Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Siege of Saguntum (218/9 BC) - Polybius vs. Livy

The battle of Saguntum as told by Polybius and Livy gives two separate accounts of the same battle and the events leading up to it. Livy's account of the siege take up the better part of two pages. Polybius' account of the war is a much more condensed overview of what he considers to be its high points, told in two paragraphs.

The most significant force shaping these two authors is most likely the nationalities of the two men. The differences in the styles and facts between these two stories are extensive. While neither side fully identifies with Carthage, one author definitely gives a more well-rounded and evenly-balanced account. The two histories differ not only in facts about the battle, but also in the events leading up to the battle as well as how Hannibal is depicted.

The nationality of a writer, in reference to the country he/she is examining, is the key to understanding the point of view from which a story is told. In this comparison, Polybius is a foreign writer living in Rome while writing about it. Polybius being born a Greek allows him to step outside the nationalism of Rome and view the battle of Saguntum in a more unbiased form. Livy, a Roman born and breed, takes a more national outlook on the events at Saguntum. His views express a more opinionated and biased tone. Livy also wrote almost 200 years after the battle, during the height of the Roman Empire. This period was subject to extreme nationalism in literature. This movement must also account for the numerous pro-Roman themes in Livy account and other works of the time such as Virgil's Aeneid.

With these attributes now stated, a more in-depth analysis of these works can commence. To begin, a comparison of the most principle character must take place. Hannibal is the most decorated general ever to grace a Carthage battlefield. The way he is depicted by the two authors is key in understanding their stances on the events of Saguntum.
From the first paragraphs each author establishes a tone about the General:
  • Livy from his very first sentence, portrays Hannibal as a power-hungry, imperialistic man hell bent on capturing Italy then Rome. This tone of Hannibal is continued throughout Livy's tale. Livy definitely seems to take the attack on Saguntum more personally than his Greek counterpart. That personal attachment is product of being a Roman citizen.
  • Polybius is less harsh in his description of Hannibal than Livy. While Polybius does not nearly condone the Carthaginians actions, he is not as critical.  Polybius portrays Hannibal in a more historic way. He seems more separated and unbiased than Livy, as modern day historians are expected to be.

The two authors descriptions of Hannibal are necessary to analyze the events that led up to the battle and how the writers describe these events differently. The most strikingly different approach to how these events are described is how each author chooses a different side of the war, and tells the prologue from that point of view:
  • Polybius chooses to play out the chain of events that occur in Carthage. He follows Hannibal from the fight against the Olcades, to his return to Carthage and then to his meeting with the council to convince them to enter into battle with the Sagunites. One must remember, however, that Polybius was writing while living in Rome. Due to that fact he could never write a pro-Carthage history of Saguntum. Therefore he makes sure to recall how Hannibal seems to deliberately mislead the council into war with Romans, by telling them that Saguntums alliance with Rome was hurting Carthage's interests there. Polybius, however, stated that when Rome learned of the fall of Saguntum they had no time to conduct public debate on the matter.
  • Livy takes the opposite route; he shows the chain of events that trigger in Rome that lead up to Saguntum's siege. He tells of how the Roman Senate met to decide on war options. The Senate dispatched envoys to Spain but was divided on what to do after that. While Rome deliberated Hannibal began his siege on Saguntum.

The differences continue with the treatment of the siege. Livy goes to great lengths to describe with dignity how Saguntum valiantly defended their town against one of the largest powers and greatest generals of the time period. By making the Sagunites look defensive and valiant Livy plays on the charity and sympathy of the reader thus vilifying Hannibal and his actions.

Livy makes sure to humanize Hannibal by telling how he was badly wounded and how the army nearly collapsed without him. To further vilify Hannibal and his armies actions, Livy went on to tell of the fertile riches that lie within the Saguntum land, the crops, the sea and their extreme loyalty.

Polybius seems to choose to deify Hannibal rather than downplay him as Livy had. Polybius describes Hannibal as "pressing with vigor…an example to the rest of his army…taking an active share in laboring the siegeworks…encouraging the troop… and recklessly exposing himself to dangers"(Poly. p106). Polybius also describes the Saguntum land, except he tells it as why it would be a great asset to victory for Hannibal.

The differences between Polybius and Livy can be attributed mainly to the outside forces that influenced them:
  • For Polybius the key fact that he is a non-Roman living in Rome (and benefitting from Roman patronage)
  • Livy is a very patriotic Roman citizen writing in perhaps the most nationalistic era of Rome. These factors make him write a story to inspire and ascend Romans.

It is said that history is written by the victors, therefore most history is biased in one way or another. In this case we are lucky enough to see two different views of the same event written fairly close together in time. What separates this from the usual history we read is that one story is written by the winner, and the other is written not by the winner but one who was surrounded by them.

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