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A Roman Tradition of Alexander the Great Counterfactual History (Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae) [online version]

The military success of Alexander and his early death lends itself perfectly to the realm of counterfactual history. No less than nine authors partook in the creation and propagation of Alexander counterfactual history. Our extant examples range from
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    A Roman Tradition of Alexander the Great Counterfactual History Nikolaus Leo Overtoom 2012  Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae  vol. 52 no. 3: 203-212.  Abstract: The military success of Alexander and his early death lends itself perfectly to the realm of counterfactual history. No less than nine authors partook in the creation and propagation of Alexander counterfactual history. Our extant examples range from as early as the third century BCE to the sixth century CE. This paper examines first the scholarly debates surrounding the  placement of Livy’s digression in his larger narrative, the objectives of Livy’s digression, and the reasons for its existence. It then turns to a discussion of the popularity and consistency of the Roman tradition of Alexander counterfactual history. The tradition not only attempted to represent Rome and Italy as places of relative international importance in the late forth century BCE but also served to compare a young Roman state, which would rise to dominance in the Mediterranean world, favorably to the mightiest conqueror in all of ancient history.   The military success of Alexander the Great and his early death at the height of his power lends itself perfectly to the realm of counterfactual history. Questions about Alexander’s potential strategies, motives, and objectives accompany those who study th e life of Macedonia’s greatest king. A ncient writers shared in this fascination and often turned to a counterfactual examination of Alexander’s plans in the latter years of the fourth century BCE. Several of our surviving texts address this tradition in some manner. No less than nine authors partook in the creation and propagation of Alexander counterfactual history. Livy’s digression on Alexander the Great’s  hypothetical invasion of Italy is the largest and most noteworthy of these examples. Yet extant examples range from as early as the third century BCE to the sixth century CE. This paper will examine first the scholarly debates surrounding the placement of Livy’s digression in his larger narrative, the objectives of Livy’s digression, and the reasons for its existence. It will then turn to a discussion of the popularity and consistency of the Roman tradition of Alexander counterfactual history. These counterfactual accounts materialized in stories of Roman contact with Alexander before his death and in his planned conquest of Italy. There came to be a well established tradition of the threat of Alexander to Italy and his designs to wage war against the Romans. This message became more focused on a direct clash between Alexander and Rome in our later sources. The tradition not only attempted to represent Rome and Italy as places of relative international importance in the late forth century BCE but also served to compare a   2 young Roman state, which would rise to dominance in the Mediterranean world, favorably to the mightiest conqueror in all of ancient history.    Livy’s Digression and the Larger Narrative of His History Scholars have long debated the exact purpose and relevance of the digression to Livy’s larger narrative. 1  R. Morello sees the debate as a divide between Anglophone and Continental scholars. 2  For many years Anglophone scholars, led by W. B. Anderson, believed the digression w as a “long - winded,” “irrelevant,” and “juvenile” showpiece that Livy later added into his text. 3  Yet this scholarly opinion has come under considerable criticism in recent years. S. P. Oakley, in his extensive commentary on Book 9, thoroughly rejects Ander son’s arguments and states that few scholars now follow this school of thought. 4  The debate goes back several decades. Continental scholars, led by P. Treves, saw the digression as a significant element in Livy’s  text and refocused the debate on what was the reasoning for the digression and where it was supposed to fit within the narrative trajectory that Livy was constructing for Roman history. 5  It is now generally accepted 1   For a standard bibliography on the critical approaches to Livy’s digression , see Ruth Morello, “Livy’s Alexander Digression (9.17 - 19): Counterfactuals and Apologetics,”  Journal of Roman Studies  92 (2002): 63 n.7. 2    Ibid.  63-4. 3  See ibid.  63. Note also W. B. Anderson, “Contributions to the Study of the Ninth Book of Livy,” Transactions of the American Philological Association  39 (1908): 89-103; C. F. Walters and R. S. Conway, “Restorations and Emendations in Livy VI. - X,” The Classical Quarterly  12, No. 2 (Apr., 1918): 100; W. B. Anderson,  Livy Book 9  (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 255-58; E. T. Salmon, Samnium and the Samnites  (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 228; and T. A. Dorey, ed.,  Livy  (London: Routledge, 1971), 13. 4  For Oakley ’s argument, see S. P. Oakley,  A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X: Volume III: Book  IX   (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005),   194 and 655-58. 5  Piero Treves pioneered this change. See Morello, “Livy’s  Alexander Digression, ” 64. Note  also P. Treves,  II mito di Alessandro e la Roma d'Augusto  (Milan, 1953), 15. Yet whether the digression was an earlier rhetorical exercise (later inserted into the work by Livy) or a passionate response to the contemporary literary attacks made by Greek writers on the waning Roman military reputation of the middle to late first century BCE (because of recent failures in the East), the digression still demonstrates the clear impact of Alexander on Livy’s history,  and his own interest in the Alexander topic.   3 that the Alexander digression is not a later insert, and that it adds in several ways to our understanding of the larger narrative, as discussed below. However, this school of thought led to debates over the placement and purpose of the digression within the greater narrative. Treves argued that the digression should have been placed in Book 8 and did not think that it had an explicit link with Book 9, only surfacing there because Book 8 already had been published. 6  Alternatively, E. Burck, J. Lipovsky, and V. Santangelo put forth the idea that the digression was a post-Caudine Forks apologetic, created in order to distract Livy’s audience  and cover up the Roman failure. 7  Oakley views the placement of the digression as significant when read against the background of Roman recovery after the disaster at Caudine Forks. 8  He argues that the purpose of the digression is to emphasize Roman greatness and resilience. 9  Meanwhile, others view the digression as a Livian commentary on the dangers of one man rule, and as connected with contemporary events, possibly even criticizing Augustus. 10  Finally, several scholars have preferred to 6  Treves argues that Livy published books 1-10 separately and suggests that Book 8, where he thought the digression belonged, had already been published by the time that Livy thought of creating the digression. Therefore, Treves argues that Livy placed the digression in Book 9 out of necessity. See Morello, “Livy’s Alexander Digression,” 64; and Oakley, Commentary III, 193. 7   Morello, “Livy’s Alexander Digression,” 64.  Note also J. Lipovsky,  A Historiographical Study of  Livy Books VI-X   (Manchester, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 1981), 141 and 151; and E. Burck, Vom  Menschenbild in der romischen Literatur   (Heidelberg, 1966), 325-26. 8  Oakley, Commentary III, 196. 9    Ibid.  197. 10  Oakley argues that the digression may reflect contemporary events, but it is unclear which events. See ibid  .   192, 197, and 199; R. M. Ogilvie,  Livy: Rome and Italy, Books VI-X of the History of  Rome from its Foundation , trans. and annotated by Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1982), 11; Diana Spencer, The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth  (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003), 44; and Morello, “Livy’s Alexander Digression,” 82 -3. Further, by connecting his digression with contemporary events and people, Livy again associates the Romans with Alexander. Livy thus utilizes the great Macedonian as a notably example, whose conduct further establishes right and wrong.   4 see the digression as a response to Roman failures against Parthia and as an attack on Romanophobic Greeks. 11  In an article on the Alexander digression, Morello appropriately argues that none of these interpretations is fully satisfying because they each are based on limited evidence and restrict what messages we may gather from Livy’s work. Instead, she argues that “we have too rarely made a serious attempt to understand the digression as historiographically legitimate, as participating in debates inherited from Livy's predecessors, and as a vital contribution to the architecture of the second pentad. . . . The digression is densely allusive, both to Livy's own work and to that of his predecessors.” 12  With this understanding, one can appreciate that the Alexander digression builds on many facets of Livy’s earlier work. Livy connected part of his reasoning for creating this digression to the goals he set forth in the Preface of his history. Morello argues, “The d igression encourages the reader, then, to think back to historiographical issues raised in the Preface [such as great men of the early period, stress placed on the perfection of the early military, and Roman society in general], and to consider the interac tion between Livy’ s text and those of two of his most influential predecessors [Cato and Ennius].” 13  In addition, the digression builds upon the idea of Rome’s rise to greatness and the coming struggle with the other powers of the Mediterranean world found in passage 7.29.1-2. Livy also meant for the digression to follow and expand upon the Papirian material found in Book 8, which introduces 11   Morello, “Livy’s Alexander Digression,” 64.  See also J. Marincola,  Authority and Tradition in  Ancient Historiography  (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 224; Erich S. Gruen, “Augustus and the Ideology of War and Peace,” in The Age of Augustus , ed. R. Winkes (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1985), 70; and Oakley, Commentary III, 198. 12   Morello, “Livy’s Alexander Digression,” 65.   13  See ibid. 67 and 69.
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