By Ann Vasaly
CUP (2015) h/b 209pp £55 (ISBN 9781107065673)
Was Livy really a ‘small man, detached from affairs’ (Ogilvie), a ‘non-political moralist’ (Walsh) and a ‘political innocent… unable to interpret historical phenomena or visualize historical change’ (the view of Collingwood and Syme, as summarised by Walsh)? In this book Ann Vasaly sets out to poke holes in the traditional image of Livy the armchair historian, through close analysis of key passages from the first five books of his history, placed in their historical and historiographical context.
The volume consists of a short introduction to the life and times of Livy, followed by six chapters: The Historiographical Archaeology; Livy’s Preface: A Reader’s Guide to the First Pentad; Monarchy and the Education of the Roman People; Tyranny and the Tyrannical Temperament; The Best Citizen and the Best Orator; The Roman People and the Necessity of Discord.
A brief conclusion is followed by 40 pages of notes, a useful bibliography covering all of the classic works on Livy as well as more recent secondary literature, a comprehensive index locorum and a detailed general index. The volume itself is beautifully produced, with a stylish layout and striking cover.
Little is known of Livy’s life beyond a general consensus that he came from Patavium (modern Padua). Vasaly, however, manages to offer a plausible narrative of ‘the momentous, frightening, and violent events’ which drew in citizens from across Italy and which ‘would have left a deep impression on the historian’ (p.8), presenting this as evidence that Livy must have had a political axe to grind. Vasaly is best known as a Ciceronian scholar, and this is apparent in her ability to reconstruct the realities of late Republican Italy. Cicero’s influence is felt throughout this book: the conclusion, in particular, reads as a sustained ‘compare and contrast’ exercise between Livy and Cicero’s De republica, De oratore and De legibus in its attempt to show Livy as a dispenser of political teachings.
Cicero’s influence is felt throughout this book: the conclusion, in particular, reads as a sustained ‘compare and contrast’ exercise between Livy and Cicero’s De re publica, De oratore and De legibus in its attempt to show Livy as a dispenser of political teachings. One instance of this is a comparison between Cicero’s ideal orator in the De oratore and the speeches of Livy’s ideal statesmen (Quinctius Capitolinus and Camillus, amongst others). Despite clear similarities, Vasaly argues that ‘the model Livy holds up for his elite readers is at heart Catonian… rather than Ciceronian’ (p.132). Cicero’s orator can manipulate and control his listeners but does not improve them, while the success of Livy’s orator, on the model of Cato, is achieved by appealing to, and thereby restoring, the virtues of his audience: pride, patriotism, religious duty and a sense of connection to place and nation.
This is an engaging volume, passionate in its defence of the much-maligned historian, detailed in its re-examination of well-worn passages and firmly rooted in awareness of the political and literary context. It is a book with an agenda, and as such it perhaps over-states Livy’s brilliance and political acumen; nevertheless, it is both interesting and accessible, with clear explanations and quotations translated into English. It provides a helpful introduction to Livy and his world, and the sustained discussion of Livy’s Preface would be useful to anyone studying Livy or Roman historiography in general. It is not the definitive work on Livy, but any book that urges the reader of Livy to follow Machiavelli rather than ‘modern historians of ideas’ (p.139) is well worth a read.
Cora Beth Knowles