Friday, August 23, 2019


Ann Vasaly, Livy's Political Philosophy: Power and Personality in Early Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 209. ISBN 9781107667945. $28.99.

Reviewed by Jonathan Master, Emory University (

Version at BMCR home site


The last decade has seen political scientists and philosophers using methods and questions from their disciplines to explore what the historians Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus have to offer on politics and government, a productive injection of energy into a field that has been dominated by rhetorical and literary approaches since the 1980s.1 Ann Vasaly's book, the 2018 paperback reprint of the edition first published in 2015 (not reviewed in BMCR), brings a deeply learned philologist's perspective and firm grasp of Livy's structure and style to the discussion of Livy's specifically political ideas. Livy's didacticism in the first pentad is her primary concern: what can citizens (mostly elites) participating in the government of the Roman republic in roughly the 30s BC learn from the early, legendary years of the monarchy and republic that could help pull Rome from the catastrophic violence and instability that characterized Livy's life up through the time of his writing?

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction, Vasaly briefly surveys competing twentieth-century scholarly views of the political didacticism of the first pentad. Without resolving the question of the work's didacticism, she then pivots to Livy's poorly attested biography and the events in northern Italy that he would have witnessed in the years leading up to its composition. She establishes the frame, "a world convulsed by civil war and its aftermath" (8), to which Livy responds in his text. In the late 30s a big question for Livy, as it had been for Cicero in the previous two decades, would have been where such violence comes from and how to reestablish the republic.

The first two chapters build the foundation of her arguments about the pentad as a whole. Vasaly suggests in Chapter 1 that Livy's first five books might productively be viewed as one enormous archaeology. Using Cicero's De re publica, Polybius, Sallust, and Thucydides, Vasaly establishes a premise that philosophers and historians alike would use archaeologies to put in concrete form their "ethical-political ideas" (17) and to avoid abstract theorizing about ideal governments. While these authors all acknowledged the limited veracity of the ancient history they related, they simultaneously insisted on the didactic value of their accounts. Livy builds on this tradition of manipulating ancient material to his own didactic ends but on a previously unmatched scale.

The second chapter argues that Livy's preface promises that the work's contribution to Rome will be its service to the Roman people, which Vasaly interprets as its didacticism. She argues that Livy echoes the authors surveyed in the previous chapter when he insists on there being didactic value in early Roman history even if historical accuracy is not achievable. Linking moral and political concerns, Livy provides a holistic explanation for the growth of the Roman republic while connecting the distant past to the present. Livy's ethical and political paradigms provide lessons for contemporaries struggling to reestablish their state. The early history offers opportunities to develop "instantiations of every sort of paradigmatic truth" (30). To illustrate how Livy shapes his stories with didacticism in mind, Vasaly analyzes the narrative of Manlius Torquatus and the Gaul (7.9-10), an anecdote also recounted in a fragment of Claudius Quadrigarius preserved by Aulus Gellius (NA9.13). Vasaly shows how Livy distinctively locates Manlius' actions within the military and familial hierarchies of Roman society.

Vasaly tackles the first book of the AUC in Chapter 3 and draws two major conclusions. First, and unsurprisingly, she shows that Livy believes the success of a monarchy is dependent on the character of the monarch himself and therefore that monarchy is an extremely fragile form of government. Vasaly argues that Livy places blame for the degeneration of the monarchy on Tarquinius Superbus, even though kings from Romulus through Tarquinius Priscus and Servius Tullius all showed signs of tyrannical behavior. Second, Livy's common people required managing even under the monarchy. Romulus' reign features a split in public opinion: the senators are skeptical about the king, but the plebs are deeply loyal. Romulus' suspicious death requires an act of finesse of which Livy approves—patriotic dishonesty—in the speech of Proculus Julius, which mitigates the plebeian reaction in an early example of a patrician using oratory to keep the state together. The fourth chapter begins a section of the book that focuses on the early republic and the theme of factional conflict, only glimpsed during the narrative of the monarchy. Vasaly emphasizes that Livy worries about threats from both the patricians who at their worst abuse the plebs and display tyrannical tendencies and the plebs who also can destabilize the republic with their tendency toward license. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the patrician side of the dyad. The fourth chapter defines the tyrannical tendency of the patricians as illustrated by the Claudian family and the fifth covers a positive exemplum with the Quinctii. Vasaly uses the tool of familial stereotyping to develop her arguments in both chapters. She notes that Livy did not invent familial stereotyping but put it specifically to didactic ends. Family stereotyping and repetition of the themes and actions more generally, like archaeologies, "raise the narratives to a theoretical level" (92).

Using the first of the Claudii, including Appius Claudius Inregillensis, his son Appius Claudius, and Appius Claudius the decemvir, Vasaly shows how savagery, obstinacy, and divisive self-interest are hallmarks of this family and more generally of patricians who do not have the welfare of the entire republic in mind. While patricians such as the Claudii represent potentially catastrophic threats to the republic, they are also crucial to Rome's growth and success. The res Romana needs men like the Claudii, but it also needs restraints to keep them from catastrophically disturbing the balance of the state.

Chapter 5 presents the Quinctian family as positive models of patrician behavior, "anti-Claudii" (80), who promote domestic concordia . In Vasaly's reading, Livy's Quinctii, especially Quinctius Capitolinus and Cincinnatus, transcend the self-interest and personal ambition so characteristic of the historian's early republican patricians. Vasaly zeroes in on the speeches of the Quinctii to the plebs to illustrate this aspect of their exemplarity. Capitolinus' exemplarity lies in his frank assertion to the plebs that their freedoms ought to have limits and his indictment of popular leaders who have not the interests of the state in mind but their own self-promotion. Vasaly notes that Capitolinus' rhetoric echoes Livy's presentation of the dangers of plebeian oratory expressed elsewhere in the pentad.

The sixth chapter considers Livy's presentation of the plebs collectively in the pentad. They are consistently shown to be the foundation of military success but also emotional and volatile, for the most part without prudence, though they occasionally act prudently when they feel respected. Vasaly makes the point that the plebs have the capacity to destabilize the republic but are more likely to be intimidated and abused by patrician rulers. The chapter then examines examples of bad and good leadership of the plebs. The lowest of the low in Livy's estimation, according to Vasaly, is the elite demagogue who stirs up the plebs out of tyrannical ambition. Conversely, patricians who champion the cause of the people are especially praiseworthy, with the Valerian family being particularly notable in this respect. These patricians pursue concordia , but their specialty is redressing wrongs done to the plebs. Vasaly devotes the rest of the chapter to plebeian figures who, justifiably in the narrator's view, lead collective action against elite abuse even if that action leads to widespread social unrest.

In the conclusion Vasaly recaps and expands the major themes of the book: Livy had the freest hand in structuring the first pentad and its themes. Like Cicero, in whose philosophical writings Vasaly consistently contextualizes Livy's political ideas, he was deeply concerned with how to restore a republican government that would have tensions between its various political entities but would still produce figures who helped the collective transcend individual interests—and most of all, would have safeguards against aspiring tyrants such as Appius Claudius the decemvir, whose threats to the state Livy mimics in the challenge the early Claudian presents even to the annalistic framework of the narrative. Both the patricians and plebeians at their worst could fatally disrupt the republic. Livy tries in the first pentad to show how the worst could be averted and the republic could keep functioning successfully.

This book consistently offers interesting readings and insights about the first pentad and its potential to influence the Roman world in the period before Augustus cemented his role as princeps. Vasaly at times accepts too willingly Livy's airbrushing of his exempla. In the case of Romulus, for example, Livy includes the detail that the first king took on a band of bodyguards (1.15.8) within the context of factional discord, a clear indicator of tyrannical ambition beginning at least with Herodotus (e.g., Hist. 1.98.2). Vasaly reasonably finds that this alone does not define Romulus as a tyrant. But I found myself wishing she had grappled more with something like the point put in Julius Caesar's mouth in the Bellum Catilinae (51.25-27), that actions should not be interpreted only under their original, particular circumstances but also with a view to how they could be abused by less honorable actors later in history: all destructive exempla arise from positive origins (omnia mala exempla ex rebus bonis orta sunt). Livy's didacticism surely is illustrating that lesson, too.

That, however, is a minor complaint. The overall work is learned and interesting. Vasaly makes a careful and persuasive argument, based on a thorough understanding of the text, for what Livy is trying to teach readers in the pentad. She carefully contextualizes every aspect of her argument with reference to the historiographical tradition and Cicero's philosophy. With her examination of Livy's didacticism Vasaly's book powerfully reminds its readers that Livy's history and historiography more generally have a place in discussions of the history of political ideas.


1.   Dean Hammer, Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination (Norman, 2008) and Roman Political Thought from Cicero to Augustine (Cambridge, 2014), Daniel Kapust, Republicanism, Rhetoric, and Roman Political Thought (Cambridge, 2011). Jed Atkins Roman Political Thought (Cambridge, 2018) and Joy Connolly, The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton, 2014) engage with these other methodologies from within the discipline of classics.

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