Tuesday, 6 March 2012

To what extent can Livy be considered a moral historian?

by Michael Roderick

Ab Urbe Condita- Titus Livy’s monumental history of Rome from its foundation to the author’s own time – was composed in a nation reborn after the nephew of Julius Caesar, Octavian, had become the principal source of power in the Roman imperium. After decades of civil strife; moral and religious breakdown, Octavian, later known as the honorific Augustus, was eager to re-establish the values of traditional Rome- so often characterised in terms such clementia, pietas and frugalitas. There can be no doubt that Livy, like Augustus himself, was a moralist - a man deeply concerned with the restoration of a moral Republican ideal – and who looked to the past for affirmation of this ideal. Livy’s moralism can largely be separated into three main constituent parts: didactic, judgemental and religious. Livy deliberately designs his history in order to instruct his and future generations about which moral actions have led to prosperity, which to catastrophe. He judges historical figures by his own moral standard- often linking failure in war and wealth to such vices as sexual immorality, cowardice and disloyalty. He praises the ability (as he sees it) of religion to foster morality in society, whilst simultaneously denouncing superstition1. These three preoccupations –the didactic, judgemental and the religious – of Livy’s moralism are driven by his fervent Stoicism, his belief that by living morally and virtuously, one is living in harmony with their fortuna. Livy should thus of course be considered a moral historian because of his ultimate belief in the moral and ordered universe of the Stoics. 2

Livy’s presentation of religion is of a moral enforcer in a society. One of the most important qualities that men should be judged by, according to Livy, is their pietas. Having due observance of the gods often ensures military victory, as the example of Scipio Africanus proves, and religiously dutiful men are almost exclusively portrayed positively. Indeed, it is clear that an important goal of Livy’s is to ‘advocate a religious revival’ in Roman society. By the beginning of the first century, religious observance had become essentially a form of public ceremony, with many educated Romans regarding the tales of gods, heroes and men as mere ancient superstition. One has merely to look to the example of Julius Caesar to see the prevalence of atheistic feeling for, although a known sceptic, he was made the Pontifex Maximus-the highest religious authority in the Roman Republic - in 63 BC (when Livy was 4 years old). Livy clearly demonstrates an affinity with Augustus’s sentiments for religious revival3, yet the part played by religion in his history does not sufficiently amount to an official crusade. Livy’s reasons for advocating a religious revival are moral for - like Polybius and Cicero - he understood the social value of religion as the ‘securest base for a healthy public morality’4. For example, during his telling of the story of Numa, the second King of Rome, Livy relays a comment made by the King in which he states the public institution of religious rights is essential ‘ne luxuriarent otio animi’- ‘lest the (citizen’s) mind should grow degenerate in luxury. He thus sets out to show that a state with a strong priesthood and universally practised rituals will have a strong moral foundation and, stemming from this, a healthy body-politic. The relationship between religion and morality is therefore for Livy so intertwined as to be virtually inseparable.


One cannot, however, reduce the importance of religion to Livy to mere fear-inspiring moral police-man. Religion, in relationship to Livy’s morality, is more complicated than that. As a Stoic, it is clear that Livy believed that by following a moral example, one would live in harmony with their destiny. It is perhaps in this respect that Livy’s most important goal is expressed- moral didactics. Indeed Livy makes no secret of having this as the primary goal of his historiography, and constantly reminds the reader to take moral examples, and to heed moral warnings, from individuals throughout his work. The preface to the work explains most clearly Livy’s purpose in writing his history: that he would like ‘every reader to give close attention to quae vita, qui mores fuerint, per quos uiros quibusque artibus domi militiaeque et partum et auctum imperium sit’- what life and morals were, through what men and what policies, in peace and war, was the empire established and enlarged’5. Not only does Livy thus state that the Roman Empire was made great through the morals of the past but, in fact, he further explains ‘inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu foedum exitu quod vites’- ‘from (these moral lessons) you may choose for your own State what to imitate, and mark for avoidance what is shameful in conception and shameful in result’. The concept of history as a source of moral lessons is not novel to Livy, yet the historian here seems to set it as his task to combine moral and patriotic considerations for didactic purposes: i.e. Rome was made great by the strict and chaste morality of its forefathers, and the generations should ensure that this glorious Roman morality is upheld.


In order to ensure that his work remains as morally didactic as possible, Livy simplifies complex historical processes and motivations into simple principles, often repeated throughout his work. Pietas, Fides, Concordia, Prudentia, Dignitas, Gravitas and Frugalitas- these are the abstract moral concepts that ‘are the true and enduring heroes6’ of Livy’s History. These concepts, or the lack of them, are enough for Livy to be able to describe historical phenomena such as the Roman defeat at the hands of the Gauls in 390 B.C. in which he attributes the disaster to a lack of Pietas towards the gods and fides towards men.7 In a similar vein he attributes the defeat of the Roman’s by the Samnites at Caudium to the Roman’s Superbia- their arrogant rejection of a just settlement offered by their enemy. Thus in terms of causation, Livy’s historical theory is entirely moral. Although he does offer a more reasoned argument for causation on occasion (stating that the defeat at the hands of the Gauls was also due to the inadequate levy conducted by the military tribunes), these are invariably stated after the grievous moral error. Therefore, all victories and defeats, triumphs and disasters in Livy’s historical universe are engendered by moral victory or defeat, ethical triumphs and disasters, and it is the duty of his reader to ensure that they make such a connection between morality and glory, and immorality and disaster. Indeed so concerned is Livy in educating his readers in upright moral behaviour that he refuses to pass over tales and anecdotes that are ‘trifling to relate’8 if they have any moral value at all. A clear example of this obsessive moral detail occurs in Book XXVII, in which Livy describes the career of one C. Flaccus, a man who Livy considered of ‘loose and degenerate habits’, who amends his immoral ways after being appointedflamen dialis. Livy writes that he ‘should have been glad to have omitted from mention (this tale)…. had the story not passed from notoriety to edification’9- the implication being that unless this story was not filled with essential moral instruction, Livy would have passed over it in favour of relating a more important narrative.


The abstract qualities of that are at the centre of Livy’s didactic morality are often given association with individuals and nations, to the point where Livy’s analysis of these characters is spectacularly simplistic and morally reductive. Indeed, Livy judges these characters by his own Stoic standard and encourages us to judge characters according their moral behaviour as well. For his reductive historical analysis focused on morality, Livy has been much criticised and it is not hard to see why, very often his characters become stock villains and whole nations are given characteristics so outlandish as to leave the reader incredulous. When Livy describes how the people of Capua decide to take side with Hannibal and abandon their Roman masters, Livy once again employs a form of genetic morality, in which a whole race seem afflicted by some common moral disease that runs in their blood. He relates how the defection of the Capuans was inevitable for they were ‘luxuriantem longa felicitate atque indulgentia fortunae’- ‘luxuriating in their long-standing prosperity and fortune’ as well as the ‘licentia plebis sine modo’- ‘the unrestrained freedoms of the people exercised without limit’10. Thus, once again, Livy demonstrates how cultural and racial immorality engenders historical phenomena such as defection, rebellion and sedition. Livy’s moral characterisation reaches its greatest extremes and most outlandish exaggerations in describing the great enemy of Rome at the end of the second century B.C. - The Carthaginians and their commander, Hannibal. Livy makes no attempt at tempering his feelings towards these people. He describes Hannibal as ‘natura et moribus immitem ferumque’- ‘Brute and wild from his nature and morals’ who has mede his troops wild and savage ‘vesci corporibus humanis docendo’- ‘by teaching (them) to feast of human flesh’11. To the modern reader, of course, these descriptions seem of course ahistorical and outlandish to the extreme, yet in describing the Roman enemy is such a way, Livy is attempting to reinforce the good nature of what Rome was fighting for. Essentially, in making the Carthaginians a degenerate and morally void people, Livy is fortifying Roman morality.


Therefore, in conclusion, there can be no doubt that Livy’s whole historical universe is a moral one. His theory of causation and result in intrinsically linked with his sense of right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral. His reliance on moral precepts as the substance and purpose of his work leads the historian to make reductive analyses and character assessments, and sweeping moral assumptions about entire cultures and races. Indeed, Livy’s entire conception of history is one of a moral battlefield; a plain of examples and warnings with which present and future generations can take heed from. It is thus the job of Livy, the historian, to instruct, to teach and to point us, the reader, in the right moral direction.

By Michael Roderick



1 Ab Urbe Condita; 24.10

2 Livy: His historical aims and methods; P.G Walsh, pg. 80

3 Ab Urbe Condita; 43.13.1-2

4 4 Livy: His historical aims and methods; P.G Walsh, pg. 48

5 Ad Urbe Condita; Praef 9-10

6 Livy: His historical aims and methods; pg. 66

7 Ab Urbe Condita; V, 32, 6f

8 Ab Urbe Condita; IX,30,5.

9 Ab Urbe Condita; XXVII, 8, 5.

10 Ab Urbe Condita; XXIII, 2

11 Ab Urbe Condita; XXIII, 5

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