Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.12

S.P. Oakley, A Commentary on Livy Books VI-X. Volume I, Introduction and Book VI; Volume II, Books VII-VIII.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1997, 1998.  Pp. xxi, 799; xiii, 866.  ISBN 0-19-814877-1; 0-19-815226-4.  $145.00; £85.00.  

Reviewed by Gary Forsythe
Word count: 1850 words

These books, soon to be joined by a third volume, constitute a lavishly detailed commentary on Livy's second pentad, Books VI-X. R. M. Ogilvie's commentary on Livy's first five books, published 34 years ago, was contained in a single volume of 786 pages. But as any modern historian of early Rome knows, Livy's first pentad contains so many problematic historical and historiographical issues that Ogilvie's commentary is actually quite compendious. Although Oakley's work follows in the tradition of Ogilvie, its wealth of detail and scale of treatment are quite different. Indeed, not a few readers of this material are likely to find it exhausting. The commentary is thorough and comprehensive and has much to offer the philologist, literary critic, text critic, and Roman historian. Despite the extraordinary demands which this complex Livian material makes upon a commentator, Oakley's scholarship is exemplary and masterful, so much so that this reviewer has discovered very few chinks in Oakley's armor. A bare outline of these two volumes' contents may serve better than anything else to illustrate the work's scope and range.

Volume I.

Page, Major Heading

3 Introduction
3 The Nature of Ancient Historical Writing
13 Livy and His Sources
21 The Annalistic Tradition
109 Date of Composition
111 The Style and Literary Techniques of Livy
152 The Manuscripts
331 Book VI, Historical Introduction
381 Commentary on Book VI
725 Appendices
735 Bibliography
769 Indices

Volume II.

Page, Major Heading

3 Historical Introduction to Book VII
29 Commentary on Book VII
391 Commentary on Book VIII
773 Appendices
782 Bibliography
821 Index

The first half of the Introduction in Volume I (pp.3-151) is an excellent detailed survey of ancient and Livian historiography as they relate to early Roman history; and the second half of this introduction (pp.152-327) is a detailed study of the manuscript tradition, which is intended to form the basis of a new text of Livy's second pentad. The Historical Introduction to Book VI (pp.331-79) is subdivided into the following topics: Rome and her Neighbors 389-367 B.C., The Effect of the Gallic Sack, Rome and Etruria, Rome and the Volsci and Aequi, Rome and the Latins, Gallic Attacks on Rome between the Allia and Sentinum, The Struggle of the Orders 389-367 B.C., Patricians and Plebeians, The Consular Tribunate, and Camillus. The Historical Introduction at the beginning of Volume II (pp.3-27) is subdivided into the following topics: The Hernican War, The Latin Wars, The Etruscans, Foreign Affairs 350-344 B.C., and Internal Affairs 366-342 B.C. At the back of this volume there is a very large fold-out map of central southern Italy. Thus, these two volumes comprise a rich and varied storehouse of scholarship relating to early Roman history and Livian historiography. Indeed, interspersed within the commentary are essays on several major historical problems or Livian episodes: e.g. I. 476-93 on the Manlian Sedition of 385-384 B.C., I. 645-61 on the Licinian Sextian Laws, II. 37-71 on Livy's digression concerning the origin of Roman stage performances, and II. 274-84 on the Samnites. In addition, the commentary on the Livian text itself is very detailed with consistently excellent observations on Livy's vocabulary, style, sentence structure, and Latin philology in general.

As the result of his own subjective (and sometimes cursory) reading of these two volumes, this reviewer spotted only two obvious omissions. In his discussion of pontifical records and the Annales Maximi (I. 24-7) Oakley cites and briefly summarizes the main thesis of an article on this subject published in 1995 by G. S. Bucher, but he is unaware of the reviewer's treatment of these matters in his book of the previous year.1 The other omission concerns Oakley's commentary on Livy VI.4.8-10. For the year 388 B.C. this passage records a Roman incursion into the territory of Tarquinii, where the Romans captured and destroyed the two towns of Cortuosa and Contenebra. The latter two toponyms are otherwise unattested in ancient literature and are likely to derive ultimately from a documentary source. Despite his overall excellence in noting where Livy's account can be associated with or clarified by the archaeological record, Oakley here fails to realize a very significant possible connection of this sort. Swedish excavations at the modern site of San Giovenale near Tarquinii have revealed a planned town established around 650 B.C. and destroyed at the beginning of the fourth century. Whether or not San Giovenale was the ancient Cortuosa or Contenebra, it is reasonable to explain the destruction of San Giovenale as a casualty of this Roman military campaign mentioned by Livy. This appears to be a striking confirmation of the Livian narrative, whose information on this matter must derive ultimately from pontifical records.

Due to the nature of early Roman history before the third century B.C. any modern assessment of the historical value of the material preserved in Livy's first decade is inevitably determined in large measure by the particular scholar's working hypothesis as to how the extant ancient historical tradition came into being. Oakley's approach in this regard seems to coincide for the most part with that of T. J. Cornell, who has argued against large-scale invention by distinguishing between structural facts and narrative superstructure. Consequently, in terms of their historical methodology these two volumes can perhaps be characterized as conservative, traditional, and orthodox. Since, however, other modern historians of early Rome may adopt a more critical view of the genesis of the surviving ancient historical tradition, they will find themselves disagreeing with various conclusions reached by Oakley. A single example will suffice to illustrate this phenomenon. It concerns the historicity of the period of anarchy preceding the passage of the Licinian Sextian Laws in 367 B.C.

As in the case of other episodes of early Roman domestic affairs, Livy's account in VI.34-42 of this major landmark in Roman political and constitutional history owes much to the political environment of the late republic. The single most obvious fabrication of late republican provenance is the notion that the two plebeian tribunes, C. Licinius Stolo and L. Sextius, were repeatedly reelected and held office for ten consecutive years (376-67 B.C.), and that due to their use of the tribunician veto they were responsible for preventing the election of curule magistrates to head the Roman state for six consecutive years (376-371 B.C.). Reelection to the plebeian tribunate for consecutive terms was first introduced into Roman politics by the Gracchi and was attempted by other popular leaders from time to time during the late republic. Yet, despite the late republican phenomenon of reelection to the plebeian tribunate, it should be kept in mind that no one ever held this office for more than two consecutive years. The idea that two men held this office for an entire decade is utterly fantastic.

Equally incredible is the notion that these two plebeian tribunes used their power of intercession to prevent the election of curule magistrates for six years. Even in the year 52 B.C., the worst period of domestic political violence of the late republic, involving fighting between the gangs of Clodius and Milo, there was only a period of 75 days in which there was no curule magistrate to head the Roman state (Asconius 30-6C). A passage of Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights (V.4) shows that these so-called years of anarchy are a late annalistic invention. The passage reproduces a verbatim quotation from the fourth book of the Latin Annals of N. Fabius Pictor, who seems to have written his history during the late second century B.C. The quotation concerns the election of the first plebeian consul in 367 B.C. and is not only the earliest but the only information concerning the Licinian Sextian Laws which has survived from the lost historical accounts of Livy's predecessors. The fragment reads:

Thus, the other consul then for the first time was elected from the plebs in the twenty-second year (duovicesimo anno) after the Gauls had captured Rome.

Gellius indicates that the reading duovicesimo anno is incorrect. The lectio difficilior of duodevicesimo anno (= eighteenth year) should be adopted. The latter reading eliminates altogether the years of anarchy for this period, because in the later Varronian chronology the consular fasti recorded 19 years of curule magistrates for the period 390-367 B.C. Consequently, in this historical account of the younger Fabius Pictor the eighteenth year after the Gallic capture of the city corresponded to the Varronian year 367 B.C. with no years of anarchy intervening. Modern scholars have generally supposed that the consular fasti for the fourth century were slightly defective in that they somehow omitted five or so years of eponymous magistrates, that Roman writers at some point realized this, and that they adopted at least two different chronological devices (years of anarchy or the so-called dictator years) in order to remedy the omission. It seems likely that when or shortly after the years of anarchy were introduced by some Roman historian to make the consular fasti line up properly with known events in Greek history such as the Gallic capture of Rome, a historical rationale was devised to justify the insertion of these empty years, and this rationale was an alleged political stalemate caused by the two plebeian tribunes Licinius and Sextius.

Although Oakley clearly realizes that this Livian episode has been heavily influenced by the politics of the late republic, and that several years of anarchy are improbable, he is nevertheless unwilling to accept the suggestion that the anarchy is totally unhistorical. Rather, he considers Diodorus' recording of a single year of anarchy for this period (XV.75.1) as approximating the truth and as representing the authentic historical tradition. But this use of Diodorus seems to be based ultimately upon Mommsen's mistaken idea that Diodorus' brief notices concerning events of the early republic derive from the Greek account of Q. Fabius Pictor, whose narrative is assumed to have been free of major embellishments and inventions. In fact, Oakley (I. 107) elsewhere disavows this Mommsenian hypothesis concerning Diodorus' source for early Roman history. It is more likely that Diodorus' one-year anarchy simply represents his own characteristically muddled and indifferent way of handling early Roman affairs by compressing into a single year a complex episode which in his Roman source spanned more than one year. Note, for example, his treatment in XII.80.1+6-8 of the Fidenate War of 437-426 B.C. under the single consulship of 426 B.C., as well as his description of the sedition of Manlius Capitolinus in a single sentence of only seventeen words (XV.35.3). Thus, his account of the Licinian Sextian Laws is likely to be nothing more than the product of his own confused carelessness.

It must be emphasized that such differences of historical interpretation are inevitable. Oakley possesses excellent historical judgment. He arrives at his conclusions after a judicious and penetrating evaluation of the ancient evidence and modern scholarship. Thus, even when we find ourselves disagreeing with any of Oakley's assessments of historical problems, our disagreement should not diminish our respect and admiration for the quality and quantity of scholarship accumulated in these two volumes. Even though they may not always constitute the final word on Livy Books VI-VIII, they will certainly be regarded for many years to come as the single best place to begin one's study of this Livian material.


1.   G.S. Bucher, "The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records," American Journal of Ancient History 12 (1987 [1995]) 2-61. G. Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition, University Press of America: Lanham, Maryland 1994 53-73. The latter includes a detailed critique of B.W. Frier's Libri Annales Pontificum Maximorum of 1979 (vol. 27 of Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome), some of whose main conclusions Oakley cites with approval. The reviewer's views concerning the Annales Maximi are further developed and refined in a forthcoming contribution to The Roman Middle Republic: Politics, Religion, and Historiography C.400-133 B.C., Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae vol. 23 1999, ed. Christer Bruun, Rome.

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