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.” A truthful chronicle probably 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 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 (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). 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...

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Chaplin, Jane D. Livy’s Exemplary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Livy’s account of Roman history provided examples of historical figures’ good and bad conduct. Chaplin examines how Livy used these examples to make the Romans’ past meaningful for their future.

Davies, Jason P. Rome’s Religious History: Livy, Tacitus, and Ammianus on Their Gods. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Examines the work of Livy and two other ancient Roman historians whose accounts of Rome’s past included information about the gods. Argues that these accounts not only portrayed the gods as a powerful historical force but also offered the historians an opportunity to express their ideas about the proper Roman religious system.

Dorey, T. A., ed. Livy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971. Covers the various extant sections of Livy’s history of Rome. Contains essays on Livy’s influence on later European historians and thinkers, such as Montesquieu. Offers a good discussion of Livy’s coverage of the Second Punic War.

Feldherr, Andrew. Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Analyzes several passages in the work to demonstrate how Livy uses visual imagery to make his readers observe and participate in some of the major events in Roman history.

Levene, D. S. Religion in Livy. New York: Brill, 1993. Analyzes Livy’s history as a vehicle intended to revive the traditional Roman religion, augmenting the national pride and confidence of the Augustan Rome of his time.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Traces Livy’s influence on later historians and defends Livy against the charge that, although a great stylist, he is practically useless as a historian.

Moore, Timothy J. Artistry and Ideology: Livy’s Vocabulary of Virtue. Frankfurt: Atheneum, 1989. A closely argued literary and linguistic analysis of Livy’s prose style. Shows Livy as a conscious artist making similar rhetorical and linguistic choices to orators, such as Cicero, and poets, such as Vergil. Knowledge of Latin is helpful in reading this book.

Woodman, A. J. Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies. London: Croom Helm, 1988. Compares Livy’s style and discourse to those of other Greek and Latin historians. Shows how Livy’s rhetoric is deployed to further his political and moral allegiances and to ingratiate his presentation to the reader.