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Livy’s Rejection of Polybius’ συμπλοκή: the Case for Competence

Joseph Groves

In discussing Livy’s use of his most important Greek source, Polybius, P.G. Walsh famously wrote that “a clear and somewhat damning picture emerges of a mind rapidly and mechanically transposing the Greek, and coming to full consciousness only when grappling with the more congenial problems of literary presentation,” (Walsh 144). This has, until recently, been the received wisdom regarding the merits of this writer whose methods and goals differ greatly from those of modern practitioners of historiography. In this paper I offer a new argument for Livy’s deep engagement with and comprehension of his source material by showing that he carefully avoided including any hint of Polybius’ συμπλοκή in his account of the First Macedonian War. Since D.S. Levene has now demonstrated that Livy used and responded to Polybius in writing the third decade, a possibility ignored by Nissen and denied by Tränkle, this absence in Livy’s account now requires explanation.

The συμπλοκή, that critical point at which politics on both sides of the Adriatic became inextricably intertwined, is, for Polybius, the cause of Rome’s entry into the Greek East and the organizing element of his first pentad. Polybius locates the συμπλοκή itself in the conference at Naupactus in 217 BCE, (Plb. 5.101-11), at which Philip V brought an end to the Greek Social War, allegedly in preparation for his opportunistic intervention in the Second Punic War. Polybius’ chronology makes Philip’s decision to ally with Hannibal against Rome a result of the Battle of Lake Trasimene. This allows Polybius to use Demetrius of Pharos as a bad adviser figure and develop a negative characterization of Philip V. Finally, by making this conference the key moment, Polybius is able to expand on Greek attitudes towards Rome, most notably with the famous “cloud in the west” comparison (Plb. 5.104). The neatness of the synchronism, which allows Polybius to connect two momentous but seemingly unrelated events, provides grounds for suspicion and indicates how important this causal framework was to Polybius’ project.

Although Livy engages closely with Polybius’ text, he does not reproduce this sequence of events. The Roman historian’s first mention of Philip does come in 217 BCE, but merely mentions the king’s refusal to hand over Demetrius (Livy 22.33.3-4). Livy then places Philip’s opportunistic decision to join the war against Rome not after Trasimine, but, more logically, after Cannae (Livy 23.33-4). His main interest in this passage is in the apprehension of Philip’s legates to Hannibal and their deceit. That Livy does not adapt Polybius’ account of the war’s origin is surprising, since the perfidious scheme of a reckless monarch maps perfectly onto Roman preconceptions and places blame squarely upon Philip.

I argue that Livy found Polybius’ version unsuitable because the συμπλοκή launches a chain of events that lead inexorably to Roman dominion over the Mediterranean. Polybius took great care to demonstrate to his Greek readership that their subjugation to Rome was not merely the result of chance. However, the idea that Roman expansion was systematic would have been anathema to Livy, who faithfully reproduces each Republican casus belli, justifying individual conflicts in terms of the defense of allies and breaches of faith perpetrated by other powers. The idea of a logical progression of Roman power would not only undermine the traditional moralistic justifications for individual conflicts, it would imply that rather than responding to the misdeeds of other states, the Romans themselves were in some way responsible for these conflicts. For this reason, although Livy makes use of Polybius for the details of the First Macedonian War, he studiously avoids not only this account of Philip’s scheme, but all traces of Polybius’ συμπλοκή. Therefore, while Livy fails to meet modern standards of historiography, showing no concern to reconcile dates or check for inconsistencies in his composite narrative, he nevertheless understood Polybius and carefully adapted this material for his own goals.

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Livy and the Construction of the Past

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