Guest review: XXI-XXX of Livy’s History of Rome- The War with Hannibal

I have many friends who are avid readers. Brent LaRoche is among the most committed of them, and is extremely thoughtful about the many books that he consumes. He reads across multiple genres, but History is very much a focus for him. Consequently, he is quite well versed on various topics in history as well as religion, and enjoys sharing insights and new information wIth friends and family. He also enjoys Fantasy Fiction, Current Affairs, and other such pieces of the literary whole.

Please welcome Brent, the very first guest post author to join us here at Book Musings. 


 

“Most historians have prefaced their work by stressing the importance of the period they propose to deal with; and I may well, at this point, follow their example and declare that I am now about to tell the story of the most memorable war in history…

Livy XXi-xxxA number of things contributed to give this war its unique character: in the first place, it was fought between peoples unrivalled throughout previous history in material resources, and themselves at the peak of their prosperity and power; secondly, it was a struggle between old antagonists, each of whom had learned, in the first Punic War, to appreciate the military capabilities of the other; thirdly, the final issue hung so much in doubt that the eventual victors came nearer to destruction than their adversaries. Moreover, high passions were at work throughout… on the Roman side there was rage at the unprovoked attack by a previously beaten enemy; on the Carthaginian, bitter resentment at what was felt to be the grasping and tyrannical attitude of their conquerors.”

What war is being described here? It is actually Livy’s introduction to Book XXI, where he begins his account of the Second Punic War. However, as I read the above paragraph I was struck by how you could substitute three words and have an almost flawless introduction to a book on the Second World War. This reinforces an idea that I have come to believe in firmly the more I study history – “What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

The Second Punic War was fought between Carthage (in modern Tunisia) and Rome: “two mighty cities at opposite ends of the earth were fighting each other for wealth and dominion.” (XXVII, 39). It lasted from 219 – 201 B.C. Our two main written sources about this war are the ancient historians Polybius and Livy. I had read Polybius’ account over a year ago, and thought it was time to give Livy a try. (I ultimately preferred Polybius’ account – it is more accurate and less obviously pro-Roman. But Polybius and Livy have been compared in a much more detailed manner elsewhere than anything I could write here.)

I read the Penguin books edition with a translation by Aubrey de Selincourt (1965). de Selincourt did most of the work, and it was finished by Betty Radice after he died. I can’t read Latin, but I have never been disappointed by a Penguin translation of classical literature. The Penguin books all come with a useful introductory essay and this one has handy maps of all areas mentioned in the text. It also has a chronology of events. The maps are essential for reading a book like this, or you will be forever googling ancient cities and towns all over the Mediterranean. So many of the place names have changed in the last two thousand years that it can be very confusing.

For someone who had never read anything about Roman history before, this book could be quite daunting. It is very lengthy and a person may begin to suffer fatigue after reading about the yearly arrangements of the Roman army for the 12th time or so. On the bright side, Livy isn’t really technical and you don’t have to have a lot of background knowledge to dive into the story. A basic familiarity with the times would help, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t the difference between a unit of Hastati and a unit of Triarii.

Livy switches from theatre to theatre quite frequently, moving from Italy to Sicily, Spain, Sardinia, North Africa and Gaul. He regularly returns to Rome, to give details about elections and Senate decisions. This keeps the pace moving fairly rapidly, which is good due to length of the book. (Actually it is 10 books of Livy’s 142 book History of Rome, but they are grouped together with the title ‘The War with Hannibal’ by the Penguin editors.) If Livy didn’t keep things exciting it would be almost intolerable to read the whole thing through. He focuses a lot on the battles, sieges and the movement of armies, remarking at one point that “in Spain little worth recording had been done during the past two years, ways and means rather than actual fighting having occupied the attention of the antagonists.” (XXV, 32)

I found Livy’s battle descriptions to be some of the most interesting and enjoyable parts of the book. His writing is very vivid. I could imagine the clash of armies at Cannae and how horrified the Romans must have been when they realized they were surrounded, with no hope of escape. He adds in little details like the Carthaginians finding a Numidian lying on the field of Cannae after the battle, “horribly lacerated, underneath the body of a Roman who, when his useless hands had no longer been able to grasp his sword, had died in the act of tearing the enemy, in bestial fury, with his teeth.” (XXII, 51) The description of Hannibal crossing the Alps was also very memorable, as well as the siege and sack of Syracuse.

One of the qualities about this book that I didn’t enjoy so much was Livy’s rather excessive patriotism and racism. Although these are not unexpected in books of Roman history, I found occurrences of these much more frequently than in Polybius, or Ammianus Marcellinus for example. I generally prefer history books that are more concerned with the accurate representation of facts rather than illustrating moral lessons or portraying a partisan viewpoint. Livy’s work clearly falls into the latter category.

In his portrayal of the enemies of Rome, he invariably falls into simplistic stereotypes. The Gauls are greedy: “he mollified their chiefs from time to time with presents of gold – which all Gauls coveted.” (XXI, 20) And “The Numidians are liars” (XXV, 40) while the Campanians are compromised by “characteristic feebleness and negligence.” (XXV, 13) The Carthaginian troops are “rapacious and needy” (XXII, 9) and “the Africans, (are) a fickle and untrustworthy people.” (XXIX, 3)

Livy is attempting to show how much more virtuous his side is than that of his enemies, which I suppose is not uncommon even in books about today’s wars. He says of Rome: “If there were a city composed of sages such as philosophers have imagined in some ideal, but surely not actual, world, I for my part cannot think that it could contain leaders with greater dignity of mind and less lust for personal power, or a populace more admirably conducted.” (XXVI, 23) and also that Romans are “a people who preferred to bind men by gratitude rather than by fear, and to have foreign nations linked with them by the ties of loyalty and a common purpose, not kept, like slaves, in cruel subjection.” (XXVI, 49)

Of course, Romans would never be greedy or rapacious (even though Livy details Roman troops regularly exhibiting those very qualities, even being willing to jump into a pile of burning corpses to get some gold -XXVIII, 23) Of course, Romans would never conduct operations with feebleness and negligence (except the Roman Consuls who didn’t bother to send out scouting parties and as a result were led into traps by Hannibal, and other cases) Of course, Romans would never oppress a city that they controlled (except Locri – XXIX, 8 and others) Livy is basically blind to the faults of the Romans and almost never condemns them. The war is portrayed in a very black and white ‘Romans are the good guys’ way. The introduction to this edition sums it up nicely – “Nor can he (Livy) see, as Thucydides and Sallust did, that war in itself corrupts, that reprisals follow atrocities, and that ultimately neither combatant can be free from guilt.”

All that said, I would recommend reading Livy’s War with Hannibal. If you are interested in Roman history it is a must-read. Even if you are not familiar with ancient Rome, but are looking for an exciting account of an epic conflict, then this could still be the book for you.

Written by Brent LaRoche


Thank you Brent for such a thoughtful, in depth review.  For all those who enjoy reading about history, and for all those who think they just might want to give it a shot, I hope you enjoyed Brent’s writing. 

 

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