Titus Livius (b.59 BC, Patavium
) – d. 17 AD, Rome), Roman Historian
“I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds. None has been free for so many generations from the vices of avarice and luxury; nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such high esteem.” – Titus Livius, “The Early History of Rome”, Book I, prologue (trans. A. Selincourt)
Livy was born just ten years before Caesar
crossed the Rubicon
, which means he lived through Rome’s crutial transition from a republic into an imperial government. He died in the third year of emperor Tiberius’s reign, as the Roman elite were still debating the various elements of their newfound empire. Livy's life, as far as we know, passed quietly in and around the Capitol
, as he worked methodically on his History of Rome from its Foundation
. At the endeavor's commencement, Livy also dabbled in philosophical dialogues. However, none of these survive and, judging from his intellectual meandering, historical consensus seems to be our loss is likely not great. However, what the man lacked in intellectual precision, he more than made up for in scope, with even Martial
being stunned by his prolific output, calling him 'huge Livy'.
His magnum opus
, Ab Urbe Condita Libri
, rendered the history of Rome from the founding of the city up to 9 BC– the complete work ran 142 books (roughly 11,000 pages), of which only 36 survived. Antiquity has delivered summaries of all but two of the books, written sometime in the fourth century by an unknown author, which give us a taste of the vast scale of Livy's encyclopedic work. Though only a quarter survived, most classicists agree this is almost too much in itself, and that any other books not found by now are better left lost. Only Tacitus
would cast as long a shadow.
Though Livius displayed a dizzying depth of research, many historians have judged the finished product (which began to circulate in Rome, ca. 14 AD) a sentimental
, unscholarly and ultimately unreliable work. Most often criticized are his sketchy outlines of geography and science. This seems uncouth, especially given our lack of sources from the period. Yes, the focus is clearly cultural
(myths, battles and political struggle dominate), but this hardly renders Livy's work inadequate as a source. He need only be read with a degree of skepticism and an eye toward context. His stated end was to display the glory of Rome’s past to his countrymen, so that they might be inspired to resuscitate their former virtue and abandon contemporary decadence
, though this project clearly was beyond even his monumental effort. Livy's style is his greatest asset, and his books rattle with a wit and polish any writer would envy. The speeches, from the army of historical figures who grace his pages, are as brilliantly eloquent as they are psychologically symbolic.
Livy became renowned in his own age (and those which followed) for the historical acumen
he displayed throughout his career. Even Augustus
befriended him, roughly taunting the meek scholar for his artistic and aesthetic support of Caesar
’s faction in the Civil War. Meanwhile, chroniclers traveled from the very edges of the furthest Roman provinces to consult with him on historical details they could not themselves unearth. And all the while, Livy always continued, on and on, with the habitual writing, yet sadly died just before turning his attention to the matters of his own era. And though his choice of annalists, place names and other details has been found by later historians to be somewhat idiosyncratic, overall his effect is dazzling. For sure, unabashedly, he puts the emphasis on personalities and the figures which loom large; to wit, readers have been stunned for two millennium at the vibrant, resounding description of Rome’s most powerful. The defeat of Hannibal
, the bloody civil wars, the ceremonies, sacrifices and parades of the Republic all shimmer on the page before the reader. There is a poetic element, no doubt, in his writings which rubs against the grain of contemporary historiography
; but if you want a sense of how Romans truly felt, in their hearts, about their own history, then Livy is where you should look.
No greater example of the historian's influence need be stated than his effect on another genius, one born nearly 1500 years after Livy's demise. Between 1513-17, while exiled from Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli
undertook his own masterpiece, the Discorsi
, deriving a whole system of prescriptive political advice from the first ten books of Titus Livius. It is difficult to overemphasize the influence of Machiavelli, and his debt in turn to Livy, on the formation of modern republicanism
. Those elements are certainly emphatic within the Roman's work: the attraction and love of the homeland, the romantic envisioning of a nation’s birth and potential, and most of all the need to instruct. Machiavelli
, lonely and exiled, seems to take to heart what Livy wrote: "History
is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself both examples and warnings – fine things to take as models, base things to avoid." (I, i, 10) Machiavelli may have been unsure of his contemporaries' abilities to rise to History's challenge, reflecting on Livy's books and writing, "the majority of those who read take pleasure only in the variety of events, without ever thinking of imitating noble action, deeming them impossible, as though Heaven, the sun and elements, had changed ... and are different from what they were in ancient times." (Discorsi
, intro.) In the exile's mind, the lessons of time are all that really matter, and in these voluminous works we can still find teachings on every page. For those with eyes to seem them.
Sources: Livy, "History of Rome," Perseus Project
, ed. Canon Roberts (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/text?lookup=liv.+init.&vers=English|none); Niccolo Machiavelli
, "Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius", written 1517
, trans. H. Neville (1675
) (http://www.constitution.org/mac/disclivy1.htm); “Livy” from The Reader’s Encyclopedia
, 2nd ed. v. I, p.593. (NY: Cromwell, 1965); Livy, The Early History of Rome
, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (Baltimore, 1960); Jona Lendering, “Livy”, http://www.livius.org/li-ln/livy/livy.htm ; see also P. G. Walsh, Livy: His Historical Aims and Method
(1961) or T. A. Dorey, ed., Livy