Livy IV: Dawn of the Roman Empire

November 13, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXXI-XL
The Dawn of the Roman Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2000) [c.20 BC]
xxxvi + 612 p.

The previous volume in this edition of Livy’s Roman history had ended with the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus and the consequent end of the Second Punic War. It was Rome’s first victory over a major regional power, and it was a signal to the other political powers in the Mediterranean basin that the Romans were a force to be reckoned with.

An ally of the Carthaginians during that conflict had been Philip V of Macedon, a ruler a few generations removed from Alexander the Great, presiding over a much-reduced but still extensive territory to the east of the Adriatic. In Books 31-40, which are the topic for today, the Romans go to war against Philip and other Mediterranean powers, especially King Antiochus of Syria. They eventually emerge victorious, thus establishing themselves not only as a European and African power, but an Asian one as well, and in consequence the territory later generations would know as “the Roman Empire” began to take on recognizable shape.

The particular conflicts described in this sequence of books are known to historians as the Second Macedonian War and the Roman-Seleucid War. The period covered is 201-180 BC.


Livy remarks at the outset that his task seems to be becoming unmanageable:

“I plainly perceive that, like those who, tempted by the shallows near the shore, walk into the sea, the farther I advance, I am carried, as it were, into a greater depth and abyss; and that my work almost increases on my hands which seemed to be diminished by the completion of each of its earlier portions.”

It is beginning to become unmanageable for the reader too, or at least for this reader, not because of its length but on account of its complexity; when the Romans moved into Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor they encountered a bewildering variety of small kingdoms, with alliances and enmities already formed, and then broken and re-formed in response to the Roman threat, and the course of events by which the Romas eventually came to dominate fits no neat narrative the way the conflict with Carthage and Hannibal had. One hardly knows where to look for the main story. Nonetheless, a few significant events can be picked out.

It is worth noting that when the Romans first came into Greece they did so, publicly, as liberators, to free the Greek peoples from submission to Philip of Macedon. And Livy leaves open the question, so far as I can tell, whether this cry of liberation was genuine or merely a front for Roman imperialism. Certainly there were those in Rome who thought it foolhardy to start another war so soon after the victory against Hannibal had been concluded, and it is not obvious that there was a widely shared appetite for expansion of the Roman sphere of influence.

Yet, be that as it may, in 200 they commenced hostilities against Philip, and, after a series of convoluted developments, came to a decisive battle with him in 197 at Cynoscephalae, a battle in which they were victorious, in the aftermath of which the consul Flamininus declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. A few years later the Romans were again victorious against Nabis, the “tyrant of Sparta”, and again declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. For later generations this pronouncement acquired an ironic tone, for whatever their intentions at the time, the Romans never did relinquish influence over these areas, and eventually, some decades later, annexed them as Roman territories, the liberators having become the masters.

Sensing a power vacuum with the ousting of Philip, the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who ruled over a large territory to the north and (primarily) east of the Mediterranean, entered Greece in 192 with an army intent on expanding the Seleucid Empire. Whereupon several Greek cities appealed to the Romans for help, which they very obligingly did.

In fact, this venture by Antiochus occasioned one of the most memorable events of this period of Roman history: another face-to-face meeting of Scipio Africanus and Hannibal. It happened in this way: in the aftermath of the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio, Hannibal had temporarily fled Carthage, but when he returned the Carthaginian authorities saw him as a liability likely to inflame Roman wrath, and they forced him out. He fled to the court of Antiochus III, where he began to encourage Antiochus to take up arms against Rome. Antiochus was convinced; he sent his troops across the Hellespont into Greece, bringing about the Greek appeal for Rome’s assistance that I mentioned above. Opening with a diplomatic move, Rome sent Scipio Africanus to meet with Antiochus for discussions, and Antiochus, with a flair for the dramatic, hosted a dinner and invited them both to attend.

A memorable conversation is reported to have taken place. Scipio, perhaps seeking to tweak Hannibal’s ego, asked him, “Who is the greatest general?”

Hannibal answered, “Alexander, king of Macedonia; because, with a small band, he defeated armies whose numbers were beyond reckoning; and because he had overrun the remotest regions, the merely visiting of which was a thing above human aspiration.”

Scipio then asked, “To whom do you give the second place?” and he replied, “To Pyrrhus; for he first taught the method of encamping; and besides, no one ever showed more exquisite judgment, in choosing his ground, and disposing his posts; while he also possessed the art of conciliating mankind to himself to such a degree, that the nations of Italy wished him, though a foreign prince, to hold the sovereignty among them, rather than the Roman people, who had so long possessed the dominion of that part of the world.”

On his proceeding to ask, “Whom do you esteem the third?” Hannibal replied, “Myself, beyond doubt.”

On this Scipio laughed, and added, “What would you have said if you had conquered me?” “Then,” replied the other, “I would have placed Hannibal, not only before Alexander and Pyrrhus, but before all other commanders.”

This answer, turned with Punic dexterity, and conveying an unexpected kind of flattery, was highly grateful to Scipio, as it set him apart from the crowd of commanders, as one of incomparable eminence.

It’s a great story.

The diplomatic route went nowhere, so Rome went to war against Antiochus. This conflict was not so convoluted as that against the Macedonians, but it was not straightforward either. An important battle took place at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartans had, centuries earlier, attempted to defend Greece against the Persians. Antiochus chose the ground, thinking it would give him at advantage, but it was not enough; the Romans flanked him and he was routed. There followed a sea battle; the Romans triumphed again. Finally, the Romans, led by Lucius Cornelius Scipio (brother of Scipio Africanus), crossed the Hellespont and forced Antiochus to accept terms. This was important not so much because Antiochus was defeated, but because it marked the first time a Roman army had crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. They would find that they rather liked it there, and would be disinclined to leave.

One of the conditions the Roman consul, Flamininus, imposed on Antiochus as part of the peace negotiations was that Hannibal be turned over to the Roman authorities. He was their greatest opponent, and it rankled that he was still at large. Hannibal, of course, was unwilling to go peacefully, and fled to the court of Prusias, king of Bithynia, where, however, the Romans caught up with him. He chose death before dishonour. Livy gives us an account of Hannibal’s end that is worth quoting at length:

“The Carthaginian had always foreseen some such end of his life; for he knew the implacable hatred which the Romans bore him, and placed little confidence in the faith of kings. Besides, he had experienced the fickle temper of Prusias, and had, for some time, dreaded the arrival of Flamininus, as an event fatal to him. Encircled by enemies on every side, in order to have always some path open for flight, he had made seven passages from his house, of which some were concealed, lest they might be invested by a guard. But the imperious government of kings suffers nothing to remain secret which they choose to discover. They surrounded the circuit of the entire house with guards in such a manner, that no one could escape from it. Hannibal, on being told that some of the king’s soldiers were in the porch, endeavoured to escape through a back door, which was the most private, and from which the passage was most secret; but, perceiving that to be guarded by a body of soldiers, and every avenue round to be blocked up by the guards that were posted, he called for poison, which he had long kept in readiness to meet such an event, and said, “Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since they think it too long to wait for the death of an old man. Flamininus will gain no very great or memorable victory over one unarmed and betrayed. What an alteration has taken place in the behaviour of the Roman people, this day affords abundant proof. Their fathers gave warning to Pyrrhus, their armed foe, then heading an army against them in Italy, to beware of poison. The present generation have sent an ambassador, of consular rank, to persuade Prusias villanously to murder his guest.” Then imprecating curses on the head of Prusias, and on his kingdom, and calling on the gods who presided over hospitality, and were witnesses of his breach of faith, he drank off the contents of the cup. This was the end of the life of Hannibal.” (XXXIX, 51)

Hannibal was not the only major figure to pass from the scene in these years. Scipio Africanus had died as well, a few years earlier, and Philip of Macedon died shortly afterward, in 180. The time of giants was passed, it seemed.


The great majority of Livy’s attention in these books is focused on military affairs. I have not even begun to try to convey the immense complexity of the story, which took place not only in Greece and Macedonia and Asia Minor, but also in Spain, and in Gaul, and in Liguria, a region that still retains the same name today, near Genoa. (Livy quips of the Ligurians: “This enemy seemed born for the purpose of preserving military discipline among the Romans, during the intervals between important wars.”) Yet from time to time we get a glimpse of domestic politics in Rome, and these glimpses are quite enjoyable.

Livy tells us, for instance, about a controversy that arose when it was proposed that the Oppian Law be repealed. This law, a war-time measure, had forbade Roman women to buy or wear ostentatious clothing or jewelry; they could show no signs of luxury while the men were in harm’s way and the public coffers were empty. However, with the coming of peace a move was made to remove the law. A drama arose when Marcus Porcius Cato (viz. Cato the Elder), one of the chief statesmen of his day, opposed the repeal. Livy gives us his splendid speech, in which he argued, in effect, that though the need for the law had been occasioned by the war, its effects had been, on the whole, beneficial, as tending to maintain an honourable austerity and suspicion of luxury, and that it should therefore be retained in perpetuity. The restrictions had been put in place to combat a real problem. Although Cato’s conservatism has irked some modern commentators — with one calling him a “self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude” — Livy admires him immensely.

About 10 years later (c.183) we read about a controversy which arose over the introduction of the Bacchanalia in Rome. These religious rites were an import from Greece, and were an occasion of scandal when the nature of the rites (drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, mixing of classes) and the extent to which they had infiltrated Roman society were made known. How much of Livy’s reporting of these matters is faithful, I am not sure, but in his telling the response of Rome’s civil leaders was swift and brutal, and the rites were suppressed.

Another religious controversy arose when some books, purporting to date from the reign of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, were discovered on the Janiculum Hill. The religious authorities found the books to be unsound inasmuch as they would tend to cast doubt on Roman religious practices. They were, accordingly, burned. Unfortunately Livy does not explain what was objectionable in them, but his brief account nonetheless exposes to view, like a crack in the foundation stone, the vulnerability of Roman religion.

Also, a note about domestic politics in Rome: in the early days of the republic the most important political posts had been those of the two consuls, and in this period the consuls remained important but were joined by six praetors and one censor. The praetors, like the consuls, were also military leaders, and were each assigned a theatre of conflict to manage, but the role of the censor is less clear from Livy’s account. What we do learn is that the censor had at least two roles in Roman life: he counted the number of Roman citizens (hence, our modern “census”) and he oversaw maintenance of Roman public morals (hence, our modern “censor”). It’s just interesting to see how these two quite different ideas came to bear the same name for us because they were originally conjoined in one Roman office.


This volume of Livy’s history was, for me, the most challenging thus far, principally on account of the tangled, disjoint, multi-faceted military history it has to tell, which I found difficult to follow. But the overall picture is clear enough: Rome expanded her sphere of influence into Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Syria, and the Roman Empire, or something very like it, was born. The next volume in this edition, which contains the last books of Livy to survive (Books 41-45), treats of a renewed challenge to Rome that arose in Macedonia after the death of Philip. Sometimes, it seems, a victory has to be won more than once before it takes.

“Of all blessings none is more grateful to the multitude than liberty.” (XXXIII, 32)

“No personalities are as susceptible to jealousy as those of men whose strength of character does not measure up to their pedigree or status, because these people hate quality and merit in another.” (XXXVIII, 43)

[Reactionary politics]
“As diseases must necessarily be known before their remedies, so passions come into being before the laws which prescribe limits to them.” (XXXIV, 4)

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