Friday, March 26, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Jane D. Chaplin, Christina S. Kraus (ed.), Livy. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 523. ISBN 9780199286348. $60.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Alex Nice, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa / L'École Européenne II (Woluwé), Belgium


The Roman historian Livy has had his share of detractors, not least Sir Ronald Syme, who found him 'betrayed by ignorance of politics and warfare, by lack of critical principles -and, above all, by incapacity to dominate the material with design and structure'.1

In recent times, however, Livy's work has been viewed with more respect: his narrative a magisterial Meisterwerk, with a complex but interlinked network of themes and episodes, woven together to celebrate its central hero(ine), the city of Rome herself. It is indicative of the progress that has been made in Livian studies in the last fifty years that this is the first volume in the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series to be devoted to a historian, eschewing the more obvious Herodotus or Thucydides, Sallust or Tacitus. The editors, both well-known Livian scholars, intend that the classic articles included in this book should make 'the nature of this shift and the value of current views clear and accessible to undergraduates' (p.1).

The introduction is a good starting point for an understanding of Livian studies. The reader is introduced to the concept of Quellenforschung, the lack of distinction between history and literature in the ancient world, and recent trends in historiography (typified by Wiseman and Woodman) which emphasise the distinctions between ancient and modern ways of thinking about the past. Similarly the survey of Livy's life and work raises questions regarding his 'Augustanism' and his adherence to the notion of a 'traditional' annalistic form. Finally, a brief survey of the articles leads to the sensible conclusion that 'reading Livy ... is no simple matter' (p. 13).

The volume's eighteen articles are organised into six thematic sections: Outlook (pp. 17-87); Structure (pp. 89-187); Language and Style (pp. 189-274); Narrative (pp. 275-352); Cultural History (pp. 353-435); Sources and Working Methods (pp. 437-495).

The articles reveal that Livy had his own historical agenda which engages with his most famous and immediate predecessor, Sallust, and emphasises the right of his Ab Urbe Condita to provide the solutions which will save Rome (Moles, 'Livy's Preface'). This agenda may at times coincide with the thoughts of other Republican writers and thinkers, or Augustus' Republican (and religious) program of revival, but it is not necessary to think of Livy specifically as adhering to a specific 'Augustan' outlook (Luce, 'The dating of Livy's first decade'; McDonald, 'The style of Livy'; Liebeschuetz, 'The religious positions of Livy's history').

Livy's work is well organised into decades (with subdivisions into pentads) (Stadter, 'The structure of Livy's history'), and based on an annalistic pattern inherited from Valerius Antias (Rich, 'Structuring Roman history: the consular year and the Roman historical tradition'). Individual episodes and longer stretches of the narrative reveal themselves to be susceptible to manipulation at the hands of the literary artist. Livy imbues his narrative with elements of poetry and drama (Luce, 'Design and structure in Livy: 5.32-55'; Solodow, 'Livy and the story of Horatius 1.24-26'; Scafuro, 'Livy's comic narrative of the Bacchanalia'), rhetoric and humor (McDonald; Catin, 'Comedy, wit, and humour in Livy'; Scafuro), psychology and piety (Liebeschuetz; Walsh, 'The literary techniques of Livy'; Phillips, 'Form and language in Livy's triumph notices').

The three articles concerned with cultural history explore how subthemes in Livy's narrative--religion (Liebeschuetz), women (Joshel, 'The body female and the body politic: Livy's Lucretia and Virginia'), the Roman triumph (Feldherr, 'Livy's revolution: civic identity and the creation of the Res Publica')--assist in the reconstruction of a past relevant to his own and future generations. Indeed, these subthemes encourage the dialogue between past, present, and future essential to secure the safety of Rome.

Even when Livy can be shown to have leaned on other sources, his approach is innovative. A pioneering article by the Burck ('An introduction to books 29 and 30') described how Livy was able to demonstrate the importance of Scipio Africanus in comparison to Hannibal and to later triumphators through the skilful manipulation of a narrative largely borrowed from Polybius. Tränkle ('Livy and Polybius') argued that Livy adapted what he found in Polybius to reflect the importance of Romans of former times and their task to bring about the rule of right and law on earth. The work of the Quellenforscher undermined, Oakley ('Livy and his sources') and Briscoe ('Livy's sources and methods of composition in Books 31-33') cast doubt on the possibility of knowing exactly where and how Livy used his sources in his quest to create a coherent narrative that accorded with his historical aims.

The essays have useful addenda which contextualise the contributions in regard to other modern sources, not least to the most significant books on Livyincluding several in the last twenty years or so.2

The editors have mostly fulfilled the aims of the series 'to offer a broad overview of scholarship' and to cover a wide variety of topics'3 but it is less clear that the collection here has illustrated 'a diversity of critical methods' or at least that Chaplin and Kraus have not exposed their potential audience to conflicting theories on individual topics. This is a shame since the one thing we would all like to instil in our students is the ability to negotiate contradictory sources of evidence to reach their own conclusions.

Chaplin and Kraus are guilty of the very thing of which they accuse MacDonald, that is, of privileging a certain argument. The Wiseman/Woodman view is that whole historical episodes were invented according to the rules of rhetorical inventio; however, the Brunt and Cornell counter-lobby would argue that rhetorical elaboration in historical texts was appropriate as long as no violence was done to the basic facts.4 Neither historian is mentioned in the introduction.

Furthermore, it is only with misgivings that the editors include MacDonald's article, because, they claim, it misrepresents the influence of Cicero's theorising, disregards the ways in which historiography incorporates the oratorical as just one feature of its style, and encourages readers to evaluate Livy apart from other historians (p. 259). Yet, it would be hard to imagine that Livy was not influenced by the greatest Roman philosopher of his own age or that MacDonald's emphasis on the rhetorical has not influenced other academics, or that Livy, as the essays in this volume indicate, by virtue of the survival of the Ab Urbe Condita, and the critical acclaim of Quintilian, Tacitus, and Machiavelli, does not deserve special attention.

We might add that there are no articles which examine Livy's work from the point of view of the Quellenforscher, stress the 'Augustanism' of Livy, or posit a specific religious or philosophical position, thus leaving the reader without access to articles which were, at one time, considered significant. Recent work has demonstrated a value in revisiting ideas that have fallen out of favor, which can spark new and interesting discussions. A notable example is Wiseman's recent reflection on Niebuhr's "discredited" theory that 'the traditions of early Rome were created in native oral poetry'.5 This has led to a body of work examining the possibility that stage plays provided the basis for some of the stories of early Rome found in Livy.6

This brings me to some final points. The editors claim that this book will be useful for undergraduates, yet it is hard to imagine a large number of undergraduate courses which would study Livy in enough detail to warrant the range of articles presented here, although one could imagine an undergraduate reading one or two select articles.

Even if those undergraduate courses were offered, of the 18 papers, half are readily available to students via the internet (JSTOR for example), another four are commentaries or books likely to be on the shelves of any self-respecting classics collection, the remainder could easily be ordered via interlibrary loan and converted to pdfs for class use.

These points beg the question why publishers are not moving more rapidly to publish collections such as these electronically, in a searchable format, and at an affordable price both per volume and per article. There would be the added benefit that there could be effective cross-referencing between articles within and without the volume, in addition to the potential that the internet holds for updates and subsequent revisions.

All-in-all this is a good collection of essays and represents a good cross-section of the modern literature on Livy's historiographical methods. I suspect, however, that the book is more likely to be utilised by those already involved in research or graduate work.


1.   Syme, R. (1958) Tacitus OUP, 1.139.
2.   Levene, D. S. (1993) Religion in Livy Leiden; Miles, G. B. (1995) Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome Ithaca; Jaeger, M. (1997) Livy's Written Rome Ann Arbor; Feldherr, A. (1998) Spectacle and Society in Livy's History Berkeley; Chaplin, J. D. (2000) Livy's Exemplary History Oxford; Davies, J. P. (2004) Rome's Religious History: Livy, Tacitus and Ammianus on their Gods Cambridge; Levene, D. S. (2010) Livy on the Hannibalic War Oxford.
3.   Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR) publishes timely reviews of current scholarly work in the field of classical studies (including archaeology). The authoritative archive can be found at

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