ca. 59 B.C.-ca. A.D. 17
Titus Livius, known as Livy, wrote a history of Rome that he called Ab urbe condita libri (Books from the Foundation of the City). This monumental work consisted of 142 volumes and covered 745 years of Roman history, from the legendary founding of the city in 753 B.C. to 9 B.C. Fewer than one-third of the volumes of Livy’s history survive today, but they illustrate the lively, colorful writing style that made him the most widely read Roman historian in the ancient world. The surviving volumes also exhibit Livy’s deep concern for the central drama of Roman history as he saw it: the rise and fall of Rome’s morals and national character.
Livy’s Life. Livy was born in Patavium, a coastal town in northern Italy that is now called Padua. The people of Patavium were known for clinging to traditional virtues, such as respect for the gods, self-control, and patriotism—virtues that in Livy’s day seemed rather old-fashioned to many Romans.
Scholars know little about Livy’s life. He probably did not serve in the army, for his writings indicate no knowledge of military life. He was not a senator, and he did not participate in politics. Evidence suggests that he married and had two sons and a daughter. Livy spent much of his adult life in Rome, but the dates and place of his residence there are unknown. Later, he moved back to Patavium, where he died. A tombstone found in Patavium marked a grave of someone called Titus Livius. Many historians believe that it was Livy’s.
The period in which Livy lived clearly shaped his life’s work. He grew up during the years of Rome’s violent civil wars, in which factions fought in the streets of Rome, dictators seized power, and the Roman Republic* fell apart—forever, as it turned out. Shocked and saddened by these events, Livy began his history of Rome with a dim view of its present and future prospects. All around him he saw signs that Rome and the Roman people no longer had the pride, dignity, and virtue that had been so much a part of Rome’s beginnings. This theme of the decline of Roman virtues was part of his strategy to encourage his readers to return to the greatness of the past. Under Augustus and his worthiest successors, Rome actually did so.
Over the course of his 40-year writing career, Livy produced about four books a year. He was famous throughout the Roman Empire. According to one story, a man from a remote part of Spain, impressed by Livy’s history, traveled all the way to Rome simply to look at the author. Having done so, he turned around and went back to Spain. Whether or not that story is true, Livy was a well-known literary figure whose work won him the friendship of the emperor Augustus. However, he did not mingle with other leading Roman literary figures of his time, such as Vergil, Horace, and Ovid. He dedicated his entire life to researching and writing his huge history, and he once wrote, “I have attained enough personal fame and could lay my pen aside—but my very soul, restless within me, draws sustenance from work.”
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Livy's History of Rome. The 35 surviving volumes of Livy’s great work are books 1 through 10, which cover the years 753 B.C. to 293 B.C., and books 21 through 45, which cover the much shorter period of 218 B.C. to 167 B.C. Some information about Livy’s lost volumes comes from other writers who quoted or referred to passages from Livy’s work, and from summaries of Livy’s history that date from the A.D. 300s. These summaries are probably not completely reliable as guides to the missing volumes.
Books 1 through 5 cover the period from the founding of Rome to the burning of the city in 390 B.C. Livy recognized the difficulty of writing about that period. The fire had destroyed many old documents and records that might have cast light on Rome’s early history. Furthermore, accounts of the city’s founding were a mix of history, legend, and myth in which the deeds of gods, goddesses, and heroes* were mingled with the activities of people who had actually existed. Despite these difficulties, Livy focused these volumes on the birth of the republic and the struggles between two classes of Roman citizens, the patricians* and the plebeians*. He made it clear that this internal conflict, which continued throughout the history of the republic, threatened to tear Rome apart.
Books 6 through 10 cover Rome’s rise to greatness through the conquest of the Italian peninsula and victories in foreign wars. Rome’s power expanded, Livy wrote, because the people of Rome were disciplined and faithful to the gods and to one another. In these volumes, Livy emphasized one of the major themes of his history—the importance of public morals. He wanted his readers to think about the conduct and character of the Roman men who created and extended the empire. Livy struck a depressing note that is repeated again and again in his work—the people of Rome are less noble and virtuous than they used to be. The message contained a warning. If Rome rose to power because its people were morally strong, as Livy believed, then the decline in virtue must bring about a decline in power.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class
Books 21 through 30 cover the Second Punic War with Carthage. Modern historians still follow Livy’s outline of the causes and events of this conflict. Books 31 through 45 examine many events, including the wars through which Rome became the principal power in Asia. During this period, according to Livy, Rome’s national character began to show traces of decline. He wrote, “In his mind let the reader follow the way morals at first subsided, as it were, as discipline slipped little by little.” Livy believed that Asian luxury had a bad effect on the Roman people, especially on soldiers, who grew more interested in loot than in battle. Asian religions, foods, languages, and customs crept into Roman culture and, in Livy’s opinion, gradually corrupted and weakened it.
For Livy, history was far more than a collection of facts. His account of Rome’s past had a higher purpose. By pointing out the things that had made Rome and Romans great, Livy hoped to encourage a return to earlier ideals. He brought much imagination and skill to this great task, creating a history that is an outstanding work of literature. He created stirring speeches for the heroes and generals of many nations, he recreated dramatic scenes with all the tension and excitement of a storyteller, and he captured the emotions that people feel when they are in the midst of stirring historic events. Above all, he urged his readers to learn from the lessons of history. The Romans of Livy’s time were shaken by a century of civil wars. They wondered when and how Rome had lost its glory and if it could be recovered. Livy tried to provide the answers. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Punic Wars; Rome, History of.)
Dante Alighieri, the famous Italian poet of the late Middle Ages, called Livy “Livio che non erra" (Livy who makes no mistakes). By this, he meant that Livy's moral judgment and good sense never faltered. Livy did make factual errors. He recorded dates incorrectly and made blunders in geography. When his sources contained different versions of a historic event, Livy sometimes used the wrong one. For these reasons, some modem scholars consider Livy a poor historian. Today's experts, however, owe their knowledge of the past to archaeology and other methods of inquiry that did not exist in Livy's time. Livy knew that some of his sources were unreliable, but he felt his job was to convey the grand sweep of history, not to check its details.