Livy’s approach to History

the early history of rome

Livy, therefore, differed from the great majority of his predecessors in that he was not a public man: he did not turn to history as a recreation. For him it was life. We would not expect to find in him the crude political interpretations of history, discussed in the following section, which characterized the approach of earlier writers. Yet it would be a mistake to think of Livy’s history as unconcerned with the problems of his generations. The difference between Livy and the others is that his philosophical detachment enabled him to see history in terms of human characters and representative individuals rather than of partisan politics. Livy accepted a tradition going back to Aristotle (especially in the Rhetoric) and to Thucydides which explained historical events by the characters of the persons involved. As Aristotle said, ‘actions are signs of characters’. Because people are the sort of people that they are, they do the sort of things that they do, and the job of the historian is to relate what happens to the appropriate character. Equally, however, it follows that if similar characters occur in 500 BC and 20 BC their possessors will tend to act in a similar way, so that one can infer from what a man of a certain character did in 20 BC what a similar character must have done in 500 BC. Human nature, Thucydides argued, is constant and hence predictable.  This philosophy helps to account for the readiness with which historians transferred events from the recent to the remote past but Livy used it as the framework of his history. Instead of a barren list of unconnected events Livy constructs a series of moral episodes which are designed to bring out the character of the leading figures…

…Livy made history comprehensible by reducing it to familiar and recognizable characters, but the process was one which could not be divorced from his attitude to his own times and his vision of the future. In the Preface he asserts that the present state of Rome was the direct consequence of the failure in moral character of the Roman. ‘I would have [the reader] trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.’ It was a commonplace among Roman historians that things had got worse and worse; Sallust, for instance, blamed the destruction of Carthage and the capture of Greece for the start of the deterioration, because the one removed an enemy that had kept Rome on her toes, the other familiarized Rome with the enervating vices and luxuries of the Greek world…

…Yet, on the other hand, there is also in Livy a sense of pride that Rome had now reached the zenith of her power and her achievement, and that all previous history was leading up to this glorious hour. Even in the Preface he speaks of Rome as ‘the greatest nation in the world’ and claims that her success has been such that she could legitimately claim to have a god (Mars) as her ancestor. So too Camillus’s speech at the end of Book V is an inspiring panegyric of the rise of Rome and a promise of the still greater heights that lie ahead in the centuries to come. The culmination is in the present. ‘Augustus Caesar brought peace to the world by land and sea’ (I.19.3).

At first sight, then, there is a contradiction, an inner tension, in Livy’s attitude to history and, in particular, to the place of his own generation. One can see exactly the same tension in Horace and Virgil between pessimism and optimism, between the evils of modern Rome and the dawning of a Golden Age. The resolution of this conflict lay, for Livy, in the education of character through the study of history, which, he says, ‘is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid’.
1. Livy. The Early History of Rome. Books I-V of The History of Rome from Its Foundation. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1971. Print. 8 -11.

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Filed under History, Notes on History

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