Can we believe anything Livy says?
One of my points about Livy, as you know, is that he was much more concerned to write a Lord-of-the-Rings-type epic than he was to write a true and accurate history.
Never was this more true than in his accounts of battles.
Have you, like me, struggled to remember what happened at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae, and who did what, when? Has it not struck you how hard it is? This is because Livy does not seem to see battles as discrete, unique affairs. Rather, he sees them as outworkings of his Weltanschauung about the indomitability and inevitable victory of ‘Roman virtue’. Thus, rather than write about what happened, Livy shoehorns events into a conceptual writing frame.
Livy's Writing Frame
This writing frame involves the following elements:
- The sides generally line up in a traditional way, with infantry in the centre, and cavalry on the wings (this may reflect Livy’s lack of military experience, or his desire to present battles in a way that his non-expert readers could easily understand).
- The Romans, when they lose, have a nutcase commander of low birth who acts rashly, against the advice of other, more cautious (more aristocratic) voices (why else would the Romans lose, if they were not led by a donkey?)
- The weather was always against the Romans (why else would the Romans lose, if they were not fighting against impossible conditions?)
- The Carthaginians always have some kind of ‘Punic trick’ (why else would the Romans lose, if the Carthaginians did not cheat?)
- The Romans, nevertheless, always fight brilliantly and bravely (as David Levene has pointed out, to the point where it is hard to understand how the Romans lost!)
- There is usually some formulaic 'energeia' text describing 'the shout of battle' and the gory bits.
- A rump of brave and valorous Roman soldiers break through the Carthaginian lines and fight their way to safety.
Thus, at Trebia, the nutcase commander is Sempronius (one of the representatives of the plebeians). Desperate to engage with the enemy before his term of office is ended, he accepts an embassy from the Gauls, and over-reacts to a minor success – all against the wiser advice of P. Cornelius Scipio, whom he not only ignores, but harangues. Then he chases Hannibal’s Numidians at daybreak breast-high across a freezing-cold river … so that his men emerge scarcely able to hold their weapons. Even worse, he makes them do all this before they have had chance to eat their Shredded Wheat. Madness!
Actually, Sempronius was a decent commander. He had just captured Malta from the Carthaginians, and then marched his men north to Trebia in record time. He remained a general after Trebia, and soundly defeated a Carthaginian army under Hanno at Grumentum in 215bc. But, for this battle only, we are asked to believe that he behaved like a complete headstrong idiot.
The battle is then made to fit the conceptual frame. The armies are lined up against each other, infantry in the centre, cavalry on the wings, and the battle begins with the skirmishers. It takes place in a driving snowstorm and – if the running-away trick was not sufficiently Punic, after a while Mago’s force of 2000 hand-picked commandos ambush them from behind.
Even so, the Romans fight bravely, standing their ground ‘more by courage than by phsyical strength’, even driving away the elephants by stabbing them under their tails. Forming a square, indeed,a force of 10,000 manage to break through the Carthaginian ranks and make their way with Scipio to Placentia, and thence to Cremona.
The events at Cannae are made to mirror the events at Trebia.
Here the nutcase commander is Varro, a butcher’s son who, again, ‘sarcastically’ hectors and bullies Aemilius Paullus, Fabius’s friend. Against Aemilius’s advice, but stung by a Numidian attack on the water-carriers, Varro – when it was his day in command, ‘without a word to his colleague’ – insisted on leading out the army onto a flat plain against a massively superior cavalry … and suffers an appropriately staggering defeat.
Yet, strangely, Varro seems to have emerged from the debacle with his reputation intact. He was well received when he returned to Rome; indeed he was appointed governor of Picenum (a key military area) from 215–213 bc, and was sent to hold Etruria against Hasdrubal Barca in 208–207 bc. Yet, again, we are asked to believe that - at Cannae alone - this man’s lunacy led the Roman army to catastrophic defeat.
The battle goes in the expected way. ‘With a great yell the auxiliaries charged, and with the clash of light-armed troops, the battle began’. The armies are lined up against each other, infantry in the centre, cavalry on the wings – the Romans are fighting into the searing dust of the Sirocco wind – and, if the Numidian cavalry's pretending-to-surrender ‘punic deceit’ is not sufficiently nasty for you, Hannibal uses a dastardly crumpling-centre-enveloping strategy to win the battle.
The Romans, however, choose ‘to die at their posts rather than run away’.
Some were even found with their heads buried in the ground, having dug small pits for themselves and buried their faces in the earth, and then simply smothered themselves to death. The most spectacular sight of all was a Numidian soldier, still alive but lying beneath a dead Roman, with his nose and ears torn to shreds. The Roman had fought to his final breath, and when his hands could no longer hold his weapon, his anger turned to madness, and he died tearing his enemy to pieces with his teeth...Meanwhile about 17,000 managed to make it back to camp, and Varro ‘either by luck or good judgement, avoided the general mass of fugitives and reached Venusia with about 50 cavalry’.
So different battle, same events.
Remarkably, even the ambush-battle of Trasimene is made to fit into the broad conceptual framework of a Hannibalic battle.
This time the nutcase is Flaminius – like Varro, a ‘new man’. Yet we are told he was so ‘self-willed and obstinate’ that he not only ignored his senior officers, he ignored the gods, and chased Hannibal up a blind defile, ‘without sending any scouts to feel the way’.
In fact, Flaminius was a most remarkable and good man, noted for building the Via Flaminia, his land reforms to help the poor and reorganising the Century Assembly to give more voting power to the poorer classes. He had been Consul in 223bc, and Master of Horse in 221bc,and it was Flaminius who had established the Roman colonies at Placentia and Cremona. Such was the man we are required to believe led his men blindly to disaster.
And thereafter the battle goes as you would now expect. ‘The shout of battle rose round the Romans before they could see clearly from whence it came.’ Hannibal had lined up in more-or-less the traditional way, with the infantry in the centre, the cavalry on the left (even though there would seem to be no space for them to form up), and the Balearics and the light infantry on the right. The Romans, of course, had no time to line up in ranks, for ‘fighting began in front and flank before they could form line’ but that didn’t stop them trying ‘as well as time and place allowed’. They were fighting in a fog so thick that ‘ears were of more use than eyes’.
Flaminius, who ‘displayed all the coolness that could be expected under the circumstances … followed by the pick of his army’ fought boldly – so boldly that they did not even notice the huge earthquake that destroyed many towns in Italy – and a group of 6,000 even manage to fight their way through the enemy lines.
And, again, the Carthaginians showed ‘punic faith’ – not only in ambush in the first place, but after the battle, when the 6,000 surrendered to Maharbal, who promised them their freedom … only for Hannibal to throw them all into chains.
So here again we see that – even in an engagement as radically different as an ambush – Livy still more-or-less shoehorns it into his conceptual framework.
The Romans did not fight gloriously because they necessarily did; they fought gloriously because Romans HAD to fight gloriously … or his Roman readership would be disappointed.
Neither did the Carthaginians always behave badly. Ambushes and collapsing centres are tactics, not tricks. Polybius makes it clear that the Numidians did NOT pretend to surrender at Cannae – it was Hasdrubal’s cavalry who had defeated their enemies on the left wing and swung round to attack the Romans from behind. Polybius also makes it clear that Hannibal overruled Maharbal because the cavalry commander did not have authority to promise the prisoners their freedom; Hannibal released the Allied troops, but retained the Romans.
Above all, it does seem that there WAS a division in Roman counsels, but it was not as simplistic as a clash between rash lunatics and wise delayers. There certainly seems to have been a political battle between the Fabii and the Scipios. Most of all, Livy exhibits a prejudice against low-born and ‘new men’, who ALWAYS get blamed for the defeats, and in favour of the ancient, aristocratic families … whose scions always are presented as wise and right. But Sempronius and Flaminius were skilled commanders whose alleged actions are totally out of character; and the modern thinking about Varro is that he was not in charge on the day of the battle – that Livy and the other historians have changed the record to protect Aemilius.
Of course it can be argued that a battle is a battle, and that the soldiers are always going to line up, some are always going to fight bravely, some are always going to survive. But, even so, I think it is arguable that the similarities in his battles are too close to be coincidental.
Livy was writing for a mass audience and – like a modern Mills and Boon romance – he seems to have written his battle-descriptions according to a formula.