Livy (64 or 59 BC–AD 17)


Livy working on his monumental history of Rome.

In 217 BC the Carthaginian forces invading Italy under the command of Hannibal ambushed and massacred the Roman army by the shores of Lake Trasimene, north of Rome. For our precise knowledge of this, and many other aspects of Roman history, we are indebted to the historian Titus Livius, or Livy, as he is called in English.


A provincial upbringing

Our information about the life of one of Rome's greatest historians is very scant. Livy was born at Padua, a prosperous town in the north of Italy, in 59 BC. The fact that he was born in the provinces and brought up in the quiet backwater of Padua rather than in the busy metropolis of Rome had a profound effect on the development of the historian's character and outlook. For Rome had become corrupt; there was little honesty in her public life, and the old standards of behavior seemed to have disappeared completely. In Padua the old virtues were still practised and Livy received a conventional upbringing. An admiration for ancient customs and manners colored all his historical writing. He came probably of a patrician family, and his education was largely in law and oratory to prepare him for public life.


However, when the young Livy reached Rome about 30 BC, it was not the prospect of a political career that attracted him. The year before, Octavian, better known to history as Augustus, had defeated Mark Antony at the sea battle of Actium and was now engaged in getting into his own hands the control of the Roman world. For an ambitious man there was little future in a political career under what was virtually a dictatorship, and Livy was forced to look elsewhere to establish his fame.


A Republican enthusiast

One of Augustus's main problems in the task of uniting the Roman empire was to establish once more the sound moral code of the Republic, which had been the foundation of Rome's greatness and which had disappeared so completely during the past half-century of continuous civil war. Part of his program was to encourage writers to praise the deeds of the past, and Livy was one of his most enthusiastic supporters.


Soon after Livy's arrival in Rome one of his philosophical writings attracted the attention of Augustus, and he was soon engaged on what was to be his life's work, the writing of the history of Rome from the story of its foundation down to the time of Augustus. With his conventional upbringing and love for the people and manners of the past, he found the task a pleasant one and devoted the next 40 years writing it.


A great work

Not surprisingly, Livy followed the old tradition of his predecessors, and wrote his history of Rome in the form of annals – that is, a year-by-year account of events. This was the method normally employed by ancient historians, but although it is useful as a chronicle, it prevents any broad view of the progress of history being taken. Livy has been criticized, with some justification, for various defects in his history; he was very uncritical in his use of sources, and sometimes gives different accounts of the same events. He did not bother to try to understand certain military matters, which sometimes makes his accounts of battles confusing, and he was not careful enough over dates. He wrote the early history of Rome with insufficient knowledge of the facts, and allowed himself to be carried away by his Republican enthusiasm.


Yet in spite of these faults Livy's history was a great work. A great patriotism and loyalty to the ideals of Augustus shine throughout all that he writes. If his picture of the high-mindedness and austerity of the early Romans is a little overdrawn, it is because he admired such qualities and when he describes the decay of ancient standards and ideals, he does so with a passion and intensity that is moving even to a reader today.


In addition, he is a great descriptive writer. It is impossible to forget his accounts of the Roman disasters at Cannae and Trasimene in the Punic Wars, or of the panic at Rome after news of Cannae had been received. Just as Virgil had written the story of early Rome in verse, so Livy wrote it in prose.


Livy achieved fame even during his lifetime. There is a story that on one occasion an old man from Cadiz came to Rome for the sole purpose of seeing Livy. Once he had achieved his object, he went straight back home without bothering to look at the sights of Rome. Livy died in AD 17 in his native Padua. He had returned there towards the end of his life, when the growing power of Augustus made the theme of ancient republican liberty a difficult, and even dangerous subject for an author. In one sense, his work was incomplete, as he had only brought his history up to the year 9 BC.


The works of Livy

Livy's history of Rome consisted of 142 books, but only 35 have survived intact. The first 10 deal with Rome's history, from its foundation until the Samnite Wars (293 BC). The rest cover the period from the second Punic War (218 BC) to the Macedonian Wars (167 BC). Of the remaining books we only have fragments and synopses by later authors.