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From the Founding of the City

From the Founding of the City

by Livy


A historical narrative of the history of Rome from c. 753 bce to c.9 bce; written in Latin and published during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (31 bce to 14 ce) and the early years of his successor Tiberius (14 to 37 ce),


Likening history to a monument on which are displayed good examples to follow and bad to avoid, the author traces the rise and expansion of Rome from the twin founders, Romulus and Remus, to the Emperor Augustus.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Narrative in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

For More Information

The first great Roman historian without a political background, Titus Livius (Livy) is famous for his monumental 142-book history of Rome, From the Founding of the City (the Ab Urbe Condita). Only books 1–10 and 21–45 have survived intact. The contents of almost all of the remaining books (except for 136 and 137) are known from a summary, or Epitome, of the entire work by an unknown author, from papyrus fragments discovered in 1906 at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, and from the work of Julius Obsequens, a fourth-century writer, who excerpted brief sections of Livy’s text. According to St. Jerome, Livy was born in 59 bce at Padua, Italy. As a member of the provincial elite, he would have had the usual schooling in rhetoric and philosophy. In his youth he wrote philosophical essays and later wrote a rhetorical treatise for his son; none of these works has survived. Livy moved to Rome in the 30s bce, when he began work on his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita. This project occupied him until his death in 17 ce. In writing the history, Livy adopted a traditional, annalistic (year-by-year) framework. There is a pro-Republican, strongly moralistic outlook to his history, though it is clearly shaped by the tumultuous civil wars of the 40s and 30s bce and the rise to power of the first emperor of Rome—Augustus. The inherent dangers of absolute power and the erosion of Rome’s traditional Republican way of life during this troublesome period are of particular concern to Livy. His analysis of Rome’s expansion through military conquest and of the development of its political, religious, and social institutions is therefore imbued with valuable lessons for Livy’s own time.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

Early Rome and the regal period

Around the tenth century bce onwards, the Iron Age peoples of Italy began to settle on easily defensible hilltops. The site of the future Rome was ideal. Some 12 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea, a series of hills rose next to the River Tiber. The hills provided refuge from floods and hostile influences, while the valleys irrigated by the Tiber and by fresh spring water provided excellent farmland and pasture. Evidence for early settlements at the future site of Rome has been confirmed by archaeological excavations that have revealed Iron Age huts and burials dating to the ninth century bce on the Palatine and Esquiline hills. This early settlement at Rome was a pastoral community, similar to other settlements in the region. These settlements seem to have been ruled by a “king” or chief, who was probably the most powerful man of a small aristocratic class. Most people were probably peasant farmers dependent on the aristocrats for protection from hostile tribes.

Rome nonetheless benefited from its position close to the Tiber River. Its central position for river and land routes meant that its people could exploit the opportunities offered by trade and could forge links with neighboring communities.

Rome’s growth attracted the attention of the Etruscans to the north, who spoke a different language and had different social and religious practices. They appear to have exerted control of Rome in the sixth century bce. During the next century and a half, Rome grew into a major city, constructing the great foundation of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, large aristocratic houses from stone, and a defensive wall. During this period the Romans also developed an army of well-drilled infantry soldiers, who fought shoulder-to-shoulder. In the Roman historical sources, the Etruscan dominance of the city is captured in the reigns of the legendary Etruscan kings, Tarquinius Priscus and Tarquinius Superbus, who receive credit for major temple and building work.

While the greater sophistication of the Etruscans had a considerable influence on Rome, trade and contact with the Greek colonies in the south of Italy and with the Phoenicians in the eastern Mediterranean left their marks too, particularly on the literature and archaeology of early Rome. The evidence suggests a vibrant, cross-cultural dissemination of knowledge and ideas.

The Republic

Livy tells us that the kings were expelled from Rome in 510–509 bce. The date is a convenient Roman fiction that coincides with the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes at Athens during the same period. Probably the aristocratic classes, dissatisfied with the monarchy as their form of government, exerted their wealth and influence to institute an oligarchy (“rule of the few”). The basis of power now lay in the hands of two annually elected magistrates known as consuls, supported by the Senate (which derives its name from the Latin word senex or “old man”), effectively a body of elders. The patrician, or aristocratic, class—a wealthy, landowning elite—controlled access to the consulship, to other magistracies (offices of state), and to priesthoods.

The change in government coincided with threats to Rome from neighboring tribes. This led to extensive wars of Roman conquest throughout Italy, including campaigns against the Etruscans. The wars exposed serious problems at home, especially a growing dearth of manpower for the army and mounting debt among the lower (plebeian) classes. Not only were the plebeians compelled to fight wars that did not benefit their position in society, but they were also oppressed by the patricians, who at times compelled them to become enslaved when they could not repay their debts.

These factors and the exclusion of the plebeians from government led to their agitation for reform. Over time, the patricians relinquished their rights to control the laws, magistracies, and priesthoods. Key turning points were the codification of Roman law by way of the Twelve Tables (451–450 bce), the opening up of the consulship (367 bce) to plebeian candidates, and the election of plebeians to the priestly colleges (300 bce). The ceding of powers from the patricians to the plebeians (commoners) coincided with Rome’s reliance on the common people to man its armies during a time of expansion. It also marked the formulation of a more rigid constitution, one in which both the rich and the poor had parts to play.

The later Republic

Rome’s wars of conquest brought Rome into conflict with Carthage, as both powers were eager to acquire Sicily and its natural resources. Emerging the victor, Rome acquired Sicily in 241 bce. In 202 bce, Rome defeated Carthage again, gaining parts of Spain, and in 146 bce Rome razed Carthage altogether. At the same time, Rome turned its attention to the Greek east, fighting four wars with Macedon, finally overcoming the Greek state in 146 bce. This resulted in an influx of Hellenistic art, culture, and religion. The effects of Roman expansion throughout the Mediterranean were beyond estimation. The nobility acquired wealth at a pace they never had before. Huge numbers of slaves flooded into Rome and the Italian countryside. Exacerbated by the wars of conquest, the divide between rich and poor became ever more apparent, and this inevitably led to more serious political and social upheavals.

Livy’s narrative survives only in summaries for the later Roman Republic, but our evidence is well supplemented by other authors: Sallust, Cicero, Appian, and Plutarch. They paint a bleak picture of Rome from the mid-second century bce onwards. These writers emphasize Rome’s declining morality and the abandonment of traditional political and religious practices. They paint a picture of a class of nobility that is given to luxury, greed, and an overriding desire for personal acclaim at any cost. Indeed a survey of the last years of the Republic shows continual internal strife and civil war from 133 bce.

In 133 bce, the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus tried to institute a rather modest land reform that would help the poor and nobles alike. In the ensuing disturbances, he was killed along with many of his supporters, whose bodies were thrown into the River Tiber. The nobility resisted such reforms because of worries that they gave ambitious individuals too much influence amongst the people. Ultimately their obstruction led in the first century bce to the rise of the “military dynast”: men who would not hesitate to use the army to augment their personal reputation and glory. Gaius Marius, an army general, ignored the restrictions that prevented Roman magistrates from acquiring successive political offices or holding the same office within a ten-year period; he himself occupied the consulship seven times (five times in succession). Lucius Cornelius Sulla, another general, fought against his fellow citizens and was declared dictator for the unprecedented reason of rewriting the constitution. Sulla occupied the dictatorship (normally a six-month appointment) for the equally unprecedented period of three years. Pompey the Great held military commands and political offices before he was legally permitted to do so. Finally, after gaining unparalleled acclaim from his Gallic campaigns, Julius Caesar showed a thirst for ultimate power. On January 15, 49 bce, he led his forces across the Rubicon (a tiny stream separating Gaul from Italy) to embroil Rome in another bloody civil war and, eventually, to be elected dictator for life.


Rome’s early tribal organization was based on Etruscan distinctions. Etruscan kingly regalia, special clothes, and a ceremonial chair survived as symbols of Roman magistrates. The progress of Roman drama is also attributed to the Etruscans. In particular, they influenced Rome’s religious institutions. Members of the Etruscan nobility were adept in interpreting the signs sent by the gods (thanks to a system they developed from a mixture of Mesopotamian, Greek, and native beliefs). The Roman Senate regularly turned to the Etruscan divinatory experts—the haruspices—to assist them in the interpretation of particularly dreadful portents.

In recounting Rome’s earlier and later history, Livy evokes the sense of a glorious past that has, by stages, been forgotten. He draws the reader back to Rome’s origins in hopes that traditional values can be recovered, while outlining a history that traces the rise and fall of the Republic.

The Narrative in Focus

Contents overview

Livy’s original intention was to write the whole of Rome’s history from its foundation to his own day. Sometimes called his Annales (Annals) because of its year-by-year format, the work mentions the arrival in Italy of Aeneas, a survivor of the Trojan War, and then traces the rise and expansion of Rome from its twin founders, Romulus and Remus, to the death of Drusus in 9 bce. Livy probably published the first five books before 26 bce and the remainder in groups of ten books roughly every three years, until his death in 17 ce. Of the 142 books, only 1–10 and 21–45 have survived intact. However, the fortunate survival of summaries for books 11–20 and 46–142 means we can reconstruct at least the outlines of his entire account.

In the preface to the first book, Livy emphasizes that his task is to put on record the deeds (res gestae) of the Roman people, the greatest nation in the world, tracing its development from slender beginnings to the present, which labors under its own enormity. He goes on to warn that the fabulous and supernatural elements in Rome’s early history might not be to the taste of all his readers. These readers will hasten to his later books, which record the story of Rome’s rise and fall. It is a pessimistic record of waning discipline, sliding morals, and an outright collapse into the evils of his day. Livy, on the contrary, hopes that his stories of early Rome will provide at least some relief from the troubled times of his own day. The preface ends with a memorable metaphor in which Livy stresses the didactic purpose of his work, likening it to a monumental building that displays the Roman people’s achievements—both the good examples to follow and bad ones to avoid.

In barest outline, Livy’s history is structured as follows:

1Preface; Aeneas and the seven Kings of Rome (pre-753 bce–510 bce)
2–5The formation of the Roman Republic, including the Laws of the Twelve Tables, to the Sack of Rome by the Gauls (509 bce–390 bce)
6–15A second preface, claiming to introduce a clearer and more certain historical account; the conquest of Italy (265 bce)
16–20The First Punic War to the first Roman census (264 bce to 219 bce)
21–30The war against Hannibal (The Second Punic War) (218–201 bce)
31–40A third preface lamenting the magnitude of Livy’s task; the wars with Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus of Syria (201 bce–179 bce)
41–45The Third Macedonian War against Perseus, son of Philip V (171 bce–167 bce)
46–70Spanish Campaigns, the Third Punic War, and the war with Perseus of Macedon down to the outbreak of the Social War (178 bce–91 bce)
71–80The Social War to the death of Marius (91bce–86 bce)
81–90The ascendancy of Sulla to his death (86 bce–78 bce)
91–108The war with Sertorius to the end of Caesar’s Gallic campaigns (78 bce–51 bce)
109–116From the causes and beginning of the Civil War to the assassination of Julius Caesar (51 bce–44 bce)
117–133The deification of Julius Caesar and the rise of Octavian, the First Triumvirate, Actium, and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra (44 bce–30 bce)
134–142The rule of Augustus to the death of Drusus and the disaster of Quintilius Varus (29 bce–9 bce)

Books 1–5

There is emphasis in the preface and throughout the narrative on the theme of foundation and re-foundation. Livy’s first book, which lays the groundwork for the remainder of the history, is a testament to those notions: Rome is founded through “august augury,” or divine omens, when the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus compete to see favorable signs from the birds. After the killing of his brother Remus, Romulus establishes Rome’s early community and laws; the priest-king Numa founds Rome anew on religious grounds. The succeeding kings, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, and Servius Tullius, make their own military, religious, and legal contributions. In telling the tale, Livy ensures that the reader comprehends the dangers of kingship. Its flaws are laid bare in the person of Tarquinius Superbus, whose overbearing qualities end with the expulsion of the Etruscan. Maintaining the metaphor of his work as a building, Livy’s first book maps out the city of Rome and its monuments: the Palatine and Aventine hills of Rome, where Romulus and Remus competed to control the founding of the city; the swampy site of Rome’s future forum; the Capitoline Hill, the temple of Janus, where Servius Tullius (a king of 578–535 bce) was murdered; the Circus; Rome’s great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, and more. Livy’s reader is enticed into a world familiar but simultaneously set in a distant and mythical past.

Consistently Livy plays down Greek and Etruscan elements in his early stories to emphasize the grandeur of Rome. At the start of book 2 he indicates the importance of law: “From this point onwards I shall narrate the achievements of the Roman people now free, in peace and war, their annual magistracies, and the authority of statutes more powerful than men” (Livy, From the Founding of the City, book 2, chapter 1, section 1; trans. A. Nice). The emphasis on law is significant. Having shaken off the tyranny of the Etruscan kings, the Roman people can look to success at home and abroad through their annually elected magistrates and laws from which no man, not even a king, will be exempt. This second beginning, resting on Republican ideals, marks a change of tone in Livy’s narrative.

It is in books 2–4 that we begin to see the first evidence of Livy’s annalistic scheme. Invariably a new year opens with the naming of the two consuls and yearly events begin to be divided on the basis of internal-external-internal affairs. The rigid structure does not prevent Livy from including dramatic material. For example, Mucius Scaevola’s heroic attempt to kill the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna results in the would-be killer’s capture. When threatened with being burnt alive, Mucius Scaevola thrusts his right hand into a fire on an altar and is set free by the Etruscans, who admire his bravery (From the Founding, 2.12.12–13). Also in book 2, Horatius defends the Milvian Bridge, then swims heroically to safety across the River Tiber; and the heroine Cloelia escapes her Etruscan captors and similarly swims the river. Worthy examples such as these testify to Roman courage and endurance. The narrative passes through a series of internal struggles between the patricians, or wealthy landowners, and plebeians, or commoners, as well as war with various Italian tribes to the north and south of Rome: the Etruscans, Volscians, and Aequians. Constant warfare gives the plebeians leverage. In 494 bce they go on strike, forcing the patrician leadership to elect officials—the tribunes of the people—to protect plebeian interests. Later in book 3, a commission of ten men establishes the earliest Roman code of law, the Twelve Tables. This moment is a pivotal one in the first five books. But Roman troubles continue. Book 4 relates the ongoing struggles against Rome’s southern neighbors and the growing threat posed by the Etruscan hilltop town of Veii (situated on the River Tiber, 9 miles northwest of Rome), which reach a climax in book 5.

Book 5 is divided between the Roman capture of Veii, and the Gallic invasion of Italy. The book abounds in the miraculous and supernatural: the portentous rise in the water level of the Alban Lake; the seizure of Veii after the Romans capture an Etruscan diviner and steal the entrails of a sacrificial victim from the very altar on which the Etruscan king was sacrificing; the sacred geese that saved the Capitol; and the words of a centurion (a unit commander in the Roman army), who orders his troops to stand fast in the Roman forum, an omen confirming that the Romans should not move their capital from Rome to Veii. Cementing the book is the patriot Marcus Camillus, who after his glorious capture of Veii, falls from grace, but later returns in glorious triumph to defeat the Gauls. After the Ro-mans recapture their city, he is acclaimed as “another Romulus and parent of the homeland, a second founder of the city” (From the Founding, 5.49; trans. A. Nice). Rome rises once more from the ashes of the Gallic destruction, its disorganized street plan—which was obvious in Livy’s own time—a testament to the people’s haste to reconstruct their city.

Books 6–10

At the start of book 6, a second preface emphasizes the new foundation: “From its second founding, as though reborn from its roots more fortunate and more fertile, the deeds of the city in domestic and military affairs may be set out more clearly and more certainly” (From the Founding, 6.1.3; trans. A. Nice). From this moment, despite considerable variation in the treatment of individual years, the building blocks of the annalistic form are more evident: notices of elections, the elections of magistrates, the announcement of and remedies for prodigies (unexplained and, therefore, ominous natural events), more religious material, famines, plagues, and floods, administrative business, troop dispositions, and other military information.

Two main themes dominate books 6 to 10—the renewal of the struggle in Italy and continuing domestic problems. In the first case, Rome is compelled to subdue once more the southern tribes. Much of these books is taken up with Rome’s war with the Samnite nation. For Livy, the freedom of the Roman people continues to be a double-edged sword. Rome’s success in war is threatened by internal dissension (the so-called “Struggle of the Orders”) between the plebeians and their patrician overlords, who remain reluctant to cede power. The patricians are compelled to make more concessions in order to keep the peace. Eventually book 10 reaches a convenient stopping point. By 300 bce, the patricians have allowed the plebeians to become candidates for both the consulship and the major priesthoods (the pontificate and augurate); Rome, victorious over the Samnites in 293 bce, now effectively controls most of Italy. Nonetheless, at the end of book 10 any optimism is undermined when a plague devastates Rome and the countryside. The Sibylline Books (a collection of oracles) advise the Senate to bring the cult of the Greek god of healing, Aesculapius, from Epidaurus to Rome.

Books 11–45

The next decade begins on a more optimistic tone, with the arrival of Aesculapius and a cure for Rome’s woes. It requires, however, another five books to subjugate the Etruscans. Rome’s control of the Italian peninsula brings Rome into conflict with the great sea-faring nation of Carthage for control of Sicily. Five books on the First Punic War (264–241 bce) record Rome’s surprising victory over the Carthaginians at sea and lay the seeds for the centerpiece of the Ab Urbe Condita: the war with Hannibal, or the Second Punic War. In ten books (books 21–30), Livy traces a wide range of developments: Rome’s dubious claims to Saguntum (a city in Spain); the origins of Hannibal’s hatred for Rome and his famous march across the Alps; the role of the general Flaminius in Rome’s catastrophic defeat at Lake Trasimene; a second and equally devastating rout at the village of Cannae; the reversal of Roman bad for-tune through the delaying tactics of the Roman general Fabius Maximus; and the role of Scipio Africanus in the Roman defeat of Hannibal on Carthaginian soil at Zama. Essential to the narrative is the harmonious union of all sectors of Roman society and their religious piety, especially that of Scipio Africanus, who is acclaimed as a second founder of the city. Overwhelming despair in book 22 changes to hope and finally triumph by book 30. At this point, the tone of Livy’s narrative is wholly optimistic.

At the start of book 31, however, Livy is distressed and wearied:

Although it is not at all right that someone who has dared to promise that he would record the whole of Roman history should become tired in the individual portions of such a great work, nevertheless, when it occurs to me that 63 years—for there have been that many between the beginning of the First Punic War and the end of the Second—have filled as many volumes for me as were required for the 488 years from the foundation of the city to the consulship of Appius Claudius, who began the first war with the Carthaginians, already I foresee in my heart that… I am being carried, whatever progress I make, into yet vaster depths and, as it were, into an abyss.

(From the Founding, 31.1.2–5; trans. A. Nice)

Rhetorically Livy’s despair at the magnitude of his task suggests that this is also the moment from which he traces Rome’s descent towards the troubles of his own generation. Now Rome’s his-tory is not clearer and more assured as at the beginning of book 6, but rather more obscure and more doubtful.

Rome’s wars against Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus of Syria strain Livy’s annalistic or yearby-year method as he strives to associate internal affairs with events happening overseas. In book 31 (201–200 bce) Rome declares war on Macedon but simultaneously must deal with an uprising among the Insubrians (a tribe in the very north of Italy). Domestic affairs at the end of the year concern the general Lucius Furius and his disputed claims to a triumph over the Gauls. In books 32 and 33, campaigns against the Macedonians continue under the great Roman general Quinctius Flamininus. He defeats the Greeks at Cynoscephelae in 197 bce and, after terms have been settled, argues for the freedom (autonomy) of Greece from Roman rule. At the same time Rome campaigns continually against the Boii, Insubrians, and Ligurians (tribes in north Italy), and in Spain. After the withdrawal of Flamininus from Greece in book 34, conflict arises when King Antiochus of Aetolia (a country in central Greece) adopts a new policy towards Rome and aggressively interferes in Greece, threatening Rome’s claims to dominion. Ultimately the Ro-mans are triumphant under the consul Marcus Acilius (book 36). Nonetheless, the books that follow see continuing problems with Macedon and a renewal of Macedonian power under Philip in 185 bce (book 39). There follows, in a piece-meal fashion, campaigns in Greece, northern Italy, and Spain right through to book 40. Amid these foreign affairs, Livy traces the fates of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (who is forced to leave Carthage in disgrace) and Scipio Africanus, who is prosecuted and then dies. In domestic af-fairs, the period witnesses senatorial attempts at religious control: the suppression of the cult of Dionysus in 186 bce (book 39) and the discovery in 181 bce (book 40) of the alleged Pythagorean books of Numa (containing subversive religious and philosophical material). Also woven into the narrative is the rise of the Roman statesman Cato the Elder, from his commands in Spain (195 bce, book 34) to his election as censor (184 bce, book 39).

Books 41 to 45 are the last of Livy’s surviving books and are plagued by gaps in the narrative. Their subject matter is dominated by the rise of Perseus, son of Philip V of Macedon. The Third Macedonian War is declared in 171 bce (book 42). Perseus’s defeat is finally wrought by L. Aemilius Paullus at the Battle of Pydna in 168 bce (book 44). Book 45 outlines the surrender of Perseus and the Senate’s terms for Macedonia and Illyria (northern Greece). An inquiry into Greek affairs leads to further conditions being imposed on the Greek nations. Like Scipio Africanus, Paullus comes under attack for his conduct in office but overcomes the charges to celebrate a triumph, which is marred by the death of one of his two remaining sons a few days before and of the other son just three days later. His speech is a testament to Roman character and tradition. In his sadness he finds a consolation for the disaster to his family in the happiness and good fortune of the Republic (From the Founding, 45.42.1).

The periochae (summaries)

After book 45 the reader is dependent on the summaries to reconstruct the remaining books of Livy’s history. There are hints that the pessimistic tone of the first preface returns in these remaining books. The second century bce is marked by ever more expansive wars abroad: the subjugation of Spain; a further campaign against Macedon (149–146 bce, books 49–52); and a third and final bitter war against Carthage (149–146 bce, books 49–51). Brief notices of wars in other arenas suggest that Livy’s purpose in these books is to give an overwhelming picture of a Rome fighting on several fronts, weighed down by responsibilities to allies and a compulsive desire for imperialistic expansion.

At home Livy appears to have been interested in challenges to the traditional authority of the Senate in politics and religion. To bring water to the Capitoline, the praetor Quintus Marcius builds an aqueduct in defiance of a prophecy of the Sibylline Books. Tiberius Gracchus, a tribune of the people, passes an agrarian law; and his brother, Gaius Gracchus, also a tribune, passes a more sweeping series of legislative reforms. Both are killed in the violence that follows their attempts to alleviate the problems of Rome’s poorer classes.

These themes are a good prelude to the circumstances surrounding the military and political successes of Gaius Marius, who is victorious over the Numidian prince, Jugurtha, and the mi-grating Gallic tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones. His consulships in the late 100s bce are marked by his deceptive dealings with the controversial tribunes Saturninus and Glaucia and by the in-creasing use of force to pass legislation. In contrast to the tumultuous later years of the second century bce, Livy requires only one book to nar-rate the years 99–91 bce (Epitome 70). Nine books later, after the devastating Social War, a conflict waged by Rome against its Latin allies (its sodi), Marius returns to march on Rome and to declare himself (with another general, Cinna) master of the city. Marius is everything good and bad about Rome, as Livy remarks,

As a man, if his faults are examined along with his virtues, it is not easy to say, whether he was better in war or more dangerous in peace. So true is it that armed he saved the state, but as a private citizen first overturned it with every manner of deception, and then in a hostile manner with weapons.

(Livy, Epitome 80; trans. A. Nice)

Increasingly the books that follow are concerned with the growth of military power, first of Sulla (dictator from 82 to 79 bce), then of Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), and finally of Julius Caesar. Livy traces the progress of the state to-wards the civil wars of the 40s bce. Caesar’s assassination is seen as a direct result of his intentions at monarchy (Epitome 116). Not long afterwards, as his adopted son and grandnephew, Octavian, is parading his troops on the Campus Martius, six vultures appear and then another six, a sign that indicates he is to found the city anew under the same omens as the city’s founder, Romulus.

The tone of optimism does not continue, how-ever, as Livy describes the strained relations among Marc Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian, and the events that result in a new civil war. Even the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium does not seem to have captured Livy’s imagination in the same way as it did the Augustan poets. In his books on Augustus’s rule, Livy seems to have been more interested in the wars waged by Roman generals and Augustus’s relatives than in the achievements of Augustus himself, who brought peace to the Roman Empire. The remnants of Livy’s history end, perhaps appropriately, on an inconclusive yet pessimistic note: “Disaster to Quinctilius Varus”—a reference to the slaughter of three legions under the command of this Roman general in Germany’s Teutoburg Forest.

Religion and divination in Livy

According to the Greek historian Polybius, the Romans were the most religious of nations. Religion played a vital role in the political and military affairs of the Roman people; it was also an ever-present facet of their daily private lives. Other Roman historians, in particular Sallust and Caesar, had paid little attention to the supernatural. Like the Greek historian Thucydides, they strove to give their accounts a “scientific” and objective appearance. Livy’s narrative, on the other hand, is more like Herodotus’s Histories (also in Classical Literature and Its Times); the work is imbued with religious material relevant to Livy’s historical account.

Just a few years before Livy began his history, the orator and statesman Cicero divided Roman religion into three categories—the sacra, auspicia, and prophecies drawn from signs and omens (On the Nature of the Gods, 3.5). The first division, the sacra (sacred things), was the domain of the college of pontiffs (one of several bodies of state priests). Livy’s history describes the pontiffs as maintaining the ancestral customs of the Roman state and preventing its contamination by foreign ritual. The auspicia, the second category, was the responsibility of the Roman augurs, who oversaw the rules pertaining to various supernatural signs, particularly those shown by birds (auguries and auspices). The importance of augury and the taking of the auspices is a constant theme in Livy’s work. The consul Appius Claudius states that nothing is done in war and peace, whether at home or abroad, without first taking the auspices (From the Founding, 6.36.6).If a general goes to war under unfavorable auspices, disaster invariably follows. Cicero’s last religious category was for prophecies obtained from prodigies and portents, which were interpreted by the Board of Ten (later Fifteen) men in charge of the Sibylline Books or by the Etruscan soothsayers (the haruspices). In Livy’s narrative Roman political and military success depends on maintaining the pax deorum (the “peace of the gods”) and avoiding divine displeasure. Pious regard for the signs sent from heaven and pious performance of rituals, prayers, and vows are essential to Roman expansion and victory in battle. Improper regard for the gods and impiety lead to political or military failure, sometimes death for the individual. This is most evident in the lists of prodigies (natural phenomena for which there was no apparent rational explanation) that appear in the narrative. These lists are usually inserted into the narrative at the beginning of the year, before the consuls set out with their armies for war. Invariably the lists are followed by a description of the remedies (expiation ceremonies) recommended by Rome’s priests to avert the gods’ anger. For example:

On the Alban Mount a statue of Jupiter had been struck by lightning, also a tree near the temple; at Ostia, a fountain had been struck, at Capua the wall and the temple of Fortune, and the wall and a gate at Sinuessa. In addition to this, it was reported by some that the Alban Lake had flowed red, like blood, and in Rome, inside the shrine of the temple of Fors Fortuna, a figure fixed to the wreath round the head of a statue fell without apparent cause into the statue’s hand. It was common knowledge that at Privernum an ox talked and a vulture, while the forum was full of people, flew down on to a shop, and that at Sinuessa a child of ambiguous sex was born, half male half female—an androgynous child, to use, as often, the popular term…. At Sinuessa it also rained milk and a male baby was born with an elephant’s head. These prodigies were expiated with sacrifices of fullgrown victims, and a decree was issued for prayer.

(Livy, The War with Hannibal, 27.11.2–6)

Livy takes a liberal approach to this type of material: “He is prepared to expand it, shorten it, change the order of events within it, alter its position within the year, and even occasionally place it in the wrong year altogether” (Levene, p. 242). He thereby makes the prodigy lists and expiation ceremonies more relevant to events in his narrative and shows how human fortune and divine favor are intertwined.

The official divination systems of the Roman Republic did not allow for individual “prophets,” and in keeping with this convention, Livy omits or plays down evidence for prophecy. Only occasionally does he admit evidence that points to the existence of diviners and a religious life out-side the practices of the Roman state. He there–fore creates the impression of a state religion that was universally observed when other evidence suggests that Roman religion included multiple approaches and beliefs.

For Livy, religion is an unavoidable feature of Roman civic life, one that it is his duty to record, more than a question of his own belief or skepticism:

I am not unaware that, from the same negligence that makes the populace believe that the gods do not send portents, prodigies are no longer announced in public or included in the annals. But, for my part, when I am writing about ancient events by some agreement or other my mind becomes antiquated itself, and a certain religious awe prevents me from regarding such events (which those wisest of men thought should be taken up in public) unworthy of inclusion in my annals.

(From the Founding, 43.13.1–2; trans. A. Nice)

Livy appreciated how interconnected human and divine affairs were in Rome. This helps to ex-plain why, at various junctures in his account, supernatural explanations co-exist with rational ones. A religious current permeates the main narrative and promotes Livy’s historical objectives. When the historian records the rise of the Roman Republic, proper religious behavior and ritual observance are essential for the state to prosper. In Livy’s own day, when political power was located in the hands of one man, the Emperor Augustus, the need for correct balance between political power and religious piety constituted an obvious model for the new regime to imitate.

Sources and literary context

Livy’s choice to write annals meant that he subscribed to a form with a long tradition at Rome, that of the yearly record of events. The form, which neatly corresponded to the yearly election of magistrates as laid down by the Republican constitution, also affected Livy’s style, his tone and manner of expression, and his interpretation of history.

The origins of the annalistic tradition lie in the records of Rome’s pontifex maximus (chief priest and head of the College of Pontiffs), the Annales Maximi. This was primarily a religious chronicle that documented prodigies and the associated rites of expiation, eclipses of the sun and moon, corn shortages, and the like. Evidence from other sources suggest that the records probably also included mythical and miraculous stories relevant to the foundation legends of early Rome. Similar chronicles, known as/asti, which named magistrates and brief notices of political and religious material, were posted in temples. In the second century bce the Romans began to consolidate lists of magistrates and other information from these records, and to compose Rome’s earliest continuous historical accounts. It may be at this point that the annals began to be divided neatly into affairs at home and abroad, in war and peace, on land and sea, and in winter and summer.

The earliest literary work in Latin to use the title Annales was the epic poem of Quintus Ennius, arranged as a year-by-year account based on the consuls for each year. Ennius included traditional stories that are found in the work of later Latin annalists and, like Livy, wrote from the foundation of the city to his own day (753–169 bce). The writing of actual annals seems to have begun with Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (consul in 133 bce). Piso’s work demonstrates the essential building blocks of the later annalistic scheme: reports of elections, entry of magistrates, allotment of provinces to the consuls, the levying of troops, the announcement and expiation of prodigies, the reception of embassies, administrative business, departure for provinces, shortages of food, building and dedicating temples, establishing colonies, granting or im-posing Roman citizenship, troop dispositions, and other information.

The last two centuries bce represented a period of experimentation for Roman historians. A few, such as Cato the Elder, attempted to distance themselves from the arid style of the annals. Others, such as Sallust, wrote historical monographs on a single event in Roman history. By the time of Livy, the Roman annalistic form appears to have developed into a mix of a restrained, ceremonious record and a more extended narrative of wars and political events. Livy’s choice to use this form hearkened back to Rome’s earliest historical records but his technique elevated it beyond its traditionally rigid approach. After book 1, Livy shows considerable flexibility in his adaptation of the form. The typical internal-external-internal format and the different categories of routine material are lengthened, shortened, dis-placed, or otherwise varied.

For a long time, many scholars thought of Livy as being at the mercy of his sources, but in fact he skillfully chooses and uses them to underscore his view of history. Among the Ro-mans who influenced his work are Aelius Tubero, Licinius Macer, Valerius Antias, Coelius Antipater, and Julius Caesar. Livy also drew on the works of the Greek historians Polybius and Posidonius. Livy’s working method suggests that he sought out the best available sources, adapting them to emphasize Rome’s Romanness and to offer a didactic, ethical history that would provide good examples to follow and bad ones to avoid.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

The First Triumvirate and the 50s bce

If Jerome is right in placing Livy’s birth in 59 bce, then it coincided with Julius Caesar’s term as consul. The recent formation (c. 61–60 bce) of the unofficial political coalition known as the First Triumvirate, consisting of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, had placed the three men in an un-paralleled position to promote their own political ambitions. During the next decade they did so with a ruthless enthusiasm that ignored the democratic processes of Republican government and ultimately caused the Civil War in 49 bce.

Although the three men were nominally united in a political alliance, their ambitions were self-serving. In 58 bce Caesar left for Gaul to seek the military glory that had so far eluded him. There he produced a remarkable record of his own successes, his Commentaries on the Gallic War (also in Classical Literature and Its Times), a self-promoting work written partly to outdistance his closest rival, Pompey. Pompey mean-while remained at Rome, governing Spain through subordinates. At the same time, Crassus, the richest man in Rome, continued to campaign for the affections of the people and for his own personal self-enrichment.

The three triumvirs wanted to use the services of Clodius, a tribune of the people. In 58 bce, he seemed to act in their favor by exiling the orator Cicero, whose critical voice was a thorn in the side of the triumvirs. Clodius’s tribunate soon degenerated into something more sinister. He employed gangs to achieve his political purposes, forcing Pompey to marshal his own gang under another tribune, Milo. The 50s bce were marked by clashes between the gang leaders as the various individuals jostled for power. Things came to a head after 54 bce, with the death of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, whose marriage to Pompey had helped cement their alliance. The next year Crassus’s death allowed members of the upper classes to drive a wedge between Caesar and Pompey. Pompey was pushed towards the optimates (aristocrats who used the Senate to gain their political objectives). Meanwhile, street violence became more open, climaxing in 52 bce with the murder of Clodius. The disturbances prevented elections from taking place, and the Senate chose Pompey to be sole consul, an unprecedented position. After various attempts to make Caesar a consul or to get both him and Pompey to sur-render their separate provinces (Spain and Gaul), the Senate finally called on Pompey to save the Republic. On January 10, 49 bce, in an open declaration of war, Caesar marched his army from his sanctioned territory (the province of Gaul), across the Rubicon (the stream separating Gaul from Italy) and plunged the Roman world into a bitter civil war.

The war continued in various arenas until 45 bce, dividing fathers from sons and brothers from brothers. The decisive battle was fought at Pharsalus in Greece in 48 bce. Pompey fled to Egypt but was killed as he stepped off his boat. At Rome Caesar had to set about the process of rebuilding. He showed mercy towards his enemies, but more was required to bring peace and stable government. Caesar was elected dictator for a year, then dictator for ten years, and finally, in 44 bce, dictator for life. The overthrow of the Republican constitution was now complete. As dictator, Caesar had greater military authority than any other official and was immune from the veto of the tribunes, the people’s representatives. He could therefore pass legislation without seeking the mandate of the Senate or the people.

Caesar was careful during this period to continue the normal processes of Republican elections and offices. But he used his tenure to pass legislation to make the Senate more representative of the Roman Empire, to create jobs through an extensive building program, and to establish law and order by placing colonies of veteran troops and the poor in locations scattered throughout Rome’s territories. Caesar’s preeminent position and his tendency to favor his own men and to exclude former opponents (whom he had pardoned) heightened opposition to his rule. When Mark Antony appeared to offer him a crown during a religious festival, the offer aroused deep-rooted Roman fears of kingship and the despotism it implied. On the Ides of March, 44 bce, Caesar was killed by a group of senators who claimed to have liberated the Republic and to have rid themselves of a tyrannical master. Undoubtedly Livy’s narrative drew parallels between Caesar’s murder and transformation into a god, and the death of King Romulus over 700 years earlier.

A new struggle for power

The conspirators’ joy was short-lived. Popular anger drove them into hiding, and Mark Antony took the initiative. He claimed leadership of Caesar’s supporters and replaced him as their patron. Opposition came from an unexpected source: Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, who had become his adopted son. Octavian staked his claim to Caesar’s inheritance and quickly showed his leadership. He appealed to Caesar’s army veterans and won the public approval of Cicero, who thought Octavian might be a new savior for the Republic.

In the months that followed, Antony was declared an enemy of the state by the Senate but escaped with the assistance of Octavian and Lepidus, the new pontifex moximus. These three men now formed a new triumvirate. This was not an informal coalition, as in the case of the First Triumvi-rate, but one formalized by law. The Second Triumvirate took up arms against the self-proclaimed “liberators” of the Republic, Brutus and Cassius. To fund their cause, the triumvirs had their henchmen assassinate would-be opponents and confiscate their estates. Cicero was one such victim.

After Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi in 42 bce, the triumvirs carved up the Empire among themselves. Antony received Gaul and the East; Lepidus, Africa; and Octavian, Spain, Italy, and the islands. Gradually Lepidus’s position weakened. He was marginalized within the coalition, and power again polarized around two individuals—Octavian and Antony.

From the 30s onwards, Octavian used his position as the adopted son of a god (the appearance of a comet at Caesar’s funeral games had convinced the populace to make Caesar a god after his death). Octavian now began to attack Antony, who had begun a love affair with the Egyptian monarch, Cleopatra. Antony made a grave mistake by declaring Cleopatra and their children his heirs. Octavian showed an adept understanding of propaganda. He discredited Antony’s position, painting him as an effeminate, degenerate Roman who was trying to subvert the liberties of the Roman people and subjugate Italy and the West to the rule of an oriental queen. Things came to a head after the triumvirate agreement lapsed at the end of 33 bce. Octavian advanced on Antony’s troops in Greece and the two armies confronted one another at Actium on September 13, 31 bce.

Little fighting occurred as Antony’s forces quickly turned tail:

Actium was a shabby affair; the worthy climax to the ignoble propaganda against Cleopatra, to the sworn and sacred union of all Italy. But the young Caesar [Octavian] required the glory of a victory that would surpass the greatest in all history, Roman or Greek.

(Syme, p. 297)

In contrast Octavian’s propaganda machine made Actium part of the birth legend of the new empire, the climax of the struggle between East and West. Well might Livy have hoped that the early parts of his work would provide relief from the evils of his own day: a world marked by mob rule in the streets of Rome, proscriptions, and Roman army fighting Roman army. There could be no guarantee that the new autocracy of Octavian (renamed Augustus in 27 bce) would be different from that of Julius Caesar or that the Roman world would not again be plunged into bitter civil war. The pessimism of the time is captured by Horace, in a poem written between 42 and 38 bce:

Already a second generation is being ground to pieces by civil war, and Rome through her own strength is tottering. The city that neither the neighbouring Marsians had power to ruin nor the Etruscan host… nor Hannibal.. . this self-same city we ourselves shall ruin, we an impious generation of stock accursed.

(Horace in Liebeschuetz, p. 55)

It is no wonder that Livy’s work warns of the dangers of kingship and calls for a return to older, more traditional values: virtue, honor, and traditional pursuits of glory. Nor is it a surprise that his values include a strong emphasis on the reverence of Rome’s gods to ensure continued prosperity.


In Livy’s day there were three major schools of philosophy: the Stoics, who believed that the gods existed and showed their concern for mankind through signs; the Epicureans, who thought that the gods did not care for humans; and the New Academy, whose followers suspended judgment played “devil’s advocate” and allowed questioners the freedom to make up their own minds. The leading exponent of the New Academy was the Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. After the death of his daughter Tullia in 45bce, Cicero turned to philosophy for consolation, Before his own execution, in 43 see, he wrote three major works on Roman religion: On the Nature of the Gods; On Divination; and On fafa

Central to Cicero’s discussion is whether the gods send messages to humankind that can be interpreted. In a manner typical of the Academy, he steers a careful course between Stoic and Epicurean worldviews, between belief and disbelief in divination, between determinism (fate) and free will, If there is a message, it is one that Cicero had already offered in The Republic (also in Classical Literature and Its Times): that religion and certain types of divination are essential to the state in order to control the masses.

Like Cicero, Livy emphasizes the need for the correct and proper observance of prodigies and other phenomena, yet he sometimes criticizes the masses for their superstitious belief in the supernatural. If Livy has a philosophical position in his religious outlook, it is most like that of the New Academy.

The new age of Augustus

Since early in his career, Octavian recognized the value of religion to support his claims to power. At the funeral games for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in 42 bce, a comet had appeared in the sky. Octavian not only interpreted this as the soul of Caesar ascending to heaven (thus making him, Octavian, the son of a god) but also as a positive sign from the gods, an indication that he was destined for great things. From this time too, Octavian emphasized his divine links to two gods—Mars (father of Romulus, the founder of Rome) and Venus (mother of Aeneas, the legendary founder of the Roman race and ancestor of the house of Julius Caesar).

Throughout the 30s bce Octavian had repeatedly contrasted his preference for traditional Roman ways with Antony’s attraction to Eastern ways, including support of Egyptian gods and goddesses such as Isis. After Actium, Octavian emphasized his piety towards the Roman gods and undertook public works on their behalf: “As consul for the sixth time [28 BC] on the orders of the Senate I restored eighty-two temples of the gods in the city, neglecting none that needed to be restored at that time” (Augustus, Res Gestae, 20.4; trans. A. Nice). The physical reconstruction of Roman temples was accompanied by a literal restoration of priesthoods and ceremonies that had fallen into disuse. In 27 bce Octavian was re-named Augustus (meaning “most hallowed one”) to emphasize the holy and revered character of the new master of the Roman world. A temple of Apollo was built on the Palatine Hill with a ramp linking it to the house of Augustus. Augustus himself adopted the position of pontifex maximus when the position was vacated in 12 bce. From this point, the emperor was also a member of the College of Augurs and of the Board of Fifteen in charge of the Sibylline Books. In short, Augustus controlled all the mechanisms of Rome’s religion. Meanwhile, he recognized the importance of other forms of “worship,” consulting astrologers and minting on coinage his sign of the zodiac, Capricorn. Closely connected with Augustus’s religious legislation was a series of less successful laws designed to prevent adultery and reward members of the nobility who married and had children. These laws aimed also to reduce excessive expenditure and to reinforce the traditional hierarchic positions of senators, equestrians, and plebeians. Through a series of “settlements” (in 27, 23, and 19 bce), Augustus gradually maneuvered himself into position as head of the Roman state without abolishing any of the Roman Republic’s regular institutions. He had the power of a consul and the sacrosanct position of the tribunes of the people. His position was emphasized in the adoption of the titles “princeps” (leading citizen) and “primus inter pares” (first amongst equals). A careful politician, Augustus made sure not to alienate the elite classes and to share power. Elections for the traditional political offices (consuls, praetors, quaestors, and so on) continued. The Senate likewise kept meeting and making decisions essential to running the Roman state. In 17 bce Rome celebrated the arrival of Augustus’s new Golden Age by holding Secular Games, games to celebrate the end of one saeculum (normally understood as a period of 100 years) and the start of another. Not since 149 bce, says Livy, had the last games been held.

The reign of Augustus, then, is marked by an apparent reconstruction of Rome’s religious monuments and customs as well as its moral foundations, and by the apparent restoration of Republican political institutions: an intermingling of things divine and human. It was a carefully calculated and successful strategy: Augustus ruled, mostly peacefully, as Rome’s first emperor from 27 bce to 14 ce.

But Livy’s work, also one of religious “reconstruction,” avoids the overwhelming optimism that marks the literature and monuments of the new reign. He continues to remind his audience of the dangers of despotism and the necessity of adhering to traditional Roman custom, including proper devotion to the gods.

Reception and impact

Livy’s reputation was well established before his work was completely finished. Pliny the Younger (Letters, 2.3) records that a man from Cadiz in Spain, very impressed with the name and fame of Livy, went so far as to come from this distant outpost of the Roman Empire simply to see the historian. His curiosity satisfied, the man turned round and went home again. Praise for Livy’s work was not wholly positive, however. His contemporary Asinius Pollio noted that the writer’s eloquence revealed his provincial origins, that it was too full of his Padua origins. But others praised Livy’s work. In the century following his death, Livy received high compliments from the rhetorician Quintilian, who compared Livy’s eloquence and scope to that of Herodotus, the “Father of History.” Livy’s work was recommended reading for the youth of Rome. In 79 ce the Younger Pliny, aged 17, was even more engrossed in Livy’s work than in the eruption of Vesuvius.

Perhaps Livy’s most profound and infamous impact was on the sixteenth-century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. Some influence may be detected in The Prince, in which Machiavelli hoped to secure the favor of Florence’s ruling Medici family. This work argued that the skills of an individual leader determined the success of a state, advising that a ruler needed virtu —the ability to take bold amoral decisions—and urging the justice of war where it was necessary.

More significant is the political writer Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. Machiavelli found in Livy’s depiction of Rome’s Republic the exemplary virtues he wished were present in his con-temporary Florence. In Machiavelli’s day Florence suffered deaths, exiles, and partisan rule because of disunity. Machiavelli urged the proper application of morality to political life in order to avoid this chaos and to achieve the same kind of success and glory attained by ancient Rome.

Inspired by a theory that legendary stories such as the birth of Romulus and Remus came from ancient Roman ballads, Lord Macaulay (Thomas Babington; 1800–1859) took these stories from Livy and transformed them into poems. The Lays of Ancient Rome was instantly popular (by mid-1875 more than 100,000 copies had been sold); untinged by Livy’s pessimism, they captured the spirit of a British nation at the height of its own empire.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, when history was conceived of as science, European scholars subjected Livy’s work to close analysis in order to identify his sources. The approach reduced Livy to the status of a mere transcriber, overly reliant on his sources and lacking in originality.

The freer spirit of recent times has led to a useful analysis of Livy’s historical methods and content. Recent contributions discuss, for example, his ideas of virtue, his treatment of religion, the work as Augustan propaganda, the influence of rhetoric, and his purpose in writing history, in ways that bring out the work’s richness and explain why his work was acclaimed in his own lifetime. As one scholar has observed on From the Founding of the City:

[Livy’s] greatness as a historian… lies rather in his own imaginative reconstruction of the past and his representation, or rather evocation, of it to the reader… Livy’s main engagement is not so much with the records of the Roman past as with the mind of his reader. (Solodow, p. 259)

—Alex Nice

For More Information

Augustus. Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievements of the Divine Augustus. Ed. P. A. Brunt, andj. M. Moore. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Davies, J. P. Rome’s Religious History: Livy, Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Levene, D. S. Religion in Livy. Leiden: Brill, 1993.

Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G. Continuity and Change in Roman Religion. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979.

Livy. Ab Urbe Condita [From the Founding of the City] .Ed. P. G. Walsh, R. S. Conway, J. F. Walters, R. K. Johnson, and A. H. McDonald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963–1974.

_____. The Early History of Rome. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

_____History of Rome. Trans. B. O. Foster. 14 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982–1998.

_____. The War with Hannibal. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. Ed. B. Radice. Harmonds worth: Penguin, 1965.

Luce, T.J. Liyy: The Composition of His History .Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Solodow, J. B. “Livy and the Story of Horatius.” TAPA 109 (1979): 251–268.

Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1939.

Walsh, P. G. Liyy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

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