BMCR 1996.03.03

Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome

, Livy : reconstructing early Rome. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. xi, 251 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801430602. $35.00.

Earlier studies of Livy’s vast and complex historical narrative by Erich Burck and T. J. Luce have demonstrated Livy’s masterful shaping of the received historical tradition into well defined episodes with interlocking or overlapping themes. A current trend in American scholarship in classical studies is an attempt to extend this work by subjecting Livy’s text to the scrutiny of modern literary criticism. Much of this work, however, in this reviewer’s opinion has been rather mechanical and superficial. In the present volume under review Gary Miles (hereafter M.) has set forth a bold interpretation of various portions of Livy’s first pentad by attempting to demonstrate that Livy’s narrative is more than a collection of well told tales, but rather exhibits coherent and original historiographical principles. Unlike many articles in the currently fashionable literary-critical approach to Livy, M.’s book is well informed by an excellent knowledge of Roman culture and literature for the period ca. 60-20 B.C. The book’s subtitle may mislead many into thinking that it concerns Livy’s first decade covering the regal period and early Republic down to 293 B.C. With the exception of Livy’s treatment in Book IV of A. Cornelius Cossus’ winning of the spolia opima and Livy’s discussion of Augustus’ claims thereon, the essays focus almost entirely on Livy’s preface, the regal period in Book I (especially Romulus), and Camillus in Book V. Although the study occasionally cites other portions of Livy’s history in order to corroborate particular points, the material subjected to detailed analysis is highly selective and does not constitute a representative cross-section of Livy’s narrative of early Rome. Apart from a brief introduction and conclusion, the book is a collection of five essays, three of which (chapters 2, 3, and 5) have already been published elsewhere as articles. Thus, only chapters 1 and 4 set forth new material. Chapters 2 and 3 concern patterns of recurrence and the concept of refoundation and are intended to be read together. Chapters 4 and 5 are detailed analyses respectively of Livy’s account of Rome’s foundation by Romulus and Remus and the theft of the Sabine women, and they likewise complement one another.

In the introduction (pp.1-7) M. outlines the two basic approaches that modern scholars have taken with respect to Livy’s historical narrative: Quellenforschung vs. what M. terms the rhetorical-thematic school. Until recently Burck and Luce have been the principal practitioners of the latter, which M. himself employs throughout this volume. Chapter 1, “History and Memory in Livy’s Narrative” (pp.8-74), is a lengthy and detailed study of the problem of Livy writing a factually accurate history of early Rome in terms of what is seen vs. what is heard: memorials or written records ( monumenta) vs. oral reports or oral tradition ( fama or fabula). This reviewer found this chapter to be the most interesting essay in the book. M. uses Livy’s statement in s.6 of his preface concerning his unwillingness to affirm or refute events surrounding Rome’s foundation to analyze Livy’s handling of four matters: Aeneas’ flight from Troy and arrival in Latium, the quarrel between Romulus and Remus and the latter’s murder, the death of King Servius Tullius, and the naming of the Lacus Curtius in the Roman Forum (pp.16-38 and 57-63). M. maintains that despite Livy’s use of qualifying phrases such as satis constat and his fluctuation between direct and indirect discourse there are still no clearly discernible historiographical criteria by which the reader can discriminate between truth and falsehood. Nevertheless, M. sees the use of these elements as forming a larger rhetorical strategy by which Livy intends to convey indirectly to the reader the overall problem of establishing the historicity of early events, and that the confusion aroused in the reader’s mind by such a narrative serves to establish Livy’s integrity as a fair and honest reporter of the received tradition.

Despite the cogency of these arguments M. interprets too strictly Livy’s statement of historical agnosticism expressed in s.6 of his preface as applying merely to the events preceding and including Rome’s foundation by Romulus and Remus (= ante conditam condendamve urbem); for in s.8 Livy clearly extends the scope of his earlier remark to a much broader span of Roman history: “sed haec et his similia, utcumque animadversa aut existimata erunt, haud in magno equidem ponam discrimine.” Moreover, M.’s perplexity over Livy’s strong repudiation in VII.6.1-6 of his earlier explanation for the toponym Lacus Curtius recorded in I.12.8-13.5 is fully explicable in terms of standard Quellenforschung of the tralatician annalistic tradition, which M. never employs in this book. One of Livy’s primary sources for the second pentad was Q. Claudius Quadrigarius, whose surviving fragments indicate that he began his history with the Gallic capture of the city on the grounds that all records for earlier events had been destroyed in 390 B.C. (see Plutarch’s Numa 1.1 and Livy VI.1.1-3). Livy’s alternative explanation for the Lacus Curtius in VII.6.1-6, including the polemical rejection of the view found in I.12.8-13.5, is best understood as having derived from Quadrigarius, who wished to replace a patently mythical aetiology with a more credible one in a somewhat better documented historical context.

According to M. Livy’s cautious treatment of early Roman traditions implies that no single person had a monopoly on the truth concerning these matters, a conclusion which M. uses to develop interesting interpretations of Augustus’ attempted manipulation of the past and Livy’s view of Rome’s first emperor (pp.39-47). Livy’s uncertainty over the parentage of Iulus in I.3.1-3 clearly calls into question Augustus’ claim of Alban descent. Moreover, Livy’s contorted discussion of the date of A. Cornelius Cossus’ winning of the spolia opima succeeds in both rendering proper homage to the princeps and demonstrating the impossibility of arriving at the truth. M. also attempts to draw far reaching historiographical conclusions from Livy’s Patavine origin and social status (pp.47-54). For example, he construes Livy’s mention of the nobilitas and magnitudo of his literary predecessors in s.3 of his preface as referring to their actual membership in the Roman ruling elite and their prominent social status—a possible but by no means an entirely persuasive interpretation. The chapter ends (pp.67-74) with a discussion of how Livy’s analytical incoherence is juxtaposed to an ideological coherence, and that memoria is depicted as playing an important role in Roman history from the very beginning and is a carefully wrought artifact comparable to other Roman institutions.

In chapter 2, “The Cycle of Roman History in Livy’s First Pentad” (pp.75-109), M. sets forth a complex series of arguments in an attempt to demonstrate Livy’s originality in conceiving of a cycle of history characterized by decline through greed and luxury and of refoundation involving a recall to piety. M. makes a clear distinction between historical recurrence and cyclical history. He also points out that earlier Greek historians only recognized a pattern of the rise and fall of individual states in succession to one another, whereas the Roman state alone was viewed as capable of experiencing decline and resurgence through refoundation. He regards the latter concept as originating with Livy, who developed the idea out of notions current during the late Republic. As several modern scholars have recognized, Livy’s fifth book has piety as its principal theme and through the conquest of Veii and the Gallic capture of the city demonstrates how the Roman state experiences prosperity or failure in accordance with its people’s adherence to or deviation from the proper worship of the gods. Through a careful reading of the events of this book M. tries to show that the Romans’ lapse from piety results from their avarice; but their loss of material well being, brought about by the Gauls’ occupation of the city, returns them to their former piety, which is firmly reinstated by Camillus’ refoundation of the city. This interpretation of Book V is seen as corresponding to Livy’s ideas of moral decline expressed in his preface. In addition, M. wishes to see a connection between this pattern of decline and refoundation in Book V and the events of Livy’s own day; for he observes that Livy composed his first pentad at a time when the Roman state had undergone the political and moral decline of the late Republic and in the aftermath of Actium was poised at a critical turning point including the possibility that the Roman state and society could be reformed through some process of refoundation. In support of this latter interpretation M. observes that Camillus’ refoundation of Rome fell chronologically halfway between Romulus’ foundation of the city and Augustus’ restoration of constitutional government.

M.’s thesis in this chapter rests upon much detailed argumentation that cannot be recounted here for reasons of space. Though the reviewer regards M.’s interpretation as possible and plausible, he nevertheless remains unconvinced and offers the following observations to suggest that the notion of Roman decline and refoundation was already in existence before Livy wrote. Ennius’ famous line concerning Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (“unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem”) clearly involves the notion of restoring the state in a time of peril. It should be recalled that C. Flaminius’ defeat and death at Lake Trasimenus was thought to have been brought about through his rashness and impiety, and Fabius’ first actions as dictator were designed to regain the state’s good will of the gods (see Livy XXII.1-10 and Cic. De Div. I.77 citing Coelius Antipater). Cicero ( De Re Pub. II.2) suggests that Cato the Elder in his Origines depicted the kings of Rome as a series of founders, a notion clearly echoed by Livy in II.1.2. A line from Accius’Brutus, a fabula praetexta, indicates that already by the third quarter of the second century B.C. King Servius Tullius was regarded as the founder of Republican liberty through his institution of the centuriate organization: “Tullius, qui libertatem civibus stabiliverat” (Cic. Pro Sestio 123). Sulla in 88 B.C., following his first march on Rome, justified part of his constitutional reconfiguration of the Roman state by claiming that he was merely restoring the ordinances of Servius Tullius (Appian Bell. Civ. I.59). Finally, the title for the extraordinary dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar, dictator rei publicae constituendae causa, strongly implies an idea of discord and/or decline followed by a constitutional refounding of the state.

In chapter 3, “Maiores, Conditores, and Livy’s Perspective on the Past” (pp.110-36), M. continues his discussion of the concept of founding together with related matters. The concepts of maiores and conditores are complementary, representing respectively continuity and change. In Livy the term maiores generally occurs in direct or indirect discourse where it is used by a character in the narrative, usually in support of a conservative political cause. Thus, the concept suggests an unchanging state of affairs over time. The concept of the conditor, however, allows for major and necessary change in the state throughout history. Conditores are not of equal importance, and their innovations vary as a function of the increased complexity of Roman society. M. notes that the tyrannical decemvir Ap. Claudius is termed conditor because of his pivotal role in the codification of the Law of the Twelve Tables, which was of fundamental importance for Rome’s subsequent legal history. Given our very incomplete knowledge of the works of Livy’s predecessors, M.’s claim that Livy’s list of conditores is unique must remain unsubstantiated. Indeed, before Livy ever took up his pen to write, the Romans already viewed Romulus, Numa, Servius Tullius, and Brutus as founders of important institutions.

One common technique employed by modern literary critics examining various episodes of Livy’s first pentad has been to try to identify distinctively Livian characteristics by comparing the text with the corresponding account of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. It is generally assumed that differences between these two narratives result from conscious decisions made by either or both authors in the handling of the material. The method can be quite useful and productive, but one should realize that differences may not reflect peculiarities of the authors, but they might often be the product of larger and less personal factors such as differences in their sources and the fact that the two authors were writing for two distinctively different audiences and as members of two different cultures. In chapter 4, “Foundation and Ideology in Livy’s narrative of Romulus and Remus (pp.137-78), M. uses this comparative technique to isolate peculiar aspects of Livy’s account of Rome’s foundation by the twin brothers. M.’s analysis is very minute and benefits from the fact that this famous story was also recorded in some detail by Ovid in his Fasti and by Plutarch in his Life of Romulus, thereby permitting M. to compare Livy’s narrative with three other accounts. In addition, this portion of the Livian text happens to contain a number of qualified statements and notices of variants, which provide further insights into Livy’s own particular perspective on this traditional tale.

According to M. Livy adopts an agnostic attitude toward the twins’ divine birth and prefers to portray Romulus as a kind of self-made man who achieves great success despite the humble circumstances of his upbringing. This depiction is interpreted to be a reflection of the Roman concept of the new man (pp.137-50). The reviewer found this portion of the chapter to be quite convincing, but he remains generally skeptical with respect to the chapter’s other arguments. Through a series of postulated conceptual oppositions M. attempts to show that Livy’s narrative contrasts the virtuous austerity and simplicity of the countryside with the complexity of society and politics located in the city; and M. wishes to associate this ideology in many specific ways with that of the late Republic and early Augustan age. In fact, one aspect of this book which this reviewer regards as a shortcoming in much of the modern literary-critical approach to Livy is the inordinate amount of attention devoted to trying to detect Augustan themes or ideology in Livy’s narrative. To be sure, Livy’s activity as a writer of Roman history coincided with the advent of the principate, but it is at least equally important to remember that he was the heir of a rich and varied historiographical tradition extending back to the Hannibalic War. Thus, superficial similarities between Livy’s narrative and the Augustan principate may simply result from the fact that both have independently of one another drawn upon a commonly shared cultural legacy of the Roman Republic.

In the book’s fifth and final chapter, “The First Roman Marriage and the Theft of the Sabine Women (pp.179-219), M. employs the same comparative technique used in the preceding chapter to analyze Livy’s version of the rape of the Sabine women by juxtaposing it to the parallel accounts of Cicero, Ovid, Dionysius, and Plutarch. Perhaps the most intriguing and enlightening aspect of this study involves M.’s use of modern anthropological work on bride theft, which is likened to cattle stealing. Such activity conducted by one group against another serves to demonstrate the manhood of the perpetrators, to command recognition and respect from the victimized group, and to bring about the conclusion of an agreement or alliance between the two parties (pp.186-8). M. sees the story of the Sabine women as a reflection of the realities of Roman marriage during historical times. Just as the Sabine women are commodities of exchange and negotiation between the Roman and Sabine men, so young females were used by their fathers to create political alliances by giving them in marriage to older men. M. argues that both Ovid and Livy in their accounts confront the underlying assumptions of the contemporary Roman ideology of marriage. While Ovid’s version is subversive in depicting the event in terms of the male use of force, Livy is interested in portraying how the Sabine women progress from passive abducted outsiders to fully involved insiders and Roman matrons. In addition, Livy’s narrative is interpreted as an exploration into the ambiguity of the two genders’ supposedly differing psychologies: strong forthright males vs. passive, susceptible, and even manipulative females. By including in his treatment the story of Tarpeia, who according to one ancient tradition was led to betray the Capitoline to the army of T. Tatius by her desire to possess their valuable armlets, M. argues that cupiditas, a powerful motivating factor in Roman history, is not confined in this episode to the female Tarpeia but is also evident in the behavior of the men, thereby calling into question the sincerity of their self-proclaimed motives for their actions.

This brief and desultory review has hardly done justice to the richness, complexity, and variety of M.’s arguments. Even though this reviewer finds himself unwilling to accept many of this volume’s conclusions, M.’s ideas or arguments are rarely outlandish. Even when they are not compelling, they generally appear to be at least plausible and are thought provoking. The book is amply annotated with modern bibliography, which in itself may be a significant reward for the reader.