus a woman. For all we know, the father's condition could be worse or on equal terms with the mother's, but have no fear! In anticipation of your inquiry, the lawmakers have provided the reader with a simple explanation:

            In many parts of our law the condition of women is worse than that of men.

 So there you have it, a wonderfully vague and shapeless explanation of what is meant when the author uses the word "condition" to explain a wonderfully vague and shapeless law. What is gained by doing this? The answer is quite simple. Say a man from a neighboring country was to try and lay claim on a piece of the Roman Empire because he impregnated one of the women in Rome, making the line that followed rightfully his. The Romans could pull out their handy law book and have a good laugh because the child followed the condition of the mother- which is an insulting condition to follow- and was furthermore not considered to be a valid Roman citizen. No man would want to lay claim to such a line. And vice versa, the Romans have created a lineage that is bred pure and strong and consequently enforces the survival of their nation and their reputation.
            I find it important to note, as we continue forward in this argument, that not all characteristics valued by the Romans are learned and in fact, some of them depend upon a person's nature at birth. This is the case with constantia, which required good Roman citizens to be tenacious and fierce then faced with extinction. In a person who is born healthy both mentally and physically, this can be taught and learned throughout their life. However, any person born with a mental or physical disability who requires constant attention in order to survive would not be able to display tenacity and would therefore be useless to Rome. So under the section of the laws concerning the condition (there's that word again!) of men, the author addresses this issue.
Those beings are not children who are born formed in some way which is contrary to the likeness of the human race; as, for instance, where a woman brings forth something monstrous or unnatural.

Acknowledging the fact that this passage is politically incorrect in our society and culture today, I ask that you look beyond that to see the desire of the Romans to be considered a strong and unwavering force. Above all examples I have provided thus far, this passage is thick with the official style. It is passive, shapeless, verbose, euphemistic, complex and slow. And while I'm sure the official style can be used for good that is certainly not the case for this particular passage. The ultimate goal in the passage is to ensure that no person with a physical or mental disability is considered a Roman citizen. However, to state this would be to act in an unjust manner towards another human being, so in order to justify their thoughts and actions, the Romans devised a law that sought to regard any person with a disability as inhuman. The most prominent strategy employed by the lawmakers was to create passivity within the text and to disconnect the subject from the verb. At first glance, second glance and probably still at the third glance, the reader assumes the subject of the sentence to be "those beings," but they would be incorrect. There are actually 27 words written before you ever reach the subject, which is "a woman." The sentence is structured so that it starts with the receiver of the action, then gives the action, then further describes the receiver of the action, then gives the subject, then repeats the action in a different way, then again states the receiver of the action. This is tricky to describe, so below I have devised a chart that highlights each aspect of the sentence.
The Receiving Subject
Those beings formed in some way which is contrary to the likeness of the human race or something monstrous or unnatural
The Verb
are born or brings forth
The Acting Subject
a woman

If we take the information from the table above and use it to recreate the original sentence we end up with something like, "When a woman gives birth to something monstrous, unnatural, or formed contrary to the likeness of the human race, that being is not considered a child." By finding the subject, verb and receiving subject we have already created a clearer and more fluent sentence. However, there is still more dissecting to be done. Although it is much easier to understand, the sentence is still verbose and unspeakable. To break it down even farther, we have to remember that the goal of this law is to justify the exiling of these children from the human race, and the words "monstrous" and "unnatural" are too vague and general to accomplish this. Instead, the author best describes the children (or "beings") as "formed in some way which is contrary to the likeness of the human race." This statement is not as vague as the others mentioned above, but it is vague enough to include a large variety of disabilities. In the end, we are able to break the sentence down to say, "When a women gives birth to a being whose formation is contrary to that of the human race, the being is not considered a child."  Now the passage is much shorter and much clearer. However, it attaches a Roman mother to a child they wanted nothing to do with. In the original quote, the writer had successfully detached all Roman ties to the child by placing the verb after the receiver and before the subject, and this allowed him to better accomplish the ultimate goal, that is, to eliminate all possible means to extinction.
            Around the year 321 B.C., the Romans found themselves cornered in a place called the Caudine Forks. With no hope of escaping or of retaliating against an army much larger than their own, they were forced to surrender. A treaty called the Caudine Peace was agreed upon, but in order to formally pledge themselves to the treaty, the Romans were forced by the enemy to go under the yoke. This meant that one by one, the Roman soldiers had to walk under the enemies raised swords. Livy spoke of it like this, "Thus they were sent under the yoke and, what was almost harder to bear, in full view of their enemies. When they came out of the pass, they seemed like men brought back from the dead, seeing the light for the first time; yet the real light which showed them their ranks so disgraced was grimmer than any death." The shame and dishonor felt by the Romans in that moment deemed the Caudine Peace to be, in their opinion, one of the darkest moments of their history. In that hour there was not one man among them who could be considered a good Roman citizen. Pride was respectable, strength was valued and honor was the most prized possession any Roman could have. Without these values rooted in every aspect of their lives, the Romans would have failed just as they did at the Caudine Forks, and they would never have risen to be the great empire they once were. That is why the values of gravitas, pietas, virtus, industria and constantia are ingrained in every piece of literature they created. Their laws may cause us to believe that they were barbaric and cruel, but their goals were to be the exact opposite. They were a people driven by pride and by their strength. They were obsessed with power, but they were also obsessed with justice. Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said, "The pen is mightier than the sword," and in Rome, this was quite true, for it was the pen that justified the powerful actions of the sword and allowed Rome to build itself up until it became the most powerful empire the world has ever seen.

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