To look at Livy’s interest in the history of his own times and whether there is anything meaningful about it, we have to understand the time when he wrote and the context where he lived. He was born in Patavium, modern Padua, in north Italy, hence why Livy did not born Roman citizen. He obtained citizenship years after with the help of a law passed by Julius Caesar. He had a rhetorical education and had a good knowledge of the main philosophical trends of his time.
He wrote a significant amount of historical books, of which some of them survived. Due to the size of his work, the portion of books that survived, the length in time that took him to complete his writings and the various methodologies that he followed, we have to be cautious to value him as a historian. He used previous historians and relied on other literary sources, avoiding though public records that were produced at Rome. He most provably organised his work in pentads and decades.
Livy is considered to be a scholar and a rhetorician, but had a knowledge of the limits of historical knowledge, the issues posed by his sources, and the complex tradition that he worked on. He seems to have affinity with the senate and the moral values within the Republic while at the same time his narrative is clearly and comprehensively favourable to Augustus, the leader and Prince of Rome during most of Livy’s life. He provably agreed with the establishment of order, the end of popular politics, the moral legislation and the revival of religion with the restoration of temples, all of this brought by Augustus. He might have thought that due to the size of the empire, it required the leadership of one individual. He wrote about the vitia nostra, seen as a moral political crisis, and then the remedia, which brought order and concord to the Empire.
However, Livy was a man in favour of libertas, that criticised Caesar and praised Pompey, which gives us a picture of someone in favour of the Republic. His writings are Ciceronians, following on the art, ample, smooth and balance. His enthusiasm about Cicero was also political. He was untouched by the era of tribulation and seemed to enjoy some freedom in the Augustan era. He lived in the transition between the Republic and the Principate, and wrote a prose that showed affinity with Augustus and admiration towards the Republic. He believed that the social order brought by Augustus was required, while the res publica morals needed to be restituted. Conscious of the historical developments of his time, Livy was aware of the need of innovation and change in the Empire. Unlike other historians, Livy was directing his work at providing a guidance for the politician and models for human conduct.
His style of writing intents to be visual and the importance of vision in the reception of his narrative relates particularly to his political views. His writings intent to act upon the society of his time. His monumentum covers the totality of Roman history but contains every sort of exemplum. The function of spectacle at Rome is used by Livy to connect the past with the present and the future. The civic spectacles through which the political and religious authority of the state were made visible to its citizens were paramount on his dialectic.
Livy situates his work at the active centre of Roman civic life by linking his representation of the past to these visual manifestations of authority. Livy’s own representations of the past gained authority from the deeds and men they depict. His work acts as monumentum of his authority, just as Augustus used various monuments to impose his autoritas.
There are numerous references to the gods and their worship on his writings, which differs from other writers such as Sallust or Caesar. He appears to be a strong supporter of religion and develops events as examples of religious observance. His usage of religion as an element of social cohesion and imperial order is noticed in his work, with a solid link between pietas, the fulfilment of religious obligations and the prosperity of the State. Religion is used as a sociological and psychological tool by the state. He provides numerous examples of its social usage to keep people in order and does not give any indication of whether he considers this an abuse. On the other hand, he is seen as a rationalist, which induces to think at the influence of Stoicism in his thought. In his work, rationalism and advocacy of religion are closely associated. Liebeschuetz said that the Stoic philosophy suited Livy to use it as a metaphysical framework to justify the effectiveness of religious acts.
Livy does though criticise some forms of religion, which seem to be associated with those forms that are contrary to the state. Liebeschuetz differentiates between religion and superstition, the latter being criticised by Livy. A new theory states that Livy uses religion as a literary device, just as authors of his time such as Vergil did. The Imperium relies on historiographical ancestry, the favour of the gods to its leaders towards military campaigns, on military ingenium and rests on the state. Livy’s narrative seems calibrated to represent the congruence of human and divine power, rather than to establish the priority of one over the other one.
Throughout his work, by passing a series of challenges and tests, it is felt a sense of Roman achievement, proving the worth of the city and its habitants. As previous historians, his history is deeply moralistic, where pietas, concordia, fides, disciplina, dignitas and gravitas are seeing as virtues. On the Caudine disaster, the arrogance of the Romans and the injustice of their cause turns the conflict into a punishment against them. However, on the verge of humiliation and disaster, they reacted, providing a great example of Roman character and pride.
Besides the moral, the psychology of the individual also has an important part within his writings. Livy highlights the numbers, the manly virtue of the soldiers and commanders in corpus and ingenium, the dominance of fortune and the need for concord, as reasons for Roman leadership in the Mediterranean.
He goes as far as to write counterfactual history, utilising Alexander the Great for his purpose. According to Livy, the Macedonian king would have been defeated by the Roman army, not just because the discipline of the Roman commanders and soldiers, but because of the virtue of Rome, the constitution of the state and the virtue of Rome commandants and army. The victory is also supported by the metaphor of the road, the vision of progress through history as a journey along the road. It is also supported on the knowledge acquired by Rome because of its age. This counterfactual speculations received the influence of Sallustian moral rhetoric and of Cato’s historiography. It is though consistent with the author’s overall historiographical project, providing examples of timeless significance, and it places also the importance on unus homo in res publica and res gestae. Rome has managed to transit from the Republic to the Principate because of the leadership of great men, which are plentiful in Rome, the unus homo. Alexander is also shown as an example of how luxury could deviate Rome from the path of moral virtue and into vice and decline.
The path of avarice, which had been traditionally framed as a vice, bringing destruction to the state, is again treated by Livy on his work. The danger, according to Livy, resides in its erosion, not just of the values and institutions, but of the processes of historical communication by which the memory and influence of that past are perpetuated. Avaritia is defined as a foreign virus that, if integrated, will bring decline to Rome.
Livy has adopted the hypothetical mode to explain history as an educational and didactic instrument to show how to pass through the transitional period from Republic to Principate. This method may lose on factual evidence but it provides lessons for the future.
As other historians before him, he makes usage of tragedy to reflect on his moralistic rhetoric. His writings about the Bacchanalia tell of a gradual moral decline brought to Rome from the East. Manlius Volso and his army brought all sorts of luxury articles from the Hellenistic world, and this was seen as the beginning of the moral decline in Rome. Livy also writes about the dislocation of population after the Hannibalistic wars and the social and economic changes produced in Italy in the previous 30 years as fuelling the decline. Livy pictures the Bacchanalia as a drama, not just for the decline of moralistic values brought by the conquest of the East, but by the arrival of alien religious beliefs that threatened the moralistic values in Rome. This might be symptomatic of the senate’s interest in controlling the state. The dramatical style given by Livy’s writing provably emphasised on the state’s need of intervention and control over religion.
There are parallels in his writings with Thucydides, especially in the two orations delivered by Fabius and Scipio at the senate in 205. The differences found on the speeches are few. One of them is the disposal of historical exempla unknown to fifth-century Athenians. Another one is that the reasons for the invasions and circumstances differ and the characters in Thucydides are Greek, while in Livy’s writings are Roman. However, Livy seemed to have taken Thucydides structuring and have painted it with different colours. Livy demonstrates that men in history can deviate from past performances only in certain aspects, especially when the situations are similar.
Livy was a man of his time, hence why the contradictions about his alignment with Augustan power and his blaming narrative about aspects of the Principate. He is part of the propaganda of the new Principate but also is a light that warns of the vices that made the Republic decline and educates Rome about the path that must not be taken again. He tried to write to those that govern the state, to guide them for the fortune of Rome. He also uses drama as if he was writing literature and creates a writing style that is not just didactic, moralistic and philosophic but also dramatical.
Image taken from:
J. W. Liebeschuetz, ‘The Religious Position of Livy’s History’, The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (1967), 45-55 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/299342%5D
P. A. Stadter, ‘The Structure of Livy’s History’, Historia vol. 21 (1972) 287- 307 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4435265%5D
R. Syme, ‘Livy and Augustus’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 64 (1959) 27-87 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/310937%5D
A. Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History, Berkeley1998 [available through California Digital Library, http://www.escholarship.org/editions/%5D
P. G. Walsh, ‘Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia’, Greece & Rome vol. 43, no. 2 (Oct., 1996), 188-203 [ http://www.jstor.org/stable/643095 ]
R. Morello, ‘Livy’s Alexander Digression (9.17-19): Counterfactuals and Apologetics’, The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 92 (2002), 62-85 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3184860]
B. S. Rodgers, ‘Great Expeditions: Livy on Thucydides’, Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 116 (1986) 335-352 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/283923%5D.