Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.46

John Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy, Books 41-45.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xx, 823.  ISBN 9780199216642.  $299.00.  

Reviewed by Timothy J. Moore, Washington University in St. Louis (

With this volume Briscoe completes his series of commentaries on the last 15 books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita, the first volume of which appeared forty years ago.1 This last installment is especially welcome because of the unique nature of Livy’s final pentad.

That books 41-45 have been among the most neglected portions of Livy’s history is not surprising. The text here is the most intractable of all Livy’s surviving pentads. Aside from one small fragment in Priscian, it is derived entirely from one fifth-century manuscript, V. V is, to put it mildly, in terrible shape. Among its many lacunae, some are enormous, others come at the most exasperating places (three, for example, during the Battle of Pydna). The text that remains contains errors so frequent and so arbitrary that Briscoe acknowledges, “it is not always possible to use normal palaeographical arguments in evaluating conjectures (one is tempted to say that anything can be corrupted to anything)” (4). Compounding the difficulties of the text is the virtual disappearance of V from shortly after its discovery by Simon Grynaeus in 1527 until the nineteenth century. Many of those who sought to emend the text thus relied not on V but on Grynaeus’ unreliable editions of the pentad.

The text, then, is hard to work with, and for some it has not appeared worth the effort. Books 41-45 are, after all, well into the portion of Livy’s work where he has started to show fatigue, as he himself admits in his preface to book 31. Though there are some wonderful moments, fewer sections of this pentad are “worked up” to the same degree that many passages in the earlier books are. We are now far removed from the enchanting legends of the first decade or the extreme vicissitudes and greater-than-life military leaders of the third.

Yet the ninth pentad is of great importance for anyone interested in Republican history or in Livy. The years described here (178-167 BCE) mark the moment when Rome, now the unquestioned superpower of the Mediterranean, moved from its standard reactions to real or alleged threats to an attempt at regime change in response to dubious accusations against Perseus of Macedon. Though ultimately successful, this attempt led to a military campaign considerably more difficult than the Roman senate had hoped. As Briscoe points out, analogies between the Third Macedonian War and recent events in Iraq are striking. Books 41-45 also give us early reports on issues that would dominate the history of the late Republic: distribution of public land (42.1.6), debt crises (42.5.7-12), publicani (45.18.4), and quaestiones de repetundis (43.2).

The ninth pentad becomes especially interesting when one considers Livy’s belief that Rome’s virtues led to her successes, her vices to the troubles of his own times (praef.9). Unlike Sallust and others, Livy did not consider the fall of Carthage in 146 the moral turning point for Rome. He offers instead a much more nuanced view of how moral decline set in, noting at several points incipient new sources of that decline. Still, to Livy a critical moment in Rome’s degeneration was the campaign of Cn. Manlius Vulso against the Galatians in 189: Manlius’ troops, solute ac negeglenter habiti (39.1.4), began to open up the floodgates to luxuria. To a great extent we are still in the “good old days” in books 41-45. Livy comments on the superiority of this period to his own day (e.g., 43.13, 44.9.4). Yet the pentad also offers a distressing amount of activity of questionable morality on the part of Romans, including M. Popilius’ brutal and unjustified slaughter and enslavement of the Statellates (42.8), the trickery of Q. Marcius Philippus and A. Atilius in their dealings with both Perseus and the Boeotian League (42.38.8-44.6), the efforts to persuade Attalus to betray his brother (45.19), and the attempt by Aemilius Paullus’ soldiers to deny him his triumph because they resented his discipline (45.35.5-39.20). Livy not only acknowledges these moral failings, he draws attention to them. Misbehavior by Romans is not, of course, unique to this section of Livy’s work. Yet there is a clear sense in the ninth pentad that something is not right in Rome: the moral decay Livy so lamented in his preface has set in. These books thus offer clues as to how Livy handled the darker years he described in the lost books.2

Briscoe’s commentary will prove invaluable for anyone wishing to pursue these and other questions. He begins with a concise introduction that includes sections on sources (with a list of Polybian parallels), the text, issues surrounding the outbreak of the Third Macedonian War, chronology, and Roman legions. Departing from his practice in the previous volumes, Briscoe does not include a section on “language and style” in the introduction but instead relies on an index to linguistic and stylistic observations made in the notes and an appendix on tenses of the subjunctive in oratio obliqua. This is a reasonable decision: those interested in these matters can easily find the relevant discussions. There are also appendices on the terminology Livy uses for proconsuls and propraetors and on the role of the praetor peregrinus, and addenda and corrigenda to both Briscoe’s commentary on 38-40 and the current commentary.

Briscoe dedicates an exceptionally large amount of the commentary to textual criticism. Occasionally the relish he seems to take in pointing out his predecessors’ errors becomes wearisome, and he relies a few times on unjustified ipse dixits, but all in all the textual notes are excellent. Particularly welcome is Briscoe’s continual willingness to acknowledge that he has changed his mind since his 1986 edition of books 41-45,3 a valuable reminder that textual criticism is always a work in progress. I would recommend perusal of Briscoe’s textual notes not only to those interested in Livy, but also to students and teachers desiring an introduction to how textual criticism works.

As one would expect given Briscoe’s previous commentaries, the historical and prosopographical notes are consistently sound and thorough. Briscoe’s guide through the maddening world of intercalation and the Roman calendar is particularly useful. A few times Briscoe left unanswered questions I wish he had addressed. At 42.7.2, for example, Livy reports that defeated rebels in Corsica were forced to pay an indemnity in wax. Briscoe dismisses as “absurd” the proposal of J. Triantaphyllopoulos that the wax was intended for candles to be used at the Saturnalia (176). Fair enough, but what was the wax for?

Briscoe is also on sure footing when he deals with Livy’s use of his sources. He is a little close to the traditional “one source at a time” approach to Livian Quellenforschung for my taste (though he does suggest that in several passages Livy has mixed Polybian and annalistic material), and I am less confident than Briscoe that rebuttal of a source’s (especially Valerius Antias’) facts or figures means Livy has used that source throughout his description of an event. I also think sometimes Briscoe is too hard on Livy. There can be no doubt that, as Briscoe points out several times, Livy is inclined to make Rome look better as he adapts Polybius. I wonder, though, if Livy really “may well not have appreciated” the damning content of a speech he took over from Polybius, in which Perseus “effectively demolishes the Roman justification for war” (288, on 42.41-2). In fact, the speech contributes to the ironies of Livy’s own account of events leading up to the Third Macedonian War.

Briscoe is explicitly unsympathetic to many of the literary-critical approaches to Livy that have developed in the last decades. One can nevertheless learn a great deal about Livy as an author from Briscoe’s commentary. He offers excellent observations on style, especially word use, throughout, and his comments on broader literary questions, though rare, are often insightful, as when he notes that repetition of the word insidiatores links Livy’s accounts of the quarrels between Demetrius and Perseus and the assassination attempt on Eumenes (204, on 42.15.4). Briscoe is especially good on Livy’s speeches: he provides an astute analysis, for example, of the dubious reasoning in the apology of the Rhodian ambassador Astymedes (672-81, on 45.22-4). Perhaps to his own chagrin, the commentary will be an important tool for those approaching these books from a more “literary” approach than Briscoe.

On a number of occasions Briscoe provides lists of passages where other authors discuss events described by Livy (e.g., 638, on C. Popilius’ mandate to Antiochus IV). Briscoe’s reasons for when he chooses to include or omit these lists are not clear. They are immensely helpful, and it would have been good to see more of them.

Several of Briscoe’s notes are worth pointing out as areas that deserve further exploration. It is fascinating, given Livy’s obsession in the first decade with plebeians’ gradual acquisition of access to the highest magistracies, that the historian fails to comment on the first time two plebeians held the consulship together in 172 (182, on 42.9.8). Briscoe’s suggestion that Livy’s audirive at 44.14.13 “envisages the recitation of L.’s work” (510) raises interesting questions about how historical works were presented in Augustan Rome. His observation that 44.16.4 provides evidence for the wearing of togas by Romans in military camps (513) is similarly promising as grounds for further investigation.

A few remarks on some individual notes:

45 (on 41.3.5-4.8): Where is Florus likely to have gotten his variant account of the recapture of the Roman camp at Lake Timavus?

428 (on 43.13): One of the pentad’s most famous passages is Livy’s defense of his inclusion of prodigy lists: they are in his work, Livy says, both because his own mind becomes “nescio quo pacto antiquus” when he writes of ancient events and because what the prudentissimi viri of older times thought worthy of public concern is surely also worthy of inclusion in a history. Briscoe suggests that Livy chose to comment on prodigies here rather than earlier in the work because someone challenged Livy’s inclusion of prodigies, or Livy read another work of history in which prodigy lists were absent, at the time he was writing this section of his work. Perhaps, but we might also consider the position of book 43 in the work as a whole. Livy may have chosen to draw attention to this example of traditional Roman values in the middle of this pentad because these books show those values encountering unprecedented challenges. The same kind of thinking may have helped to inspire Livy’s unusual description of the traditional consular procession out of Rome shortly before this passage (42.49).

458-9 (on 43.21.3): a reference to the importance of Epidamnus in Plautus’ Menaechmi would be useful in this discussion of the history of the Latin name for the city.

665 (on 45.8-17): It is not clear to me why the story of Stratius’ advice to Attalus, which is found in both Polybius and Livy, is “implausible.”

Typos are inevitable in a work of this length and complexity: I found about 23, mostly misspellings of English words.

The high price of this volume will keep it off the shelves of most libraries and individuals. It is very much to be hoped that the commentary will soon appear in paperback.


1.   John Briscoe, A Commentary on Livy Books 31-33 (Oxford, 1973). See also ibid., A Commentary on Livy Books 34-37 (Oxford, 1981), and A commentary on Livy Books 38-40 (Oxford, 2008).
2.   Cf. T.J. Luce, Livy: The Composition of his History (Princeton, 1977) 255-75.
3.   John Briscoe (ed.), Titi Livi Ab urbe condita Libri XLI-XLV (Stuttgart, 1986).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010