BMCR 2019.02.43

Uncertainty in Livy and Velleius: Time, Hermeneutics, and Roman Historiography

Annika Domainko, Uncertainty in Livy and Velleius: Time, Hermeneutics, and Roman Historiography. Zetemata, Heft 154. München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2018. viii, 252. ISBN 9783406722295 €78,00 (pb).

Domainko’s exploration of temporal and hermeneutic uncertainty in Roman historiography combines various theoretical approaches (chiefly narratology) with close readings of Velleius Paterculus and Livy. A revised version of Domainko’s 2017 dissertation, this volume’s insights are at times undermined by the structural vestiges of its previous incarnation as a thesis, but the author’s admirable command of the relevant literature and meticulous treatment of Velleius’s and Livy’s texts still make it a worthwhile contribution to the study of Roman historiography.

In the Introduction, Domainko demonstrates the book’s methodology with a brief case study, focusing on the staged battle of Gallic prisoners put on by Hannibal to raise the spirits of his troops (Livy 21.42.1-43.2). The spectaculum, Domainko argues, is characterized by hermeneutic uncertainty; the Carthaginian soldiers (and perhaps the reader) do not know how to interpret it until the uncertainty is resolved by Hannibal’s explication of the spectaculum and its purpose. The uncertainty has a temporal dimension as well, insofar as the Carthaginian soldiers use the mock battle to grapple with their own uncertain future from the safety of the audience; likewise, “the reader might immerse herself into the narrative and grapple with the tension between what she knows about the course of history and her expectations towards the outcome of Livy’s version of it” (16).

This case study is a helpfully concrete example of Domainko’s methodology and is likely to be more useful to most readers than Chapter Two, in which the author lays out the theoretical underpinnings of the book at length. Domainko’s work is shaped by both post-structuralist and anthropological approaches to hermeneutic uncertainty, and the author cites Derrida and the Islamic studies scholar Thomas Bauer as particularly influential here. Domainko also follows Jauss’s concept of the “as-if” function of aesthetic experience, which posits that narrative can offer the audience a safe space in which to come to terms with uncertainty (as demonstrated in the example of Hannibal’s spectaculum, above). Chapter Two is densely written and rich in jargon; it will be of interest and use to some readers, but certainly not all.

Those who lose patience with this deep dive into theory would do well to stick with Domainko, for once the author’s attention turns to Velleius Paterculus and Livy in the third and fourth chapters, respectively, the strengths of her historiographical readings become clear. These chapters are the volume’s high point. In the introduction, Domainko explains the decision to treat the historians out of chronological order. First, the author suggests, Velleius’s compact history allows for observations to be made across the entire work, which then “makes it possible to carve out a detailed methodology and a clear-cut interpretive lens through which to assess Livy’s monumental counterproject” (24). Additionally, Domainko prefers the anachronistic approach because it makes clear that the author is not “falling prey to a covert evolutionist agenda” (24). In these two compelling chapters the author maps Velleius and Livy onto a continuum of uncertainty, with Velleius generally characterized by less uncertainty and Livy allowing for more. However, as Domainko notes, we should not be tempted to be overly schematic in characterizing these authors; in this spirit, Domainko also gives brief counter-examples illustrating moments of openness in Velleius and closure in Livy.

In Chapter Three, Domainko argues that the deeply teleological narrative of Velleius worked to eliminate uncertainty and emphasize instead the unbroken continuity between the Republican past and the Principate. Temporal uncertainty is minimized by Velleius’ configuring of Roman history as measured backwards from the narrator’s own day. “Time,” Domainko asserts, “is crafted as being magnetically pulled towards the present, and as a result of this strong teleology, variant plotlines and the idea of a contingent development of history is, for all intents and purposes, eliminated” (109). On the narrative level, the sense of closure is expressed most noticeably by Velleius’ strong aversion to polyphony; the author maintains a tight grip on the reader’s perspective, thereby resolving hermeneutic uncertainty by acting as authoritative interpreter.

Chapter Four focuses on Livy, in whose work Domainko identifies a greater degree of both hermeneutic and temporal uncertainty than in Velleius. Using the Caudium episode in Book Nine as a case study, Domainko argues that Livy introduces uncertainty by creating tension between experience and expectation on the part of both his characters and the reader. For example, the author points out that Livy’s description of the Caudine Forks immediately before the ambush narrative conforms to many elements of the locus amoenus topos. The expectation of the reader, who knows all too well what is about to happen, is at odds with the sense of bucolic harmony activated by this topos; although the reader knows better, it becomes tempting to imagine an alternative outcome more suited to the expectations created by the locus amoenus. Whereas Velleius constantly directs the reader’s attention to the Principate as the fulfillment of Rome’s telos, Livy uses techniques like “side-shadowing” and polyphony to raise the possibility of alternative outcomes, thus downplaying any sense of inevitability and emphasizing the contingency of historical events. Domainko here cites Herennius Pontius’ advice to his son that the Romans must be either released unharmed or killed to a man; anything in between would set the stage for a resurgence of the defeated. Pontius thus makes the alternative outcomes explicit, “side-shadowing” two potential alternate histories while also foreshadowing the third, destructive course that the younger Pontius will ultimately choose.

Domainko provides a concluding synopsis in Chapter Five. As one of few moments of overlap between Livy and Velleius’ extant narratives, the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE offers a fruitful opportunity to compare the authors’ respective approaches to uncertainty. The book’s Epilogue offers some interesting suggestions about the role of temporal and hermeneutic uncertainty beyond the realm of historiography and beyond antiquity entirely. In the first part, Domainko examines the role of uncertainty in Horace’s Epistles, while the second shifts focus to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe beginning around 2015. The author argues in the latter section that the “so-called refugee crisis put on display the fact that much of our reality was not a given, but contingent—a social construct put up between interpretive possibilities that are in constant need of being weighed, evaluated, and negotiated against one another and in constant need of adjustment and reaffirmation” (208). This is a thought-provoking idea, but this section seems to be working hard to find a modern relevance that I did not feel the book was wanting. While both parts of the Epilogue are suggestive, each feels out of place, fitting naturally neither with one another nor with the book as a whole. Domainko’s discussions here would have a greater impact, perhaps, in another context: the Horace analysis might make a stand-alone article, while the modern coda reads like a promising popular-interest essay.

In general, this book retains both the positive and negative features that might be expected in a revised dissertation. Domainko shows an admirable command of the relevant theoretical and historiographical literature. That mastery might have been demonstrated more efficiently in a less mechanical format. Chapters Three and Four each open with a “Survey of Recent Scholarship” that is—if there is such a thing—too comprehensive and not uniformly relevant, especially given that the likely audience for this book will consist of scholars focusing on ancient historiography. For example, the evolution of Livian studies from the Quellenforschung of the nineteenth century is not germane to Domainko’s argument (nor does Domainko’s audience probably need to be reminded of it). The book’s previous life as a dissertation is also perceptible in its structure, which tends toward the broadly inclusive approach typical of many theses, in which the author demonstrates their range at the expense of focused discussion. In addition to the Epilogue (as I have already mentioned) Chapter Three’s “Excursus: Enargeia, Embodiment, Visualization” is thought-provoking and worthy of attention, but its relevance to the chapter is tenuous and it would perhaps be better served by publication in another format. Overall, scholars (and perhaps graduate students) focusing on ancient historiography will most appreciate the excellent close readings of Velleius and Livy in Chapters Three, Four, and Five.