Ann Vasaly: Livy's Early Books: the Voice of the People

Professors Ann Vasaly and Leonard Muellner
Professors Ann Vasaly and Leonard Muellner

On February 25, 2010, Ann Vasaly, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, delivered the Spring 2010 Martin Weiner Lecture, "Livy's Early Books: the Voice of the People." Livy was an ancient Roman historian who lived in the first century BCE and wrote a history of Rome from its founding, until his own time. Professor Vasaly looked at Livy's first five books to examine how Livy portrayed the popular masses and leaders. A common interpretation is that Livy is always hostile to the early popular leaders and portrays their antagonists, the Senate, as always acting in the State's best interest.

Professor Vasaly showed how Livy frames early Roman history by means of the "Struggle of the Orders." This was a conflict between the aristocratic patricians, who were the sole class represented in the Senate, and the plebeians or commoners. The plebeians were led by tribunes, an office created exclusively to address issues pertaining to their class. The tribunes provided the only leadership to the plebeians, since without them, Livy shows the People as weak and disorganized. Professor Vasaly noted how the plebeians are often portrayed as a danger to the State since they are volatile and prone to rioting. Even with their tribunes, they are often intimidated by the patricians as evidenced by the murder of the tribune Genucius in 473 BCE, after he championed a land distribution issue.

Professor Vasaly, however, found that Livy not always shows popular leaders in such a negative light as the focus on class conflict might suggest. After Genucius' murder, a former soldier named Volero refused to enlist when his name was called. This is similar to the old soldier who was put in debt slavery who spurred on a popular movement to eliminate that practice.  Volero was able to drive off the lictors and was eventually elected as a tribune. Livy does not attack Volero, even as a tribune, because of his military background and perceived stand against injustice. Volero thus represents what Professor Vasaly calls a "soldier leader" of the plebeians. These leaders are not heavily targeted by Livy. Another example is Verginius who helps to lead the revolt against the decemvirs. The soldier tribunes are painted positively by Livy because they are forced into that role due to their pursuit of justice.

Livy's negative portrayal of tribunes relates to those Professor Vasaly terms "political tribunes." These leaders are not forced into their roles, but seek to advance their own power. Livy makes them appear as a demagogues who seek self-aggrandizement and, through their controversial popular laws, imperil the security of the whole community. The Icilii tribunes are generally portrayed this way though one, the fiancé of the murdered Verginia, is seen in a much more positive light. This is likely due to his role as a "Brutus" figure against the decemvirs as he strove to protect the plebs from harm.

Livy thus provides ways for the tribunes and the plebeians to be seen in a positive light. Those with a military background are seen as good men, as are those who fight what Livy considers an injustice. Ultimately, Professor Vasaly sees Livy as a political realist who knew that the patricians and plebeians needed to work together to allow the state to function smoothly. As such, those popular leaders who put the needs of the greater community above their own personal desires are portrayed as heroic figures while those who seek to destroy political harmony are seen negatively. At the lecture's conclusion, a question and answer session was held followed by a small but lively reception in which all participants were able to meet and ask further questions of Professor Vasaly.

—Lee Marmor ‘10