Livy, History of Rome XXXI.29

A Macedonian anti-Roman speech assimilating the Romans to barbarians.
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20 BCE to 12 CE
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History of Rome 

This text is an excerpt from book XXXI of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), a book dealing with the period from the end of 201 BCE to the end of 199 BCE (for a general presentation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, see Livy, History of Rome, Preface 6-9). This book is largely focused on the narrative of the second Macedonian War, which from 200 BCE saw Rome opposed to the Macedonian king Philip and their respective allies. For what concerns the strength of the main belligerents at that time, it is important to recall that from 202 BCE, Philip had considerably enlarged the territories he had received after the Peace of Phoenice, by conquering many free cities, but also many territories or cities which were under Rhodian or Egyptian domination (for the state of Philip’s kingdom in 200 BCE, see here). In addition, even though Philip controlled an important territory at the beginning of the second century BCE, his network of allies and friends was not very developed, and quite weak. Thus, at the beginning of the Second Macedonian War, Philip controlled an important territory, but was quite isolated. On the other side, the Romans had powerful allies in Attalus I and the Rhodians. The text presented here deals with the assembly of the Aetolians, which was organised in 199 BCE, and gathered the Aetolians, some representatives of Athens, Rome and Macedonia. It is important to remember that at that time, the Aetolians wavered between their aversion towards Philip – caused by his expansionist policy – and their resentment of Rome. Previously, during the first Macedonian War, the Aetolian League had fought with Rome against Philip. However, they had been obliged to draw back from the conflict and to sign a peace treaty with Philip in 206 BCE, an act that Rome did not approve of. Then, on the eve of the second conflict between Rome and Philip, probably because they did not believe in Rome’s chance of success, the Aetolians chose first to remain neutral (for a criticism of the historicity of the two Aetolian embassies dismissed by Rome in 202 and 200 BCE, see Ferrary, Philhellénisme, p. 50-58). In 199 BCE, the need for new allies and men meant that the Aetolian League was courted by both sides. This situation led the Aetolians to organize a meeting. The text selected here presents the speech, maybe influenced by passages of Polybius’s Histories, that Livy puts in the mouth of one of the Macedonian representatives who wants to convict the Aetolians of joining Philip’s side (on the use of Polybius, see Briscoe, A Commentary, p. 18-19). The anti-Roman arguments used by this representative to convince the Aetolians are interesting because they show the nature of the attacks that a Roman himself could formulate – through the voice of an enemy of Rome – against Rome’s imperialism.

The attack against Rome starts from the beginning of the speech when the representative speaks about the “presumption” (licentia) and the “fickleness” (levitas) of the Romans in the management of their diplomatic relations with the Aetolians (§ 4-5). It is interesting to note that the Macedonian representative uses here a negative qualifying term, levitas, that Livy also uses in another part of his work to describe the fickleness of some Greeks who challenge Rome’s strength by asserting the superiority of Alexander the Great (see Livy, Roman History IX.18.6).

In this speech, the aim of the Macedonian representative is to present Roman foreign policy as incompatible with the preservation of the freedom of cities or communities. Each of the situations in which Rome interfered with the life of a foreign community or city, whether or not these communities or cities actually asked for it (in the form of a friendship, an alliance, or an occupation after a sanction), is systemically presented by the Macedonian representative as a despotic intrusion. To criticize it, he gives precise examples of places in Sicily (§ 6-9) and in Italy (§ 10-12) where this policy reduced many free cities to subjection, or even to the total disappearance of any civic life as in the case of Capua (§ 11). The precise examples given by the Macedonian representative are misleading, because he deals with cities that had different statuses and fails to differentiate between them, and because some generalisations are erroneous. For instance, it is absolutely not obvious that during the second century BCE, citizens from Messina were submitted to the jurisdiction of the Roman governor, and thus that the governor held assizes in this city (see Ferrary, Philhellénisme, p. 13, n. 27). However, an interesting element of this generalising condemnation of Rome’s abusive intrusion into the life of a free city is that to symbolize the most obvious manifestation of Rome’s abuses, the Macedonian representative uses an archetypal portrayal of the Roman governor and of his apparatus (lictors and fasces) symbolizing his imperium (§ 9). This presentation ends with the following assessment: “and year by year the lots grant them one master after another.” Such a sentence clearly refers to the attribution, by drawing lots, of the various provinces between the praetors who were annually elected. It is interesting that the turn-over of the Roman system of annual magistracies is often highlighted in sources related to the point of view of non-Romans about Rome’s institutions. This system of annual magistracies is thus alternatively presented as a proof of the singularity (1 Maccabees 8.16), the weakness (see Livy in his response to Greek criticism, in Livy, Roman History IX.17-18), or the inconstancy of Rome’s institutional system. In this text, the Macedonian representative mentions the turn-over of the praetors so as to denounce implicitly the arbitrariness of Rome’s institutional system.

Next, after having given concrete examples of places where Rome’s domination expressed itself violently, the Macedonian representative warns the Aetolians that it will happen sooner or later in Greece if they choose Rome’s side instead of Philip’s. To prove his point, the orator presents Philip as a defender of the freedom (libertas) of Greek cities, but also as a king respectful of peace and of treaties concluded (§ 13). His attitude is thus presented as the exact opposite of the “fickleness” (levitas) of the Romans; a motif which is used in some anti-Roman speeches wherein Romans are presented as incapable of respecting their commitments with their friends or allies (see Sallust’s Letter of Mithridates in Sallust, Histories IV.60.5-9; Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XXXVIII.3.10-7.10). On the other side, the Macedonian representative stresses the harshness of the yoke (iugum, § 14) that the Romans could impose upon the Aetolians; a yoke which could lead to the total annihilation of the Aetolian League and of the cities or communities taking part in it (§ 12 “It is madness to hope that anything will remain in the same condition if foreigners (...) shall gain control”).
To discredit the Romans more effectively, the Macedonian representative uses another strategy which consists of opposing Greeks – including Macedonians – to Romans: “… foreigners (alienigenae homines), separated from us more by language, manners and laws than by the space of land and sea...” (§ 12). The Macedonian speaker thus assimilates the Romans to barbarians against whom Greeks must unite themselves. Such a view clearly echoes an argument which appears in three Polybian speeches pronounced by Greek leaders during the first Macedonian War (see Walbank, “Polybius,” p. 8-13; Briscoe, A Commentary, p. 133). These speeches are that of Agelaus in 217 BCE (Polybius, Histories V.104.1), that of Lyciscus in 210 BCE (Polybius, Histories IX.37.6-7), and that of Thrasycrates in 207 BCE (Polybius, Histories XI.4.1-6.8, especially XI.5.7). In every speech, the Romans are presented as barbarians (βάρβαροι, see Polybius, Histories V.104.1; IX.37.6; XI.5.7), and as “men of a foreign race” (αλλόφυλοι ἄνθρωποι, Polybius, Histories IX.37.7). Polybius’s influence on Livy’s narrative is thus obvious. As Andrew Erskine remarks, if Roman authors such as Cato or Livy were aware that most of the Greeks considered the Romans to be barbarians, no surviving Greek author actually called the Romans barbarians in his own voice. As it is the case with Polybius, Romans are assimilated to barbarians only in anti-Roman polemic, especially in reported or invented speeches. This point can be explained by the fact that the surviving literature is essentially pro-Romans, but also by the fact that it may have been dishonouring for Greeks to recall that they were ruled by barbarians (Erskine, “Polybios,” p. 171-172). Moreover, John Briscoe has rightly recalled, this assimilation of the Romans to barbarians shows that the various traditions which made Rome a city of Greek origin (as for instance with the tradition according to which the Arcadian Evander would have established himself on the Palatine – see Varro, De lingua latina V.21) were here totally challenged by “the Trojan legend of Rome’s origin [which] helped to reinforce the idea of perpetual enmity between Greeks and Romans” (Briscoe, A Commentary, p. 133).

The Macedonian representative goes further in his opposition between Greeks and Romans by explaining the reason which should motivate the Greeks to gather against Rome: “The Aetolians, the Acarnanians, the Macedonians, men of the same speech (eiusdem linguae homines), are united or disunited by trivial causes that arise from time to time; with aliens (alienigenis), with barbarians (barbaris), all Greeks wage and will wage eternal war (aeternum bellum); for they are enemies by the will of nature, which is eternal, and not from reasons that change from day to day (§ 15).” First, it is important to recall that the speaker praises the Hellenism of the Macedonians and presents them as fully Greek, an idea which had not always been accepted by all Greeks (see Isocrates, Philippos, 154; Hus, Tite-Live, p. 108, n. 11). Second, Greeks are said to be united by the fact that they formed part of the same linguistic and ethnic community, even if they could often be divided by internal conflicts. These two ideas can be found in quite similar terms in Polybius, in the speech that Lyciscus addressed to the Spartians: “Then your rivals in the struggle for supremacy and renown were the Acheans and Macedonians, peoples of your own race (ὁμοφύλους), and Philip was their commander. But now Greece is threatened with a war against men of a foreign race (ἀλλοφύλους ἀνθρώπους) who intend to enslave her, men whom you fancy you are calling in against Philip, but are calling in really against yourselves and the whole of Greece” (Polybius, Histories IX.37.7-8; Loeb’s translation by W. R. Paton, p. 87; for the connection of the two texts, see Hus, Tite-Live, p. 108, n. 11). However, the Macedonian representative does not merely mention this opposition between the unified Greek world and the barbarians/Romans, he also explains that the fact that the Romans are part of the barbarians make them inevitable and eternal enemies of Greeks. The reason that he gives is that the Romans are enemies of Greeks “by nature, which is permanent” (natura perpetua), a reason which clearly echoes Plato’s remark in The Republic V.470c5, when he writes that Greeks and barbarians are “enemies by nature” (πολεμίους φύσει; quoted in Briscoe, A Commentary, p. 133).

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