Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.24

D. S. Levene, Livy on the Hannibalic War.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xi, 453.  ISBN 9780198152958.  $160.00.  

Reviewed by Michael P. Fronda, McGill University (

“Livy’s Third Decade, his narrative of the Hannibalic War, is the most remarkable and brilliant piece of sustained prose narrative in the whole surviving corpus of classical literature.” (vii) Livy on the Hannibalic War, a long, dense, challenging, intriguing, and rewarding study of Livy’s third decade, opens with this forceful assertion, which author D.S. Levene admits is a “bold claim.” This bold claim justifies the study, for although Livy’s third decade presents a coherent narrative of a major event developed over the full ten books scholars, myself included, have tended to avoid analyzing the decade as a single work, instead typically focusing on individual books or solitary episodes, or mining the decade for historical data without giving due attention to how the pieces fit into the larger narrative.

After a brief preface, the book is divided into five thick chapters: 1. Narrative Organization (pp. 1-81), 2. Sources and Intertexts (82-163), 3. Persons and peoples (164-260), 4. Winners and Losers (261-316), and 5. Causation (317-375). Each chapter stands on its own as a learned essay, but there are points of connection and overlap between them, and although there is no formal conclusion, Levene’s arguments build up to the last chapter, which deals with Livy’s understanding of historical causation. Throughout, Levene rejects the tendency to view Livy as a sloppy writer, a poor historian. Rather, the third decade is the product of a very careful writer making precise and elaborate intertextual allusions, using sources in a sophisticated manner, and subtly employing individual and group characterization to develop multifaceted and complex themes. Livy fails to live up to contemporary expectations of history writing because he operates within a different set of generic conventions. The fault is not Livy’s for not adhering to modern rules of history writing, so much as with modern readers for failing to understand Livy’s narrative properly within its intellectual-philosophical-historiographical context.

In the first chapter Levene looks at how Livy organized his narrative of the Second Punic War. Because of the scope of the conflict, which was fought in multiple theaters at the same time, Livy faced the same challenge of narrating simultaneous events that confronted the universal historians. Levene notes that Livy’s structure is flexible: while individual books tend to build to a dramatic climax, this is not always the case, and while he organizes chronologically, he is not bound by a rigid book-year framework. The “annalistic year...while extensively — indeed obsessively — marked, is rarely treated as a primary narrative unit.” (36) Livy is notoriously loose with simultaneity, and in some cases the chronology presented is impossible. Livy’s decision to juxtapose events to create a particular narrative sequence contributes to the chronological confusion. This is only a problem if one expects historical narrative to adhere to “real” chronology. Although Livy was constrained somewhat by the historical genre and his audience’s expectations (he could only change things around so much), narrative sequence in the third decade is more important than strict historical- chronological sequence. In fact, adjacent events at times appear to influence each other even when there is no clear causal link between them, as if historical causation is determined by narrative placement. Levene argues that the narrative sequence are designed to guide the reader and communicate Livy’s own interpretation of the war.

I found the second chapter the most engaging. Levene demonstrates through a wide range of examples the richness of literary allusions found in Books 21-30. At times the allusions are straightforward, such as Livy’s direct quote of Ennius’ famous line that Fabius Maximus restored the state by delaying, but more often he draws on his literary predecessors in subtler fashion. Particularly effective is the analysis of Livy’s depiction of Scipio’s actions after the capture of New Carthage (26.51.7-8), which, Levene demonstrates (92-95), draws not only on Polybius (10.26.6-7), but also on Xenophon’s depiction of the actions of Agesilaus (Hellenica 3.4.16-18). Levene effectively shows Livy’s extended engagement with Sallust, at times obvious, at times less conspicuous (99-107). Livy alludes not only to Homer, but also to minor poets and obscure versions of myths. “The most surprising thing to many readers may be [Livy’s] literary sophistication, of the sort we would more usually associate with learned Alexandrian poets than with sober historians.” (110) On the all-important question of Livy’s sources, Levene argues that Polybius was the most important, which Livy used directly rather than through an intermediary. Therefore, differences between Livy’s and Polybius’ account arise because of Livy’s conscious decisions. Livy is not a blind or careless copier, but rather a serious writer making serious choices about what to include or leave out of his narrative.

In chapter three Levene takes up the apparent problem that Livy’s historical characters often do not behave consistently. Levene again sees this as a sign of Livy’s sophistication, his willingness to allow that individuals do not always act consistently but rather respond differently under different circumstances. Levene also posits that “Livy is writing within a cultural environment in which an inconsistent character is not self-evidently absurd or a sign of inattention on the part of the writer...[H]e is placing his readers in a world where people — and events — do not necessarily follow predictable patterns, and where our moral judgments on those people need to be comparably complex and provisional.” (184) For Livy, how a character reacts to other characters in a given context, his role within the narrative, is more important than consistency of action. The character inconsistencies are not the product of laziness or randomness, but rather are conscious decisions exploited, like his use of chronology, “in order to foster a wider narrative scheme.” (196). Livy’s characterization of different ethnic groups is likewise ambiguous and challenging: “Italians” sometimes behave like barbarians, while “foreigners” at times display Roman traits and act as loyal allies.

The first half of chapter four considers Livy’s accounts of battles, which are typically criticized as inaccurate or insufficient, reflecting Livy’s lack of military experience and his pro-Roman patriotism. Levene notes that the outcome of the battle is detached from the conditions and factors that Livy’s own account encourages the reader to expect will be decisive. This appears to be another conscious, narrative strategy, which Levene suggests is a critique of Polybius’ rationalist account of battles (284). Livy’s battles seem to turn on unexplained events, but they are not won or lost because of chance. Rather their outcomes fit into a larger moral framework. Put simply, moral behavior leads to victory, immorality to defeat, while the exact mechanism is left obscure. The second half of the chapter looks at Livian battle narratives from the perspective of the commanders. Given the unpredictable nature of battles, it is not surprising that commanders, even good generals, are unable to predict the course of events once the battle is joined. Their best laid plans are subject to the moral causation that drives Livy’s narrative. Ultimately, argues Levene, Livy’s account of the Second Punic War, exemplified in battle narratives, operates with a different understanding of historical causation. Levene thus dismisses easy criticism of Livy’s treatment of military affairs as careless or incompetent, promoting instead a more generous reading.

This leads directly to the culminating fifth chapter. The highlight is an extended case study (354-375) of Livy’s handling of the revolt of Capua, which features all of his narrative-causative anomalies: “chronological dislocation, character discontinuities, apparently unexplained events, and connections governed by narrative junctures all sit side by side within a single sequence.” (375) This brings Levene to his main thesis: “The most straightforward way of understanding what Livy is doing with his causal sequences is to see the moral question as primary, and everything else ancillary to that. Things happen in Livy above all because that is the right way for them to happen.” (375) This way of understanding causation, while difficult for a modern reader, makes sense when seen in light of ancient philosophical thought. For example, the Stoics believed that outcomes could be deduced from signs even when there was no obvious causal connection between them. Levene does not claim that Livy was a Stoic, but invokes the example to show that ancient thinkers had a flexible understanding of historical causation. Livy himself is at the far end of an historiographic spectrum along which commitment to literal, factual, historical truth varied significantly.

I have some disagreements with a few arguments in Chapters 4 and 5, where Levene has perhaps pushed his evidence too far to prove Livy’s peculiar understanding of causation. I will mention three. First, I think that he overstates the significance of 26.20.9, where Livy narrates the Carthaginian fleet’s disastrous effort to blockade the Roman garrison occupying the citadel of Tarentum. The fleet consumed more food than the Tarentines could bring in, leaving the townspeople worse off than the Roman garrison, says Livy.1 According to Levene, Livy explains the Punic fleet’s great need for food as resulting from the crew’s mixed ethnicity (303). Rather, as I read the passage, Livy says that the fleet used a lot of grain because it was big; its multi-ethnic composition is only a further elaboration of the fleet’s bigness. Second, I disagree that Livy has the Boii revolt (21.25.1-2) “on the basis of something that he is clear that they do not know” (335), namely that Hannibal was going to cross the Alps. To be sure, Livy foreshadows Hannibal’s Alpine crossing, but he states explicitly that the Boii revolted out of anger over the recent foundation of the colonies of Cremona and Placentia.2 Third, I do not agree with Levene’s observation that Livy’s reference to Hannibal wintering his troops in 216 BC after receiving the defection of Capua (23.18.9-16) “seems incongruously to take place in the middle of the year” (363). Hannibal had sought winter quarters in the middle of the year in 217 according to Polybius (3.100; cf. Livy 22.18), perhaps as early as mid-July.3 More generally ancient armies tended to secure winter quarters in the fall or even late summer.4 In other words, Livy’s chronology here is not particularly anomalous in the context of ancient warfare.

There is much in this dense and thought-provoking book to ponder. Certainly scholars will disagree with individual arguments and interpretations. Indeed, I have pointed out a few of my own quibbles. But this is to be expected in a work of such breadth and depth and with such far-reaching conclusions, and does not detract from what should be necessary reading for anyone with a serious interest in Livy.

[For a response to this review by D.S. Levene, please see BMCR 2014.01.46.]


1.   non enim tantum subvehi oppidanis per pacata litora apertosque portus praesidio navium Punicarum poterat quantum frumenti classis ipsa turba navali mixta ex omni genere hominum absumebat. (For not as much grain was able to be conveyed for the townsfolk through the shorelines made peaceful and ports laid open by the protection of the Punic ships, as the amount of grain consumed by the fleet itself, composed of a throng of ships assembled from every race of men.)
2.   In Italiam interim nihil ultra quam Hiberum transisse Hannibalem a Massiliensium legatis Romam perlatum erat, cum perinde ac si Alpes iam transisset Boi sollicitatis Insubribus defecerunt nec tam ob veteres in populum Romanum iras quam quod nuper circa Padum Placentiam Cremonamque colonias in agrum Gallicum deductas aegre patiebantur. (In Italy meanwhile nothing had been reported in Rome except by the legates from Massilia, that Hannibal had crossed the Ebro, when, just as if [Hannibal] had already crossed the Alps, the Boii, having roused up the Insubres, revolted, not so much on account of their ancient anger against the Roman people as because they had suffered recently the foundation of the colonies Placentia and Cremona, around the Po, in Gallic territory.)
3.   M.P. Fronda, “Polybius 3.40, the Foundation of Placentia, and the Roman Calendar (218-217 BC),” Historia 60 (2011) 426-457.
4.   J. Roth, Logistics of the Roman Army, 264 BC-AD 235 (1999) 177-182.

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