Livy's Thoughts on History

Livy's Thoughts on History

Livy was the Roman historian who created the epic "History of Rome" book series.

He lived between 64 BC - 13 AD. This means his era overlapped with that of Jesus Christ & Emperor Augustus.

His work was gigantic, encompassing 142 books. Only a handful of the books survive, unfortunately. Having had to quickly evacuate my own house due to an unexpected & strengthening Hurricane, I can see how things get lost in the shuffle, or only key portions of a tome get picked up for preservation.

But the work was extremely popular during his day & creating a celebrity out of Livy.

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According to Pliny the Younger (who is NOT Livy, btw), Livy was so well-known in his day, "a man from Cadiz travelled to Rome and back for the sole purpose of meeting him."

Anyway, I've yet to read any of Livy's "History of Rome" in substance. But it gets noted a lot how his Preface in the First Book details what Livy thinks a good work of history should do - and what he intended to do with the humongous work on his own.

Here is the full excerpt of Livy's Preface:

Whether the task I have undertaken of writing a complete history of the Roman people from the very commencement of its existence will reward me for the labour spent on it, I neither know for certain, nor if I did know would I venture to say. For I see that this is an old-established and a common practice, each fresh writer being invariably persuaded that he will either attain greater certainty in the materials of his narrative, or surpass the rudeness of antiquity in the excellence of his style. However this may be, it will still be a great satisfaction to me to have taken my part, too, in investing, to the utmost of my abilities, the annals of the foremost nation in the world with a deeper interest; and if in such a crowd of writers my own reputation is thrown into the shade, I would console myself with the renown and greatness of those who eclipse my fame. The subject, moreover, is one that demands immense labour. It goes back beyond 700 years and, after starting from small and humble beginnings, has grown to such dimensions that it begins to be overburdened by its greatness. I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years; so long, at least, as I am devoting all my thoughts to retracing those pristine records, free from all the anxiety which can disturb the historian of his own times even if it cannot warp him from the truth.

The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states. Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that when she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder’s father, the nations of the world accept the statement with the same equanimity with which they accept her dominion. But whatever opinions may be formed or criticisms passed upon these and similar traditions, I regard them as of small importance. The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these - the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid. Unless, however, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any commonwealth greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which avarice and luxury have been so late in making their inroads, or poverty and frugality so highly and continuously honoured, showing so clearly that the less wealth men possessed the less they coveted. In these latter years wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness. But criticisms which will be unwelcome, even when perhaps necessary, must not appear in the commencement at all events of this extensive work. We should much prefer to start with favourable omens, and if we could have adopted the poets’ custom, it would have been much pleasanter to commence with prayers and supplications to gods and goddesses that they would grant a favourable and successful issue to the great task before us.
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The key points I'd like to highlight are:

1. Livy notes - over 2,000 years ago mind you - how he recognizes each "fresh writer" believes themselves to be in possession of the most exciting & unique point of view of the modern era, simply because of their privileged position of being alive.

2. Livy simply enjoys the process of the labor involved in accumulating all of the facts & legends, not interested so much in "fame" (which appears to have been a subject of interest even back then). His primary goal is to provide a "deeper interest" in the subject of the "the foremost nation in the world."

3. Interestingly, Livy notes that his modern era is filled with "evils" - and that writing this History of Rome allows him to shut his eyes to the witnessed modern evils, and instead devote all of his thoughts to the work: going back in time & imagining another way of being.

4. I believe the key phrase in that above point is "devoting all my thoughts." This is the emotional labor that is required to write something like Livy's History of Rome. Without this (almost Buddhist) sense of focus, a work of such magnitutude could never be conceived nor finished.

5. Livy admits that the earliest origins of Rome can not be confirmed by facts, as there are no records of the day. All he has access to is mythology, which he accepts & will illustrate. His reasons are that the mythology give the origins of Rome "an august dignity" (what a phrase!). In truth, it's a brilliant propaganda move. Livy concedes since he can't authenticate the origins of Rome in any way, why not make it a grand God-like thing, since "if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome."

Thus, Livy is okay with legend (aka Fake News) being mixed in with his History because it supports an overall **STORY** he is telling. After all, history is not a fact - just a story.

6. Livy then mentions he doesn't care if you think that's a stupid choice or not. Because he doesn't even think that point is important (although, it is). To Livy, the real function of the book is to devote one's attention to the life & morals of the various communal & strategic lessons gained throughout history. He wants to focus on, and wants his readers to focus on, tangible historical life lessons ("life hacks") in order to elevate Rome's mind & spirit.

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these - the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

7. Livy's History, then, is weaponized story. It's not an actual total archive of true events. It is a thematic conglomeration of facts to push a strategic agenda (albeit a noble one.)

Livy wants to show the readers how the might of Rome began from hard-won gains & strong characters filled with principle, then slowly, due to a variety of factors, how Rome degraded into an immoral collective on the precipice of social destruction.

Obviously, one book (or a series of books) can not reverse collapse. Rome, as we all know, fell.

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There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past...

From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate...

And also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid.

Livy then ends the Preface in a poetic manner. He says normally these intros are reserved for good omens & dedications to the gods, as to inspire good fortune in the long work ahead. And so he changes the subject in that direction, and adopts the poets' custom.

So begins Livy's History of Rome...

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