"Livy and Thucydides. An Underestimated Relationship"
Wolfgang Polleichtner, Ruhr-Universitšt Bochum
Livy and Intertextuality,
of Classics, The
University of Texas at Austin, October 3, 2009
It has been a long held view that Livy’s historical work was largely
not influenced by Thucydides at all or at least only indirectly via his
sources, whose sources in turn knew sources that eventually knew
Thucydides. This paper wants to reset the approach to the question
whether Livy knew Thucydides and then give a new answer to this
Of course, Livy does not mention Thucydides at all in his Ab urbe condita.
And judging from Livy’s sources, he did not have to know Thucydides.
But we need to move beyond mere Quellenforschung
and ask ourselves what Livy’s intellectual horizon looked like. Apart
from the fact that Thucydides was widely read in the 1st century BC, we
find, for example, that Seneca the Elder informs us that Livy
criticized Sallust over his translation of Thucydides. We have no
reason to doubt the authenticity of that passage. But if Seneca is
correct - and Quintilian will confirm this in part -, then we need to
assume that Livy’s knowledge of Thucydides’s text went beyond just
having read his works.
The most obvious traces of Thucydides’ influence on Livy can be found
in the third decade. Livy places his account of the second Punic War
squarely on the shoulders of those authors who wrote in the
monographical tradition about this war. The works of these Greek
writers, who were “embedded” historians on Hannibal’s payroll, in turn
were probably inspired by Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War.
And it might have been indeed tempting to use Athens' loss as the role
model for Carthage’s loss. What is interesting about Livy’s account of
this war, of course, is the fact that Livy had to switch sides. He had
to rewrite the Peloponnesian War from the Sicilian or Spartan view. For
his Rome won, where Thucydides’ Athens had lost. And we find indeed
reflections of that theoretical debate in the discussion between Fabius
and Scipio when they deal with the question whether it is really
necessary to embark on an expedition to North Africa. If my suggestion
is acceptable, we need to recognize Livy’s mastery of applying
Thucydides’ work to his efforts on a level that is different from a
comparison of sources. Of course, Livy was not writing about the
Peloponnesian War. And he seems to have been aware of that fact.
Furthermore, Livy’s Scipio criticizes not only Fabius’ hesitation and
timidity, but also his mistaken application of the lessons of history.
Thereby, then, Livy implicitly criticizes those of his literary
predecessors who cast the second Punic War into Thucydidean terms just
too simplistically. And this holds true especially because Livy uses so
many more details from the Peloponnesian War, like the tradition of
painting a plague in Thucydidean terms.
Thucydidean traces can also be found outside of the third decade, as
many scholars have noted. Especially when it comes to the theoretical
discussions of what historiography can and cannot do, we see that Livy
is agreeing with those historians again who wrote in the tradition of
Thucydides. Seen in the light of the evidence presented in this paper,
it is even more likely that Livy wrote these passages after having read
not only Polybius or other more contemporary historians, but also the
original Thucydides - at least every now and then.
September 28, 2009 by email@example.com