Concordia in Livy

BMCR 2019.08.47, Master reviews Ann Vasaly, Livy’s Political Philosophy: Power and Personality in Early Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Key excerpt

Chapter 5 presents the Quinctian family as positive models of patrician behavior, “anti-Claudii” (80), who promote domestic concordia. In Vasaly’s reading, Livy’s Quinctii, especially Quinctius Capitolinus and Cincinnatus, transcend the self-interest and personal ambition so characteristic of the historian’s early republican patricians. Vasaly zeroes in on the speeches of the Quinctii to the plebs to illustrate this aspect of their exemplarity. Capitolinus’ exemplarity lies in his frank assertion to the plebs that their freedoms ought to have limits and his indictment of popular leaders who have not the interests of the state in mind but their own self-promotion. Vasaly notes that Capitolinus’ rhetoric echoes Livy’s presentation of the dangers of plebeian oratory expressed elsewhere in the pentad.

The sixth chapter considers Livy’s presentation of the plebs collectively in the pentad. They are consistently shown to be the foundation of military success but also emotional and volatile, for the most part without prudence, though they occasionally act prudently when they feel respected. Vasaly makes the point that the plebs have the capacity to destabilize the republic but are more likely to be intimidated and abused by patrician rulers. The chapter then examines examples of bad and good leadership of the plebs. The lowest of the low in Livy’s estimation, according to Vasaly, is the elite demagogue who stirs up the plebs out of tyrannical ambition. Conversely, patricians who champion the cause of the people are especially praiseworthy, with the Valerian family being particularly notable in this respect. These patricians pursue concordia, but their specialty is redressing wrongs done to the plebs. Vasaly devotes the rest of the chapter to plebeian figures who, justifiably in the narrator’s view, lead collective action against elite abuse even if that action leads to widespread social unrest.”

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