BMCR 2000.01.14

Livy and Early Rome. A Study in Historical Method and Judgment

, Livy and Early Rome. A Study in Historical Method and Judgment. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999. 147. DM 88.

Forsythe (F.) begins his study by placing himself within the context of scholarship on Livy’s historical work: He distinguishes the historical and the literary school, judging both as only partially satisfactory, the first because of its simplistic attribution of Livy’s text to its sources, the second because it has failed to add anything to our knowledge of early Roman history by reducing Livy to a literary craftsman. According to F., only T.J. Luce succeeded in shaping a new view of Livy’s working methods, and F. intends to follow this path. His aim is to examine Livy’s historical method and judgment by collecting personal remarks, qualified statements, references to variants and attempts to resolve historical and historiographical problems in the first ten books.

However, F.’s claim to be the first to assemble these data cannot be left as it is. We only have to look into the volume Wege zu Livius, edited by E. Burck in the series Wege der Forschung, vol. 132, to see that W. Wiehemeyer and F. Hellmann have already undertaken similar efforts in their articles of 1938 and 1939 respectively.

The first chapter contains the data base itself (all together 380 statements) and a general commentary explaining the “codes” Forsythe uses to characterize Livy’s critical statements. In some parts the system of codes seems to be overly complicated and redundant, especially in the category “form”. Is it for example really helpful to distinguish tradunt from ferunt, dicitur or traditur ? On the other side, the specification of Livy’s arguments in confirming or refuting his sources is very useful (agreement, agnosticism, probability, majority, oldest source etc.), and the reader looks forward to how F. will explain these characteristics.

Chapter 2 starts with the most prominent feature F. detects in his data: Livy’s caution towards the tradition on early Rome and his sources. In 63.1% of his statements Livy does not clearly decide which variant seems to him to be the right one, and in 171 cases he is offering no opinion at all. He obviously does not want to engage in controversies, as he already states in the praefatio (the famous nec adfirmare nec refellere in animo est referring to the events before the foundation of Rome and to the foundation itself). By confessing not to know the truth because of the long passage of time ( vetustas) and the fabulous character of the tradition and by taking refuge with the argument of probability, Livy is acknowledging rational doubts concerning the history of early Rome without giving up the subject completely. Livy’s attitude involves both critical rationalism and romantic idealism, as F. puts it. But as a cursory glance at the works of E. Burck shows, Livy’s emphasis on the larger moral themes is a common and well-examined notion and is valid for Roman historiography in general. Livy’s scepticism is not his own invention either, as F. acknowledges himself: Already Claudius Quadrigarius omitted the history of Rome before the Gallic capture because of its alleged uncertainty, and rationalistic doubts can also be found in the remaining fragments of Licinius Macer. F. rightly sees that Livy is sometimes wavering between criticism and idealism, but both features were known before and F. gives no new clue why Livy is working this way.

Chapter 3 deals with the 123 statements where Livy passes a historical judgment instead of showing sceptical indifference. In 64 out of these 123 the judgment is based on probability. F. rightly states that such argumentation is not a Livian invention but has long been established in the annalistic tradition. And, like his predecessors, Livy’s reasoning is often based on dubious premises, showing that Livy had no tools at hand or no interest to critically examine his sources. So he and his annalistic predecessors contented themselves with common sense based on probability. This leads F. to a rather harsh opinion on Livy’s working methods, accusing him of producing “historiographical mediocrity”. By judging like this, F. is in fact quite close to 19th century positivist Quellenforschung, which he criticises at the beginning. F. is also falling behind the attempts of Luce, Miles, Wiseman and others to explain Livy’s attitude in a more innovative way. Solely stating that Livy is not a historian in our modern sense is a commonplace and does not add anything new to our understanding.

In chapter 4 F. elaborates on Livy’s use of early Roman history as a source of moral guidelines: In order to put his moral examples forward he was guided by patriotic preconceptions which replaced historical truth. This negative appreciation again lacks an original approach to Livy’s working methods and adds nothing to earlier scholarship.

Chapter 5 deals with the long established practice of introducing speeches into the historical narrative. Speeches were used to delineate and explain complicated and contentious issues. Livy starts to insert longer speeches in the third book, according to F., because he felt himself on safer ground thanks to the earliest extant corpus of Latin, the Law of the Twelve Tables, and his growing self-confidence as a historical writer. However, as an orator Livy should not have had doubts about his rhetorical skills, so that we should put faith only in the first of F.’s arguments.

In chapter 6 F. deals with the divine. Livy contrasts the simple piety of the early times of Rome with the neglect of the gods in his own days. F. rightly refers this to the earlier annalistic tradition, as this kind of moralism is already present in the work of Calpurnius Piso. Especially in Livy’s book 5 piety is the central theme. On the other hand, F. cites examples of Livy’s cautious scepticism towards miraculous events, as for example the birth of Romulus and Remus. Again this rationalism is already applied by earlier annalists, for example Licinius Macer. F. concludes that Livy was indeed a theist attached to Rome’s ancient religious tradition, but a sceptic in regard to the fabulous and incredible.

Chapter 7 deals with another common feature of ancient historiography, the digressions. Livy makes surprisingly rare use of them (only 7 in the first decade). F. mostly concentrates on the chronological difficulties posed by these digressions. According to him, Livy almost completely relies on his predecessors for the material of his digressions. The discrepancies in them are due to the endeavours of these previous annalists to bring foreign events in line with the Roman fasti. These synchronisms are often not reliable. Again, we are offered in this chapter purely positivist judgments on Livy’s use of sources and on whether his narrative is true or not but no new explanations of the particularities of Livy’s work with regard to the digressions.

In chapter 8 F. tries to find out if there is a distinctive pattern for how the data he has collected in his first chapter are distributed among the first decade, especially in comparison with books 24 and 39. On the average, every 607 words a passage occurs which is relevant to historical judgment. F. also establishes quotients for the concentration of relevant passages within each book and quotients for resolved and unresolved issues within every book. The calculations show that book 1 has by far the highest concentration of such passages and a quotient of 1.71, 1.00 being the average. Above the average also are books 4, 8, and 9. Book 1 therefore confirms that Livy regarded the tradition on the regal period with much caution. As for the other books, however, it is remarkable to note that there is no steady decrease in critical remarks which could be explained by an increasing credibility of the historical tradition (book 3: 0.63, book 4: 1.23; book 5: 0.70; book 8: 1.08). F.’s attempts to explain these varying patterns are above all convincing for books 3 and 5: The lack of critical statements and the short span of time covered by these books are probably mostly due to the historical importance Livy attributes to the rise and fall of the decemvirs and the Gallic capture and the priority of artistic aspects; critical comments would have disturbed the highly artistic structure of these books. This clearly shows that the choice to qualify a statement depends on literary conventions. Historical doubts were subordinated to greater thematic purposes. This is one of the rare instances where F. is leaving the path of purely negative assessments of Livy’s work by trying to find a positive appraisal.

Interestingly there is only a slight difference between the quotients of resolved and unresolved issues in the first and second pentad, although Livy states in 6,1,1-3 that the historical tradition becomes clearer and more reliable after the Gallic capture of Rome. This could be a further indicator that the division into a dark period before the Gallic sack and a clearer one afterwards is an artificial annalistic invention.

In sum, F.’s study is in most parts very traditional and closer to 19th century Quellenforschung than to a new assessment of Livy’s work. If we compare his conclusions for example with Hellmann’s article of 1939 cited at the beginning, we can find very similar explanations: “Seine (sc. Livius’) Aufgabe … ist nicht die eines kritisch abwägenden Forschers …, sondern die eines redlichen Sachwalters der vorgefundenen schriftlichen Überlieferungen, zwischen deren Widersprüchen … er nach Wahrscheinlichkeitsgraden einen Ausgleich zu suchen hat.”

F. concentrates very much on enumerating examples of certain features in Livy’s first ten books which are already well known. However, these features could still be of great interest if new explanations were offered and comprehensive conclusions drawn.