Livy (5)

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


In Antiquity, Livy was praised by many authors. Writing during the reign of the emperor Domitian, Quintilian states that Romans Livy and Sallust were the equals of the Greek historians Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides.note This was, at the end of the first century, the greatest praise possible. (It was only during the age of the Severan emperors that the Romans had sufficient cultural self-confidence to bluntly state that they no longer cared about Greek civilization.) When Livy told a story, Quintilian said, it was clear as crystal, and his speeches were eloquent beyond description. Quintilian was not the only one to praise the author of the History of Rome from its Foundation. In 79, Pliny the Younger preferred reading Livy to the spectacle of the explosion of the Vesuvius. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Livy was still admired for his style, and this has never changed.

Of course, a historian unable to tell a story should start looking for another job. But he must possess other qualities as well, and modern scholars have severely criticized Livy because he did not seem to possess these qualities. As we have already seen above, much of this criticism is misdirected. It was not Livy's aim to write a critical monography. He wanted to describe the entire history of the republic and hoped to offer examples to well-meaning Romans, who wanted to recover the old Roman qualities. Moral revival is the only relevant test of the History of Rome from its foundation, but unfortunately we cannot establish the measure of Livy's success.

Yet, we use the History of Rome from its foundation as a source of information on the Roman republic, and we are justified to ask how reliable its author is, even though this may not have been Livy's own first concern (although he was, in spite of the speed of his writing, certainly interested in telling the truth). He has been accused of grave errors. The chronology of the first ten books was erroneous; he told stories twice when he found them in two sources under different years (a doublet); and worst of all, his account of the greatness of Rome under king Tarquin the Proud in Book 1 was a straightforward lie, meant as propaganda for the monarchy of Augustus.

But opinions can change. On closer inspection, it turns out that Livy's chronological system is better than the Varronian chronology, which many modern historians still use. (The reason why is one of the profoundest secrets of modern historiography.) Livy's doublets turn out to be less frequent than has been assumed. And archaeologists have fully confirmed the greatness of Rome in the sixth century. This does not mean that Livy is now regarded as the most reliable of all ancient historians, but we can no longer approach his work as mere propaganda. Although he and his annalistic predecessors have often embellished the plain facts, the hard core of Livy's information is essentially reliable. The burden of proof lies with those who want to maintain that a particular statement of Livy is untrue.


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