BMCR 2001.07.03

Livy’s Exemplary History

, Livy's exemplary history. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (245 pages). ISBN 1423767683. $70.00.

If the old saw is true that certain works, such as the Iliad, the Theogony, and Lucan’s Bellum Civile embody and engage the passions of youth, while other works such as the Odyssey, the Works and Days, and the Aeneid are better suited to the reflective inclinations of a more mature and mellow age, then Livy has, on the evidence of recent scholarship, leaped vertiginously from the latter category to the former. For the august senior scholars who bestrode Livian studies (at least in Anglophone countries) from the 70s into the 90s—Briscoe, Luce, Ogilvie, Walsh—have been yielding over the past six or eight years to a stable of youngish, mostly American, scholars—Jaeger, Feldherr, Kraus—whose first books are transforming not only Livian studies proper, but also our understanding of Roman aristocratic culture broadly, insofar as Livy transmits, intervenes in, and constitutes that culture through the history he writes.1 To this accelerating youth movement add now Jane Chaplin’s monograph (again a first book), a careful and detailed study of the functioning of historical exempla within the AUC. C.’s approach to Livy is more traditional than those of her cohort: the “new Livy,” perhaps, but in the arms of the old. While one’s inner literary critic will feast upon C.’s subtle readings of numerous specific passages, and upon her attentiveness to differences in presentation, rhetorical situation, and audience from one passage to another, one’s inner cultural historian will be left quite famished by her inward-turned focus on the Livian text—this notwithstanding the final chapter, which does venture out into one corner of Livy’s contemporary world. The lean cultural cuisine is the more regrettable in view of a growing body of (primarily German) scholarship adverting to the republican aristocracy’s utter saturation with exemplary models for action transmitted from the past, whether through narratives, commemorative statuary and other monuments, social spectacles like triumphs and funeral processions, or other cultural forms.2 Much of this work is quite recent, perhaps too recent for C. to have been able to exploit. But had she been able to integrate some of these scholars’ results in a thoroughgoing way with her own readings of Livy, she would, I believe, have enriched her own already illuminating analyses, and offered much to that body of scholarship in return.

C. opens (“Introduction: Livy’s Use of Exempla”) by examining section 10 of Livy’s preface, which programmatically asserts the social and moral benefits of studying (and then imitating or avoiding) models of behavior from the past—a passage to which she returns frequently in the course of the book. In light of this passage, she defines an exemplum as “any specific citation of an event or an individual that is intended to serve as a guide to conduct [and offers] an opportunity to learn from the past” (p. 3). She then moves rapidly past the definitions of exemplum and paradeigma to be found in rhetorical treatises, and rightly so as other scholars have collected and discussed these definitions ad nauseam and with not much result. She then surveys at some length (pp. 6-29) the deployment of historical exempla by Livy’s historiographical forebears, both Greek and Latin, while noting in a few pages (11-15) some of the other cultural artifacts by which models for action are transmitted from past to present in Roman society. Thus the introduction adumbrates the critical approach that is in fact pursued throughout the book: she frames her investigation of the Livian exemplum predominantly in literary terms (i.e., she offers close readings of a particular text in the context of its generic tradition), rather than in terms of the broader world in which Livy and his intended audience lived. In chapter 1, “Caudium as Event and Exemplum,” C. begins to introduce the complexities of Livian exemplarity through a detailed study of the Roman surrender to the Samnites at the Furcae Caudinae. First she discusses Livy’s narrative of the surrender itself, and then examines all its subsequent invocations in the AUC. She shows that the memory of Caudium, far from having a fixed or stable meaning, serves different purposes in different contexts. Its specific purpose in a given context depends on what voice invokes that memory (e.g., whether the speaker is Roman or Samnite), before what audience it is invoked, where the speaker begins and ends his narrative of the event, and how it is juxtaposed with other exemplary narratives (such as the Gallic sack) that, by overlapping with the Caudium narrative in differing ways, create differing emphases in each new telling of the tale. She also observes that most invocations of this exemplum (and others too in Livy) cluster within a few years of the event itself, appearing with decreasing frequency thereafter; thus Livy represents his characters as preferring to cite exempla from fairly recent memory.

Chapter 2, “Speaker, Audience, and Exemplum,” expounds some distinctions that will be central to C.’s analyses throughout the book. She identifies three separate “voices” that articulate exempla in Livy: (1) the historian’s own (often explicitly moralizing) voice; (2) the voice of any given character or group; (3) the thoughts of any such character of group. The audiences that absorb these exempla are also three: (1) Livy’s external audience of readers; and audiences internal to the text consisting of (2) auditors of speeches in which exempla are invoked and (3) eyewitnesses to exemplary deeds. She compellingly analyzes the relationships among these speakers and audiences: she observes, for instance, that, while it is clear that the reactions of internal audiences are at least sometimes supposed to guide the reactions of Livy’s reader, nevertheless the internal audiences vary with each invocation of an exemplum, while Livy’s reader remains the same—that is, the external audience can learn from its cumulative reception of the multiple invocations of an exemplum, while internal audiences have no such opportunity. She tests some of these observations by tracing a second Roman military disaster, the battle of Cannae, through its exemplary invocations, with a particularly acute analysis of the senatorial debate over ransoming the survivors (22.58-61), and of how and to what effect Hannibal invokes the memory of his great victory.

Chapter 3, “Reading the Past,” makes further points about the relationships between, and interpretive capabilities of, different internal audiences and the external audience. Foreigners, she shows, are typically worse at interpreting (Roman) exempla than Romans are. But sometimes particular foreign figures, whom she regards as tragic warners, interpret correctly, while their countrymen ignore their advice; also, sometimes Romans misinterpret, but these are typically villains whose wretched ends underscore their error. In debates between pairs of Romans, protagonists may deploy exempla differently to appeal to different segments of the internal audience; alternatively, some exempla may have one effect on an internal audience but a different effect on the external one.

While many of C.’s observations here are reasonable, and some are excellent, her conclusions in the latter part of the chapter (esp. 88-103) are undermined by a questionable method, whereby she assesses the impact of a speaker’s exempla on his audience by looking at the audience’s reaction to his speech as a whole. The problem is that a great many other rhetorical devices besides exempla are present in these speeches, and these too play a role in teaching, moving, and delighting the internal (and external) audience, hence in evoking their responses. There is a further worry as well. In this and in the previous chapters, C. seems to regard exempla, “guides to conduct,” as functioning very narrowly, prescribing what specifically one ought to do or not do in a particular situation. But over the course of chapter 3, this narrow interpretation appears increasingly inadequate. Consider the debate between Fabius Cunctator and Scipio in Livy 28.40ff., regarding whether Scipio should be allowed to cross over to Africa with an army. C.’s analysis of this debate (pp. 92-97) stresses the specific instances, adduced by each protagonist, of generals who did or did not find success in overseas military adventures, the implication being that the memory of these men offers specific, practical behavioral principles for people here and now to follow. This is all true. But she largely neglects what seems (at least to me) to be a much more important function of the exempla adduced in these speeches: namely, to provide benchmarks of gloria against which Fabius and Scipio measure their standing and reputations. Thus, when Scipio declares that he has the right to be compared with, and to strive to surpass, all the most outstanding men, including Fabius himself, and that it would be a loss for the state and indeed for the human race if older men were unwilling that younger men strive to be like them (28.43.2-8, 18), it is evident that Scipio’s concern is not with learning practical behavioral lessons from his models, but with acquiring for himself the sort of gloria that accrued to them— gloria being the praise and acclaim that accompanies the memory of these men as doers of great deeds and recipients of public honors. The guide to conduct offered by such exempla is very broad—”gain gloria for yourself!” is the implied imperative, but with no particular indication of precisely how to do it—and is correspondingly more socially and ideologically compelling. To invoke the famous deeds of past heroes/villains in relation to a contemporary circumstance is to become immediately immersed in issues of aristocratic competition, i.e., the relative status and standing of the invokers, their audiences, and the men whose memories are invoked. For a great many exempla in Livy, including many C. discusses in this chapter, this elbowing for status is a crucial aspect (sometimes the dominant or even exclusive aspect) of their functioning; yet from C. one catches only the occasional glimpse of this function, and finds no explicit discussion of it here or elsewhere in the book. Too narrow an understanding of what a “guide to conduct” must be, then, seems to me to hamper a number of her interpretations.3

Chapter 4, “Past and Present,” begins with the assertion that the most prolific and successful exemplum-adducers in Livy are older men, i.e., conservatives who are past-oriented, while younger, more “future-oriented” men adduce fewer exempla less successfully, but may win their point on other grounds. Wondering whether the possibility of the present winning out over the past presents a conflict with the assertion of Preface 10 that the past holds answers to present conundrums, C. assembles and fascinatingly analyzes a set of passages where Livy weighs the authority of the past against the need for innovation in light of novel conditions. She compares, for example, Fabius Cuncator’s claim that, out of two great events that are causally linked, the one that caused the other is the greater (privileging the earlier over the later), with Appius Claudius Caecus’ claim that, where laws are in conflict, the most recent takes precedent (privileging the later over the earlier). She concludes that Livy’s actual practice in the AUC, where the memory of specific events (as instantiated in exempla) tends to fade out and disappear over time, accords more closely with the view he ascribes to his readers at Preface 10—that they are more interested in the recent past than in remote antiquity—than with the view he there presents as his own. She concludes that, for Livy, “the past has lessons, but the student takes an active part in determining their relevance to his circumstances” (p. 136).

In Chapter 5, “Precedents and Change,” C. opens by grappling with a semantic bifurcation in the word “exemplum.” On the one hand, it often refers to a unique, specific, compelling social or moral model for imitation, a “specimen of conduct.” On the other hand, it sometimes invites a translation like “instance” or (mere) “precedent,” i.e., referring to any one out of many, more or less equivalent, possibilities. These two senses sometimes, but not always, can be distinguished. C. attends now to the latter sense, examining the prominent role that invoking precedents plays in the triumph debates of Livy’s third and fourth decades. She argues that the framing, debating, and deciding of these debates in terms of precedents suggests a present firmly in the grip of the past. But she also finds some debates where precedents are simply disregarded, or even adduced in support of innovation. Thus the present can appropriate the past in many ways and to differing, even opposed, purposes.

While C.’s general conclusion here seems indisputably correct, I felt again that, as in Chapter 3, she overrates the role that the exempla/precedents adduced in these debates play in generating particular outcomes, given that they are embedded in speeches that are complex social performances in their own right, where many other persuasive devices and appeals to authority are also in play. For instance, she says (p. 153) that Manlius Vulso “wins his triumph because no one in his circumstances has not triumphed,” paraphrasing Livy’s statement, 38.50.2-3, that in the debate the auctoritas seniorum prevailed, who asserted they could find no exemplum for someone being denied a triumph after defeating his enemy, finishing his service, and bringing his army home. But one imagines that the seniores could perfectly well have drummed up a counter-exemplum had they wished, in view of the protean flexibility and versatility that C. shows throughout is characteristic of exempla. I suspect it is not the irremediable, universally-agreed absence of an exemplum that carries the day for Manlius here: rather, the seniores say what they say in order to authorize a decision actually made on much broader grounds.4 Unquestionably, appeals to precedent play a crucial role in these debates, but I am not persuaded that their role is precisely the one she articulates, or that they function in quite the ways she suggests.

Chapter 6, “Livy, Augustus, and Exempla,” turns outside of the Livian text to find a like-minded deployer of exempla in the first princeps himself: not only is he attested as copying out praecepta et exempla publice vel privatim salubria (Suet. Aug. 89.2) and sending them to everyone he knows, but he erected the statues of the summi viri in the forum Augustum to provide models of valued action for Romans to emulate and left the center of the forum open to receive statues of those who, in posterity, were successful in their emulation (specifically in receiving the ornamenta triumpalia). C. argues that the elogia for the summi viri notably emphasize activities associated with domestic peace and religious piety, hence show Augustus representing the past selectively so as to stress values and actions that he deems appropriate in current circumstances, precisely as Livy’s speakers regularly do. In particular, the statues and their elogia seem to stress honors ancillary to triumphs rather than the triumphs themselves and so can be seen as seeking to reorient aristocratic values in view of the imperial household’s emerging monopoly on full triumphs and its preference to offer only the ornamenta to everyone else.

This is an extremely interesting and well-done analysis, throwing considerable light on the exemplary practices of both Livy and Augustus. Nevertheless, one could come away with the belief that these two Romans shared an odd passion which, by chance, they were in a position to indulge on a monumental scale, and portions of which happen to have survived to us. In fact, as C. herself is surely aware, the republican city was, from as early as we have evidence, awash in monuments—literary, plastic, topographical, anatomical, sartorial, and nomenclatorial, to name but a few types—that transmitted socially and ethically valued slivers of the past into the present for praise/blame and imitation/avoidance; the exemplary impulse was rooted broadly and deeply in the republican aristocracy, and was manifested in a great many cultural forms. Thus I entirely agree with her assertion (p. 169) that “if we look for an equally intense interest in exempla, it emerges not from [Livy’s] fellow historians, but rather from his contemporaries,” though I myself might broaden “contemporaries” to include “republican aristocrats generally.” (Note, however, that her assertion here is at odds with the emphasis of her “Introduction,” which dwells at length on Livy’s historiographical antecedents and gives short shrift to external cultural phenomena.) Her discussion of Augustus is a fine first step in this direction, and one might point once again to Hölkeskamp and the others mentioned in note 2, who survey broadly some of the many manifestations and consequences of this culturally rooted exemplary impulse. Yet even as an awareness of such work might have enriched C.’s analyses, she has much to offer these scholars in return, given the subtlety of her readings and depth of her engagement with Livy.5

A brief “Conclusion: Continuity and Change” reviews important points from the earlier chapters in light of the assumed replicability of exempla: i.e., that at the same time the past is recollected for application to the present, the present is envisioned as a source of models for the future. Following the conclusion is an “Appendix” listing persons, events, and procedures that Livy adduces as models for imitation or avoidance; and a serviceable index consisting largely of proper nouns and Latin terms.

This book is very much in usum scholarum, and one would not want to direct undergraduates to it, nor perhaps even young graduate students, without assistance. While almost all Latin and Greek is translated or at least paraphrased, there are a great many unexplained terms, names, and events, and in general C. clearly assumes her reader will command a considerable amount of specialist knowledge regarding both Livy and Roman history. To give but two examples: at 140-43 she assumes her reader already knows what a triumph is and what happens in one (though in the notes she expatiates upon distinctions between the triumphus in monte Albano and the ovatio); and at 185 she quotes Cicero as saying that, as a boy, he often saw the aged Gaius Duilius (the naval triumphator of the first Punic war) returning home from convivia—aged indeed! for she omits to mention that the speaker is actually the elder Cato, in De Senectute. Such leaps will not trouble the periti, but would make hard going for the tiro. At some points, though, even the peritissimi rerum Livianarum may find themselves baffled. At 101-102, her account of the debate over Manlius Vulso’s triumph request makes no sense unless one recalls for oneself that the whole debate arose because Manlius opportunistically attacked and defeated the Gauls instead of Antiochus, the putative enemy. Likewise, she indicates that Manlius’ opponents, who object that Manlius did not conduct his campaign properly, are effectively answered by adducing exempla of generals who fought uphill. This is correct but incomprehensible as it stands; only by turning to Livy’s text can one grasp what C. is talking about. Here and throughout, more care taken in scene-setting would have offered everyone easier reading.

Inevitably, the reviewer of a monograph filled with critical analyses of particular passages would offer different interpretations at many points; some of my reservations and disagreements have been noted above. Yet by and large C.’s readings are illuminating, and the overall impression is of watching an able literary critic at work. C.’s renderings of Latin into English are nothing short of elegant, though sometimes diverge farther from the Latin than purists might like. I noted very few errors of fact, typography, editing, or reading of Latin, most trivial (e.g., “Metellus Numidianus” at p. 181); also, a number of notes repeat almost verbatim information nearby in the main text (e.g., compare the information about Equitius in the main text at 181 with 183 n. 66). A bit less trivial are the following: at p. 99 she says, incorrectly, that the tribune Valerius, urging the repeal of the lex Oppia, warns that the women might secede to the Sacred Mount like the plebeians of old: in fact, he is laughing this off as an absurd impossibility. At 112 the statement “Rullianus earned his cognomen of Maximus specifically for his military skill” is incorrect; Livy says (9.46.15) he earned it for his activities as censor and not for his victories. At 10.3.7-8, however, we hear that if there was any other realm of activity where he measured up to his cognomen, it was in his bellicae laudes —an interesting point for exemplarity, in that his achievements in one area are being measured against a standard he has set in another area. Also, at what point did Rullianus “[suffer defeat] after initial successes” (p. 182)? A few points of confusion arise probably from editing errors: on p. 44 line 16, the sentence beginning “Unfortunately…” needs an introductory clause such as “Regarding Lutatius’ victory in 241,…”; on 150 line 11 add triumphavit after fieret. Finally, on p. 110 line 1 could she mean “discipline” for “power,” and at line 4 mean “tolerating orders legitimately imposed” (closer to the Latin, and making better sense in context) for “the legitimate exercise of power”?

In sum, this book has both significant virtues and significant limitations. Any scholar engaged with Livy or Roman historiography will find it interesting and valuable throughout. Historians or cultural critics who are interested in exemplarity broadly, or any scholars who seek in this book the sort of integration of Roman culture into Livy (and Livy into culture) that Feldherr achieves in regard to “spectacle,” Jaeger in regard to “monuments,” and Pittenger in regard to “existimatio,” will probably be somewhat disappointed. But even for these scholars the book has much to offer, provided they are prepared to make for themselves many of the connections they seek.


1. Jaeger, M. Livy’s Written Rome, Ann Arbor 1997. Feldherr, A. Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History, Berkeley 1998. Kraus, C., ed. Ab Urbe Condita Book VI, Cambridge 1994. Another such work, which one hopes will soon appear as a monograph, is M. Pittenger, Home of the Brave: Aristocratic Self-Fashioning in Triumph Debates from Livy 31-45 (200-167 B.C.) Diss. U. C. Berkeley, 1997 (N.B. this dissertation was filed under the author’s maiden name, Pelikan). G. Miles, though more senior than the aforementioned, might nevertheless be included among them, since his work is in a similar spirit ( Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome, Ithaca 1995). To speak of a “youth movement,” however, is to take nothing away from mid-career scholars such as Forsythe and Oakley, whose work on Livy is framed in more traditional ways.

2. Hölkeskamp, K.-J. “Exempla und mos maiorum: Überlegungen zum kollektiven Gedächtnis der Nobilität,” in H.-J. Gehrke and A. Möller, eds., Vergangenheit und Lebenswelt: soziale Kommunikation, Traditionsbildung und historisches Bewusstsein (Tübingen 1996) 301-338. Various articles by Tonio Hölscher are pertinent, though one might begin with “Die Anfänge römischer Repräsentationskunst, μδαἱρ) 85 (1978) 315-57. Späth, Thomas. “Faits de mots et d’images: les grands hommes de la Rome ancienne,” Traverse 5 (1998) 35-56 (initial results from the collaborative working group on “great men” that he announces on p. 36 are to be eagerly awaited). W. Eck describes some of the crucial republican social practices and formations in showing how they were eliminated or eclipsed in the early empire: “Senatorial Self-Representation: Developments in the Augustan Period,” in F. Millar and E. Segal, eds., Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects (Oxford 1984) 129-67. See also now the new collection edited by B. Linke and M. Stemmler, Mos maiorum: Untersuchungen zu den Formen der Identitätsstiftung und Stabilisierung in der römischen Republik, Stuttgart 2000, and especially Stemmler’s own piece, “Auctoritas Exempli. Zur Wechselwirkung von kanonisierten Vergangenheitsbildern und gesellschaftlicher Gegenwart in der spätrepublikanischen Rhetorik,” 141-205.

3. Here in particular, works cited in n. 2 above (especially Hölkeskamp) might have broadened and enriched C’s analyses. To put exemplifying narratives alongside other commemorative monumental forms that were in Roman eyes parallel and complementary to such narratives, e.g., honorific statuary, casts much light both upon the range of aims, especially the status-enhancing aims, of those who created such monuments (Livy among them) and also upon the possible modes of reception of each kind of monument by audiences that confronted them.

4. Pittenger (n. 1 supra) 167 argues convincingly that Vulso receives his triumph because, in the end, the right people decide to vouch for the legitimacy of his self-representation as one who had defeated the enemy, finished his service, and brought his army home. In Pittenger’s view the triumph debate, like the battle itself, is a locus of social performance, and where the dynamics of such performance are equally, if not more, important than the “facts” about what happened or the “rules” for what quaifies for a triumph. She persuasively demonstrates that the facts are often fiercely contested and the rules are generated in every case ad hoc. The deployment of arguments from precedent, and the adduction of exempla, must be seen as aspects of such performance—as persuasive authorizing moves—rather than as touchstones of universally agreed facts and rules.

5. For instance, after following C.’s analyses of the widely varied functions discharged by particular exemplary events and figures in the Livian text, one perceives that Hölkeskamp’s claim (n. 2 supra, 314-15) that exemplary figures are simply embodiments of single abstract virtues is completely untenable. Here, the depth of her analysis usefully corrects and supplements his breadth; elsewhere (as at n. 4 above), the reverse is true.