Titus Livius Patavinus (named for his birthplace, Padua) was originally a teacher of rhetoric and apparently, from casual references in his writing, a friend of the Emperor Augustus. Perhaps the emperor, as part of his program to glorify Rome, suggested that Livy stop teaching and write a history of the city. The project represented a challenge. His only sources were traditions, the official temple annals listing the consuls and the chief events of each year, and personal records, frequently exaggerated, kept by the famous families. In The History of Rome
, Livy attempts to narrate the history of nearly eight centuries, from the time of Romulus and Remus to the reign of Tiberius. The work comprised 142 books, of which barely a quarter have been preserved: books 1-10 and 21-45, along with some fragments of several others. Even so, this material is enough to fill six volumes in one English translation and thirteen in another.
Like Herodotus, Livy was always attracted to a colorful story. Thomas Macaulay declared in disgust: "No historian with whom we are acquainted has shown so complete indifference to the truth." Probably a truthful chronicle was not what Livy set out to produce. In addition to his patriotic duty, he wanted by his dramatic power and the charm of his style to impress the sophisticated readers of Rome. Accuracy came second. He was no soldier in his battles, no statesman in recording the problems of government; even as a geographer he was most hazy. In an epoch when research was unknown, he was no critical historian. When he found two conflicting accounts, he was likely to choose the more colorful, or include both and let the reader be the judge.
The History of Rome
was issued in decades, or units of ten, a volume at a time, the first between 27 and 25 B.C.E., at the time Vergil was writing his Aeneid
. The work did what the author intended: painted vividly the grandeur of Rome, even though, like an artist, he sometimes changed details for better composition. Whatever his faults as a historian, Livy the novelist, the dramatist, and the orator left unforgettable pages for readers of later generations.
It is a wonder that so much of Livy’s work has come down to the present; he had many enemies. Pope Gregory I, for example, ordered all available copies burned because of the superstitions they contained, and other Church fathers were also to blame for the hundred books that have disappeared, including those about Livy’s own times. More than one modern historian has wished he could exchange the first ten books available for those in which Livy set down what he had witnessed, rather than heard or read. Few, however, would willingly give up the books dealing with the sixteen years of the Punic Wars, the story of the life and death struggle between Rome and Carthage.
"It would be a satisfaction to me," declares Livy in the preface to the first decade of his history, "that I have contributed my share to perpetuate the achievements of a people, the lords of the world." He determines "neither to affirm nor refute" the traditions antedating the founding of Rome, even though they were "more suited to the fiction of poetry than to the genuine record of history." In writing them down, however, his aim is to acquaint the Romans of his day with the lives and customs of ancestors who might serve as examples in the present low moral status of Rome, "when we can neither endure our vices nor their remedies."
He begins by repeating the legend of Aeneas, who led the Trojans to Latium and married Lavinia. He lists the petty chiefs who followed, making no changes in the story of Romulus and Remus and their wolf nurse. He relates briefly the account of the founding of Rome, April 21, 753 B.C.E., when the ceremonies ended with the quarrel between the brothers and the death of Remus. Inviting in the discontented from the neighboring tribes, Romulus populated the city, then provided wives by kidnaping the Sabine women who came as guests to a feast.
In the remaining books of the first decade, which carries the story through 460 years, Livy pays special attention to Rome’s virtuous and exemplary citizens: Cincinnatus, summoned from his plow to drive back the Aequians; Virginius, protecting his daughter Virginia from lustful decemvir Appius Claudius; Camillus, returning from exile to fight the Gauls; Manlius, defending the capitol; and the patriotic Curtius, riding his horse into a chasm in the Forum to preserve his city.
The decade ends when the defeat of the Samnites leaves Rome the master of Italy.
The next ten books have been lost. Only because they were summarized in an epitome does the world know Livy’s account of what happened between 294 and 219 B.C.E.
At the beginning of the next decade, books 21-30, Livy declares: "I am about to relate the most memorable of all wars that were ever waged, the war which the Carthaginians under Hannibal maintained against the Roman people." As far as ancient history goes, he was undoubtedly right. It was a war between the Indo-Germanic and the Semitic races for world dominion. The two were not only equally matched but also familiar with the enemy’s war tactics and potential power, and their hatred for each other, as the historian pointed out, was as strong as their armies.
Livy never minimized the exploits of twenty-six-year-old Hannibal, who became the outstanding figure in his book. What details he could not find recorded of the crossing of the Alps by ninety thousand infantry, twelve thousand cavalry, and thirty-seven elephants, he made up from his imagination. Scipio the father, having failed to stop the Carthaginians in Gaul, tried again on the plains of Italy, but one defeat after another brought terror to the imperial city. After Trebia and Lake Trasimene, the delaying tactics of Fabius Maximus succeeded in holding back the invaders for a time, but the impatience of another consul, Varro, resulted in the culminating Roman disaster at Cannae (216 B.C.E.). Had Hannibal taken advantage of his victory, he could easily have entered Rome.
Book 25 deals with another phase of the struggle. Marcellus, besieging Syracuse, was held at bay for three years by the craft of a seventy-four-year-old mathematician, Archimedes, with his invention of the catapult and the grappling hooks that lifted the prows of Roman ships trying to attack the breakwater, and sank them. Ultimately, however, the Romans found the weak spot in the defenses and captured the island.
On another battlefront, a second Scipio, later to be called Africanus, was trying to keep Spain from being used as the Carthaginians’ European headquarters. A comparison of the version by Livy with another by Polybius shows the superiority of Livy’s technique. Though Scipio could not immobilize Hasdrubal entirely or prevent his departure with reinforcements for his brother in Italy, the delay did contribute to the Carthaginian defeat on the Metaurus River, a Roman victory that was quickly neutralized by the death of Marcellus in a clash with Hannibal. Eventually, however, Roman might prevailed when Scipio carried the war into Africa. Although Hannibal was recalled for the defense of Carthage, his veterans were no match for the Roman legionaries at the Battle of Zama (202 B.C.E.), and defeated Carthage was wiped from the map.
An additional fifteen books of Livy’s history survive, dealing with Roman expansion in Greece and Asia and ending when Macedonia became a Roman province. This story is an anticlimax. No longer were the soldiers fighting for the life of Rome, but the plunder they hoped to acquire, so that the reader does not follow the story with the same interest. Even in these pages, however, the storytelling ability of Livy is still apparent. It is easy to understand why he was called the greatest prose writer of the Age of Augustus.