Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.05.09

P. G. Walsh, Livy Book XXXVIII (189-187 B.C.). Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1993. Pp. 212. $49.95 (hb). $24.95 (pb). ISBN 0-85668-598-4 (hb). ISBN 0-85668-599-2 (pb).

Reviewed by Dennis Glew, Moravian College (

With the appearance of this volume, P. G. W[alsh] reaches the midpoint of a project that will eventually extend to the entire pentad consisting of Books 36-40. His edition of Book 36 with translation and commentary was published by Aris & Phillips in 1990, Book 37 (reviewed in BMCR 2.6.21 by Christina S. Kraus) in 1992.

The organization and scope of the new volume closely resemble those of its predecessors. In an Introduction, W. offers his own capsule history of the period Livy covers here, an appraisal of Livy's historical accomplishment in Book 38, a succinct review of literary features of the book, and a discussion of the Latin text. There are two bibliographies in the Introduction, one of secondary works discussing historical issues involved in Book 38, the other of historiographical studies of Livy. The bulk of the volume consists of the Latin text and W.'s translation, presented Loeb-style on facing pages. W's. commentary, about half again as long as Livy's Latin, appears immediately thereafter and is followed by 12-page apparatus and indexes of persons and of places and events. At the beginning there is also a set of maps.

In a Preface, W. observes that his book is "aimed at a wider audience than the more specialised editions which emanate from the university presses." The translation was prepared, he adds, with students' needs in mind, and in the commentary many of his observations seem to be directed specifically to a student audience (e.g., the explanation of instauratio of votive games [38. 35. 6] and the description of the Comitium [38. 56. 12]). In view of this, it is surprising not to find here any discussion of Livy's life or of the circumstances of the publication of Book 38 or its pentad. (The only indication of date of publication is W.'s comment [38. 50. 6] that Livy was interested in libertas, "a theme topical in the 20s BC when this book was composed.") Both subjects are covered in the introduction to Book 36, and space constraints may have precluded repeating that earlier discussion. But a cross-reference to it would have been helpful to students who may not buy all three volumes. (Not many will, I would think, at a price of $25 per book.) In any case, instructors will be glad to have the new volume available for use in class, even if at some points they may want to disagree with W.'s assessment of Livy's achievement.

W.'s translation stays close to the Latin, and its accuracy is a welcome improvement over the Loeb, whose shortcomings at many places W. notes. (See, e.g., his comments on chapters 8. 5, 33. 5, and 37. 10.) In the half-dozen extended sections that I examined closely, I found only one minor blemish, a passage in which W.'s rendering of the Latin might surprise a reader who does not look at the original. Preparing for battle with the Gauls, the consul Volso is said to have "noted that ... the slopes were solid earth underfoot" (38. 20. 4). He was concerned, then, that the footing might be unstable, or so one could think. But Livy is contrasting clear ground with terrain that is too rocky or precipitous to be accessible to the Roman troops. The Oxford Latin Dictionary, citing this same passage, translates "terrenus" (3) as "earthy (esp. of ground or terrain free from rocks and stones)." The passage would be clearer if one adjusted the translation to something like the following: [Volso] "noted that ... the slopes were free from rocks and stones."

W.'s chief emphasis is on history, not philology. As he states in his Preface, "... the main thrust of the notes is towards clarification of the historical events and the historian's aims and methods in presenting them." With regard to the former, W.'s discussion is succinct but considered. His comments about Livy's aims and methods, on the other hand, sometimes are unconvincing, but here, too, there is much that is very useful. In particular, his observations about Livy's language and story-telling techniques are one of the finest features of the commentary. W. is careful to explain difficult passages, and he often draws the reader's attention to the ways in which Livy achieves his effects. (For example, W. points out that the past perfect "nudaverant" at 7. 4 results in "thrusting the reader into the existing situation," while the historic infinitives at 24. 13 enhance the graphic quality of the description.) Among many others things, there are good comments about Livy's variation of tenses (6. 3) and his use of indirect discourse (42. 9-12). Not surprisingly, W. has particularly valuable points to make about the way Livy applies his favorite means of describing set scenes, many of which W. himself first elucidated.1 These include the use of dialogue (see, e.g., 38. 14. 7), the "stages" technique in battle descriptions (38. 5. 3-4 & 25. 12-13), dramatic elements in battle accounts (38. 40. 10), and the "psychological" representation of crowds. W.'s analysis of the rhetoric of Manlius' speech to the Senate (38. 45ff.) is also fine. In general, the commentary is full of excellent observations about the way Livy tells his tale, and no one interested in reading Book 38 carefully will want to miss it.

But there are also observations about Livy's aims and methods that are not persuasive, and students who use this commentary will have to be told that there is more to this story than one might gather from this volume alone. In a series of publications T. J. Luce2 has demonstrated that Livy was a careful, deliberate craftsman, not a mere rhetorician (as some of W.'s comments may suggest), and Luce and others (including especially Gary Miles3) have made a convincing case for believing that, instead of being a derivative thinker, Livy had a view of Roman history that was innovative in several important respects. Also, A. J. Woodman has directly challenged the notion that ancient historians, Livy included, wrote with the same aims as modern historians and thus that they should be judged by the same standards.4 None of that thinking is reflected in this volume, and very little of it is even acknowledged. As a result, the Livy who emerges from W.'s treatment is a distinctly minor figure, important insofar as he preserves material from older, more reliable sources (as W. would judge them) but largely incapable of significant contributions of his own, entertaining in good moments but always subject to slip-ups of every sort. Even when W. acknowledges that the historian has dealt with a difficult, controverted subject (the trial, death and tomb of Scipio Africanus) with energy, he still concludes that "Livy cannot escape criticism; he should surely have analyzed the competing versions of events before committing himself to manifest improbabilities..." (56. 1ff.). "Mediocre history, but magnificent eloquence," W.'s judgment of this part of Livy's account, could serve as his characterization of Book 38, generally.

W.'s largely negative evaluation of Livy's work seems to rest on two assumptions, first, that the historian's chief responsibility was to transmit completely and precisely any information available in his sources and, second, that Livy was incapable of adapting this information for positive purposes of his own. Accordingly, when Livy changes the account of his sources in virtually any way in Book 38, W. is almost always critical. Sometimes he demands more than is really needed. At 25.5, for example, W. states that Livy "carelessly omits to add the detail in Polybius that Attalus was accompanied by military tribunes; the negotiations were not left to the Pergamene prince alone." But this can be supplied from the context. At other times, W. asserts without discussion that Livy adjusts Polybius merely to reduce complexity or detail (24. 2; 37. 5) or as a result of simple misunderstanding or carelessness (25. 6-7; 33. 1). W. identifies problems of geography and chronology, especially, with an alacrity that borders on enthusiasm. Livy's description of the course of the Sangarius, for instance, is compromised by "geographic frailties" (18. 8), and the ager Belbinatis was restored to Megalopolis thanks to a decree which "Livy inaccurately attributes ... to the Achaeans rather than to the Hellenic League" (34. 8). Similarly, when Livy mistakenly indicates (33. 1) that Philopoemen was reelected to the office of strategos of the Achaean League at the beginning of 188, W.'s response is to cite Errington, "who attributes Livy's error to a misunderstanding of Polybius' Greek." As for the date of the consul Flaccus' return to Rome at the end of 189, W.'s only comment (35. 1) is that "Livy's chronology is confused."

But in matters of detail such as this, surely Livy's methods of work (for one thing) need some consideration. Luce has shown that the historian prepared the material of each pentad before beginning to write and that when he composed, he relied on memory instead of consulting his source(s) directly.5 This practice of writing from memory probably accounts for many of Livy's minor historical mix-ups. As one reviewer observed, "Although the evidence is slight (when Livy reproduces a list that also appears in Polybius, the order of items is often changed, for example), Luce's thesis is consistent with a rhetorical education and might help to explain a number of peculiarities in Livy's text ..."6 This is not to suggest that Livy's mistakes do not matter or that W. is at fault for identifying them. But it would be helpful, especially for the students for whom this work was prepared, if W. would, among other things, take note of the difficulties that faced the historian when he prepared and composed his life's work. Just to check citations was a headache that often led ancient scholars to quote from memory, something they did more confidently than we would today because they had trained their memory better than we have ours. Still more useful, of course, would be to re-evaluate Book 38 in the light of what Woodman and others have shown about the aims and methods of ancient historians.

The second assumption implicit in many of W.'s comments, that Livy does not adapt his sources to serve purposes of his own, keeps W. from considering positive explanations of the changes he notes. Take, for example, his comments on the role of Tiberius Gracchus in the attacks on Scipio Africanus (52. 3 - 53. 7). Livy, in brief, says that when Scipio was threatened with arrest by several plebeian tribunes for failing to answer charges they had brought against him, other tribunes decreed that the trial should be delayed, and one of them, Ti. Gracchus, who was a political opponent, no less, of Africanus, rose to the latter's defense, decrying the injustice of indicting a hero of his stature. So convincing was Gracchus' oration that even his colleagues who had initiated the charge had second thoughts, and in a subsequent meeting of the Senate, "profuse thanks were offered by the whole [senatorial] order, and especially by those of consular rank and the older senators, to Tiberius Gracchus, because he had put the public interest before private disagreements" (53. 6 [W.'s trans.]). Now, concerning Gracchus' part in the episode, W. usefully observes that "other accounts make no mention of his intervention on behalf of Africanus," but by way of explanation he suggests only that "the suspicion arises that it has been invented by sources hostile to the later Gracchi, to contrast the behavior of the father towards the senatorial order with that of his sons" (52. 9). Surely, however, one ought at least to weigh the possibility that Livy himself shaped the story as he did for particular reasons. Near the beginning of his career, as Livy recounts it, Scipio had made a dramatic public intervention on behalf of the Roman state, rallying the people following the disaster at Cannae: "I shall not abandon the Roman republic nor will I allow another Roman citizen to abandon it" (22. 53. 10). His impassioned speech on that occasion had the same effect that Gracchus' oration has near the end of Scipio's life, reversing public opinion and preventing a terrible mistake. The fatalis dux, who as a young man saved the state as though by divine inspiration, is himself rescued in his old age, as Livy has him describe it (51. 11), when another Roman recalls the people to their principles. There is a balance, that is, between the beginning and the end of Scipio's career. Perhaps this symmetry in the story of Africanus came from "sources hostile to the later Gracchi," but in view of Livy's attention to such matters (as documented by scholars from Burck through Luce) it seems entirely reasonable to suspect that Livy himself was responsible for changing the annalistic account to introduce it. Why the historian sought symmetry in this story would then be a matter for discussion in the commentary. Such questions will not come to mind, however, unless one is prepared to give Livy some credit for originality in the telling of his history.

In his comments on one episode in Book 38, W. does draw attention to the way Livy shaped one received story, but having presented the evidence, he stops short of discussing its purpose. Citing an unpublished paper by Dr. S. P. Oakley, W. observes (14) that in reviewing the encounter between Manlius Volso and the Cibyran ruler, Moagetes, Livy brands Moagetes " tyrannus five times ... (Polybius uses tyrannos only twice) 'to cast a pejorative light'" (14. 3). In the Introduction, W. offers the suggestion that Livy's changes "underline the masterful demeanour of the consul and the submissive response of the tyrant" and serve to "make this a memorable encounter" (p. 12). Apparently, Livy has no goal in adjusting Polybius' account beyond entertainment. That, again, needs to be justified. W. also believes that in this same episode "Livy's portrayal of the consul makes him less angry and more dispassionately judicial; so he omits Polybius' claim that Volso called Moagetes 'the most hostile of the Asian despots towards Rome'" (14. 7). But Livy's Volso expresses no concern at all about reasons of state; Moagetes' hostility toward Rome simply does not concern him. Volso is driven solely by personal greed. It would be out of character for him to grow angry.

W.'s predisposition to read Book 38 as, at best, a resume of Livy's sources is particularly clear in his treatment of Volso's application for a triumph (44. 9 - 50. 3). Livy juxtaposes two speeches, one by L. Furius Purpurio and L. Aemilius Paulus attacking the commander, the other by Volso in response. In an excellent discussion of the rhetoric of the orations, W. observes that "the general's reply is carefully ordered according to Quintilian's scheme for the deliberative speech" and that "the speech of the commissioners has no oratorical structure but merely follows Volso's activities chronologically" (45). A startling conclusion, however, follows from this: "The disparity between the lengths and presentation of the two speeches suggests that Livy favors Volso's cause" (ibid.; see also 50. 3). But W. himself concedes that Volso's justification of his expedition is contrived: "his argument here is hollow, since he had decided on a military campaign from the outset" (48. 12). In fact, the oration is largely a tissue of fabrications and misrepresentations, and one immediately suspects that it is a work of deliberate irony. This seems clear especially in Volso's indictment of the Gauls for plundering and ravaging the land of their neighbors (47. 12), the very thing the Romans had done under his leadership and that would later be a standard charge against them.7 As regards the speech's length and structure, it should be recalled that in Livy's judgment, the campaign against the Gauls was a turning point in Roman history: "the start of foreign luxury was brought to the city by the army from Asia" (39. 6. 7). It is not surprising that the historian would choose to highlight such an occasion with a powerful oration, and the one he prepared fits the situation perfectly. Volso's speech, a pack of lies, reflects precisely the moral corruption that Livy believed resulted from the Galatian expedition. Also, it gains force from comparison to the weak oration of Volso's adversaries that precedes it, which itself is marred by misrepresentations (as W.'s useful comments point out). Altogether, it is an ugly encounter that Livy describes, and it seems clear that the historian is on the side of the loser, the Roman people. To one who reads Livy as a modern historian, this may seem to be "mediocre history, but magnificent eloquence." But that is to miss the point, I believe.


  • [1] P. G. Walsh, "The Literary Techniques of Livy," RhM 97 (1954), 7-97-114, id., Livy, His Historical Aims and Methods (Cambridge, 1961), 173-190.
  • [2] See especially "Design and Structure in Livy: 5.32-55," TAPA 102 (1971), 265-302, and Livy: The Composition of His History (Princeton, 1977).
  • [3] Gary Miles, "Maiores, Conditores, and Livy's Perspective on the Past," TAPA 118 (1988), 185-208; id., "The Cycle of Roman History in Livy's First Pentad," AJP 107 (1986), 1-33.
  • [4] A. J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (Portland, 1988).
  • [5] Livy: The Composition of His History, 185-229.
  • [6] G. W. Houston, rev. Luce, Livy: The Composition of His History, CP 75 (1980), 73-77.
  • [7] Sources and discussion in B. Forte, Rome and the Romans as the Greeks Saw Them (Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome, 24) (Rome, 1972).