Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Illustration of PDF document

Download The History of Rome Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Titus Livius, author of The History of Rome, is one of two great Roman historians (the other being Tacitus). Livy's Ab Urbe Condita and Tacitus's Annales together give us a thorough description of Rome's history from the legendary founding by Aeneas to the Jewish Wars in 70 CE. Livy's History of Rome ends with the death of Drusus (the son of Augustus's first wife, Livia).

Thirty-five of Livy's 142 books survive. The complete narrative has existed in epitomized form since antiquity, giving us some insights into the full contents, though we have only select portions. The majority of what survives is from Rome's early history. The major themes of the extant portions will be discussed here.

An abiding theme throughout the book is Livy's own admission of the scarcity of sources concerning the beginning of the city, and his acknowledgement of their mythical nature. This in turn, however, elevates Livy to a status quite different than poets of his time. He is committed to transparency, honesty, and attention to sources when he has them.

Livy is our primary source for many of Rome's founding myths and for the legends of Rome's early history. His account of Rome's founding is a traditional and well-known one. It is well-attested, if legendary. Specifically, he explains the Trojan Aeneas's escape from Troy to Italy, his agreement with the local king, Latinus, and his establishment of a new city in Italy. Here, as elsewhere, Livy gives two possible accounts:

Of what followed, there are two different accounts. Some writers say, that Latinus, being overcome in battle, contracted an alliance, and afterwards an affinity, with Aeneas; others, that when the armies were drawn up in order of battle, before the signal was given, Latinus, advancing in the front, invited the leader of the strangers to a conference . . . when he was informed that the leader was Aeneas, the son of Anchises by Venus, and his followers Trojans...being struck with admiration of that renowned people and their chief . . . he gave him his right hand, and by that pledge assured him of his future friendship" (Book I).

Livy also explains the history of Romulus and Remus—twin sons of Mars and a Vestal Virgin (a Roman priestess sworn to chastity). On this, Livy remarks,

The vestal being deflowered by force, brought forth twins, and declared that the father of her doubtful offspring was Mars; either because she really thought so, or in hopes of extenuating the guilt of her transgression by imputing it to the act of a deity (Book I).

Romulus is commonly referred to as the first king of Rome. He is also said to have killed his brother. On this score, Livy again gives his readers all stories in circulation. One version claims that Romulus and Remus left the question of rulership to the auspices of birds, and, when the results of this were contested, Romulus killed Remus in an ensuing fight. Livy acknowledges, "there is another account more generally received, that Remus, in derision of his brother, leaped over the new wall, and that Romulus, enraged thereat, slew him, uttering at the same time this imprecation, 'So perish every one that shall hereafter leap over my wall'" (Book I).

The remaining extant content of Livy's History of Rome includes the Samnite Wars (waged by the early Romans against a local Italic tribe), the Second Punic War (resulting in Rome's victory against Hannibal and his team of elephants crossing the alps), and the Macedonian Wars (against Philip of Macedon). The recurring theme of many of these accounts is Livy's acknowledgement of different versions of stories and his transparent presentation of events as they are handed down to him. This was a uniquely forthcoming prose strategy that constituted the emergent genre of "history."

Previous

Quotes

Next

Characters