I got an email from Fabrizio Dinatale, who is writing a dissertation at the University of Reading (UK) on Polybius and Livy. He asked my opinion on the “qualities/defects” attributed to each of them.
Fabrizio, I replied to your email but I keep getting error messages. (“550 550 unrouteable address (state 14)”)
Here is what I said:
your dissertation sounds fascinating. Send me a link once it’s finished and I might link to it. You will be the expert on the topic. I am, as you may have picked up from the blog, not a historian, just a writer who’s having fun with Hannibal and Scipio as the main characters in a book about, well, you and me.
That said, Livy and Polybius are my main ancient sources, so I do have some impressions, as I said here and here.
Polybius took Thucydides as his model, Livy Herodotus. Which is to say: Polybius believed in thorough research, fact-checking, original reporting, less embellishment. He personally interviewed eye witnesses and traveled the routes that Hannibal took, even over the Alps. He had a personal connection in that he was the tutor and friend of Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Africanus’ adoptive grandson) and stood next to him when the Romans burnt Carthage to the ground.
Polybius was writing for his fellow Greeks to explain how the most momentous event in history up to that time–Rome’s rise to superpower status–could have happened. And the biggest step in that rise was Rome’s near-death experience but ultimate victory over Hannibal.
Livy was completely different: somewhat lazy (he did not travel), and unconcerned about originality (ie, he plagiarized Polybius freely). He embellished liberally. Above all, he was writing less a history than propaganda, as you said. And for Romans, in Latin. His mission was to narrate the past, mythical and actual, in a coherent way that appeared inexorably to lead to … Augustus! Rome as the chosen people, you might say.
In that sense, he was not unlike Virgil, who went one step further in the Aeneid and implicitly tied Augustus to Aeneas as though everything had all been preordained all along.
Have fun. Again, i’ll be interested in what you end up concluding in your dissertation.