You are here

Choral Dynamics in Livy's AUC XXIII

Kyle Sanders

Although readers have long noted the influence of dramatic genres on historiography, most discussions of “tragic history” have been preoccupied with the emplotment of certain episodes (e.g., Thomas 1991), the use of tragic emotions in history (e.g., Marincola 2003), or else the connections between historiographic narrative and dramatic predecessors (e.g., Wiseman 1998 or Santoro L’Hoir 2006). All of these studies have in common the invaluable grounding of their historiographical subject in the educative and cultural milieux of the early principate. Yet these approaches are limited, I suggest, because they frame the interaction between tragedy and history within the rather narrow confines of the Aristotelian discourse on tragedy, a discourse which emphasizes plot, character and diction at the expense of the chorus, a key feature of ancient drama. This paper therefore considers how the dramatic role of a tragic chorus might translate to a specific historiographical context (Livy’s AUC XXIII) and then proposes an interpretation of the thematic significance of such cross-generic fertilization.

Building on recent discussions of choral function by Goldhill (2012) and Gagné (2013), the paper first describes several dynamics of choral speech which operate in Livy’s AUC. First, insofar as the dramatic chorus constitutes a collective body of rhetoric and action that acts alongside, and sometimes in opposition to, the individual heroes of tragedy, we can observe analogous collective behaviors operating in AUC XXIII. Livy juxtaposes individuals and collectives in this book by a series of episodes where a collective voice emotionally supplicates or reproaches a leader (22, 29, 31; cf. Eur. Suppliants); or where a leader deceives a collective by a false testimony (1-2, cf.; Ajax); or where the radical transformation of a collective threatens an individual (14, 18; cf. Bacchae or Eumenides). Moreover, as in tragedy, many of the collectives in Book XXIII belong to politically marginalized or conquered peoples, such as the Samnites (42-43) and the Italian allies (5, 14, 20; cf. Phoenician Women; Trojan Women). Thus I argue that Livy uses choral voices in Book XXIII variously to comment on, question, or enable the actions of the “great men” of his history in a way that engages with the choruses of Greek tragedy.

The significance of this engagement, I suggest, is twofold. First, the collectives of Book XXIII comport well with Schlegel’s now classic formulation of the dramatic chorus as an idealized internal audience which “stages” the reactions desired of the audience or reader. Livy downplays distinctions between groups, with the result that tota Italia emerges in Book XXIII as a harmonized set of voices in the wake of the disaster at Cannae. In particular, the prevalence of enargeia–visual vividness—evokes a consistent range of disturbing images for the reader to consider.

The other significant engagement with the choral lyric of tragedy operates on the level of language. By analyzing a passage where one marginalized group, a delegation of Samnites, supplicates Hannibal (42-44), I demonstrate how Livian “choruses” can – like  their dramatic counterparts – blur the distinctions between present, past and future time. The “timelessness” common to this passage and many choral passages of Greek tragedy, should be understood as a species of exemplarity, a device which, as Chaplin (2000) has demonstrated, works both in the narrative and for the benefit of the reader. Moreover, Hannibal’s subsequent rebuke of the Samnite speech on rhetorical grounds is significant for how it misses the mark. Though Hannibal is often read as a kind of expert historian, his critique here betrays his blindness to the “panoptic” view of history which choral idiom in particular is apt to evoke. In sum, this paper provides a case study of how chorality might work in historiography and argues that the choral presentation of history is framed by Livy as superior to linear narratives of the past.

Session/Panel Title

Livy and the Construction of the Past

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy