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Body Horror and Biopolitics in Livy’s Third Decade

Paul Hay

This paper examines the rhetoric of body horror in the third decade of Livy’s AUC and argues that Livy uses such discourse to illustrate the exceptionality of the 2nd Punic War, the cultural cross-pollination of the Romans and Carthaginians during the war, and the biopolitics of empire. Work on the third decade (e.g., Levene 2010) has so far failed to note in detail the extent of the depictions of disturbing violence that Livy describes throughout Books 21-30, despite interest in Livy’s techniques of visual description (e.g., Feldherr 1998, and with the exception of Köster 2014). This oversight leaves a void in our understanding of Livy’s literary artistry, particularly in its relation to aesthetic developments at the beginning of the Imperial period.

The term “body horror” refers to works of art whose chief emotional impact comes from the graphic presentation of the mutilation or unwilling modification of the body. Focusing on intentionally-disturbing descriptions of the violation of bodily integrity, chiefly through dismemberment but also through such phenomena as rape, cannibalism, reanimation of the dead, and the transgression of the boundary between man and beast, I offer a taxonomy of such images in the third decade. Because body horror derives its effects from graphic description, I have omitted all vague terms of slaughter (e.g., clades, caedes) or reports of mere killings. Even with such a restriction, nearly 60 cases of body horror remain in the third decade. This material, I suggest, can be categorized in a variety of ways, whether by type of corporal violation, by victim and perpetrator, by its narrator (either Livy or some historical character), and by whether the descriptions are literal or rhetorical. Such a categorization can help us better understand both the breadth of graphic violence in the third decade and the connections between otherwise disparate events.

Building on this taxonomy, I argue that Livy uses body horror for three separate but related purposes. Body horror contributes to Livy’s account of the war as historically superlative and exceptional (cf. AUC 21.1), in which scenes of transgressive violence throughout Books 21-30 act narratologically to underscore the rupture in the normal state of affairs at Rome. Livy further uses body horror to trace the gradual “Poenicization” of the Romans throughout the war; during the third decade, the Romans shift from being primarily the victims of body horror to being primarily its perpetrators, thus becoming increasingly similar to the stereotyped inhumanity of the Carthaginians with which the decade opens (21.4.9; Isaac 2004).

Lastly, body horror provides an indirect way for Livy to discuss biopower and biopolitics (cf. Agamben 1998, Lemke 2011) in Republican Rome: that is, to discuss the ways in which populations are controlled via the subjugation (or violation) of the body. War-time Rome allowed political leaders to exert control over (and violate the integrity of) citizen bodies, so the prominence of body horror in Livy’s third decade forces readers to confront the disturbing extremes of such state power just as the Augustan regime is consolidating its power in Livy’s Rome. Livy’s interest in body horror, in this last instance, shows an anticipation of Ovidian and Neronian aesthetics, for which empire and the grotesque are linked (Most 1992, Segal 1998, Braund and Gilbert 2003). Livy’s depictions of extreme violence are not simply historiographical filigree, but rather a challenging commentary on wartime ethics. An analysis of body horror in the third decade can thus help us better situate Livy’s artistry within the aesthetic, ethical, and ideological developments of the end of the first century BC.

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The Body in Question

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