Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.06

Andrew Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy's History.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998.  Pp. 251.  ISBN 0-520-21026-3.  $45.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-520-21027-1.  $17.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Geoffrey S. Sumi, Mount Holyoke College (
Word count: 2271 words

The stated objective of A. F[eldherr]'s book on Livy, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, is to apply the methodology for studying the social functions of public spectacles to a close reading of selected episodes from Livy's History, thus illuminating the connection between the text of Livy and the history it contains -- and showing how "the narrative strategies that Livy adopts to engage the gaze of his audience allow his text to reproduce the political effects of the events described and thus to act upon the society of his own time" (p. 3). In this way, F. fruitfully combines two relatively recent, separate trends in scholarship: (1) a more "literary" approach to Livy's text -- his monumentum -- and (2) an interest in and analysis of Roman civic spectacle. His treatment is necessarily selective, choosing episodes mostly from the early books; mine will be even more so, choosing a few examples to illustrate F.'s methodology. F's study is divided into five chapters, "Vision and Authority in Livy's Narrative," "Historian and Imperator," "Duels and Devotiones," "Sacrifice, Initiation, and the Construction of the Patria," and "The Alternative of Drama." For the purposes of this review, I will focus on chapters 1, 4, and 5.

The first chapter functions in part as an introduction by establishing the theoretical framework that will inform much of F.'s analysis. He begins with the rhetorical concept of enargeia, the vivid presentation of events in a literary work, which is especially applicable to historiography with its basis in Herodotean autopsia and Thucydidean eyewitness accounts. F. reminds us that reading historical narrative is a visual experience. He then uses the ritual departure (profectio) of P. Licinius in 171 B.C. to show how in Livy's text this technique helps form a bridge between past and present. This spectacle provides a representation of the Republic in microcosm -- both spatially, by describing the spectators' gaze as they follow the departing commander from the Capitolium to the gates of the city, and temporally, as the spectators reflect on past commanders who have followed the same route. But the reader is also a spectator who is invited to contemplate his place in the same continuum of history. Thus F. introduces a kind of "layered" reading of spectacle in Livy's history by considering the effect of a vivid visual event on the audience in the text as well as on the reader.

Livy's representation of spectacle also was a means of bringing auctoritas to his text. F. points out, following primarily Geertz and Price,1 that these events were the venues where power was made manifest. Following Wagenvoort, particularly in his understanding of the symbolic importance of contact in Roman culture, F. argues that Roman leaders often had a capacity to "connect those who came into contact with them to the state's 'active centers'" (p. 15). Livy, in a similar way through his description of spectacle, draws a connection between his text and public demonstrations of power, thus "situat[ing] his work at the active center of Roman civic life" (p. 17).

Livy's text also acquired political authority through the link between performing and recording history in the historiographic tradition. Likewise an artistic representation or memorial (monumentum) of a spectacle such as a triumph, which records the res gestae of a victorious general, keeps the event "present" even when it is long past. "Within this framework, the representation of the act celebrated by the triumph, through various forms of monumenta, comes to approximate as closely as possible the direct experience of the act itself; both are effects of the power born [sic] by the triumphator" (p. 25). We can view Livy's text in a similar light, as his own monumentum of great men, whose readers likewise experience their acts directly. F. takes the argument one step further: by preserving the past of the city in this way, with its institutions, laws, and customs, Livy, like an Augustus or a Camillus, also participates in a form of civic regeneration. "Livy's strategy of making his own work a 'spectacle' provides a mechanism by which his text can participate directly in the political life of the state, not only through the meanings it conveys, but through the experience it makes available to its audience; it is thus that Livy's narrative generates its own auctoritas" (p. 19). (F. explores this in more detail in chapter 2, especially the ways in which Livy uses the figures in his text as "sources" who authenticate his narrative.)

Chapter 4, "Sacrifice, Initiation, and the Construction of the Patria," examines the fall of Alba Longa, the city that stands as intermediary between the two patriae, Troy and Rome, the incorporation of whose citizens into the Roman citizen body acts as a metaphor for understanding the conflicts of civic identity in Rome of the late Republic and early Principate. In his description of the duel of the Horatii and Curiatii and later the murder of Horatia and the execution of Mettius Fufetius, Livy shows many of the similarities between Albans and Romans which create an atmosphere of conflicting loyalties and sympathies. F. uses lustrationes, rituals that allow for initiation into a group or community, and sacrifice, a ritual that draws sympathy both for victim and performer, as models for understanding these oppositions. F. takes this further by showing that sacrifice, through its controlled violence, could have a positive, unifying influence on a group, examples of which occur in the Augustan period (e.g., the annual sacrifices at the Ara Pacis).

F. argues that Livy's text takes on a political, state-building function precisely when he is describing sacrificial ritual and thus is communicating in the same medium as Augustus himself when he accomplished the restoration of the state. This raises a question crucial not only for the issues in this chapter but for the book as a whole: Can a text operate on its audience in the same way that an actual sacrificial ritual (i.e., spectacle) does? F. discusses how a text might achieve this by considering the execution of Mettius Fufetius, the spectacle through which the Albans are finally incorporated into the Roman state. The Roman king declares his intentions to bring the Albans to Rome in words that are reminiscent of the Fetial ritual, an important spectacle at the beginning of this episode. He also calls the execution a sacrificiale lustrum, perhaps as a way of showing that it will create a new unity -- i.e., initiation into a group -- like all lustrationes. Just as the Fetial ritual focuses the collective power of the state on an individual, so too will Tullus direct it against Mettius. Tullus also functions like a historian both when he describes Mettius's execution as an insigne documentum and when he calls Mettius's ingenium insanabile; in the latter instance, he recalls the language of Livy's preface. F. concludes, "not only do these echoes draw together the activities of king and historian, they also make clear the interdependence between sacrificial performance and historical instruction" (p. 160).

The Albans, as new Romans, look upon Mettius both as a foreign enemy and as a victim since he is being punished for the Albans' crime (in a sense recalling the Fetial ceremony). Livy describes how the audience turned away from the spectacle and also puts the execution into a much wider context by comparing it with other types of punishment. By interrupting his narrative of the execution in this way Livy "takes control of the perspective of his audience, redirecting its gaze from the foeditas of Mettius's death to a 'glorious' vision of Rome's past..." (p. 163). F.'s conclusion shows the complexity of his methodology: The Albans turn away from the foeditas of Mettius's execution, just as Livy (the historian) turns away from the ills of his own day to look at the distant past (cf. Praef. 5) (on this model, Livy = Albans). Livy's audience is no more detached from the historical monumenta that Livy presents than the Albans are from Tullus's spectacles (in this sense, the historian and the king both act as "representers," as creators of spectacle; Livy = Tullus); therefore, their respective audiences can also be equated; Albans = Livy's readers). The Albans now will adopt the Roman past while in a sense renouncing their own, in the same way that Livy chose to begin his narrative with the story of Aeneas instead of Antenor (Livy = Albans, again).

In chapter 5, "The Alternative of Drama," F. explores how Livy distinguishes spectacles from "other, less beneficial forms of visual display" (p. 165), taking up in more detail a topic discussed in previous chapters. F. begins his discussion of drama by pointing out that the theater was an anomalous institution in Roman society, being both closely connected to political life and a world apart from it. The anomaly of the theater in Livy's day is reflected in his narrative of the last days of Tarquinius Superbus, whose reign is something of a political anomaly in itself both because the reigns of the other kings were fair and just and it is diametrically opposed to Livy's ideal Rome. Livy encourages such a reading by framing his account of Tarquinius's reign with two episodes described as dramas: the murder of Servius Tullius (tragicum scelus [1.46.3]) and the rape of Lucretia, which came as the result of a iuvenalis ludus (1.57.11). Moreover, Livy draws the action away from the public spaces of the Republic into the private rooms of the palace as a way of demonstrating that the Tarquins' loyalties remain within the family rather than to the state (in contrast, for instance, to L. Brutus who executed his son for the good of the Republic). It is at the urging of Tullia that Tarquinius decides to overthrow the legitimate ruler -- a sign that the usual hierarchy within the family has been overturned.

There are a few weak points in F.'s argumentation here. For instance, he contends that the palace acts as a "tragic stage set" through which characters enter and exit, but mentions only Tullia who returns home after murdering her father and then flees again when the regime falls. He points out rightly that in Livy's version Tullia took on a prominence unusual for a woman in a historical narrative, another way that it takes on the appearance of tragedy; but he then states further that Tullia "becomes the center around which tragic imagery clusters" (p. 191), although he can adduce only one phrase (muliebribus instinctus furiis) as an example of this "tragic imagery." Based partly on this argument Tarquin then becomes a "tragic" character and spreads this tragic influence throughout Rome by bribing and enticing other patres gentium in secret meetings to support him. Much of the action takes place behind closed doors, away from the gaze of the Roman people. The final scene, however, takes place in public, in the senate house, where Tarquin denounces the rise of Servius Tullius by pointing out that it came as the result of a "woman's gift" and comparing Servius's reign to the Saturnalia, a festival that reversed the normal hierarchy within the family. Thus Tarquin offers political justification for deposing Servius and implies that his own usurpation will be a restoration of political order, which is underscored by the act of throwing Servius down the steps, as if to return him to his proper position. These public actions of Tarquin mask the private machinations of Tullia who was the well-spring for this series of events. In addition, when Tullia makes an unexpected appearance in the Forum, Tarquin drives her away, as if to deny further the private influences that were the impetus for his public, political actions; in other words, he deliberately conceals the "dramatic" elements in these events.

F. concludes this chapter with a comparison of how the two audiences -- the audience within the narrative and Livy's readers -- see and understand Tarquin's rise to power. Since Tarquin took pains to disguise the "dramatic influences" on his rise to power, the audience within the narrative could not have been fully aware of all that took place behind the scenes. Livy's readers, on the other hand, see the whole series of events staged as a drama, and only then can they full appreciate it as a negative exemplum. "Thus the deployment of allusions to tragedy within Livy's text, far from being simply a problem of style, resembles the use of drama in Roman ritual as a carefully orchestrated antithesis to the civic framework in which it was embedded."

F.'s reading of Livy's text as spectacle underscores the visual aspects of his narrative while at the same time connecting it to the larger institutional framework of the Republic, the political life of which was in part sustained by spectacle. In this way, he shows how an author such as Livy could find a place for himself (through the backdoor as it were) in a culture that demanded active participation in public life. It is also possible to place Livy's use of spectacle in the larger context of Augustan literature alongside that of (e.g.) Propertius who, in describing his vision of Augustus' triumph, carves out a place for his poetry in the public life of the state (p. 224). Such a complex reading of Livy, as F. advocates, would rankle some -- this is history after all, they might say -- but by analyzing Livy's text in this way F. provides another possible model for understanding the historian's aims and methods as well as his place in the larger scheme of Roman historiography, which is ultimately the goal of all those who study Livy.


1.   C. Geertz, "Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power." In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 121-46. New York, 1983. (= J. Ben-David and T. N. Clark, eds., Culture and Its Creators: Essays in Honor of Edward Shils [Chicago, 1977], 150-71.) S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power (Cambridge, 1984) 7-11, 239-48.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:14, Friday, 03 April 2009