The Historian and His Moral History of Rome

Image ID: 1573553 Livy.
Annales Volusi. cacata carta. -- Catullus XXXVI on Livy.

NYPL Digital Gallery

Name: Titus Livius or Livy, in English
Dates: 59 B.C. - A.D. 17
Birthplace: Patavium (Padua), Cisalpine Gaul
Family: Unknown, had at least one child, a son
Occupation: Historian

The Roman annalistic [year-by-year] historian Titus Livius (Livy), from Patavium (Padua, as it's called in English), the area of Italy in which Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew took place, lived about 76 years, from c. 59 B.C. to c. A.D. 17. That hardly seems long enough to have finished his magnum opus, Ab Urbe Condita 'From the Founding of the City', a feat that has been compared with publishing one 300-page book each year for 40 years.

Most of Livy's 142 books on the 770-year history of Rome have been lost, but 35 survive: i-x, xxi-xlv.

Division of Ab Urbe Condita

Contents of Ab Urbe Condita Libri I-XLV

I-V: Origins to Gallic sack of Rome
VI-XV: To beginning of Punic Wars
XVI-XX: First Punic War
XXI-XXX: Second Punic War
XXXI-XLV: Macedonian and Syrian Wars

After dispensing with 365 years of Roman history in only five books (averaging ~73 years/book), Livy covers the rest of the history at the rate of about five years per book.

Livy's Morality

Although we're missing the contemporary portion of his history, there seems little reason to believe that Livy's Ab Urbe Condita was written as an official Augustan history, aside from the fact that he was a friend of Augustus, and that morality was important to both men.

  • Although Livy's status as the official Augustan historian is debated, Paul J. Burton (following T.J. Luce, "The Dating of Livy's First Decade," TAPA96 (1965)) dates the start of Livy's historical writing to 33 B.C. -- before the Battle of Actium and the year (27 B.C.) Octavian conventionally qualifies as emperor.
  • Livy's role in the history of literature and the theater -- for which see Heroes and Heroines of Fiction, by William Shepard Walsh -- and the visual arts, especially Botticelli, comes at least in part from Livy's moral stories of The Abduction of Virginia and The Rape of Lucretia.

In his preface, Livy directs the reader to read his history as a storehouse of examples for imitation and avoidance:

What chiefly makes the study of history beneficial and fruitful is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience as upon a famous monument; from these you may choose for your own state what to imitate, and mark for avoidance what is shameful....

Livy directs his readers to examine the morals and policies of others so that they can see how important it is to maintain standards of morality:

Here are the questions to which I should like every reader to give his close attention: what life and morals were like; through what men and what policies, in peace and in war, empire was established and enlarged. Then let him note how, with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first subsided, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to our present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.

From this moral perspective, Livy depicts all non-Roman races as embodying character flaws that correspond with central Roman virtues:

"the Gauls are factious and headstrong, and lack staying power; while the Greeks are better at talking than fighting, and immoderate in their emotional reactions" [Usher, p. 176.]

Numidians are also immoderate emotionally since they are too lustful:

"above all barbarians the Numidians are steeped in passion"
sunt ante omnes barbaros Numidae effusi in venerem. [Haley]

Historical Evaluation of Livy

With history as his vehicle, Livy displays his rhetorical flair and literary style. He engages the attention of the listening audience through speeches or emotive description. Occasionally Livy sacrifices chronology to variety. He rarely explores contradictory versions of an event but selects with an eye to championing Rome's national virtues.

Livy acknowledged a lack of contemporary written records from which to verify facts from Rome's beginnings. Sometimes he mistranslated Greek literary sources. Without a background in practical military affairs or politics, his reliability in these areas is limited. However, Livy supplies myriad mundane details that are unavailable elsewhere, and, therefore, he is the most important source for Roman general history for the period to the end of the Republic.

Sources Include:

Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome

"The Last Republican Historian: A New Date for the Composition of Livy's First Pentad"
Paul J. Burton
Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 49, H. 4 (4th Qtr., 2000), pp. 429-446.

"Livy, Passion, and Cultural Stereotypes"
S. P. Haley
Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 39, H. 3 (1990), pp. 375-381

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Livy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Livy. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Livy." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).