Read an Excerpt
From the introduction by Matthew Peacock
The Early History of Rome describes the founding of a small monarchical state in central Italy and its struggle to survive. It tells the story of the overthrow of the kings and of the development of the Roman Republic. It depicts the qualities and organization which allowed the early Romans to overcome internal disputes and foreign enemies and to recover after the nearly total destruction of their city in 390 BC. Livy is the most important source of information we have for the history of early Rome. He writes with fairness, humanity, and an irresistible enthusiasm for the courage, honesty, and self-sacrifice that to him exemplified what it was to be Roman.
Titus Livius was born in Patavium (modern Padua) in northern Italy in 59 BC or slightly earlier. Thanks to the wool trade in particular, in peacetime the town was one of the most prosperous in Italy. Given that he was able to devote so much of his life to writing history, it is reasonable to suppose that Livy’s family must have been fairly wealthy. We cannot be sure exactly when he started writing, though references to contemporary events in book one, section nineteen, seem to show that books one through five were published between about 27 and 25 BC. At this time, Rome was emerging from two decades of bitter civil war and one of Livy’s aims in writing was to remind the Romans of the virtues that had made them great because he believed they were in danger of forgetting them altogether. This work, which he called the Ab Urbe Condita—“From the Founding of the City”—eventually comprised 142 books, covered Roman history down to 9 BC and took Livy forty years to write.
In his preface, Livy writes that Rome had reached the point “when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.” However, by book nine, he is found saying that Rome “…has defeated a thousand armies and will defeat a thousand more, provided that our love of the peace which we are now enjoying and our concern for civil concord endure for ever.” At the same time as Livy was recreating and preserving the past of Rome in words, Caesar’s adopted son Augustus, victor of the civil wars and emperor in all but name, was rebuilding and ensuring the survival of Rome in reality. Although Livy remained a republican at heart, he may well have gradually or grudgingly come to accept that Rome was recovering under the new monarchical government. He was never an Augustan propagandist—we are told that one of the later books of his history, now lost, praised Brutus and Cassius, Caesar’s murderers—but Livy managed to stay on good terms with Augustus because he shared many of the new regime’s values and objectives. Augustus too wanted to see a rebuilt Rome based on high moral standards, peace at home and success abroad, following in the footsteps of the great Romans of old. After Augustus’ death, however, the transmission of power to the Emperor Tiberius showed once and for all that the monarchy was to be no short-term response to a national emergency. Livy published his final volumes at the beginning of Tiberius’ reign and, it seems, he died soon afterwards.
Livy is often described as a moral (or moralizing) historian. As well as history, he was said by Seneca to have written philosophical dialogues, and if this is true, they might have been in the form of fictional discussions between historical characters. Livy genuinely believed that Rome’s troubles were the result of moral decline from its early high standards. In this volume, particular episodes, such as the Battle of the Allia in book five, or even whole books, such as book three, are structured around expressions of particular virtues (loyalty at the Allia, moderation in book three). Livy offers many lessons about human nature, yet the circumstances of composition, that is the civil wars and the end of political freedom, indicate that the element of escapism in Livy’s history should not be underestimated, especially in the early books.
Much of Livy’s narrative does not contain any obvious moral “message.” His narrative is based on the rhythms of the Roman year. Within the regular business of each year, he often builds up one or more specific episodes. The episodes which do have a particular moral theme are very often those which Livy wants to give the maximum emotional or intellectual appeal. To engage the reader with the story, the full measure of credit or blame is given, but usually through the warmth or coldness of the descriptive language rather than by a direct comment from the author. The duty of a Roman historian was to entertain as well as to instruct and neither of these aims was more important than the other or independent of the other.
Livy was a great admirer of the republican statesman and orator Cicero (106–43 BC), for his prose style in particular. Although Cicero never wrote history himself, beyond the sketch of early Rome in his philosophical work On the Republic, he still argued that history should be written by orators, both for the good of orators, who needed historical examples for their speeches, and for the good of history, which deserved to be written well. Stylistically, Cicero was advocating, no doubt, his own favoured brand of Latin, flowing, reassuring, encouraging, architectural, far removed from the unsettling ferocity of other writers of the period, such as Sallust and, it seems, Pollio, and from the terse, unemotional, logical Latin of men like Brutus. On the other hand, Livy’s Latin is not as formal as Cicero’s. He prefers gentle irony to Cicero’s barbed wit. He is not afraid to use vocabulary that Cicero would have avoided and adopts different registers for different occasions, from the very plain Latin he uses for election results and other public notices, to the highly ornate and impassioned language found in the key episodes and many of his speeches.
Not long before Livy, it may have been the usual practice for historians writing in Latin (unlike Greek) to report people’s words indirectly. Cato said that Minucius Thermus was a liar and a cheat—that is indirect speech. Cato said, “Minucius Thermus, you are a liar and a cheat”—that is direct speech (though Classical Latin did not use quotation marks). Pompeius Trogus, another Augustan historian, therefore criticized Livy and Sallust for including direct speech in their histories at all. Although Livy quite often writes lengthy passages of indirect speech featuring a good deal of rhetorical sophistication, nevertheless direct speech is naturally better at conveying the character of the speaker and he uses its possibilities to the fullest. His speeches were, in fact, later published separately in compendium editions. They often occur in pairs, giving both sides of a debate; the first one will look unanswerable, but Livy, switching sides, will find a way to answer it. Speeches were a way for all historians to clarify issues, feelings, and characters at a particular moment, to add variety to a narrative and to demonstrate their erudition. Thus most of the speeches in Livy have little claim to historical accuracy.
With regard to the sources of information used by Livy, there are two questions to consider. First, by identifying where Livy got his information, we gain some insight to determine how reliable Livy can be expected to be. Second, there is the question of how far other ancient evidence and modern archaeology can be used to gauge how reliable Livy actually is.
Within a year or two of Livy’s finishing his first books, Virgil published the Aeneid, describing the adventures of the refugees from the Trojan War who became the mythical ancestors of the Roman race. The period covered in Livy’s books one through five, as well as being irretrievably bound up with myth, was in any event of considerable antiquity and obscurity by Livy’s own day. He deals with the mythical origins of Rome (the Trojans settle in the Patavium area first) and the time of the kings in book one. Thus, approximately one third of the total timeframe of the Ab Urbe Condita is dealt with in just 0.7% of the work’s total length. By comparison, Livy’s contemporary Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote in Greek, and who probably used much the same sources as Livy, took four books to reach the overthrow of the kings. Thus Livy can at least be said to have cut down the mythological elements of early Roman history to a minimum.
Livy tells us which sources he is using more often than many ancient Greek or Roman historians. He occasionally gives us a clue as to how he judges between one literary source and another, on the basis of the reputation of the writer, for instance, or the agreement of a majority of his sources, or even of probability. Although documents, visible building remains, and other tangible evidence going back to at least the sixth century BC were all available in Livy’s Rome, and although Livy certainly makes frequent references to Roman landmarks and buildings, most of Livy’s sources must have been literary. Examples of these include Fabius Pictor, a senator of the late third century BC, who wrote a history in Greek; Quintus Ennius (239–169 BC), who wrote an epic poem on Roman history; Polybius (210–131 BC), who included some useful material on early Rome in his Greek history of his own times; and Cato the Censor (234–148 BC), who wrote a seven-book history of Rome called the Origines. Cato was the first Roman to write history in Latin prose: Pictor was the first Roman to write history of any sort. Greek literature was many centuries older than Roman, but the Greek historians did not really become interested in Roman history until Rome was powerful enough to be noticed by them, that is, not until the fourth or third centuries BC, though sometimes histories of other cities which Livy also mentions can be used to provide parallel dating evidence. Also important to Livy’s narrative are the so-called “annalists,” a term which is now used mainly to refer to writers of the late second and early first centuries BC who arranged their material in a year-by-year format. The term is also often used negatively nowadays; the annalists’ accuracy and methods do not always compare well with Greek historians and Cicero associated them with a plain and unappealing prose style. However, the annalistic tradition for early Rome must go back at least in part to original documents.
Republican Romans also had access to information about the distant past of Rome in the writings of the “antiquarians.” These were Roman scholars who often carried out original research into individual aspects of Roman culture. The most influential of these was M. Terentius Varro (116–27 BC), who wrote many hundreds of volumes and who standardized the dating of early Roman history. Although Livy can rarely be proven to be using antiquarian information (one rare example is 5.33 on the Gauls) and there are occasions when he can be proven to have ignored it, the results of antiquarian research must have filtered into the historical tradition and thence into Livy’s work in ways we cannot now isolate.
All of these writers must have drawn on oral tradition to some extent, that is, on a combination of folk tale, traditional songs, and plays and the stories of aristocratic families about their ancestors. The Romans also maintained many truly ancient religious, legal, and cultural practices, which could shed much light on the past. Genuinely ancient documents were available; one famous example being the treaty between Rome and the city of Carthage which Polybius saw and dated to the beginning of the Republic. On the other hand, it is not very reassuring that, when in book four, Livy tells us that his literary sources disagreed as to a certain entry in one of the official lists of early magistrates (the “Linen Books”), he also says that he did not (or could not) go back to the original document to check. This may not be Livy’s fault: It may have been more difficult, either physically or politically, to check original documents under the Augustan regime, than it had been in the Late Republic.
As well as the basic lists of elected officials of the Republic (the Fasti), various priestly colleges kept records of the year’s main events, the most important being the Annales Maximi, kept by the chief priest (Pontifex Maximus). These records listed, for each year, the names of the magistrates, plus military and religious business, plagues and famines and laws. This material clearly forms the backbone of Livy’s history and although he probably obtained it secondhand, the information itself has a good claim to be reliable. Cicero tells us that the Annales Maximi went back to the beginning Rome. This can be doubted, but when he also tells us that these records referred to an eclipse on the June 5, “around 350 years after the founding of the city,” we are on firm ground. Modern astronomy tells us that there was a solar eclipse visible from Rome on 21 June 400 BC, which for our purposes is certainly close enough to confirm the authenticity of the Annales Maximi at least from 400 BC onwards. Livy’s history gets progressively more detailed from this point on, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that records for the fourth century were more detailed than those for the fifth.
As far as we can tell, Livy is usually several steps removed from what we would call a primary source of information. Yet it is also clear that reliable evidence underlies his narrative. His picture of a powerful and prosperous sixth-century Rome under the kings is also supported by the sophistication of the temples of that period. Livy seems to indicate that temple building declined in the fifth century; that picture is again supported by archaeology. There are traces of quite widespread destruction in the city of Rome which can be dated to around 500 BC: This evidence certainly fits well enough with Varro’s date of 509 for the expulsion of the kings (Livy’s own lists of consuls indicate a date in around 502). On its own, the precise synchronism between the beginning of the Roman democracy and the beginning of the Athenian, even with the conscientious Polybius backing up Dionysius, looks suspiciously like a Roman attempt to prove that they were just as good as the Greeks. The archaeology backs up Livy, and Livy allows us to make sense of the archaeology. Because the process is circular, we cannot call this proof. The closest we can get to proof is by bringing in alternative literary evidence—a passage in Dionysius book seven which appears to originate from a respectable and ancient Greek source and gives a date for the Battle of Aricia of 504 BC. This fits well with Livy’s narrative: He does not give a precise date for the battle, but puts in the context of events following the creation of the Republic. Conversely, archaeology seems to indicate that the destruction of Rome by the Gauls was not nearly as serious as Livy claims, but then his picture of a still-strong Rome in book six seems to contradict the emotional book five picture anyway. Archaeology is most useful for illuminating the material culture and everyday life that Livy and the other literary sources rarely describe. When brought to bear directly on Livy, we are still trying to do the same thing that Livy was trying to do, to write a consistent, meaningful story.
Matthew Peacock wrote his doctoral thesis on Livy while studying at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford; having also taught in Oxford, he is now Lecturer in Roman History at the National University of Ireland, Galway.