The last few decades have witnessed a significant increase in scholarly attention to contiones, non-voting public meetings at which magistrates addressed the Roman populus. Much of this work has focused on the role of the contio in Roman politics, as a primary locus for interaction between senate and people (Millar 1998, Hölkeskamp 2000 and 2004, Mouritsen 2001, Morstein-Marx 2004). With few exceptions (e.g., Tan 2008), the corpora considered have (understandably) consisted of the extant contional speeches in Sallust and Cicero. Less attention, however, has been paid to third-person descriptions of contional scenes in, for example, Livy.
In this paper, I examine depictions in Livy’s third decade of a particular type of contio: the informative contio announcing the victory or defeat of the Roman army in battle (Pina Polo 1989, for typology). A disproportionate percentage of such contiones known to us come from Livy’s account of the Second Punic War. This, I argue, is no accident. I explore how Livy uses these episodes to help structure the trajectory of his narrative of the war. In doing so, I bring recent historical investigations of the contio into conversation with scholarship on Livy’s methods of narrative organization in the third decade (Levene 2010).
I focus on Livy’s two most detailed accounts of informative contiones, the announcements of the Roman defeat at Trasimene (217 BC) and the Roman victory at the Metaurus (207 BC). I argue that both contiones are “contested,” that a power struggle takes place between senate and people in each instance, which Livy frames in terms of contional procedure and space. He depicts the people, in desperate search of information, transgressing spatial boundaries and subverting established procedures for the convocation of contiones. In the case of Trasimene, the senate capitulates and becomes complicit in the flouting of tradition. The resulting contio fails miserably. After the Metaurus, however, the senate checks the people’s actions, reestablishing proper procedural and spatial distinctions. I argue that through these episodes, Livy dramatizes the disruption of social order that is caused by the early defeats in the war and that persists until the Romans’ first major victory in peninsular Italy at the Metaurus. The senate’s reassertion of contional norms after the Metaurus marks the reassertion of social order and the simultaneous turning of the tide of the war’s progress. Finally, I show that thereafter in Livy’s account of the war, the informative contiones display none of the anomalous features seen before. After the turning point of the Metaurus, Rome is well on her way to victory, as signaled, not least, by her properly performed contiones.
Livy and the Construction of the Past