Livy, Progenitor of Modern History

I am a historian by profession and introspective by temperament. This combination naturally leads me to questions such as, “What am I actually doing when I’m doing history?” After all, if a basic dictum of history is that all human activity is contextual, contingent, and mutable, these qualifiers must apply to writing history as much as anything else. So, this summer I am reviewing the development of the ars historiae (art of history) from Rome to the early modern period. That means plowing through thousands of pages of Latin and trying to infer general conclusions. Fortunately, none of my sources ever earned a PhD, so the writing is interesting. This quest is not just personally fulfilling; it also impinges heavily on my own field of research, the effects of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation on history writing.

This not so flattering and entirely fictional image of Livy adorned the first English edition of his work.

The first figure to attract my attention is the Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus, commonly known as Livy. My interest derives from the fact that Leonardo Bruni, generally considered the father of modern historiography, used Livy as the model for his own History of the Florentine People. The choice was not arbitrary. There are important conceptual links between Livy’s style of history and modern history.

Livy lived through Rome’s transition from republic to empire, just the sort of epochal event that can stimulate reflection on history. (The experience of discontinuity is the basis of the historical mindset.) Livy was disgusted with his own time; history for him was a way of escaping from the troubles of the present by immersing oneself in the glories of the past:”Let [the reader] note how, with the gradual gradual relaxing of discipline, morals first gave way, then sank lower and lower, then began a precipitous plunge, and finally we arrive at the present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their remedy” (Ab urbe condita, pref. 9). Despite what would seem to be a rather biased starting point, Livy does not force his material into a neat narrative of decline. Indeed, he points out the many moral ambiguities displayed even at Rome’s founding. This even-handedness is one of reasons Livy was useful for Bruni and is still significant for us today.


More importantly, Livy possesses a clear sense of periodization. One of the most common forms of historical writing in antiquity was the chronicle. A chronicle simply enters events in chronological order, usually tied to a ruler’s reign: in the first year of X’s reign, Y happened. Events are not linked together logically. Time is depicted as essentially flat. There is little discussion of cause and effect. Entirely opposed to the chronicle is Livy’s great work, Ab urbe condita (From the Founding of the City). This massive project told the story of Rome from its beginning to his present in at least 142 books, most of which are now lost. It is remarkably ordered. Each book has a clear dramatic unity, rather than ending abruptly at an arbitrary chronological point. Moreover, the books are grouped together into larger divisions of five (pentads) and ten (decades). For example, the First Punic War comprises Books 21–30. For Livy, history is not just a random flux of events, but a drama capable of orderly explication.

Decorated title page of a 17th-century edition of Ab urbe condita, here printed under the alternate title “The Books of Histories of Titus Livius Patavinus.”

Periodization rests on an even more basic premise, human causality. The reason why history can be grouped into meaningful units is that it is driven by personal agents. Humans make choices that lead to certain outcomes rather than others; if this were not so, all of life would be completely random, entirely inexplicable, and history beyond the chronicle would be impossible. But because human choices, particularly those of a society (civitas) taken as a whole, impart a qualitative dimension to history, history can be divided according to how those choices led to better or worse conditions. Thus it is imperative for Livy not only to record that an event happened, but also to discover why it happened. The reason for Livy lies in the intentions of the principal actors and in their ability to execute those intentions.

Focusing on cause and effect based on human agency does lead Livy into one difficulty, explaining the role of the gods. Here Livy works out a compromise. He never denies the existence of the gods. He even ends his preface with customary prayers to the divinities. Yet he denies the gods any active role in history. Not one event in Livy’s history is explained by divine intervention. Furthermore, he makes this the basis of a genre distinction between history and poetry:

Such traditions as belong to the time before the city was founded or was about to be founded, passed down by the embellishments of poetic fables rather than by historical proofs, I intend neither to refute nor to confirm. It is the privilege of antiquity to render the origins of a city more distinguished by mixing the human with the divine. And if one grants a people the right of consecrating their origins and crediting gods as their founders, the Roman people possess such glory in war that when they profess Mars as their father and as the father of their city’s founder, the peoples of the earth should accept their claim with the same equanimity with which they accept imperial rule. But I will hardly place great importance on these legends and others like them, however they might be regarded and esteemed (pref. 6-9, my translation).

Livy’s attitude toward the gods and toward mythology can be more closely assessed by looking at a scene from Book 1. In the middle of describing Rome’s founding, Livy retells a story about Hercules. Long ago, Hercules was driving his herd of beautiful cattle near the Tiber. He swam across the river with his herd to allow them to graze on the other side. Hercules was apparently quite the grazer himself, for after he stuffed himself with food and wine, he fell into a heavy sleep. Along comes another shepherd, Cacus. Livy describes him as ferox viribus, which translates roughly as “total badass.” Cacus decides to steal some of the best cattle. However, he doesn’t want Hercules tracking him down, so he turns the cows backwards and leads them by the tails into a nearby cave. When Hercules wakes, he notices some cows are missing but can’t make any sense of the tracks. Stumped, he decides to get out of this weird place. The cows, however, start bellowing for their missing comrades, and Hercules hears the missing cows bellow in reply from a distance. He tracks them down, starts to lead them out, but is stopped by Cacus. In a life which we can only assume was replete with poor choices, Cacus makes his final mistake, neglecting to dodge Hercules’ club.

Apparently other shepherds were watching this encounter. They freak out that someone has taken down the local tough guy and as a group haul Hercules before their leader, Evander. They claim that Hercules murdered Cacus without provocation, but Evander doesn’t buy it. Evander’s mother had been a prophetess, even before the Sibylline held that position, and had foretold the coming of the partially-divine Hercules. She told Evander that when Hercules came, the people who would build an altar for him called the Greatest Altar (aram maximam, it sounds less cheesy in Latin) would one day become the greatest nation on earth. Hercules is thrilled to hear this, and in typical action hero fashion decides to build the altar himself.

Temple of Hercules Victor, commemorating Hercules’ crossing of the Tiber.

Why should Livy spend so much time on this story that breaks two of his criteria, including a super-human character and taking place before the founding of Rome? He needed to explain a credible piece of tradition, that when Romulus celebrated the founding of Rome with sacrifices, he conducted them all according to the local Alban rite, except for the sacrifice to Hercules, which he conducted according to the Evandrian rite. This anomalous rite persisted for many generations after the founding of Rome under the custodianship of the Potitii and Pinarii families. Thus, Livy himself does not have to take a stand on the accuracy of the story of Hercules. It is enough for him that this legend lay behind the actions of Romulus and later devotees of the Hercules cult. Legend, then, can be fitted into a resolutely human view of history as long as its function is to clarify the motivations of human actors. Even if Livy did not allow the gods to interfere directly in human affairs, he acknowledged that people’s beliefs about the gods were significant causal factors. He contextualized religion as a human practice subject to temporal cause and effect. That perhaps more than anything else makes him the progenitor of modern history.


2 comments on “Livy, Progenitor of Modern History

  1. Ben Duncan

    Interesting! I especially love the wit with which you lace the article.

    I think the most significant/provocative sentence of the article is this:
    “Legend, then, can be fitted into a resolutely human view of history as long as its function is to clarify the motivations of human actors.”

    When you write “human view of history” do you mean something akin to “humanistic view of history?”

    I find this sentence especially astute because of the cultural myths/legends that shape our identity that become a form of history. Makes me wonder if this leans towards what Barth was identifying with the distinction between geshichte and heilsgeshichte.

    1. Charlie

      I meant humanist and human-centric. One of the never-ending disputes in the philosophy of history is the extent to which it is an art or a science, a literary production or a compendium of facts. Of course the easy thing to say is both/and, but how to explain a both/and solution cogently is always the rub. I find it interesting that Livy, so breathtakingly secular by his own period’s standards, is still humorously myth-laden by ours. I hope it serves to allow us to recognize our own myths that, as you say, shape our identity. I don’t think that’s what Barth was going for in his distinction, but I admit to being shockingly ignorant of Barth, especially for a student at my institution.