The War With Hannibal
How Livy Views the Roman Senate and Its Role in the Second Punic War
The Second Punic War marked one of the Roman Republic’s darkest periods. Hundreds of thousands of Roman soldiers were killed, nearly all of Italy was devastated or occupied by a foreign army, and many of Rome’s past allies turned against her. But in the end, after seventeen years of a demoralizing resistance, Rome managed to beat the Carthaginians once again. How did this happen?
While many variables proved disadvantageous to Hannibal over such a long time period in a hostile country, much credit can and should be given to the Romans for their adaptation to the new circumstances Hannibal imposed on them, at least after the battles of Trasimene and Cannae; the structural reforms of the Roman government and military, specifically the increased authority of the Senate, proved to be decisive through the rest of the war and into Rome’s imperial conquests.
In his book, The War with Hannibal, Livy highlights the strengths and weaknesses of dictator Fabius and consul Flaminius and the citizens’ reactions to the defeats at Trasimene and Cannae as reasons for that increase in Senatorial power. In this essay, I will examine these two interconnected aspects of Livy’s account of the war and argue that they demonstrate his belief that the Senate is a better judge of what is needed to defend Rome than the Roman people. In fact, through this belief, Livy is giving a commentary on how collectivism yields a strong and wise government.
After the defeat at the Trebia river in 218 BC, elections were held to determine the two consuls for the following year. Livy pays special attention to the election of consul Gaius Flaminius as Flaminius is the man who he primarily blames for the subsequent defeat at Lake Trasimene in 217 BC.
At this point, before the reforms of more Senatorial power and delegation of military offices to non-consuls, consuls were the commanders-in-chief of the military, actually the sole military leaders of Rome, and the religious leaders of the government, able to seek out the will of the gods. The way Livy portrays Flaminius shows that he lacks the qualities necessary to properly utilize these powers.
Livy states that, during his first consulship, Flaminius quarreled with the Senate over the “abrogation of his consulship and then, later, about his right to an official triumph” (90), showing his conflict with the Senate right from the start and that his ego is part of the reason for it. Furthermore, Flaminius is described as having “exasperated the Senate” on a particular bill that “Flaminius alone of the senatorial party supported;” however, this bill, a limitation on the size of ship a senator could own, was supported by “the masses” (90), which is how he got re-elected.
Livy includes these anecdotes to portray Flaminius’ conflict-ridden relationship with the Senate, the reasons for it, his individualism, and to show whom it was that really supported Flaminius, the people not the Senate; it is a predicate for his disapproval of Flaminius and, by extension, his disapproval for the choice of the Roman people.
Because of the low regard the senators held him in, Flaminius left the capitol before he was sworn in as consul, disregarding political and religious tradition which led the Senate to say he “is now at war with not only the Senate but with the gods” (90). The duties of being a consul that Flaminius ignores both have collective undertones, making Flaminius stand out more as an individual.
He goes off to meet his army without being sworn in, implying that he doesn’t need the consent of the collective Senate to be given command. And the religious ceremonies that he also ignored are meant to unify Roman policy with the will of the gods; Flaminius clearly doesn’t care about this unifying goal.
Livy presents this act of disrespect alongside a series of unusual events such as two moons rising and soldiers being struck by lightning that the other consul has interpreted as religious omens “of coming disaster” (91). Whether for dramatic purposes or a real accounting of the fears of the Roman people, Livy uses these omens as a means of foreshadowing Flaminius’ fall and to blame that fall on his arrogance, an individualistic arrogance given to him by his popular support and not by the respect of the Senate.
Livy writes Flaminius “with but scant respect even for the gods, let alone the laws of his country or the majesty of the Senate” to demonstrate how a reckless and unrestrained leader can lead to disaster; the Senate’s “majesty” (96) of the years after the war come from juxtaposed qualities to Flaminius, its thoughtfulness and solidity, as demonstrated by their choice of Fabius as dictator.
Trasimene lost Rome one consul and the other was separated from Rome by the enemy. After such a resounding defeat, Rome had no choice but to resort to their most powerful office, the dictator. Unable to reach the remaining consul, the Senate “took the hitherto unprecedented step of appointing Quintus Fabius Maximus as acing-dictator” (103), showing their trust in him.
Livy portrays Fabius as Flaminius’ antithesis; his first motion as acting-dictator is to condemn Flaminius’ disregard of “the traditional ceremonies” (104) and ask for a grand religious ceremony with hundreds of sacrifices to the gods, showing his obedience to the collective mindset.
Livy also makes note of how Fabius’ relationship with the Senate contrasts with Flaminius’; Fabius “opened the debate in the Senate on the number and nature of the forces required to oppose the victorious enemy” (106), where Flaminius simply left to take control of the last consul’s force. Fabius clearly respects the Senate and he follows their orders even though he holds a position even higher than consul.
Even when he later disapproves of the “Senate’s decree on the equalization of command” (125) with his impulsive Master of Horse, Minucius, Fabius obeys them. That event is particularly interesting for another reason as well, for what it explains about the change in governmental and military rules.
The way Fabius loses his respectability is firstly due to his soldiers’ yearning for a quick fight to end the war, encouraged, if not instigated, by Minucius “calling his delaying tactics a shrinking from action and his caution timidity” (108). The solders are the first to doubt Fabius. Later, when his tactics were also “unpopular in Rome as well as in the army” (111), Livy credits the despise for Fabius to “everyone, soldiers and civilians” (120), but leaves out the Senatorial class.
Livy seems to be excluding the Senate from this contempt because he approves of both Fabius and the Senate; he emphasizes that even though the Senate does eventually concede to an equal command, at first, “there was reluctance to come forward and actively support the measure which the people were known to approve” (124).
Livy is contrasting the opinion of the people with the policy of the Senate to show how it is this governmental body that has a cooler mind and a more consistent plan. He blames the common people for their poor decisions, justifying the Senate’s increase in power during and after the war; after all, in the end, it is Fabian tactics that win them the war.
Blaming the common people and external interference with military matters resulted in the reforms to the Roman government and military after the war, namely the Senate picking up the commander-in-chief position. After Flaminius and with the success of Fabius, it is clear that the Senate is the better judge of how to defend Rome.
On that note, there are a number of other instances where Livy criticizes the Roman people for the state of the nation while holding up the Senate as the source of order and resolve. He does this to contrast the two groups, to give credit to the Senate for the way it handled the Second Punic War, and to present the public as in need of ruling.
Right after the battle of Trasimene, Livy describes the reaction to the news in the city of Rome: “terror and confusion swept the city” (101). Clearly those who are terrified and confused cannot mount an effective defense. Furthermore, he tells of two women, so overcome by joy at their son’s returns that “the shock of excessive joy killed [them]” (102).
These particular portrayals of the people specifically show a lack of Disciplina, a virtue the Romans greatly valued which means having strength in adversity. The Senate, by contrast, is portrayed with Disciplina as they debate “from sunrise to sunset for several days” (102) what to do next, resolving to nominate Fabius, whom Livy admires, acting-dictator. The Senate makes smart, decisive choices while the people make rash decisions such as electing Flaminius and then fall into chaos and excessive mourning.
After Cannae in 216 BC, Livy makes an even more vigorous argument to this effect. He claims that “no other nation in the world could have suffered so much tremendous a series of disasters, and not been overwhelmed” (154–155); however, at the same time he is detailing even more “terror and confusion” (154) than before from the people and outlining Fabius’ proposal for restoring “some sort of order,” it involving forbidding women “to appear out of doors” and “family mourning [to] be checked, and silence imposed everywhere” (155).
Plainly, Livy is referring to the Senate not being overwhelmed as he believes that the people already have. The difference Livy portrays by giving examples of individual people losing their Disciplina and the Senate, as a whole body, displaying Disciplina is that the Senate is a group working towards a common goal, the people are a rabble of individuals. It is the Senate’s collectivism that is their greatest strength; Livy shows that they are able to think about a common goal and devise a strategy to achieve it while the people can only consider events that happen to them and react.
No clearer is this sentiment than when the Senate debates the merits of buying back the Roman prisoners of Cannae from Hannibal. After an impassioned speech by the leader of the prisoners’ delegation, “the crowd in the place of assembly burst into tears… everyone held out his arms towards the Senate-house, begging for the restoration of children, or brothers, or kinsmen” (161). The people wanted their friends and families back; however, one Senator took issue with the way the prisoners “made their surrender almost a cause for self-congratulation” (161) and he convinced the Senate to vote “against the ransom” (165).
These men had surrendered when others had taken the chance to escape and the Senate, along with the Censors, of whom Livy also speaks, decided that they didn’t meet the moral and virtuous standard for being “neither soldiers nor Romans” (162). The blame is placed on these men for not upholding Roman values and the Senate, which does uphold these values, consequently assumes more power.
The Senate makes a choice for the good of the collective while the people make choices based on their personal desires, thus they can’t be trusted to defend the interests of Rome as a whole, thus the Senate assumes more power to meet the need of proper defense.
By portraying Flaminius as an impulsive individualist who disregards the Senate before his defeat at Lake Trasimene, Livy condemns that sort of behavior and the common people who gave him the power of a second consulship.
By portraying Fabius as a respectful man working with the collective will of the Senate and the gods, and showing that his strategy is what secured Rome’s eventual victory, Livy supports that sort of behavior and the Senate who trusted him as dictator.
Lastly, by portraying the Roman people as a mob with only individualistic and short-sighted intentions, and blaming them for many poor decisions such as nominating Flaminius and opposing Fabian tactics, Livy contrasts them to the Senate who is always working towards a goal for the good of the whole republic.
The way Livy examines the Second Punic War demonstrates his belief that the Senate is a better judge of what is needed to defend Rome than the Roman people, justifying the expansion of Senatorial power during and after the war. It is also through his presentation of the character of the Senate and the character of the people that he comments on the necessity of collectivism for a strong and wise government.
Livy, Titus. The War with Hannibal. Penguin Books, 1965.