You are here

Alia tota serenda fabula: documentary fantasies in Livy’s Trials of the Scipios

Lydia Spielberg

Radboud University Nijmegen

Reliance on documents was long held to distinguish “modern” from “ancient” historiography (Momigliano 1950, Finley 1983). For Ginzburg, documents emphasize that history “[is] inevitably uncertain, discontinuous, lacunar, based only on fragments and ruins” (2012, 24). Yet these “fragments and ruins” have their own allure, as authentic, unmediated testimony through which the past can "speak directly" (Le Roy Ladurie 1975).

In light of renewed scholarly attention to ancient historians’ use of documents (Biraschi 2003), I show that Livy addresses this tension between documentary incompleteness and the elusive promise of authenticity in one of his most infamous episodes, the Trials of the Scipios (38.50.4-38.60.10). Livy’s treatment of absent documents and forged speech transcripts, I argue, addresses a desire for authentic, authoritative voices from the past to address the problems of the present. But Livy reveals such putatively authentic access to be mere antiquarian fantasy and shows that "un-documentary" historiography in fact better addresses moral and exemplary concerns. Livy thus establishes the necessity of narrative historiography at a cultural moment of widespread antiquarian revival (cf. Wallace-Hadrill 2008).

Livy’s narrative of the Scipio brothers’ downfall amid accusations of embezzling was long considered a hopeless tangle of undigested or even indigestible sources: conflicting traditions, broken monuments, missing records, and falsely-attributed speeches (cf. Luce 1977). Recent scholarship, however, has shown that Livy deliberately thematizes problems of historiographical representation in the Trials episode and that its inconsistencies draw attention to the "textual imperialism" of Livy’s monumental history (Jaeger 1997, Lushkov 2010). I argue that with his inclusion and criticism of a wide range of sources and documents Livy raises a still bolder claim for the importance of narrative historiography– namely, that its value comes not from an impossible replication of the past but through its interpretation and even rhetorical elaborations of limited historical evidence.

Livy’s Scipio Africanus is at once a perfect historian, whose speech can cause his audience to relive his triumphs as he tells them (38.50.11-51.13), and an enemy of documentation, who destroys the records that would have provided an unambiguous accounting of his deeds (38.55.10-12). Accordingly, Livy introduces an unusually high number of potential “primary sources” into his narrative of the Trials, only to doubt their usefulness. Chief among these are speeches that the historian dismisses as forgeries, but which purport to be those delivered by Africanus and Sempronius Gracchus, the old enemy turned defender of the Scipio brothers. Gracchus’ faux-authentic words not only promise an “eyewitness” testimony to Africanus’ character, but they offer retrojected vaticinia ex eventu both for the coming Gracchan crisis and for the extraordinary status of Julius Caesar and Augustus. This prophetic power, which reifies into concrete predictions the historiographical claim to instruct future readers, comes inextricably from the speeches' claims of authenticity.

Livy simultaneously incorporates and excludes the speeches, dismissing them as a fabula but also reporting their contents at length. He thus gives fictive discourse its due, as the composed speech with its capacity for meta-historical analysis and reflection on contemporary concerns is a historiographical staple. He contests, however, the possibility of the direct window to the past that the forged speeches claim they can offer by virtue of their status as authentic documents.

Livy’s skepticism about relics of the past contrasts with his representation of Augustus, who replicates ancient exempla with seemingly unbroken continuity, by reviving rituals (1.19.3), discovering inscriptions (4.20.5-11) and even re-performing Republican speeches (Periocha 59). While Livy does not contest Augustus’ historical reenactments, he does hint at their limitations as remedia for the Roman moral crisis (praef.9). What the historian offers, by contrast, is not reconstruction but representation, “evidence of every exemplum arranged on a brilliant memorial” (praef.10). Thus Livy’s readers rely on the mediation of the historian who selects, arranges, and even freely composes his comprehensive narrative, but Livy shows that this historiographical intervention – including the “rhetorical fictions” of its speeches – is what makes his history a more effective remedium.

Session/Panel Title

Legal Authority

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy