Livy (3)

Titus Livius or Livy (59 BCE - 17 CE): Roman historian, author of the authorized version of the history of the Roman republic.



It had been the greatest dream of the Roman orator Cicero that once, there would arise a Roman author who would be able to write a history of Rome that would match the works of famous Greek writers like Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides. Had Cicero been able to read Livy's History of Rome from its foundation, he would have been very content. The Roman historian may have lacked the depth of a Thucydides and the humor of Herodotus, but his description of the birth and growth of the Roman republic is a piece of art indeed. Below, we will discuss three characteristics of Livy's masterpiece:

  1. The influence of rhetoric
  2. The structure
  3. The main theme

1 The influence of rhetoric

The work is clearly written by someone who was educated as an orator. When a Roman boy received rhetorical education, he often had to speak on historical subjects: for example, he had to argue what would had happened if this or that historical event had not taken place, or he had to give arguments for a certain policy in a hypothetical situation, or he had to impersonate a historical figure. Livy must have been a master in this game, because the speeches are the best parts of the History of Rome from its foundation.

Often, Livy inserts orations, which he has composed himself. Although the presence of invented speeches strikes us as odd -they are not historical facts and do, therefore, not belong in a work of history- this way to embellish the plain facts was a normal practice in ancient historiography. (In fact, the custom is even older than historiography, because the first historian, Herodotus, introduced speeches in his Histories to emulate Homer.) Speeches usually served to explain why a person acted as he did. Livy, however, has a second motive to write speeches: he uses them to create psychological portraits. They are convincing, which adds to the charm of his books.

Book 9 contains an interesting digression, in which Livy defends a thesis that must have originated in the rhetorical school: he argues that if the famous Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great had not attacked the Persian empire, but had instead gone west, he would have been defeated by the Romans.

2 The structure

If we ignore the first book, which contains legends about the kings that once ruled Rome, Livy's history has a very simple structure: he describes the events of one year at a time.

Unlike historians like Polybius of Megalopolis and Tacitus, Livy never chooses a more thematic approach, clustering, for example, the events in Hispania of several years together. Livy inherited this strict order from earlier Latin historians, the Annalists. We will return to them later. Sometimes, he digresses on related subjects like the early history of the Gauls (Book 5), the structure of the Roman army (Book 8), the origins of Carthage (Book 16), the settlement of Gauls in Anatolia (Book 38), the etymology of the word 'Baleares' (Book 60), or the customs of the Germanic tribes (Book 104). Usually, the digressions are brief, and they do not seriously interfere with the normal pattern of his narrative.

As we have already seen, Livy treats several years in one book. The larger divisions of the History of Rome from its Foundation are units of five, ten, or fifteen books. As far as the author of the present article knows, no other ancient historian has used a similar system. However, Livy is no slave to this division. The Third Punic War was treated in Books 48-51, which belong to two pentads. There were separate editions of the Books 109-116, which were called the Eight Books on the Civil war, and it is possible that Livy regarded them as a unit too.

3 The main theme

Like most ancient historians, Livy was a moralist. He was deeply concerned about the degeneration of the Romans, which had started after the fall of Carthage in 146. Luxury and decadence had become normal, and Livy often complains about it. Rich people behaved frivolously and set a bad example to poorer Romans, who no longer kept their place. They started to make political demands, which had caused the rise of the Gracchi and the civil wars. In the preface to the History of Rome from its foundation, Livy addresses the reader:

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.

Rome had conquered the world but lost its soul. This was hardly an original theme. In 42 or 41, the historian Sallust had said the same in the preface to his Catiline Conspiracy, and Augustus shared the analysis. What Livy tried to show in his writings, the emperor tried to cure with legislation on (a.o.) luxury and marriage. A moral revival was still possible.

Livy played his part in this revival. Men had to be courageous and take responsibility for public live; chastity and life at home were a woman's tasks, which were equally important. (We may think that this is an anti-feminist attitude, but Livy has, compared to other ancient authors, a sincere and a respectful attitude towards women.) In his story, he often gave examples how courage and piety had been rewarded, and how incorrect behavior was punished. For example, in Book 22 he tells how in 217, Gaius Flaminius accepted the consulship without the necessary rituals, and immediately launched a military campaign against Hannibal. Livy says that many senators found this outrageous and considered it "not a war against the enemy, but a war against the gods". When Flaminius is defeated at the Trasimene lake, Livy does not return to this reproach (instead he describes the suffering of the relatives of those missing in action), but the message is clear: the gods had punished the Romans.

Although Livy shared Augustus' concerns, he was not a mere writer of propaganda. His own first concern was the historical truth, and nothing else. One example may suffice. The Romans had the custom that a commander who killed a foreign general in a duel, would offer the enemy's arms to Jupiter Feretrius. These spolia opima were very prestigious, and only two republican commanders ever visited the temple of Jupiter Feretrius: Cossus in the late fifth century and Marcellus in 222. In 29 BCE, however, a Roman commander named Marcus Licinius Crassus (grandson of the triumvir) claimed spolia opima. To the emperor Augustus, this was too much prestige for an ordinary commander, and he invented a new rule, saying that only consuls were entitled to this honor. Unfortunately, Cossus had not been consul, but Augustus, walking into the temple, pretended to read an inscription which recorded his consulship. When Livy describes Cossus' victory,note he states that the war hero had been a tribune, and mentions in something that looks like a footnote that Augustus disagreed with the entire historical tradition. Our historian goes on to ask how all the lists of magistrates could possibly have contained such a big mistake. He nowhere explicitly says that Augustus was a liar, but the message was clear.