Defining and Defending History: Livy


This is the fourth part of a series of posts I’m doing where we see the earliest Greek and Roman historians defend and define why they wrote history. I’m turning to the Romans, now, as we’ve studied the three most famous Greek historians as they explain, in their own words, why they chose to write history. The historians covered in these posts are:

Greek Historians

HerodotusHistories – chronicled the Persian Wars

ThucydidesHistories – covers the first half of the Peloponnesian Wars 

PolybiusHistories – relates the rise of Rome in the Second and Third Punic Wars

Roman Historians

Livy – Ab Urbe Condita Libri –  covering Roman History Ab Urbe Condita, from the founding of the city. 

Sallust – from whom two essays survive, detailing the Jugurthan War and the Catilinarian Conspiracy

I want to use the introductions that these men wrote to their works of history as a way of starting the conversation about what history is and why we ought to study it. The men who founded and expanded the genre often gave their own reasons for why they wrote and why we should read their history. I’ll examine each of those five historians in turn.

The Deep Past

Livy, unlike the Greeks we’ve studied so far, has to go much farther back to reach the beginning of his topic. This scares him right off the bat. While both Herodotus and Thucydides touched briefly on Homer at the beginning of their works, the majority of their work deals with events in their own generation or a few generations before. Thucydides points out his use of eye-witnesses to establish his credibility. Polybius starts his narrative about 100 years before his birth. Livy almost laments that he has to go back 700 years. 

My subject involves immense labor, seeing that it must be traced back over seven hundred years and that, proceeding from meager beginnings, it has so increased as now to struggle under its own greatness. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem 4

And the Latin:

Res est praeterea et immensi operis, ut quae supra septingentesimum annum repetatur, et quae ab exiguis profecta initiis eo creverit ut iam magnitudine laboret sua. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem 4

Livy here agrees with Polybius; the Romans are great. But there’s a regret packed into the confession. We were great, and now that greatness has cost us some of the virtues that got us here. 

Weak Readers

Livy also fears that his “immense”—Latin inmensi, unmeasurable—work will scare away the weaker reader, who will be bored by the account of the earlier heroes and prefer to “rush into these modern times, where the strength of a long-ruling people is working its own undoing.” (Pr. 4). Immense is the right word; only 35 of his 142 books survive to our day. But it is telling that he thinks his contemporary audience would much rather hear about recent history than the deep past. Is this a comment on human nature or just a subtle insult to the people of his own time? It’s hard to tell because he has such a dour view of his contemporaries. 

He wants to be a strong writer for strong readers, but he also sees a different purpose for writing history: escape or, at least, detachment. He says:

But I will pursue a different reward—that I may look away from the evils which our own age has been watching for so many years. Meanwhile, I can be absorbed in the recollection of the brave days of old, taking no part in every care which, even if it could not bend the mind of the writer from truth, might still cause it anxiety

And the Latin:

ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omnis expers curae quae scribentis animum, etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem. 5

So he writes history not as Polybius did, to better prepare for political action; rather, he wants to bask in the old virtues without being vexed by current vices.  In the Latin, he places truth and anxiety side-by-side, while wishing he could have the former without any of the latter. This it the reward for the writer of history: truth without trouble. Perhaps it’s also a tacit encouragement to the reader to persevere through the first 100 or so books because there he can achieve the same fruits. 

Livy’s Advice for His Readers

Then Livy explains his use of legends and myths, which will have to be covered in a separate post because it doesn’t directly pertain to why he writes history. Once he has explained the role of legends, he speaks directly to his readers in what is likely the most famous section of his introduction:

Here are the questions to which I would have every reader give his close attention: what life and morals were like; through what men and by what policies, in peace and in war, empire was established and enlarged; then let him note how, with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first sagged, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to the present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their remedies. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem. 9

And the Latin:


ad illa mihi pro se quisque acriter intendat animum, quae vita, qui mores fuerint, per quos viros quibusque artibus domi militiaeque et partum et auctum imperium sit; labente deinde paulatim disciplina velut desidentis primo mores sequatur animo, deinde ut magis magisque lapsi sint, tum ire coeperint praecipites, donec ad haec tempora quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus perventum est. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem. 9

This theme seemed to be lacking from the Greek Historians. Perhaps Thucydides’ plan was to show the decadence of Athenian power as they lost the war in consequence of their over-reaching in campaigns like Sicily. If he does this, however, it’s much more subtle than what Livy is doing here. Livy positively asserts that he is living in worse times, morally, than those that came before even though the wealth and power has increased since those earlier times. This brings in an element to historical study that we should closely examine since it is a foundational bias for Livy, and thus could be for us as well. 

Do we look around us and try to compare what is better or worse from the past to our own present? If so, do we end up with a narrative structure that tends in one direction? Has History become tragic in its scope? Livy stops his work in 9 B.C., almost twenty years after Augustus has rescued the Republic from three generations of Civil War and established what will later be called the Pax Romana. 

Livy vs. Augustus

Livy does not see Augustus’s reign as a high-water mark. Augustus differs in his own account of things, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (the deeds of the Divine Augusust), his first-person description of the most important accomplishments of his reign. It is for the reader to decide, using the primary sources. The Res Gestae, though, was much easier to preserve since they were only about thirty-five paragraphs long. It was also carved into large stone monuments all around the Empire, with the best-preserved being in Turkey. A facsimile was dedicated in Rome in 2005, pictured below and you can find a cool 3-D rendering of at this link

res gestae divi augusti - why write history
Carving it on stone is one way to make it last a long time.

The Real Profit of Historical Study

Though Livy and Augustus disagree, they seem to have the same audience in mind: posterity. Augustus made that clear by carving into stone the story of his reign and disseminating the official version throughout the empire. Livy expands the scope of his own audience in the last few sentences of his proem: 

It is this that makes the study of history beneficial and profitable: that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience set forth as on a striking monument; from these you may choose for yourself and for your republic what to imitate, from these you may avoid what is vile in its origin and vile in its result. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem. 10

And the Latin:

Hoc illud est praecipue in cognitione rerum salubre ac frugiferum, omnis te exempli documenta in inlustri posita monumento intueri; inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu, foedum exitu, quod vites. —Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Proem. 10

So, the real profit of History seems to echo Polybius slightly who called it “the surest method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune.” But he steps outside of the call for personal formation when he adds tuaeque rei publicae “and for your republic.” Surely this can’t just be a reference to his own contemporaries, many of whom he saw die when Pompey opposed Caesar and again when Antony opposed Augustus (who was then called Octavian). The men who resisted died horrible deaths. In what Republic does any man still have influence in Livy’s day? Augustus is the princeps, the first among equals, the Roman with the ultimate auctoritas, authority. 

Here, Livy perhaps has more in common with Thucydides, who self-consciously wrote a History as a κτῆμά τε ἐς αἰεὶ, or a “possession for all time.” Livy doesn’t just want his fellow Romans to learn from Roman history, he is inviting every generation after him to do so, and then to apply those lessons to their own republic. 


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