Livy (Titus Livius)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Livy (Titus Livius)

Livy (Titus Livius) (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) Roman historian

A chronicler who wrote during Rome's golden age of literature, Livy (born Titus Livius) produced Rome's first complete history, Ab urbe condita (From the city's founding, A.D. 14), a best seller of its time, published in English as The History of Rome. A native Paduan from Cisalpine Gaul, Livy grew up among the elite of the provinces, received a classical education, and eschewed military training in favor of intellectual pursuits. He was in his mid-teens when the assassination of Julius Caesar precipitated 17 years of civil war, effectively ending the Roman Republic. His more active years coincided with the consolidation of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus. While raising a daughter and son, he served the imperial household as history tutor to Claudius, Augustus’s great-nephew and Rome's fourth emperor. As a writer, Livy chose to include anecdotal evidence of Roman personages within a chronology that drew on what he regarded as the most authoritative sources. His life’s work required nearly four decades of constant research and composition.

In the second of 142 books, of which 35 survive, Livy’s lengthy retrospect includes a famous cautionary FABLE, “The Mutiny of Body Parts,” the source of which may date to 1250 B.c. As Rome grew accustomed to imperial rule, Livy’s model of group cooperation advocated a higher state of governance. The story allegorizes the 494 B.c. people’s revolt early in the establishment of the Roman Republic, when the consul Menenius Agrippa unified the Romans during the wars against the Volsci to the south. Livy ends the brief fable with a warning from Menenius Agrippa: “Whilst they wished under the influence of this feeling to subdue the belly by famine, the members themselves and the entire body were reduced to the last degree of emaciation” (Livy 1853, 117). The impact of these words on his listeners encouraged the commoners to elect two tribunes of the people as magistrates, a form of checks and balances against senatorial power and a paradigm that recurs in NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI’S Renaissance statecraft handbook The Prince (1514). WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE reprised Livy’s anatomy fable in the opening scene of his tragedy Coriolanus as a reminder to the English after the death of Elizabeth I that mob control was a threat the nation.

For information on the three Punic Wars (264-146 B.c.) and the clash between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire (present- day Libya), Livy drew on the Greek historian Polybius’s Histories (ca. 145 B.c.). Livy’s chronicle addresses the topic of empire and achieves heights of dramatic narrative in his account of the Punic Wars, the greatest threat to Rome up to Livy’s time. It describes the success of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar from 249 to 228 B.c. and surmises that the Carthaginians would have taken Iberia and advanced into Italy if Hamilcar had carried out his master plan. Livy depicts the braggadocio of Carthaginian ambassadors in laughing at the Gauls for refusing to allow the North African army to pass through Gallic territory at Massilia (present-day Marseilles, France) on its way east over the Alps toward Rome.

The text promotes Roman patriotism by declaring the intent of Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, to destroy “the temple of Vesta, the eternal fire, and the fatal pledge for the continuance of the Roman empire” (1,055), a purpose that shook the very soul of the citizenry. Livy assigns to the Roman hero Publius Scipio Africanus an unwavering faith in the auspices that “portend entire success and joy” (1,075) in Hannibal’s defeat at the battle of Zama in 202 B.c. Of Rome’s strength, the historian postulates that “not only other kings and nations, but that even Alexander himself, would have found the Roman empire invincible” (583). The easy style of writing and the historian’s enthusiasm for his subject meant that Livy’s history remained a model of its genre for more than a thousand years.


Livy. The History of Rome. Translated by D. Spillan.

London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853.

Miles, Gary B. Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome. Ithaca,

N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.