Why Livy Matters

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov

Some people have all the luck. Alexander the Great said that he loved his tutor, the philosopher Aristotle, more than he loved his own father. Livy, on the other hand, got the following review from his former pupil the emperor Caligula: ‘a verbose and negligent historian.’ One star; would not recommend.

Whether Caligula’s literary sensibilities are a good guide to anything will remain, alas, an open question. On the same occasion, he also pronounced that the great poet Virgil had “no literary talent and very little learning” – an opinion which has not, as a rule, enjoyed much by way of uptake. Livy’s reputation, on the other hand, still struggles to recover.

Livy’s reputation also struggled under the weight of his own achievement. His history, From the Foundation of the City, is a massive affair. By Livy’s death, it stretched to 142 books, running up to Livy’s own day. Already in antiquity the CliffsNotes editions, which condensed the work to a single volume, circulated more widely than the original work.  Still, in that pocket format it was beloved enough to be gifted to guests at feasts, alongside items such as combs, night lamps, exotic birds or tooth powder.

I did once receive five leather bound volumes of Livy as a holiday present, but I suspect I am something of a minority. Livy’s readers today are mostly academic, and that is a shame even for an author who opens his history by wondering if the effort of writing it would be worth it. But Livy, even reduced by the format in which he comes to us, is a lush and wonderous narrative of a society constantly on the brink of unwilling change. And what we do have—the kings of Rome, the war with Hannibal, and even the occasional orgy (a topic Caligula, at least, came to excel in)—still provides the basic narrative of early Roman history from its earliest beginnings to its imperial debut. 

Not only that, Livy offers a mode of historical thinking that resonates especially clearly during a crisis of leadership when we search for language and method to hold political personages up for inspection, examination, and account. History according to Livy is not one event after the other, but the lives and customs of people, what they do and what they say, and above all their capacity to learn from their past and adapt to their present. It is a history of conflict and change, ambition and morality, epic events and human follies. But above all, it is a history that looks the reader in the eye and says: come, I’ll teach you how to live.  

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We know little enough about Livy the man. Titus Livius, or Livy, as he’s come to be known in the English-speaking world, was born in Patavium (modern Padua in the Veneto), probably in 59B.C., the year of Julius Caesar’s first consulship. The time was a mesmerizing one in Rome: political tensions, obstructionism and a stalemate in the senate, a populace growing restless under the weight of debt and a severe credit crunch. How or if all this was felt up in Patavium is unknown. Protected by its position at the center of a flourishing wool-trade, the city was wealthy and prosperous, and its long alliance with Rome ensured its peace. In Livy’s teens, the civil wars that wrecked the empire came briefly to Patavium: the city was temporarily occupied and its politics subverted, but unlike many other Italian communities, Patavium’s suffering was relatively minimal. Livy would remember it as a peaceful haven, and go back there to die in 17 A.D.  

Despite his love of his home city, it was Rome that occupied his working life. He went there probably in the 30B.C., and his work quickly drew the attention of the young emperor Augustus, though not necessarily favorably. The story is worth telling in some detail. Livy was at the time working through an unremarkable stretch of the fourth book of his history, recounting the drudgery of recurring battles against various Italian nations who were trying to stamp out the nascent Roman empire before it had a chance to take root. One of the generals was Aulus Cornelius Cossus – all Roman had three names: a first name (Aulus), a family name (Cornelius), and finally a more distinctive, and usually offensive, nickname: in our case, Cossus, or Woodworm. Cossus came to history’s notice during the battle of Fidenae (modern Castel Giubileo, about 5 miles north of Rome) in 437 B.C., when he became only the second Roman ever to defeat an enemy king in battle, the first being the mythical founder, Romulus. After decapitating his enemy and parading the head in front of his now rudderless army, Cossus stripped the body and took his gory spoils to Rome, where he dedicated them to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, as was his right according to tradition. 

So far so good, and so enshrined in Livy’s history. The problem, however, started when the young emperor Augustus decided to use the tradition of the spolia opima—the spoils won from a leader of the enemy, like Cossus and Romulus before him—to bolster his stronghold on military honors in Rome. According to Augustus, the spolia opima could only be yours if you won them as the commander-in-chief, and not, say, a field marshal or two-star general. This, said the emperor, is how it has always been, and to prove it he produced evidence: the very spoils dedicated by Cossus, signed by him as “consul”—as it turned out, Cossus was in fact the commanding officer, and not, as claimed by a certain young historian from Patavium, a two-star subordinate.

Livy was informed of this clash of opinion by a letter from the emperor himself, and thereby found himself in a bit of a pickle. His research had led him to a direct confrontation with the emperor, and each had different sets of evidence that led to mutually exclusive conclusions. The issue clearly mattered to the emperor, and directly tested Livy’s mettle: will he cave to political pressure, or will he stand his own ground?  

In the event, Livy caved, though only partially. But the part he chose to keep matters. The text as we now have it includes what is clearly marked as a later addition, telling the story of Augustus’ discovery and hailing him as the most reliable evidence available on the topic; so reliable in fact, that his word could be taken on its face, without further verification. After all, Livy wonders out loud, why would the emperor lie?

Because of the way Livy’s history was structured, however, Cossus’ story was spread out over many portions, all of which now needed to be adjusted to account for his newly discovered titles. Livy, however, made no further alterations to the story. As a result, the whole episode appears inconsistent and occasionally sloppy – negligent and verbose, one might say.

But rather than marks against Livy’s competence, should these qualities be read as indications of disciplined resistance? Livy let power have its say – what choice did he have? –  but did not allow it to eradicate older traditions of knowledge or any trace of the evidence that would allow people to hear different versions of the story. Whether such a move was risky or not is an open question. As the most cursory glance at modern authoritarianism will reveal, people have been jailed for less, and Augustus, at least early in his reign, was no different. Negligent or sloppy, Livy was taking a risk.

Whether Augustus was mollified or amused by Livy’s editorial decisions, his relationship with Livy developed into mutual admiration. The historian Tacitus tells us that Livy praised Pompey the Great – the enemy of Augustus’ adoptive father Julius Caesar—so extensively that the emperor called him “Pompeianus”—a follower of the opposition faction in the civil war that led to the rise of Augustus. And yet, says Tacitus, “this was no obstacle to their friendship,” and clearly no obstacle to Livy being given a role in the education of the imperial children. In fact, because of his praise of the establishment’s enemies, Livy gained a reputation for “eloquence and truthfulness”—a testimony too often ignored.

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Livy’s basic historical tool is the exemplum, or exemplary story: a script or story which the reader can imitate or avoid. These stories appear throughout the history, so readers of all stripes have many options to choose from, but Livy never provides a guide on which example is which: what is good and what is bad. On some occasions, the lessons are simple and easy to pick out. Mocking the gods – bad. Keeping your word at all costs – good. Sometimes they are absurd. Human sacrifice—bad; executing your own adult children—sad but necessary. Expanding the voting rights so your daughter doesn’t feel inferior to her better-married sister—commendable; allowing women a say in politics…let’s not get carried away.  

Most examples, though, fall somewhere along the spectrum of practice and ideology, and all of them offer trenchant commentary on Roman politics and Roman morality.

Despite its title “From the Foundation of the City,” Livy started his history before Rome was even a twinkle in Romulus’ eye. Instead, he began at Troy: everyone knows, he says, that when Troy was captured, the victorious Greeks allowed two men to escape, Aeneas and Antenor. Why they did so was less clear: perhaps due to a long-standing obligation, or maybe because Aeneas and Antenor were the ones to broker the return of Helen to her husband. Who knows?

Livy has no intention of either confirming or denying the truth of any venerable stories, leaving the reader to come to her own conclusions. This is not, however, to say that Livy is without agenda. Quite the contrary. The question of how it was that Aeneas was allowed out of Troy was a burning question in antiquity, specifically whether the city was betrayed, and by whom. Was it Aeneas and Antenor together, Antenor alone, or neither of the two? The stakes were reasonably high, because Aeneas went on to become the ancestor of the Roman people, and specifically of their emperor, while Antenor, for his part, went on to build a city in the Veneto that would one day become Patavium. Here are Augustus’ and Livy’s ancestors, getting up to no good together, in highly questionable circumstances.

What questions, though, are we meant to ask? By the time Livy wrote Roman history has become a growing and well-established genre, with authors competing in composing histories that either discovered new information about the past, or wrote about it with more elegance – hence the ‘truthfulness and eloquence’ Tacitus praised Livy for. Curiously, however, those were not the attributes Livy himself wanted to be judged on; instead, Livy wanted to be useful, and in very specific ways. History for Livy was the story of people and their qualities: how they lived their lives, how they achieved what they achieved, and how Livy’s contemporaries have squandered it all away with their greed and indiscipline.

Reading history, therefore, was like looking at a catalog of people, actions, and behaviors, from which you could build for yourself a template to imitate, or, crucially, to avoid. Considering that the very first such exemplum was the father of the Roman people himself, potentially betraying his own city to marauding enemies, Livy’s purpose here is  clearly neither to avoid the difficult questions nor let the great and good off the hook. Exemplarity – the habit of moral judgement through imitation or deliberate avoidance – is put into practice from the very first lines. How did the Romans get their start? Maybe by friendship, and maybe by betrayal. The historian will provide the information, and the reader will provide the criticism. In other words: you decide.  

The choice, however, was not only personal, it was also political. The second person address “you” is authentic to Livy’s text: “you may select for yourself and your country.”  Much ink has accordingly been spilt on the question of who this ‘you’ is. The answer most plump for is Augustus, who was in fact in the process of building his own state from the ground up. But to restrict Livy’s intended readership to the emperor alone also undersells the impact of this message for a people in a hugely transformative moment of nation-building. Livy began writing just as Rome was beginning its long recovery from nearly two decades of civil war, and when Augustus was still busy figuring out what his modern monarchy would look like. When Livy offered his readers exempla, he also offered them a buy-in to this massive project of nationhood, an invitation to build, choice by choice, a new way and a new language of being Roman together in this brave new world.  

Still, it was Augustus who was at the center of people’s attention, and here the story of Livy as truth-telling radical becomes murkier and more complicated. On his deathbed Augustus would say that he found a Rome made of brick and left it made of marble, but the change he wrought was far more systematic than mere building materials. Augustus set out to reinvent—today we might say “rebrand”—the ways Romans thought of themselves and of their state, their past, their present, and their future. His reforms included moral legislation, innovations in time keeping, and extensive public buildings, from temples to aqueducts to libraries. Above all, it set out to mine the Roman past for stories that would prop up the new regime and establish its nativity from the old Roman traditions of the republic.

He meant this in quite a literal way, too. In his new forum, a public plaza for people to gather, he installed a statue gallery of famous Romans, each with a plaque summarizing their glorious achievement, all the way back to the city’s founders, Aeneas and Romulus, whose statues enjoyed pride of place, flanking the center aisle. Romans on their passegiata could easily learn what the new establishment felt was an admirable precedent, an exemplum worthy of imitation. If history was a monument showcasing exempla, as Livy tells us it is, that monument was being built twice over: in marble in Augustus’ forum, and in the words of Livy’s history. Emperor and historian were clearly on the same page, toiling away at the shared project of Rome. 

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There is something distasteful to modern ears about the idea of ruler and media sharing a project of national storytelling. Can anyone be objective and truth-telling if they are also working within parameters imposed from above and outside the media eco-system? Such questions about the responsibilities of journalism, of academics, and of public thinkers have been intensifying as the electorate grows less reliably informed and more volatile. These questions lie at the very heart of participatory democracy, and they matter intensely for its preservation.

Livy was born in the latter day of an aristocratic republic, and he worked through the formation of a distinctive type of autocracy. That he shared in its project of aggrandizing the Roman people is indisputable, but the way he did it also mattered. Livy’s history as we have it is an exercise in evidentiary rigor and critical literacy. He gets things wrong, certainly, but that’s not the point: Livy matters because he tells a good story, and then shows us the holes in the narrative and invites us to make choices that matter to who you are and how you want to be, whether you’re a simple reader or the emperor of Rome.

Livy matters even more because he tells us, explicitly and repeatedly, that some lessons are better than others. And failing to learn them will end (reliably) in disaster. Livy reminds us that History happened to real, living people—it’s not an abstraction. At a time when learning, changing minds, and finding empathy are difficult, such history lessons might be the foundation for a new future.

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.