BMCR 1996.07.06

1996.07.06, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome

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

That we have reached a point at which it is no longer necessary to apologize for Livy’s kind of history and for his historiographical methods—almost, in fact, no longer necessary to use the older Livy the Transparent Overlay or Livy the Wanderer (as Luce dubbed him) as a straw man—is due in large part to M[iles]’s two important articles on Livy’s view of time and the founder. Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome collects these and his 1993 piece on the Sabine marriage, but around them M. has written two new pieces and an Introduction that lucidly sets out his theoretical position (neither Erzählungskunst nor Quellenforschung, but drawing on both). Bibliography is, for the most part, brought up to date (though there is some inconsistency of reference in the footnotes, which have not been recast to reflect the collective list of Works Cited); the arguments of the older papers are picked up, rethought, and continued in the new; and a brief Conclusion recapitulates and ties together the book’s most important strands.

The five essays hang together around the themes of memory, authority, and the reader’s response. ‘History and Memory in Livy’s Narrative,’ to my mind the best of the five pieces, identifies both innovation and incongruities in Livy’s historiographical methods, focusing particularly on his need to find a replacement for the traditional criterion of autopsy as a guarantor of truth, and on the claims made in the Preface for the utility of ab urbe condita (i.e. not contemporary) history. M. shows convincingly that Livy stymies his readers’ attempts to find any consistent criteria of accuracy or rationale for the historian’s preferring one version among variants, not only in the very early sections of Book I, as Livy warns in the Preface ( ante urbem conditam condendamue), but later as well. In their place, M. suggests, Livy substitutes criteria of memory and tradition: ‘ideological relevance and consistency rather than factual reliability serve as the essential criteria by which the narrative has been organized and should be judged’ (67). If the Ab urbe condita is a record of the past with which contemporary Romans (and others? cf. the mysterious tibi tuaeque rei publicae at Pref. 10) can (re)construct and interpret their national and personal identities, then in a fundamental sense what matters is not whether Livy has gotten the details right, but whether those details conform to or challenge what the Romans think about themselves. Challenge, as M. shows, is high on the Livian agenda, though the historian’s deferential pose (which M. is more inclined to take at face value than Moles, in PCPS for 1993) in his Preface and elsewhere (especially in the notorious 4.20) tends to mask the ‘subversive possibilities’ of his narrative (54). M. is particularly acute on the implications of Livy’s status as an outsider, which may have allowed him to say things that a ‘senatorial’ historian could or would not have—and it is a mark of M.’s ability to look at Livy with few preconceptions that he can suggest a different and productive way of coping with Livy’s non-involvement in politics or the military.

‘The Cycle of Roman History in Livy’s First Pentad’ and ‘Maiores, Conditores, and Livy’s Perspective on the Past’ argue that Livy and Augustus together (but independently) used the two late-Republican preoccupations with decline and renewal and with the charismatic leader ‘as a basis for a systematic interpretation of Rome’s past and its possible meaning for his own age and … [the] future’ (109). Though M. accentuates the positive in his reading of Livy’s accounts of the conditores, particularly Camillus, he allows also for the complexity inherent in all of Livy’s thought: the carefully woven pattern of theme and detail shows us not only a world in which a good leader like Camillus can bring the state out of disaster into a new foundation, but also one in which such charismatic qualities have a potential for misuse. Most importantly for M., Livy’s world is one in which the historian makes the reader confront these negative implications by his ’emphasis on variety and complexity over uniformity in Rome’s past’; as M. reads it, the Ab urbe condita is ‘specifically about change’ (115), and in rejecting a static monolithic view of Roman history (121), Livy challenges any attempt to appropriate the past for one’s own purposes, to say ‘this is what Camillus [or kings, or the whole of the past] means’ (38). This project only works, however, by inscribing the reader in the historiographical project: when Livy presents variants and professes not to be able to choose among them, or when he otherwise shows both sides of a story or a character, it is the reader who has to do the work of tracing themes, acknowledging complexity, and drawing the lessons of history.

That said, however, M. shows how Livy also guides the reader: a history that avoids partisanship and that makes its readers work does not thereby leave them rudderless. Livy combines a ‘personal dissociation’ from partisan or political appeals with his own appropriation of the past, using his rhetorical authority to steer us in what he regards as the right direction (135-6). Though M. may be correct to term this ‘duplicity,’ it seems to me to be rather an advantage, akin to the historian’s pose of modesty: both are essential elements in his strategy of using history—that is, both the events of the past and their record, including his own book—as an interactive guide. Too much authority would shut the reader out; too little diminishes Livy’s claims to provide the medicine we need. As M. points out, he may have miscalculated—after all, from time to time over the course of centuries he has been regarded as little better than a credulous storyteller—but a writer whom Machiavelli so admired and used hardly lacked historical insight or authority.

Livy’s challenging stance and the problematic nature of (re)foundation are explored in greater detail in ‘Foundation and Ideology in Livy’s Narrative of Romulus and Remus.’ Here M. focusses particularly on the creation of an ideology for Roman character and leadership: Livy’s Romulus has a self-sufficiency and self-creation that reflect and create the Roman character. He is in many senses the first nouus homo, introducing and reaffirming ‘the principle that heroism should be understood not as the source but as the product of virtue’ (148). Here too, though, Livy’s inescapable self-criticism operates: Romulus’s regnum may be either a tyranny or a good kingdom, his foundation of Rome either a departure from Amulius’ ruling principles or their re-enactment (154), and the historian does not allow us to choose definitively between the alternatives. This analysis, with its clear relevance to contemporary Augustan society, is followed by an extended reading of the twin themes of city and country in the narrative and then in Augustan thought in which M. identifies these ‘two contradictory ideals of community’ (164) as one of the crucial conflicts in the Roman self-construction of the last century B.C.E. The country, idealized in Livy’s story of the twins and in other contemporary sources (including Augustan art), is the locus simultaneously of a temporal (life in the country is old-fashioned, lost) and a spatial (the country is far from the city) projection of values for which the Romans felt both a nostalgia and a guilty conscience. The tension thus produced between ‘escapist and pragmatic perspectives’ is reflected both in Livy’s Preface (in the famous sentence about the pleasure the readers and the distress the author derives from haec noua) and in the Ab urbe condita as a whole: the past may serve as escape or as model, but either way, the narrative reflects and insists upon the ‘ambiguities, uncertainties, and contractions inherent in the play among contemporary Roman ideologies’ (177-78). ‘The first Roman marriage and the theft of the Sabine women,’ a comparative study of the late-Republican and Augustan accounts, similarly identifies tensions in Livy’s narrative, taking as a focal point the question of how the stories reflect and challenge contemporary attitudes toward the sexes; M. concludes that ‘even as it constructs images of men and women to fit the conventional character of Roman marriage, Livy’s narrative exposes limitations inherent in the Roman practice of trying to base ideal social and political unions on a relationship of inequality between men and women’ (218). The complexities and ambiguities in his treatment are closest, perhaps unsurprisingly, to those of Ovid’s Fasti, which similarly invites us to deconstruct Augustan values within an overtly sympathetic framework.

I am by nature sympathetic to this kind of approach to literature in general and to Livy in particular, and find M.’s reading nuanced, and persuasive. 1 His informed use of other theoretical approaches, particularly anthropology, enriches his argument (there are only a few places, as with his discussion (16-17) of IE roots and his long note (200 n.44) on women’s dependence on men in other cultures, where I had trouble seeing the utility of his comparative material); he seems particularly influenced by M. Serres, Rome, the book of foundations, which I have found fruitful for my own work on Livy. Like Serres, M. concentrates almost exclusively on a few early passages—I am curious to see how he would read the rest of the Ab urbe condita, in which Livy’s methods necessarily evolve to meet the challenges of changing material. I was interested to see, moreover, that Professor Gary Forsythe, who is not by nature sympathetic to ‘the currently fashionable literary-critical approach to Livy,’ most of which he finds ‘rather mechanical and superficial,’ is equally impressed by M.’s work ( BMCR 7.2: 135-40). The present review (whose lateness is entirely my fault!) was initially intended as a companion piece to Forsythe’s: as things turn out, it serves merely as an enthusiastic footnote.

  • [1] I deliberately (and uncharacteristically!) omit to list my small disagreements and queries of M.’s reading, as they do not affect my assessment of the book as a whole. A few errors should be corrected: Konrad Gries is not Greis, and David Levene is not Levine (Works Cited and elsewhere); p.32, ‘reigns’ should be ‘reins’; p. 54 and 216 n.68, Cnaius and Caius should be Gnaius and Gaius, respectively.