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The Life and Works of Roman Historian Titus Livius “Livy”

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and how-to topics. I have written over 70 books.

Sculpture of Livy in front of the Austrian parliament in Vienna.

Sculpture of Livy in front of the Austrian parliament in Vienna.

Life of Livy

Like many of the ancients, few facts about the life of the Roman historian Titus Livius, or “Livy,” have been recorded. However, we do know that he was born in 64 or 59 BC in the northern Italian city of Patavium (now Padua). The city of his birth was a wealthy city of some 40,000 inhabitants and was known for its strict morals. During the civil war (49-45 BC), despite the many favors granted it by Julius Caesar, Patavium took the side of Pompey. But perhaps on account of Livy, whom Augustus respected, Patavium suffered little from Pompey's defeat.

Livy was well-read in the Greek literature of the day but made mistakes in his translations of Greek works, which would indicate that if he spent time in Greece, it was short. In the first century AD, Roman educator and rhetorician Quintilian states that Livy had a son and daughter. The daughter married a teacher of oratory named Lucius Magius.

There are no records that indicate Livy had a serious political career beyond possibly holding positions in his native Patavium. His first writing originates from the period of stability brought about by the emperor Octavian (later known as Emperor Augustus) after his decisive naval victory at Actium in 31 BC. From the content of Livy’s works, we believe he conceived the plan of writing the history of Rome around 29 BC. He must have been living in Rome to have access to the records and information necessary to complete his many works.

Livy was known to the emperor Augustus, who was about the same age as the writer. Livy was said to have encouraged Claudius, Augustus’s young great-nephew, and the future emperor, in the writing of history. Apparently, the young man heeded his message as an adult as Claudius wrote 69 books on the history of Rome, Carthage, and the Etruscans. There is no evidence to suggest that Livy held close connections with other well-known writers and poets of the day, such as Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. In one of the few recorded incidents of this life, Augustus referred to him as “Pompeian,” implying he had a bias for Pompey in his account of the civil war (49-45 BC) between Pompey and Julius Caesar.

Sources of Livy’s Information for the "History"

Unlike modern history books that list the reference materials used to prepare the work, Livy only gives us hints as to where he found the information that allowed him to write the History. In the first five books of his history, Livy cites three times Quintus Fabius Pictor, a third-century BC Roman senator who wrote the history of Rome from the earliest times until his own.

Though only fragments of Pictor’s works have survived, Livy must have had access to much of his history of Rome. Livy also cites Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a politician from the first century BC, as well as the first century BC writers Valerius Antia, Licinius Macer, and Aelius Tubero. Also referenced were the Linen books, which have not survived into modern times. Normally Livy’s references to sources are vague, using the terms “they say,” “there is a tale,” or “the tradition is.”

Livy's Masterwork "History of Rome"

What became Livy’s masterwork that consumed most of his adult life bore the Latin title Ab urbe condita, which literally means “from the foundation of the city,” but the work is typically referred to as History of Rome. In all, 142 books have been attributed to Livy, of which only 35 books have survived intact until modern times, namely books 1 to 10 and 21 to 45. From the lost books, we only have fragments and excerpts.

Two sets of abridgments written later exist and provide summaries of much of his work. The History is roughly divided into groups of five books per subject matter. The term book here is different from a modern meaning in that Livy produced each of his books on a papyrus scroll, which is roughly equivalent to 65 pages in a modern print book.

Preface in Book 1

Throughout Livy’s work, he gives us little insight into his personal life; however, in the Preface of Book 1, he sheds considerable light on his reasons for writing and his approach to history. Apparently, he was not writing for fame or fortune, as he reflects, “Whether I am going to receive any return for the effort if I record the history of the Roman people from the foundation of the city, I do not really know.”

He realizes that writing the history of Rome is a large task. “The subject, moreover, is an immense undertaking, since it goes back more than 700 years and, having started from small beginnings, has so increased that it is now laboring under its own size.”

Livy is known as a moral historian; meaning, in his writings he attempts to demonstrate some morals from the events of the past that would be relevant to the reader of his day. He deplores “the evils that our age has seen,” the gradual decay of morals, and is resolute in his conviction that, “We have reached the present times in which we can tolerate neither our own vices nor the remedies.”

He urges the readers to pay attention to “the kind of lives men lived; what their moral principles were; by what individuals and by what skills, both at home and in the field, our dominion was born and grew.” He espouses the purpose of history as “to behold object lessons of every kind of model as though they were displayed on a conspicuous monument.”

Livy closes the Preface with an optimistic note: “But complaints are bound to be disagreeable, even when they will perhaps be necessary; so at least let them be absent from the beginning of this great enterprise. Rather we would begin with good omens and, if we had the same costume as the poets, with prayers and entreaties to the gods, and goddesses to grant us the blessing of success as we start this great undertaking.”

Books 1 to 5

The first five books of the History cover the formation of Rome until the city was sacked by the Gauls in 386 BC. They were probably published between 27 and 25 BC.

Book 1 – Covers the story of the Trojan price Aeneas, the founding of Rome and the story of Romulus and Remus, and the period of the Roman kings (753-510 BC). The book ends with the establishment of the Republic and the appointment of the first pair of consuls.

Book 2 – Covers the periods of 509 to 477 BC. It tells the sagas of Horatius on the bridge, the heroic maiden Cloelia, the secession of the plebeians, the career of Coriolanus, and the defeat by Etruscan Veii.

Book 3 – Covers the dictatorship of Cincinnatus, the Law of the Twelve Tables, and the rape of Vergini.

Book 4 – Covers the death of the would-be tyrant Spurius Maelius and the seizure of Fidenae from Veii.

Book 5 – Covers the destruction of Veii by Camillus in 396 BC and the capture of Rome by the Gauls.

Books 6 to 10

These books deal with the conquest of the Italian peninsula by the Romans—the Samnite Wars.

Book 6 – Covers the wars against Volscians and Etruscans and constitutional struggles.

Book 7 – Covers the election of the first plebeian to the consulship (366 BC), the myth of Curtis, and various campaigns leading up to the first Samnite War. The Samnites were the Romans’ principal rivals in the Italian peninsula.

Book 8 – Covers the story of Rome fighting against its Latin neighbors and the hero Publius Decius Mus, who sacrifices himself by charging to his death.

Book 9 – Covers the defeat of the Romans at the Caudine Forks during the second Samnite War and the building of the first aqueduct and road by Appius Claudius Caecus.

Book 10 – The theme of this one is the defeat of the Samnites by Rome in a third war that ultimately decided the fate of central and southern Italy (298-290 BC).

The Lost Books 11 to 20

Books 11 to 20 have been lost, and only summaries written much later exist.

Books 11 to 15 are continuations of the story of the conquest of Italy from books six through 10.

Books 16 to 20 describe the First Punic (Carthaginian) War.

Books 21 to 30

Books 21 to 30 describe the Second Punic War, including the success of Carthaginian general Hannibal and the crossing of the alps. Book 30 ends with the victory over Hannibal at Zama. Betty Radice, in the introduction to the book Livy: The War with Hannibal, describes Livy’s accounts of some of the events in the Second Punic War: “He [Livy] can make us feel what it is like to suffer a long siege, to lie on a battlefield wounded and dying, to be trapped in a panic-stricken crowd, and to face action cold and wet and hungry. All these great battle accounts are memorable . . . ”

Books 31 to 45

At the beginning of Book 31, Livy inserts a new preface, indicating he may have grown weary of his work, writing: “It is delightful even to me to have come to the end of the Punic War, as if I myself had borne a share of the toil and danger. For though it by no means becomes a person, who has ventured to promise an entire history of all the Roman affairs, to be fatigued by particular parts of so extensive a work.”

Additionally, he describes his feelings toward his voluminous work: “I plainly perceive that, like those who, tempted by the shallows near the shore, walk into the sea, the farther I advance, I am carried, as it were, into a greater depth and abyss; and that my work almost increases on my hands which seemed to be diminished by the completion of each of its earlier portions.”

Books 31 to 45 cover the wars in the early second century BC, from 192 BC to 167 BC. Events include the hostilities against the Seleucid king Antiochus III, the succession of King Philip V of Macedonia by his son Perseus, and the celebration of Aemilius Paullus after defeating Perseus at the Battle of Pydna.

The Lost Books 46 to 142

The lost books, from 46 to 142, can only be found in summaries written by later authors. An abridgment of Livy’s History was written in the fourth century and known as the Periochae, which covers the entire work except books 136 and 137. A second summary exists, known as the Oxyrhynchus Epitome, which has summaries of books 37 to 40 and 48 to 55.

A note in the Periochae regarding Book 121 records that this book was published after the death of Emperor Augustus in 14 AD. The publication of the last 20 books may imply that the material dealing with events from the Battle of Actium until 9 BC was too politically sensitive to have been published during the life of Augustus.

The topics covered in these books can be gleaned from the summaries:

  • 46-70 Events until the Social War in 91 BC.
  • 71-80 Civil wars until the death of Marius in 86 BC.
  • 81-90 Civil wars until the death of Sulla in 78 BC.
  • 91-103 Events until the triumph of Pompey in 62 BC.
  • 104-108 The final years of the Roman Republic.
  • 109-116 The Civil War until the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
  • 117-133 The period from the death of Julius Caesar to the Battle of Actium.
  • 134-142 Events from 29 to 9 BC.

Enormity of Livy’s Work

Even though only a portion of Livy’s work has survived until modern times, one cannot help but be amazed by the enormity of his work. This may also explain why much of his work has been lost, as the preservation, storage, and copying of so many papyrus rolls was no small task. The poet Martial, who lived decades after Livy, commented that his entire library did not have enough room to house all of Livy’s work. Since his History covered a period in Roman history of roughly 744 years, it is not surprising that Livy was daunted by the magnitude of his task.

Criticism of Livy’s Work

Though Livy’s work is invaluable in our understanding of the first seven centuries of ancient Rome, the massive volume of his work and the hindsight of two millennia provide opportunities for criticism of his works. Since he played no known part in politics, this precludes him from seeing the inner workings of the Senate and the magistrates.

This lack of political involvement probably deprived him of firsthand access to much material, such as meeting minutes from the Senate, texts of treaties, and great speeches. Also, because he was not a member of the priestly class, he did not have direct access to the copious documents and records of the priestly colleges.

His preoccupation with the character of the great and not-so-great men and women of Roman history seems to have outweighed his need for scholarly accuracy. He showed little awareness of research conducted by his contemporaries and those authors who preceded him, nor did he compare and criticize the different histories available at the time. His writing style was to rely on previous histories, for example, Polybius, and to bring out the moral story of the historical figures.

Praise of Livy’s Work

During Livy’s lifetime, he became widely known for his writing. A story is told of a man who travelled all the way from Spain—“from the ends of the earth”—just to see the famous author. It was also said that people listened to Livy’s son-in-law, who was a poor orator, just out of respect for Livy. Several years after Livy’s death, the historian Tacitus called him “the most eloquent of ancient writers.”

The literary critic Quintilian remarked on the “creamy richness” of Livy’s style and lauded his “elegance of exposition,” later remarking on Livy’s “wonderful charm and brilliant transparency in narrative.” Though parts of Livy’s work have been drawn into question, he still ranks as one of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, and his work is still important today in our understanding of how the Romans view their own history.

References

Grant, Michael. The Ancient Historians. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970.

Livy and Valerie M. Warrior (translated with introduction and notes). The History of Rome Books 1-5. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.

Livy, Aubrey De Selincourt (translator), and Betty Radice (editor). Livy, The War with Hannibal, Books XXI-XXX of The History of Rome from its Foundation. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1972.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th Edition. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994.

Livy, “The History of Rome, Books 01 to 08” https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19725

Livy, “The History of Rome, Books 09 to 26” https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10907

Livy, “The History of Rome, Books 27 to 36” https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12582

Livy, “The History of Rome, Books 37 to the End” https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/44318

Lendering, Jona. “Livy” Livius. https://www.livius.org/articles/person/livy/ Accessed January 4, 2022.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Doug West