Livy (ca. 64 B.C.-ca. A.D. 12), or Titus Livius, was a Roman historian who lived in the period when Augustus was building the Roman Empire out of the ruins of the republican system. In a life of quiet study Livy became the leading historian of his day.
Livy was born in Patavium (Padua), in his day one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Italy. St. Jerome gives 59 B.C. as the date of Livy's birth, but it is probable that he was mistaken and that Livy was born in 64 B.C. In Patavium he received an education similar to that given to any wealthy young Roman except that he did not have the usual culminating period of study in a Greek city. He may have started adult life as a teacher of rhetoric in his native town, and there is some evidence that he also wrote works on philosophy, which have not survived, but soon he conceived a project for a large-scale history of Rome.
By 30 B.C. Livy had moved to Rome, and from this time on he lived and worked mainly in the capital. He saw no military service and took no part in politics, and as far as we know he never traveled outside Italy, apart from a possible trip to Athens. Soon after his arrival in Rome he became acquainted with Augustus and remained on friendly terms with the Emperor and his family thereafter, but there is no sign that he depended on imperial patronage for his livelihood, as Horace and Virgil depended on the patronage of Maecenas. Livy's family was prosperous, and he probably inherited enough property to enable him to devote all his time and energy to his history, on which he continued to work almost to the end of his days. He died in Patavium in A.D. 12 (or 17 according to Jerome.)
Early Roman Historiography
When Livy started his work, Romans had been writing history for 200 years, and the nature of the genre was well established. Earlier historians had either covered the whole story of Rome from its foundation to their own day or had dealt in much greater detail with a short segment of more recent history. Most of them were members of the aristocratic ruling class of Rome and had played some part in the wars and politics of the republic.
These works were written mostly according to the annalists system, that is, with all the events of each year discussed together, even if they had little or no logical connection with each other. This was an awkward system, especially for periods when two or three sets of events might be going on simultaneously for several years in different parts of the Mediterranean world, but by Livy's day the technique had become traditional. Another traditional element which seems odd to modern readers is the custom of including in the narrative lengthy speeches which purport to be the actual words uttered on various occasions by leading men. This practice, taken over by Roman historians from Greek models, Livy also accepted without question.
Livy's great work, Ab urbe condita (From the Foundation of the City), covered the history of Rome from its mythical foundation in 753 B.C. to his own day, and its composition went on continually throughout his life. The first five books were published between 27 and 25 B.C., and Livy continued the history's publication thereafter in periodic batches of several books. It is probable that the last 22 books, covering the career of Augustus to 9 B.C., were not published until after the Emperor's death in A.D. 14 and, therefore, also after Livy's own death.
At its completion, Ab urbe condita was an enormous work in no less than 142 books. Only about a quarter of the text has survived—we have 35 books complete: I-X, which cover the first 460 years of Rome's history, and XXI-XLV, which cover the events of 219-167 B.C. In addition we have Periochae, or summaries, of all but two of the lost books (and of the extant books as well), but these are very brief and were compiled not from Livy's full text but from an abridged edition that is now lost.
Moreover, the anonymous compiler of the Periochae was capable of misunderstanding the text in front of him, and consequently the summaries give only a very shadowy picture of the lost books. The scale of the work increased steadily as Livy got closer to his own times. Book I covered the whole of the regal period, nearly 250 years, and the next 9 books dealt with more than 200 years but the 10 books XXI-XXX cover only the 18 years of the Second Punic War, and by the time he got down to the 1st century B.C., Livy was devoting a whole book to almost every year.
As a Historian
Except for the boldness and scope of his undertaking, and the untiring industry with which he worked at it throughout a lifetime, Livy cannot really be classed as one of the world's major historians. For the most part he depended for his material on earlier writers of the 2d and 1st centuries B.C., and there is no sign that he made any attempt to consult the available documentary evidence, which was not inconsiderable. Unfortunately we cannot judge how he dealt with the history of his own times, for which he must have had to do most of the research himself, as the Periochae of the last 20 books are more than usually brief and uninformative.
In his choice of sources to follow, Livy was often quite shrewd, as when he picked the Greek historian Polybios as his main guide for the Eastern wars of the early 2d century B.C., and if elsewhere his sources were less reliable, that was sometimes because they were all he had. But Livy's use of them was quite uncritical, and his choice between alternative accounts of an event was often determined not so much by logic or reason as by a preference for a story that pointed a moral or redounded to the greater glory of Rome.
Livy's ignorance of war and politics made it hard for him to judge properly the reliability of his sources or to allow for any political bias that might have affected them. In addition he was sometimes careless in matters of chronology, and although his knowledge of geography was slight, he does not seem to have taken much trouble to see for himself even those sites which lay close at hand in Italy. But for all its weaknesses Livy's history is still one of the best accounts of the Roman republic, and the loss of three-quarters of his great work is one of the most serious gaps in our knowledge of Roman literature.
As a Writer
Livy's merit as a writer is incontestable. His style, which owed much to Cicero and to Latin poetry, was vivid and colorful. He approached his task with a vision of the greatness and splendor of that past which was certainly not very realistic but was still a noble and inspiring concept. He brought to his work an old-fashioned concept of moral excellence which may not have enhanced his performance as a historian, but, together with the attractive literary style with which he told so effectively the story of the Roman Republic, and particularly the half-legendary tales of its earliest days, it has made his history an enduring part of the heritage of Western Europe.
Further Reading on Livy
There is a complete translation of all that is extant of Livy's history, including the Periochae, by B. O. Foster and others (14 vols., 1919-1959). Extracts from the complete text were translated, with an introduction, by Moses Hadas and J. P. Poe, A History of Rome: Selections (1962); and there are two sets of extracts translated by Aubrey de Selincourt under the titles Early History of Rome: Books I-V (1960) and The War with Hannibal: Books XXI-XXX (1965).
The best full account of Livy's career and work is P. G. Walsh, Livy: His Historical Aims and Methods (1961). Livy and his work are examined in a survey of classical Historiography by Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1970). The best survey of the earlier Roman historians on whom Livy depended is by E. Badian in T. A. Dorey, ed., Latin Historians (1966), which also contains a brief account of Livy by P. G. Walsh. Another account of earlier Roman historians with some discussion of Hellenistic Historiography is in M. L. W. Laistner, The Greater Roman Historians (1947), which includes what is perhaps a too favorable account of Livy's work.