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Livy and the Early History of Rome

Updated on February 4, 2015
Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) (59 BC – AD 17)
Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) (59 BC – AD 17) | Source
Emperor Augustus (62 BC - AD14)
Emperor Augustus (62 BC - AD14) | Source

Introduction

Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) (59 BC – AD 17) was a Roman historian. He lived during an important transitional phase of Roman history where the Roman republic transformed into the Roman empire. This shift occurred from about 134 BC - 27 BC and culminated in the reign of Emperor Augustus who ruled from 27 BC until his death in AD14. The period was characterized by political and social unrest. It was the period in which Julius Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon to march on Rome (49 BC). Livy sought to document the history of Rome to highlight its former greatness under the republic in the hopes that he could influence Roman society to move away from its decadent ways under the empire and restore its past glory.

The Roman Republic in 200 BC.
The Roman Republic in 200 BC. | Source

Livy’s Approach to Roman History

Livy’s The Early History of Rome (London: Penguin Books, 1971), was a political and military history of early Rome. Livy stated his purpose as “putting on record the story of the greatest nation in the world” (I). Livy’s focus on Rome’s early history was also an escape from his pessimistic outlook on Imperial Rome (the time in which he lived), which he saw as being in decline. He did not intend to set the historical record straight by subjecting various myths and tales to close scrutiny, thereby providing an account that may have resembled historical reality. Instead, he remarked that “such traditions I propose neither to affirm or refute” (I). Livy did not strive for accuracy, but accepted the fact that in dealing with such an early period of Rome’s history, there were parts that were missing. Livy stated “one cannot hope for accuracy when dealing with a past so remote and with authorities so antiquated” (p.127).

Despite the extreme pessimism felt for his own time, Livy concluded the history on a triumphant note (Camillus’ speech p.397-402). Livy’s history served a present purpose. Livy stated that “the study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind” (p.34). What Livy believed to be wrong with his time was a kind of moral degeneration. Livy charged that “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective” (p.34). By examining Rome’s early history, Livy sought to highlight those particular aspects that contributed to Rome’s greatness: namely religion, the early political institution, the military, national pride and, above all, liberty.

From Rome’s early beginnings to the triumph over the Gauls, there was a progression to this future greatness of Rome. Rome’s greatness was the result of great men and national destiny. For Livy, there were two types of destiny, individual and collective. Individual greatness was accompanied by Rome’s collective greatness, the one strengthening the other. For example, when Marcus Furius Camillus was appointed Dictator, Livy described him as “the man destined to destroy that city [Veii] and to save his country” (p.362). Thus the greatness of certain men also elevated the greatness of Rome.

Livy’s history also contained many themes including national prided, honour, duty, war, liberty, politics, religion, human nature and fate/destiny. One of the more powerful themes expressed in Livy’s work was patriotism. For Livy, national unity was a necessary and essential condition for Rome’s greatness. Too often the political strife between the tribunes and populace on the one hand and the consuls and Senate on the other had given the perception of national weakness. An example of this was found in 446 BC during the consulship of Titus Capitolinus and Furius Agrippa. The Volscians and the Aequians decided to attack Roman territory and the reason for their commander’s decision to do so was that “Roman discipline was a thing of the past; her people had lost the habit of war, and she was no longer a united nation” (p.258).

Liberty: the Source of Ancient Rome’s Greatness

The most important attribute of Rome’s greatness was liberty. In one of Rome’s darkest housrs, during the reign of the decemvirs, when elections were not held and the decemvirs continued to terrorize Rome, Livy noted that “men mourned for liberty now gone for ever” and that “Rome’s spirit was crushed” (p.224). This implied that the very life of Rome was dependent upon liberty.

Whereas one finds in Herodotus’ history a certain willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for liberty, in Livy’s history one also finds this feeling, however, a new dimension was added – that of the nation. Thus there arose two synonymous ideas in Livy’s history: Rome and liberty. The one was identified with the other. Not only did Livy’s history establish that link, but it provided a rich political tradition in which tyrannical rulers were expelled, and the ruling class yielded a certain amount of power to the populace. An example of the former occurred early on in the history of Rome, with the expulsion of the Tarquins, who fled to King Porsena of Clusium, where they asked his aid in regaining their throne. Livy described the period as follows:

Rome was no longer a monarchy; she enjoyed free institutions. The people of Rome would sooner open their gates to an enemy than to a king. There was not a man in the city who did not pray that the end of liberty, should it come, might also be the end of Rome. They urged Porsena, therefore, if he had the good of Rome at heart, to accept the fact that she would never surrender her liberties (p.122).

One does not find in Livy’s history any grandiose idealized notions of liberty or democracy. In contrast to Herodotus, for whom liberty was an abstract idea, Livy’s account of the rise of liberty and, to a certain extent, the beginnings of democracy did not arise out of abstract ideas, but out of the concrete political realities of the time. The language of liberty was often used by politicians (senators, tribunes, consuls etc.) to further their own political agendas and less for the common good.

Although Livy considered liberty to be a good thing, he believed that for a democracy to exist, certain criteria must be present. Livy was also a political realist. He recognized that the early kings of Rome were necessary in order to keep the “rabble” in line (p.105). In describing the early inhabitants of Rome as “a rabble of vagrants,” Livy believed that “unrestrained by the power of the throne, they would, no doubt, have set sail on the stormy sea of democratic politics, swayed by the gusts of popular eloquence and quarreling for power with the governing class of a city which did not even belong to them, before any real sense of community had had time to grow” (p.105). Livy linked patriotism with liberty. Livy clearly did not have an idealized understanding of liberty. He believed that political realities dictated the political path to take. The early kings controlled the largely immigrant populace, thus enabling a strong sense of community to develop, and soon after that community achieved liberty. Livy defended his position noting that

Premature liberty of this kind would have been a disaster: we should have been torn to pieces by petty squabbles before we had ever reached political maturity, which, as things were, was made possible by the long quiet years under monarchical government; for it was that government which, as it were, nursed our strength and enabled us ultimately to produce sound fruit from liberty, as only a politically adult nation can (p.105).

Another interesting point made by Livy was that Roman liberty was “hard-won” (p.105). Throughout the history, one finds Roman liberty constantly threatened by external enemies, internal political strife and new political institutions such as the decemvirs. By presenting the history of Roman liberty in that manner, Livy implied that liberty is not a given, but something to be worked for, fought for and earned, which was undoubtedly the reason why the Romans valued it so much. For example, after Brutus had ousted the king, he became consul and Livy mentioned that “he proved as zealous in guarding liberty as he had been in demanding it” (p.106). Thus the preservation of Roman liberty was ongoing, a point not overlooked by the political opponents of the day. For Livy, Roman Law was the bedrock of liberty. The law alone was authoritative.

Religion

Another important aspect of Livy’s work was the importance of religion in Roman culture. Although, with Livy, humans have more freedom to determine their own destinies than Herodotus conceded, the gods themselves do play a determinative role in fate or destiny. Noting the lack of preparation for the war with the Gauls, Livy stated “how true it is that destiny blinds men’s eyes, when she is determined that her gathering might shall meet no check!” (p.382).

Timeless Political Insights

Littered throughout Livy’s history were his valuable political insights. Livy noted that “political decisions, always have been, and always will be, influenced for ill by party spirit and concern for property” (p.137). Elsewhere, Livy mentioned that “shared danger is the strongest of bonds; it will keep men united in spite of mutual dislike and suspicion” (p. 149). Indeed some political maneuvers are timeless. One particular instance worthy of mention occurred at a time of dispute between the tribunes and the Senate. Livy remarked that “as no one could possibly believe that the Aequians and Volscians after their crushing defeat would be already capable of aggression, a new enemy had to be invented; so a neighboring colony of known loyalty to Rome was accused of treachery” (p.195). Even in our world today and particularly during the twentieth century, one finds innumerable examples of this kind of scare-mongering. Today the West is fighting a hidden enemy, thirty years ago it was the Red enemy. These insights were important ones for Livy to have made because it demonstrated his ability to penetrate beneath the surface of political disputes and point to the underlying motives that influence all political behavior.

Throughout The Early History of Rome, Livy highlighted particular qualities that contributed to Rome’s greatness. In one instance, three Roman envoys took up arms against the Gauls. Livy described that situation as follows: “their Roman valour was all too obvious – the valour of three of Rome’s finest and most blue-blooded fighting men” (p.381). Another point of interest was during the final battle with the Gauls, Livy mentioned that “luck had turned at last; human skill, aided by the powers of heaven, was fighting on the side of Rome, and the invaders were scattered at the first encounter with as little effort as had gone to victory on the Allia” (p. 395). Clearly Roman greatness, for Livy, involved humans and the gods operating together.

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