Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.20

Astrid Khariouzov, Prodigien in der römischen Königszeit: eine motivgeschichtliche und narratologische Analyse im 1. Buch des Livius. Klassische Philologie, 5.   Berlin:  Frank und Timme, 2013.  Pp. 168.  ISBN 9783865965394.  €28.00.  


Reviewed by Veit Rosenberger, Universität Erfurt (veit.rosenberger@uni-erfurt.de)

Astrid Khariouzov does in her slim Göttingen dissertation exactly what she promises in the title and subtitle. She takes seven "prodigies" (prophetic signs) from the first book of Livy and examines them all in the same way: while the first subchapter always asks for the motifs (Motivgeschichte), the second subchapter offers a narratological analysis. Since Livy offers us a construction of the beginnings of Rome, he cannot be a source for the eighth or seventh century BC, but only a source for his time. Therefore, it is safe to stay on the level of the narrative. The aim of the subchapter about Motivgeschichte is to localize the story in the collective memory of Livy and his contemporaries and/or readers. This subchapter is always divided into three parts. First, Khariouzov asks whether the prodigy is a Roman one, i.e. if there are other stories from Roman authors including this motif. Second, she looks at the Greek tradition for signs of this sort. Third, the author inquires how the Romans dealt with the prodigy. The last part of the Motivgeschichte offers a short summary. In the narratological analysis, Khariouzov wants to find out in which way Livy inserted the prodigies in his narrative: is it random or is there a pattern? What is the function of a prodigy in the text? The narratological analysis, based on the concepts developed by the French literary theorist Gérard Genette (Figures I-III, Paris 1966-1972), always consists of a set of four chapters. First, the chronological position of the prodigies in the text. Are there flashbacks to previous episodes or are there hints at events in the future? Are there anachronisms? Second, the distance between the author and the narrative: is the prodigy reported in direct speech or in indirect speech? Third, perspective and focalization: Who is the narrator? Does this narrator know more than the actors or does he know exactly as much as they do? And does he share his entire knowledge about a story with the reader? Fourth, the intratextual function of the prodigy within the first book. At the end of these subchapters, there is again a short summary.

In the introduction, the author attempts to define the term prodigium – and she wisely admits that it is not possible to reach a definition valid for all occurrences of the word. One reason for the almost Babylonian confusion regarding the term prodigium is that often enough researchers confuse the ancient and modern usage of prodigium (luckily enough, the German language has one layer of meaning less than English: while in English Mozart can be called a “child-prodigy”, Germans might call him a “Wunderkind”; prodigiumor words derived from it are not used in the Teutonic tongue).

The seven prodigies dealt with are: the rain of stones at Alba Longa (Liv. 1,31,1-4), the eagle landing on the head of Lucumo, who was to become king Tarquinius (1,34,7-11), the flaming head of young Servius Tullius (1,39,1-2) and the marvelous cow about which soothsayers had foretold that whoever sacrificed it to Diana, his hometown would be the seat of an empire (1,45,4-7). Furthermore, the immovable sanctuary of Terminus (1,55,1-5) and the immediately following story about the human head found on the Capitol (1,55,5-6) both predicted lasting power for Rome. Finally, we have the snake showing up in the palace causing such turmoil that king Tarquinius Superbus sent his two sons and L. Iunius Brutus to Delphi for an explanation (1,56,4-5).

Khariouzov is the first to use these tools of literary studies to analyse the prodigies in the first book of Livy. One of the key questions regarding Livy is the composition of his history of Rome. Did he just uncritically write down what he had found in previous authors, as has been argued at the beginning of the 20th century? Or is there a structure in his narrative showing that Livy had some ideas of his own? Kurt Witte (‘Über die Form und Darstellung in Livius´ Geschichtswerk’, in: RhM 65, 1910, Reprint Darmstadt 1968) was the first to concede at least some basic structures in Livy. Erich Burck and Robert Ogilvie, to name the two most prominent researchers, demonstrated that Livy had written a consistently composed history. Khariouzov argues along these lines and asks whether there is a system behind the way the prodigies are inserted in book one. The answer is – as was to be expected – that there are some structural patterns.

1. Prodigies tend to appear at the end of the rule of a Roman king – with the exception of Romulus and Numa, for whom there are no prodigies reported (to be honest, the last three prodigies appear very close together during the reign of Tarquinius Superbus, there seems to be a climax).
2. The first prodigy, the rain of stones, is located in the middle of book one. It marks a break between the first two exemplary and almost ideal kings Romulus and Numa and the other rulers.
3. The results of a spatial analysis are intriguing. There are five public prodigies approaching ever closer to the palace of the kings. The rain of stones takes place on the Alban hills, about 30 kilometres southeast of Rome. Then follow the cow on the Aventine, Terminus and the head on the Capitol, and finally the snake in the royal palace. And the closer the prodigies get to the centre of power, one might argue, the nearer is the end of the kings.
4. Only rains of stones are reported in later books of Livy´s history. The other six prodigies do not occur in Roman history.
5. The narratological analysis leads to interesting results; by using phrases like traditur (1,31,4), dicitur (1,34,9) or ferunt (1,39,1), Livy seems to distance himself from the stories about the prodigies.

In the end, some questions arise. Livy offers us only one possible way of writing about the royal period of Rome. How about other sources about the Rome of the kings? At some points, Khariouzov hints at different traditions, most of all in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, but also in the Elder Pliny or in Plutarch (e.g. on page 98). And one is tempted to ask about the same for the whole surviving Livy. What happens if one applies Khariouzov´s method on, say, the third decade of Livy? We should be aware of the differences between the signs in the first book and the prodigies of the third decade. While most of the signs in the first book are positive, the prodigies in the third decade are negative and need expiation. Of the seven prodigies dealt with in this book, only the rain of stones and the miraculous snake in the palace signal a break in the pax deorum. While the prodigies in the third decade always address the whole state, the signs in book 1 refer to individuals: to the (future) rulers. Khariouzov uses the seven signs because Livy calls them prodigium. This is sensible. But by remaining on the level of the object language, other signs are ignored: the vultures flying for Romulus and Remus (1,7) or the pest in Rome following the rain of stones (admittedly, not every pest was regarded as prodigium). Inserting more signs would have broadened the view on Livy.

In all, an interesting book offering new insights on Livy and Roman religion that leaves the reader with many new questions.

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