VIII.13 The effect of the oath among a virtuous people

There has been no peo­ple, says Livy,1 where dis­so­lu­te­ness was intro­du­ced later than among the Romans, and where mode­ra­tion and poverty were hono­red for lon­ger.

The oath had such force among these peo­ple that nothing atta­ched them more to the laws. In order to res­pect it, they often did what they would never have done for glory or for father­land.

When Quintius Cincinnatus, consul, tried to raise an army in the city against the Æqui and the Volscians, the tri­bu­nes oppo­sed it. “Well,” he said, “let all who have taken an oath to last year’s consul march under my flag.”2 In vain did the tri­bu­nes pro­test that they were no lon­ger bound by that oath ; that when they had taken it, Quintius was a pri­vate citi­zen. The peo­ple were more reli­gious than those who made it their busi­ness to lead them : they lis­te­ned to nei­ther the dis­tinc­tions nor the tri­bu­nes’ inter­pre­ta­tions.

When those same peo­ple wan­ted to with­draw to the Mons Sacer, they felt pre­ven­ted by the oath they had taken to the consuls to fol­low them into war.3 They came up with a plan to kill them. They were made to unders­tand that the oath would be none the less valid. We can gauge the notion they had of the vio­la­tion of the oath by the crime they were ready to com­mit.

After the bat­tle of Cannæ, the frigh­te­ned peo­ple tried to with­draw to Sicily. Scipio made them swear they would stay in Rome. The fear of vio­la­ting the oath over­came every other fear. Rome was a ves­sel secu­red by two anchors in the tem­pest, reli­gion and mora­lity.

Book I.

Livy, book III.

Livy, book II.