BMCR 1994.10.15

1994.10.15, Levene, Religion in Livy

, Religion in Livy. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 127. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993. x, 257 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004096172.

This book is a surprise, in more ways than one. First, it is that rara auis, a book on Livy that respects, even admires, its subject. No apologies are offered, and indeed none is wanted, for L[evene]’s decision to work on an author who, despite his increasing popularity, still finds himself featuring with depressing regularity in sentences that begin ‘Even Livy…’. Second, the expectations raised (at least in this reader) by the somewhat uninviting title are not fulfilled on the inside. What is not a surprise is that L., who is establishing a reputation as one of Britain’s brightest young Latinists, should have produced a careful, learned, and illuminating study of Livy’s use of religious and ritual motifs.

L.’s purpose is twofold: to explain (briefly) what religious ‘ideas and practices’ were current in and just before Livy’s time, and to determine what we may conclude about the historian’s literary and moral purposes from the way in which he deploys religious themes. The bulk of the book comprises a detailed analysis of the religious content of the surviving quarter of the Ab urbe condita, beginning (chapters II-IV) with the prodigy lists and analogous material from the third through fifth decades, and ending (chapters V-VII) with the first decade. As L. himself notes in the Preface (p.ix), though this systematic approach may seem due to the book’s origin as a doctoral thesis, it is part of the point: ‘at the heart of my account of religion in Livy lies the demonstration that it can only be understood by examining each passage in the context of the material that surrounds it, both religious and non-religious, and in seeing the development of religious themes across the narrative of the history.’ Such an exposition risks loss of interest, and there are times when L.’s prose loses its grip on the reader; equally, there are places where a lack of clarity results from his care precisely to avoid potentially tedious plot exposition. On the whole, however, the advantages of his choice of presentation outweigh the disadvantages. It is extremely difficult to grapple with Livy’s text, an entity which T. J. Luce once compared to a bowl of spaghetti: get hold of one strand, and you may well find the whole pile in your lap. Sequential analysis, especially of a running theme, keeps the meal safely on the plate.

L.’s chosen topic touches some of the most deeply and widely held preconceptions about Livy. Unfortunately, these are often diametrically opposed. L. rightly singles out this lack of critical consensus as evidence that this text almost wilfully withholds itself (p.16)—a coyness that one notes in other areas of Livy as well. An interpreter’s only hope is to be as clear as possible about methods and goals. Accordingly, L. begins with an analysis of the religious climate of the late Republic (the evidence comes primarily from Cicero), briefly examining the beliefs and observances both of the state cult and of the main philosophical schools, especially with regard to the supernatural, scepticism, fate and fortune (pp.1-15). This is followed by an examination of the evidence for Livy’s belief and scepticism, and for the role played by fate and fortune in his text (pp.17-33). The inescapable conclusion follows: ‘It could be that [Livy] was a sceptic, that he was a believer, or that he actually did equivocate between the two, but there is nothing in the work itself to provide us with evidence on this score, since all three attitudes are present, but present with a view to the appropriate construction of the narrative rather than as an expression of conviction’ (p.30).

For the early books L. uses the familiar method of comparison between Livy’s version and parallel accounts, where they are available. For the later decades, however, in addition to comparison with Polybius et al., he concentrates on the prodigy lists. These comprise inherited material (to what extent is of course a matter of debate: see his nn. on p.35), which Livy modifies to suit his narrative purposes. An author’s deployment of such formulaic material is one of the most interesting subjects in the study of ancient historiography, and can produce significant results. So here, too, L.’s analysis reveals some surprising facts: for instance, while Livy will use prodigies to emphasize the impiety and deserved punishment of particular generals (e.g. Flaminius, pp.38-40), he does not do so at critical turning points of history (e.g. the battles of Cannae and of Lake Regillus), which he prefers to attribute to human factors (pp.49, 153). He will modify, displace, and eliminate lists to forge a tighter narrative, to distract the reader, or to reinforce a climax or a character portrayal; he may also present idiosyncratic versions of famous stories (e.g. the Magna Mater’s arrival in Rome, pp.69-72). Moreover, different decades show different patterns of prodigy lists: in the third and fifth, Livy uses them consistently and coherently to reinforce narrative themes (pp.77, 124-5); in the fourth decade, however, L. finds no such coherent use, a state of affairs which he tentatively attributes to Livy’s difficulties with the more diffuse material in those books (pp.102-3, 248), difficulties which he has overcome by the time he reaches the fifth decade (p.125).

The first decade does not contain many prodigy lists, and hence is less susceptible of formulaic analysis. Having established the terms of the debate with reference to the later books, however, L. tackles the more disparate material in these early books and looks for the same patterns of inclusion and omission in the service of larger narrative concerns. Religious motifs are not used across large stretches of the narrative of books 1-4, but are deployed selectively, sometimes with apparent contradiction, as in the account of Tullus Hostilius, who is variously shown as impious or pious depending on the context (pp.137-40). L. notes (p.131) that Livy has eliminated the aetiologies traditionally associated with the death of Remus, presumably to maintain his almost exclusive association of Romulus with military virtue; Numa, on the other hand, and uniquely in Livy, is given piety as a central characteristic (p.134). When Livy reaches the Republic, he uses religious motifs to underscore political themes; L. cogently demonstrates how impiety and civil strife are closely associated in the minds of Livy’s audience (8) and in the actions of his characters (e.g. pp.158, 164, 177-8). This association is particularly relevant in Book 5, where religious themes are for the first time tightly woven into the Ab urbe condita narrative and receive a chapter to themselves (pp.175-203). Particularly interesting here is the observation of the ‘casual’ use of religious language, ‘religious expressions that occur, especially in speeches, both direct and reported, but which have no direct bearing on the story’ (p.202); this is a sophisticated technique, a kind of metaphorical subtext, that Livy uses elsewhere (cf. e.g. the military language at 6.34.1-4). The second pentad returns to the selective use of religion familiar from books 1-4: ‘the basic premise of the relationship between piety, divine aid and success is broadly sustained,’ though the material is often only locally relevant (p.239). On the whole, however, in books 6-10 L. sees a move toward the integrated use of religion which is made in the Hannibalic narrative.

L. seeks throughout to discover Livy’s motivation for his displacement, inclusion, or expansion of religious material. His actual argument often takes the form of a priamel of rejected possible reasons for Livy’s choice, ending with the one that L. thinks most likely. I am somewhat uncomfortable with this approach, particularly since L. in many places is sensitive to the problem of imputing motivation, wishes, etc. to an author, and above all since L.’s main premise is that Livy’s authorial persona does not allow us to pin him down (p.26). L.’s professed aim, to isolate the effect Livy’s choices have on the narrative and on the reader, is, I think, a safer means of approach. For L. is absolutely right to stress the crucial importance of the reader in the interpretation of the Ab urbe condita (e.g. pp.27, 29-30—though I wish that reader were not uniformly referred to in the masculine!). He draws a suggestive parallel between Livy’s combination of belief and scepticism, positions which at times directly contradict each other, and Todorov’s treatment of the ‘literature of the fantastic,’ a genre whose reader remains unsure whether the supernatural effects are real or illusory (pp.28-9). Livy’s doubting authorial voice forces its reader to criticize the historical narrative in the process of reading, and thus to join with the historian in weighing the evidence and interpreting the past. This important theoretical account of the interaction between ‘Livy’ and his reader gets somewhat lost in the intricacies of L.’s subsequent analysis but is for that very reason worth emphasizing here, as it is vital to understanding just how ‘radical’ (p.28) Livy’s project is.

I have only a few particular points to make. On p.7 n.30, S. Treggiari, Roman marriage (Oxford 1991) might be enlightening on the subject of marriage oaths; on p.15, Anchises’ presentation of the souls in the underworld is another good example of Vergil’s tendency to mix philosophies; on p.55, the assertion that Marcellus makes clear the claim that ‘the fall of Syracuse is justified in the light of its inhabitants’ impiety’ seems to disregard the problem of point of view—is Marcellus a reliable source? In 205 B.C. (pp.68-9), L. points out that, though there are no real prodigies at 29.10.4-8 apart from the ‘passing reference to rains of stones,’ the list does contain elements that tend to accompany prodigies, and suggests that this is due to Scipio, whose consulate transforms the pessimism of prodigies into optimism. Is it possible to go further, and to suggest that the Sybilline carmen portending victory is itself the prodigy? Livy reports the rains of stones in syntactical subordination to the consultation of the books that they occasion; all the emphasis is on the carmen which is thereby discovered, and which provokes an outbreak of repens religio (cf. 29.10.4 inuento carmine in libris Sibyllinis propter crebrius eo anno de caelo lapidatum inspectis…). More than simply causing their displacement, it seems that Scipio’s consulship produces good prodigies. L. suggests (p.76) that one reason for postponing the prodigy list of 202 till after Zama might be owing to its mention of the Ludi Apollinares, which were held in July; it might also be worth noting that annalistic material tends to be clumped together and that in such sections ‘real’ chronology can be ignored. On p.77, if 13 of the 17 prodigy lists in the third decade have been transformed in some way, many of them radically, a devil’s advocate might ask if we can therefore even speak of a ‘normal’ position?; p.81, n.13 cites Briscoe on the ‘confused syntax’ of 32.29.1, but the arrangement of the list of prodigies is quite artful (chiastic pair + interlocking pair + pair in adversative asyndeton), and the uariatio of quod + pluperf. passive ~ perf. participle (either with a form of esse understood or as a causal participle: cf. J. L. Catterall, TAPA 69 (1938) 317) ~ pluperf. active may be a case of Livian experimentation; at the top of p.108, ‘supplicatios‘ is odd; p.111, the cross-reference to p.62 is mysterious to me, unless it is to n.77 (?); on p.132, the quotation from Plutarch does not seem to me to support L.’s implicit claim that the Greek account gives Romulus’ prayer a genuine divine response; on p.137, one misses a reference to R.J. Penella on Tullus’ferocia ( CQ 40 (1990) 207-13), and on p. 140 to J. Rüpke, Domi militiae (Stuttgart 1990) on the fetial formula; in the middle of p.163 the slide from ‘suggesting that the relief from the plague may have come from the Romans’ piety’ to ‘the Romans lose divine support but then regain it through their piety’ (my emphasis) is quite slippery indeed; I am not sure that Camillus is really ‘contrasted’ with Romulus—say, rather, ‘compared’?—and would not describe the omen after Camillus’ speech as a reinforcement of his arguments (p.201)—it is rather the omen that finally persuades the people (cf. 5.55.1 sed [i.e. although Camillus moved his audience] rem dubiam decreuit uox opportune emissa). Finally, L. occasionally buries in the notes telling points that could strengthen his argument even more if they were in the text (I noted especially p.68, n.96, p.122, n.46, and p.213, n.26).

But these are minor issues in an otherwise admirable and important study. L. ends his reading of the Ab urbe condita with a summation of the tendencies seen throughout the history, and with some suggestions as to how we might now read Livy, with special reference to the question of Livy’s relation to Augustus. L. singles out Livy’s ‘Romanness’ (p.243) and ‘the way in which Livy centres his treatment of religion around clear moral premises’ (244). In both cases, Livy simultaneously reflects and furthers tendencies visible in other works, written and architectural, of the Triumviral and early Augustan period. Now that ‘propaganda’ and ‘Augustan’ are no longer dirty words—nor, more importantly, words whose complexity can go unexplored—one can allow ‘Augustan’ influence on Livy’s views, including his religious position: as L. says, ‘it is in parts of his history that we can be certain were written under Augustus that we see this approach to religion dominating’ (p.245), but he stresses that there are many places where Livy decidedly ignores issues that were dear to the princeps‘ heart. If the emperor and the historian ‘understood each other,’ in Syme’s (in)famous phrase, it was because they were products of the same ideology whose roots go back to Cicero and beyond. It is through studies such as this one that Livy can begin to be seen as the sophisticated and innovative author that he was.