The Second Punic War According to Livy

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By Steven Knorr and Nick Richwagen

Livy is known as a moralizing historian, and in his War with Hannibal (History of Rome: Books XXI-XXX) his belief in Roman values shows in his narration. Livy believed that human character and the moral character of history outweighed historical accuracy. Livy was interested in stories of right and wrong and the triumph of virtue. He highlighted heroic Roman leaders and singled out their virtues, such as with Quintus Fabius, who nobly delayed the Carthaginian advance through Italy to buy the Romans time.  Livy valued Roman virtues such as piety, bravery, and honor, and condemned weaknesses of character as leading to ruin. Like any pious Roman, he placed great stock in omens. Numerous omens exist in Livy’s history, both good and bad, that foreshadow events to come. Livy’s writing is best understood through a deeply moralistic, pious lens.

Hannibal Barca

Livy detested Hannibal, and establishes him as the antagonist from the beginning of Book XXI. Hannibal, who swore an oath to his Father to always be Rome’s enemy, and dreamed that a snake would be the destruction of Italy. Hannibal is not presented as an honorable warrior but as someone who used tricks and wit to deceive his opponents. Even when Hannibal had equal or greater numbers against the Romans, he never won without using trickery. Carthaginians throughout are called oath-breakers or treaty-breakers so naturally Hannibal did not fight honorably.  Livy’s opinion of Hannibal is voiced by the Carthaginian noble Hanno, who says “and this son of his, with the devil in his heart and the torch in his hand, to kindle its flames, I hate and abhor”. Hanno (Hanno II the Great) opposed war with Rome in the Carthaginian assembly (10).

Livy did admire Hannibal’s leadership abilities, and notes that he was able to win the respect of the Carthaginian forces as an inexperienced general when he joined his uncle Hasdrubal in Spain.  Early on he even points out that Hannibal lived rather simply for someone of his stature in society. Hannibal ate to satisfy his basic needs, he slept on the ground like the rest of his soldiers, and his clothing was simple. Nevertheless, Livy paints Hannibal as someone capable of great cruelty, such as his execution of the men of Saguntum even while Carthaginian demands were still being read. Livy understood the reasons behind the cruelty and sometimes demonstrates it to be a necessary evil, but Livy uses it to mark the Carthaginians as a cruel and evil invading force whereas Romans are not shown in the same light.

Roman Exceptionalism

Livy was a patriotic Roman, and admired the values of his predecessors while believing them morally superior to the Romans of his own time. Livy believed that Rome has been “richer in good citizens and noble deeds than anywhere else.” This is Roman exceptionalism, especially in comparison to his views on other ancient peoples. To Livy, The Gauls were a people who loved gold and were easily controlled as they often quarreled with one another. For example, Gallic chieftains plot Hannibal’s death, but are never able to execute such an act because they are too busy fighting one another. While Livy Acknowledges that Carthaginians, Spaniards, and Gauls are good warriors, they all demonstrate vices that are true to their barbarian nature. Though Romans can have their faults, most are portrayed as down to earth and reasonable people. Rome is portrayed as being honest and just, always acting within the means of the law. During Hanno’s speech, he says of the Romans that “their demands are mild, their first steps slow and cautious.” (33).

Scipio Africanus

The Roman general Scipio is Livy’s great hero, the embodiment of Roman virtue. After the catastrophic defeat at Cannae, the Roman people felt absolutely hopeless, yet Scipio rises to the occasion in order to lift Roman morale.  It is here that we see Scipio pledge an oath “I swear with all passion of my heart that I shall never desert our country, or permit any break my oath, may Jupiter, Greatest and Best, bring me to a shameful death, with my house, my family and all I possess” (153). While other Romans are overcome with despair, Scipio remains firm and resolute, and retains his absolute conviction in Rome and her gods.

Titus Manlius Torquatus

After Cannae, Hannibal offered the surviving Roman soldiers back for ransom. The Roman Senate argued about this while being harangued by the families of these Carthaginian hostages, who wanted back their sons, brothers, and relations. Livy uses Titus Manlius Torquatus, who defeated the Carthaginian in Sardinia (215 BC) to speak on behalf of Roman honor. Torquatus concludes that the hostages must not be paid, and that is the duty of Romans to die on the battlefield. Livy does mention Torquatus to be a man considered by some to be of “old fashioned…and excessive strictness.”

Omens and Portents

Livy uses omens to demonstrate the presence of supernatural forces and the influence the gods exert in everyday life. Throughout his History, and especially in episodes relating to the Punic Wars, those who fail to heed omens and demonstrate sufficient piety suffer catastrophe.

Before the Roman defeat at Lake Trasimene (June 217 BC), Consul Gaius Flaminius gave the order to march and was thrown from his horse. Despite this bad omen, Flaminius was impatient and ordered the Roman army forward. Flaminius was lured into battle by Hannibal and ambushed; the Roman army of 30,000 men was destroyed. Livy shows Flaminius as being undevout or impious in contrast to later consuls such Scipio or the dictator Fabius Maximus who are shown as pious people and respect the traditions, particularly during a time of crisis when one wouldn’t want to upset the gods. What Livy demonstrates is that human actions can either please or displease the gods, who guide destiny.

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