Livy, History of Rome IX.17-18

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Livy’s comparison of Alexander the Great and Rome.
Name of the author: 
23 BCE to 20 BCE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
History of Rome

This text is an excerpt from book IX of Livy’s History of Rome (for a general presentation of this work, see Livy, History of Rome, Preface 6-9), a book which deals with the period 321-313 BCE, that is the very core of the Second Samnite War. After having narrated the disastrous Roman defeat at the Caudine Forks and the aftermaths of this defeat between 321 BCE and 319 BCE (IX.1-IX.16), Livy introduces inside his narrative a long digression about Alexander the Great (IX.16.9-19.17). In this digression, Livy compares Rome’s strength to that of Alexander so as to evaluate, in case they fought against each other, which one would have won. This text is interesting because it is one of the longest exercise of counterfactual history written by a Roman historian – even if some sources suggests that Alexander must have had some projects of conquest in the West, first against Cartage, and probably second in Italy against Rome, projects which must have been impeded by his death (in this sense, see Humm, “Rome face à la menace,” p. 182-185 and the bibliography p. 184, n. 55; Briquel, “Une présentation négative,” p. 39, n. 1 and 2). Livy answers the question of what could have been the outcome of a war between Alexander and Rome through a general statement at the beginning of the digression: “It appears that in war the factors of chief importance are the numbers and valour of the soldiers, the abilities of the commanders, and Fortune, which, powerful in all the affairs of men, is especially so in war. These factors, whether viewed separately or conjointly, afford a ready assurance, that, even as against other princes and nations, so also against this one the might of Rome would have proved invincible” (17.3-4). Thus, since the very first lines of his digression, Livy asserts that Rome’s military power is superior to that of Alexander. To prove his point, he structures his digression according to the three factors previously exposed (about the structure of the digression, see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 186-188). Between 17.5 and 18.7, he focuses the narrative on the question of leadership. He admits that Alexander was an exceptional leader but enumerates various reasons that put his invincibility into perspective. Then, between 18.8 and 18.19, Livy deals with a comparison between the fortune and the greatness of Rome and those of Alexander. If the theme of Fortuna has been already briefly mentioned (in 17.5-6), Livy develops this theme at length. By using many numbers in this part, Livy tries to prove that, even in situations that were far more difficult because of Fortuna’s drifts or because of the divisions caused by Rome’s magistracies system, many Roman generals remained undefeated as Alexander. He thus concludes that, if Macedonia counted only one general of the calibre of Alexander, Rome could boast itself of having had many generals at least as powerful as him. Finally, in chapter 19, Livy compares the two armies in terms of number, equipment and virtus. The digression ends with the general statement that Rome is invincible as long as it is not weakened by internal dissensions and civil wars.

The last important point to recall before analysing some interesting points of the text presented here is, first, the issue of the dating of the composition of this digression, and second, the question of the reasons which motivated Livy to insert such a development in Book IX of his Roman History. Stephen Oakley presents convincing arguments to prove that this digression must have been originally been located at this place (see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 193-194; Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 40-41). Admitting the idea that this development about Alexander had not been inserted a posteriori inside Book IX, Torrey Luce has however suggested that Livy wrote this digression “in oratorical form,” and that he may have publicly pronounced this text so as to answer the critics of Greeks who boosted Parthia’s glory at Rome’s expense – a detail which has led him to think that the digression was written before 23 BCE, that is before the start of the negotiations led by Augustus to recover the Roman standards (Luce, “Livy’s first decade,” p. 226-227 oration, 228-229 dating; the idea of the oration is however challenged in Forsythe, Livy and Early Rome, p. 115). In a different perspective, some scholars have suggested that the digression may have been written after the recuperation of the standards by Augustus in 20 BCE (Humm, “Rome face à la menace,” p. 175); whereas others think that the references to the diplomatic context could signify that Livy wrote Book IX when Rome settled the Parthian question, that is between 23 and 18 BCE (Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 41-42). The fact that Livy does not explicitly claim that Rome had succeeded or was on the verge to succeed during these negotiations with Parthia may show that this text was composed slightly before 23 BCE or during the operations of negotiation between 23 and 20 BCE.
Concerning the reasons which motivated Livy to insert this digression about Alexander, Livy gives three explanations. First, he mentions that, as various writers have already compared Cursor with the Macedonian leader, he wants to give his own point of view on this question (IX.16.19). Second, contrary to many writers who use digressions to divert the reader, Livy asserts that he wants to insert this development to express the “silent thoughts” (tacitae cogitationes) he had about the Macedonian leader (IX.17.1-2). Third, he also wants to answer anti-Roman opinions, especially those supported by the levissimi ex Graeci, “the most insignificant Greeks,” who claimed that Alexander and the Parthians were superior to Rome (IX.18.6-9). However, in spite to the explanations given by Livy himself to justify the insertion of this digression inside his narrative, scholars have suggested other implicit reasons which would be connected to Livy’s own opinions about past and contemporary events of Rome’s history (for a good survey and evaluation of these readings, see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 196-199). Among these suggestions, we retain the idea that the digression about Alexander the Great fits in perfectly with the economy of Book IX – mainly organized around the Roman defeat at the Caudine Forks, its aftermaths and the Roman recovery. Thus, the defeat at the Caudine Forks is explicitly mentioned in Livy’s argumentation at IX.19.9, when he recalls that in spite of the disastrous defeats at Caudium or Cannae, the Roman people has always succeeded to overcome the difficulties he was confronted with. Thus, the role of the digression about Alexander may have been to highlight the exceptional capacity of the Roman people to recover from important military defeats (Oakley, A Commentary, p. 196-197; Briquel, “Une présentation négative,” p. 37, n. 2).

The text that we will analyse here corresponds to chapters 17 and 18. We will analyse it by focusing on a few themes. First we shall consider the content of the anti-Roman opinions that Livy seems to respond to. Second, we shall analyse more particularly the way Livy depicts Alexander and the arguments he uses to discredit his invincibility: A/ the fact that he is only an Eastern conqueror; B/ his isolation; C/ his dependence upon Fortuna’s contingency.


1/ Anti-Roman Greek voices through a pro-Roman portrayal of Alexander

In his portrayal of Alexander, Livy quotes, in an indirect way, arguments used by Greek-speaking men who were hostile to Rome and favourable to Alexander the Great. Livy uses their arguments so as to prove that their relativisation of Rome’s strength is a total nonsense. Even if we cannot be certain that here Livy faithfully transmits the content of these anti-Roman arguments, it is interesting to analyse them.
The first anti-Roman opinion indirectly mentioned by Livy appears in 17.6: “Not to speak of other distinguished kings and generals, illustrious proofs of human vicissitude, what else was it but length of days that exposed Cyrus, whom the Greeks exalt so high (maxime) in their panegyrics, to the fickleness of Fortune?” The use of the adverb maxime clearly echoes Alexander’s title, which is however never used by Livy in the digression to refer to him. Through this sentence, Livy implies that the Greeks clearly lacked insight, which led them to overestimate Pyrrhus, but also Alexander’s strength.
The most famous passage in which Livy deals with the anti-Roman opinions he has been trying to counter in this digression is: “But there was forsooth the danger—as the silliest of the Greeks (levissimi ex Graecis), who exalt the glory even of the Parthians against the name of the Romans (contra nomen Romanum), are fond of alleging—that the Roman People would have been unable to withstand the majesty of Alexander’s name (maiestatem nominis Alexandri), though I think that they had not so much as heard of him” (18.6, Loeb’s translation slightly modified). First, is has to be noted that the levitas, the flippancy, is a negative trait which is commonly attributed to Greeks in Roman sources – distinguishing them from the Romans, who were characterized by gravitas, that is a mix of seriousness and dignity. For what concerns their allegations about Parthians, it has to be recalled that, with the exception of this digression, Livy explicitly mentions the Parthians (Parthi) only once, in History of Rome XXXVIII.17.11 (Oakley, A Commentary, p. 229). However, at the end of his digression about Alexander, the passage in which Livy mentions “… cavalry, arrows, impassable defiles, regions that afford no road to convoys, our heavy-armed soldier may fear them” (IX.19.15-16, modified Loeb’s translation) can be understood as referring to battles lost by Rome against the Parthians. Nevertheless, the fact that Livy finds it unbearable that some people could compare Rome’s name to Parthia’s glory has to be considered as a polemical argument. As Stephen Oakley recalls: “The claims of the princeps to have established Roman rule on land and sea suited the diplomacy of 20 but hit reality…”. This reality was that, after the negotiations of 20 BCE, “the Romans were unable or unwilling to conquer the Parthians” (Oakley, A Commentary, p. 230). Livy’s perspective appears as being totally different from that of Trogus/Justin – even if they may have written nearly at the same time. Trogus/Justin writes: “The Parthians, in whose hands the empire of the east now is, having divided the world, as it were, with the Romans, were originally exiles from Scythia” (Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XLI.1). Trogus/Justin’s words seem all the more provocative as he presents the empire of Alexander as the only one which had been fully universal. However, it is important to recall that Trogus/Justin’s development about the Parthians ends with a description of Augustus’s triumph over them in 20 BCE (XLII.5.11-12). In addition, in the last sentences of the Epitome,Trogus/Justin writes that Augustus submitted Spain as a province after having pacified the entire world (XLIV.5.8). If we follow Trogus/Justin’s narrative, Rome thus becomes the last universal empire on earth, but the author does not compare it with that of Alexander, nor does he overemphasize Rome’s hegemony. This can be explained by Justin’s cuts and rewritings of the original text, or by the original aim of Trogus to see Rome’s rise to power from the point of view of the foreign peoples. However, Trogus’s perspective on the question of the power balance between Rome and Parthia around 20 BCE seems totally different from the Romano-centred point of view of Livy.

In addition, the argument given by Livy that Romans did not even know the name of Alexander: “… though I think that they had not so much as heard of him” (… quem ne fama quidem illis notum arbitror fuisse), is not pertinent. This argument may have been added by Livy to react to the traditions that defended the idea that Rome had sent embassy/ies to Alexander (for a good survey of the bibliography see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 231-233). If many scholars have refuted the historicity of this/these embassy/ies, Michel Humm, in a recent article, has convincingly argued that the various Greek testimonies attesting to their existence have historical value (Humm, “Rome face à la menace”). Thus, it is obvious that Livy’s argument according to which the Romans did not know Alexander is an exaggeration with a polemical aim. Livy may have wanted to respond to Greek dissident voices who asserted that the Romans had submitted themselves to Alexander’s maiestas (Walbank, “Livy, Macedonia,” p. 348-349).

Among the Greeks who were targeted by Livy, there may have been Timagenes of Alexandria, a Greek historian of the Augustan period who held critical positions towards Augustus, and who may have exalted Alexander and mocked Rome’s defeats against the Parthians from 53 BCE onwards (the identification with Timagenes has been first proposed in Schwab, De Livio; also retained in Luce, “Livy’s first,” p. 219-220; Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 42). It has also been suggested that Livy may have referred to Greek intellectuals who were active in the last decades of the Republican period and who had anti-Roman positions, like Metrodorus of Scepcis, who was a member of the court of Mithridates VI of Pontus (Bowersock, Augustus, p. 109, n. 2). Finally, it has to be recalled that, about the same time Livy wrote this comparison between Rome and Alexander, Horace published in 23 BCE the third book of his Odes, in which he announced or hoped for the future victory of Augustus and Rome over the Parthians (Horace, Odes III.3.42-44; Horace, Odes III.5.1-4). In addition, in the sixth book of the Aeneid – a book which was achieved in 23 BCE –, in the famous passage in which Anchises shows to Aeneas his descendants, the future Romans, Virgil writes: “… Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who shall again set up the Golden Age in Latium amid the fields where Saturn once reigned, and shall spread his empire past Garamant and Indian beyond the paths of the year and the sun, where heaven-bearing Atlas turns on his shoulders the sphere, inset with gleaming stars” (Virgil, Aeneid VI.792-797). No doubt that behind the hyperbolic description of the future conquests of Augustus, who is clearly presented here as a new – and even a better – Alexander, there is the hope to take revenge on Parthia in a near future (these texts are quoted in Walbank, “Livy, Macedonia,” p. 350-351). Thus, the appearance of the Parthian question in association with a comparison between Rome and Alexander the Great is not something uncommon. It fits in perfectly with the rhetorical confrontations which may have existed between Carrhae and the restitution of Roman standards under Augustus. These rhetorical debates involved some Greek rhetors or philosophers who may have expressed their hostility to Rome by recalling the recent failure of Rome in Parthia, in order to prove that Rome’s leaders were inferior to Alexander the Great. On the other side, Roman rhetors, poets and literary men tried to propose counter-arguments, which consisted mainly in praising Rome’s superiority.

Finally, even if there may have existed from 30 BCE and in the aftermaths of Actium a period during which Octavian/Augustus tried to exploit the idea that he was some kind of new Alexander who had freed Greek cities from Antony’s tyranny, it does not seem that Augustus continued to assimilate himself openly with Alexander for a long time after Actium. Therefore, it does not seem relevant to see behind Livy’s presentation of Alexander in this text some kind of disguised attack against Augustus (see the argumentation in Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 43-44). Through the quite negative portrayal of Alexander made in this comparison, Livy wanted to boost Rome’s superiority, and to do so he presents Alexander as the archetype of the oriental despot. Therefore, the hidden objectives of this digression about Alexander, may have been that Livy wanted to present Alexander as some kind of anti-model that the princeps had to abhor (Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 44-45).


2/ How to discredit Alexander’s invincibility

The originality of Livy’s portrayal of Alexander is that it is mainly negative. In spite of this critical perspective, Livy is obliged to admit that Alexander was a great military commander: “so great a prince and commander” (tanti regis ac ducis, 17.2); “remarkable general” (clarior [dux], 17.5); he would have yielded various famous Roman generals (17.12-13); enumeration of his possible superior skills as leader of armies (17.15); “However imposing the greatness of the man may appear to us...” (Quantalibet magnitudo hominis concipiatur animo…, 18.8); “undefeated Alexander” (invictus Alexander, 18.17). Invincibility is certainly the characteristic which is the most frequently referred to, especially in Greek sources (the Greek equivalent of invictus is ἀνίκητος), so as to qualify Alexander (Oakley, A Commentary, p. 242). The invincibility of Alexander is also highlighted in Trogus/Justin, especially in the indirect speech that Flamininus addressed to his troops before his ultimate confrontation against Philip which took place in Thessaly, at Cynoscephalae, in June 197 BCE: “Nor were the Macedonians to be estimated by their ancient reputation, but by their present power; for that the Romans were not waging war with Alexander the Great, whom they had heard called invincible (inuictum)…” (Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XXX.4.10-11). The singularity of Trogus/Justinus’s approach is that he presents the empire of Alexander as the only one which had been fully universal (Alexander is said to have been destined to rule the “double empire of Europe and Asia,” XII.16.5; Alexander ordered that he be called the rex terrarum omnium ac mundi, “the king of all the lands and of the world,” XII.16.9). However, when Livy mentions Alexander’s invincibility in the sentence “So then, an undefeated Alexander would have warred against undefeated generals, and would have brought the same pledges of Fortune to the crisis” (18.17), he probably does so ironically, as he seems to put his invincibility in perspective by recalling that he was not the only one in that situation (Biffi, “L’excursus liviano,” p. 465). Livy’s relativisation of Alexander’s invincibility is based on the argument that many Roman generals had been the equal of Alexander (17.10; 18.12; 18.17; 18.19), and that, if a conflict had opposed Alexander and Rome, Rome would have had various generations of great Roman commanders who could have faced up Alexander’s armies (see the enumeration of these generations of Roman commanders who could have waged a war against Alexander in 17.7-9). Livy also enumerates various arguments which are supposed to prove that a comparison between Alexander’s strength and that of Rome is a total nonsense. Among them we can mention: the fact that Alexander fought against oriental and thus weak armies (17.16-17); the fact that Alexander concentrated all the powers (17.5; 18.18); the fact that he died young before experimenting reversals of fortuna as older generals generally did (17.5; 17.9-11). We will study in depth these three main arguments given by Livy to downplay Alexander’s invincibility; and we will see how they are used by Livy to draw a positive portrayal of Rome’s strength.


A/ Alexander, just an Eastern conqueror

Livy’s portrayal of Alexander’s conquests in the Eastern regions and in Asia is far from being eulogistic. Actually he assimilates Darius’s armies with armies of “women and eunuchs,” and stresses the huge amount of wealth which prevented Darius from organizing the resistance to Alexander (17.16). However, according to Livy, Alexander not only took advantage of the weakness of Darius’s armies, for him, he was also ‘contaminated’ by these Eastern vices: “Far different from India, through which he progressed at the head of a rout of drunken revellers, would Italy have appeared to him, as he gazed on the passes of Apulia and the Lucanian mountains, and the still fresh traces of that family disaster wherein his uncle, King Alexander of Epirus, had lost his life” (17.17). As Stephen Oakley recalls, Livy refers here to the tradition that Alexander would have “held a revel in honour (or imitation) of Dionysus” (episode also recalled in Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library XVII.106.1; Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IX.10.24-29; Plutarch, Life of Alexander 67.1-8; Oakley, A Commentary, p. 222). Livy does not mention Alexander’s arrival in India to exalt the fact that he had conquered the fringes of the known world. On the contrary, Livy may respond here to the levissimi Graeci who praised Alexander for the exceptional nature of his Eastern conquests and who presented India as a strange and dangerous region (Luce, “Livy’s first decade,” p. 225-226). Livy presents India as a territory which was easy to conquer, unlike Italy. By mentioning “the still fresh traces of that family disaster wherein his uncle, King Alexander of Epirus, had lost his life,” Livy enters in the very core of his counterfactual narrative. He compels his opponents to imagine how Alexander would have been frightened by the spoils of his uncle, Alexander of Epirus, and of his armies, if he had landed in Italy in order to fight against Rome - Alexander of Epirus’s operations in Italy occurred between 334 and 331 BCE, and in 331 BCE Alexander died at Pandosia, on the border of Lucania and Bruttium. The previous imaginary reference to Alexander gazing at the passes of Apulia and Lucania is not hazardous. Actually, in 323 BCE (according to Greek computus; 326 BCE according to the Varronian one), that is the year of Alexander’s death and of the possible sending of the Roman embassy to Babylon, was also the year when Rome concluded an alliance with Naples and with some cities of Apulia as Arpi and Luceria, and when L. Papirius Cursor had been chosen consul for the first time. This coincidence can thus explain why Livy chose to start his presentation of Alexander by comparing him with this Roman general: if Alexander had not died in 323 BCE and had still wanted to conquer Italy, he would have had to face this Roman general (Humm, “Rome face à la menace,” p. 186-187). In addition, it is also important to recall that, at this very period, the two main goals of Rome’s policy were: first, the control of Naples and Lucania, and second, that of Apulia. These two regions counted cities which had played an important role during Alexander of Epirus’s operations in Italy, and which would have still been decisive in the case of a landing of Alexander on Italian coasts (Humm, “Rome face à la menace,” p. 186-187). This historical context may explain why Livy locates the imaginary confrontation between Alexander and Cursor in these regions.

Livy goes further in his depiction of the ‘Easternisation’ of Alexander by asserting that, after his victory over Darius, he would have been ‘contaminated’ by Persian customs or vices. He thus quotes: his adoption of the dress of Eastern monarchs and of proskynesis, his cruel behaviour, his addiction to drinking, his irascibility, and his claim to be the son of a god (18.1-5). Thus, Livy presents Alexander as the stereotype of an Oriental despot, in order to discredit him, and to show that Rome could not have been dominated by such a degenerated leader.


B/ Alexander’s loneliness

The second main element of Livy’s argumentation is to represent Alexander as an isolated leader. His isolation resulted from the fact that he was a military leader with exceptional personal qualities, and from his position of monarch. This isolation is presented by Livy as a real weakness for the Macedonians and their leaders – see below. But, in a short passage, he also recognizes that the Roman system also had its own defects (18.13-16; such an idea is also expressed in Roman History XXIV.8.7-8, see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 239). The internal rivalries between the various political actors, and the inconsistencies caused by the turn-over imposed by the system of annual magistracies could have favoured the Macedonian monarchy which, on the contrary, was led by one leader only. For the writing of this development, Livy may have been inspired by debates dealing with the forms of ideal government, especially by some arguments initially developed by Isocrates, the apologist of Alexander’s father, who praises the advantages of kingship, especially in the military field (Isocrates, Nicocles III.17-26, military field 22-25; see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 239-240). However, even if Livy used some aspects of the pro-monarchical arguments of Isocrates to show that the Roman institutional system could suffer some handicaps, Livy’s aim in this short denunciation remains to prove that the monarchical regime, here embodied by Alexander, is not preferable to the Roman constitution. As a matter of fact, monarchy led to the destruction of the state itself. Actually the Macedonians are presented by Livy as a people who were excessively dependant of the successes of their single great leader, Alexandre (18.18). Thus, Livy may have used some pro-monarchic arguments taken from Isocrates that he transforms into pro-Roman arguments: in spite of the difficulties of the Roman Republican regime, the Roman people and his its leaders have always succeeded to overcome them and to defeat their enemies (Morello, “Livy’s Alexander,” p. 80; Briquel, “Une présentation négative,” p. 48).

Throughout the digression, Livy constantly opposes the “corporate strength of Rome” and the solitude of Alexander (for the expression see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 191). Alexander’s isolation is recalled by the repetition of the pronoun unius (17.5, 17.14, 18.8, 18.18). It appears also when Livy opposes Alexander to the huge number of Roman generals who could have faced him (17.7-9; 18.17; 18.18-19). As Ruth Morello has rightly recalled, behind Livy’s reflexion on the opposition between the collective strength of the Roman people and the isolation of the Hellenistic military leaders, one can clearly appreciate the influence of Cato’s thought. Ruth Morello thus writes: “Cato’s famous contrast between constitutional design by accretion through generations (Rome) and by single lawgiver (Greece) is allusively reworked in Livy’s synkrisis between individual conqueror (Greece) and multiple commanders/populus (Rome)” (Morello, “Livy’s Alexander,” p. 69). It is actually remarkable that in Livy’s synkrisisis (comparison) between Alexander and Rome, Rome – as a collective entity – becomes progressively the centre of the discussion. Actually, if Livy starts his comparison, first by focusing on the character of Cursor, and then by naming various Roman commanders – a particularity which clearly differentiates him from Cato, as Cato refused to name great Roman leaders –, he progressively deals with collective entities: the Roman Senate (17.14), the Roman people (18.6), and the Roman soldier (miles 19.16) (Morello, “Livy’s Alexander,” p. 79). As Ruth Morello writes: “the collective ‘Roman name’ transcends all other Roman names, and outweighs that of Alexander, as Rome’s history outweighs his in magnitudo” (Morello, “Livy’s Alexander,” p. 77-78). Such an idea appears clearly in the passage: “Nay, he would have run a greater risk than they, inasmuch as the Macedonians would have had but a single Alexander, not only exposed to many dangers, but incurring them voluntarily, while there would have been many Romans a match for Alexander, whether for glory (vel gloria) or for the greatness of their deeds (vel rerum magnitudine), of whom each several one would have lived and died as his own fate commanded, without endangering the State”. It is obvious that Livy presents here the magnitudo (“greatness”) of the Romans as being superior to that of Alexander because it is collective, it is that of a people, and because it does not depend on the exploits of a king.
The other characteristic which, according to Livy, makes the Romans superior to any other kingdoms is the fact that their greatness is multi-secular. The importance of seniority is highlighted by Livy when he stresses the multi-secular transmission of the military discipline – constitutive of Rome’s history. According to him, it would explain why Roman generals were at least as good as Alexander (17.10; on this passage see Morello, “Livy’s Alexander,” p. 71). The importance of seniority is also highlighted when Livy recalls that the Roman people “was now in its four hundredth year of warfare” (18.9). The fact that Livy justifies the superiority of Rome by the collective strength of its people, but also by its seniority fits is with Cicero’s sentence in De Republica: “On the contrary, our own commonwealth was not created by the intelligence of one man only, but by that of many; not during the life of one man, but during several centuries and generations of men” (... nostra autem res publica non unius essset ingenio sed multorum, nec una hominis vita sed aliquot constituta saeculis et aetatibus, Cicero, On the Republic II.1.2; quoted in Oakley, A Commentary, p. 235).

The idea that the greatness (magnitudo) of Rome is clearly the result of its age and of the great amount of experiences and successes accumulated during its four hundred years of existence fits in perfectly with the Livian project of writing an history of the Roman people from Rome’s foundation to his days (Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 48).


C/ Alexander’s dependence on Fortuna’s contingency

The last important element of Livy’s argumentation is the way he uses the notion of Fortuna to respond to the levissimi Graeci. In the text presented, Livy deals only three times with virtus, and eleven times with fortuna. Livy’s general remark about the fact that “Fortune, which, powerful in all the affairs of men, is especially so in war”(17.3) is a commonplace which can be found for instance in various places in Caesar’s works (Oakley, A Commentary, p. 210).

The content of this argument is that Alexander did not live enough time to experiment setbacks of fortune; and that the short period of time during which he had numerous successes cannot be compared with the pluri-secular history of Rome’s conquests (idea expressed in 17.5; and developed in 18.9-12).

The other passage in which Livy deals with Fortuna is the one in which he mentions Cyrus and Pompey: “Not to speak of other distinguished kings and generals, illustrious proofs of human vicissitude (casuum humanorum), what else was it but length of days that exposed Cyrus, whom the Greeks exalt so high in their panegyrics, to the fickleness of Fortune (vertenti fortunae)? And the same thing was lately seen in the case of Pompey the Great” (17.6). Livy was pro-Pompeian (Tacitus, Annals IV.34.3), a position which may not have been warmly remembered by Augustus. Livy’s mention of Pompey is interesting because it is ambivalent. First, it is important to recall that Pompey – as Caesar – tried to present himself as some kind of new Alexander (see Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 45). Livy compares both characters without recalling that Pompey compared himself to the Macedonian leader. Second, Pompey is qualified as Magnus (“the Great”), whereas Alexander is not. Thus, on the one hand, Livy presents Pompey as an anti-Alexander – Pompey led a long military career (which made that he experienced a setback of fortune), he defended libertas, the respublica and Rome’s greatness –, but, on the other hand, Alexander and Pompey’s fates look quite similar – both of them were deceived by an excessively favourable fortuna and both of them succumbed to Eastern delights (Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 46). Thus, as Mathilde Mahé-Simon has suggested, it is possible that, behind this development about the setbacks of Fortuna, Livy sent an implicit message: the princeps has to take care of not becoming a tyrant, but also of not being excessively confident in his fortuna. In military terms, it could mean that Livy warned Augustus against an excessively aggressive policy in the East which could be dangerous for the internal cohesion of the State. The last sentence of the synkrisis can actually be interpreted in this perspective: “A thousand battle-arrays more formidable than those of Alexander and the Macedonians have the Romans beaten off—and shall do—if only our present love of domestic peace endure and our concern to maintain concord” (Mille acies graviores quam Macedonum atque Alexandri avertit avertetque, modositperpetuushuius qua vivimus pacis amor et civilis cura concordiae, 19.17; Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 46-47). Therefore, in his digression about Alexander, Livy chose to take the usual debate about fortuna and virtus out. Contrary to what we can find in Dionysius of Halicarnassus or later in Plutarch, the combination of virtus and fortuna which characterises Rome is not questioned, nor proved, but made explicit (Mahé-Simon, “L’enjeu historiographique,” p. 49; in the same perspective see Oakley, A Commentary, p. 201). Livy’s assessment is thus unequivocal: for what concerns virtus and fortuna, Rome is necessarily superior to Alexander.


To conclude, in this digression Livy uses the comparison between Alexander and Rome to counter two polemical arguments used by Greeks hostile to Rome. The aim of these two arguments was to undermine two ideological principles associated with the idea of Roman superiority: 1/ the idea according to which if Alexander had landed in Italy, he would have been necessarily defeated by Rome; 2/ the idea according to which Rome was invincible. Livy, who defends Roman superiority, uses the comparison between Alexander and Rome to prove that it was a total nonsense to compare the actions of one single man, to that the multi-secular history of the populus romanus which, by then, could enumerate a lot of victorious – even invincible – generals. Livy thus tries to show that Alexander’s actions have to be valued for what they were, namely military exploits of a general who was exceptional but who was totally isolated, who died young without experimenting a setback of fortune, and who fought against degenerated peoples. The global conclusion of such a depreciative presentation of Alexander is that Rome’s superiority could not be contested.


Bibliographical references: 
Humm, Michel, “Rome face à la menace d’Alexandre le Grand”, in Guerre et diplomatie romaines IVe-IIIe siècles av. J.-C.. Pour un réexamen des sources (ed. Emmanuèle Caire, Silvie Pittia ; Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l’Université de Provence, 2006), 175-191
Walbank, Frank W., “Livy, Macedonia and Alexander”, in Ancient Macedonia Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson (ed. Harry J. Dell; Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1981), 335-356
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Livy, History of Rome IX.17-18
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 07/24/2017 - 14:45
Visited: Mon, 08/20/2018 - 01:14

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