The thing you have to realise about Livy – the fact that makes everything about him drop into place – is that he was the JK Rowling of his day. Romans had been saying that they wanted a Roman historian to write a Roman History of Rome … and in stepped Livy, with the 142 books of his Ab Urbe Condita ('From the Founding of the City'). It became a best seller and made Livy famous – and that was because it was WRITTEN to be a best-seller, and to make Livy famous.

And that explains everything.

Livy was a scholar, not a statesman or a general, and did not really understand politics or warfare. He had never been outside Italy, and his geography was wishy-washy at best. Like JK Rowling he got to meet important people, but he was never ‘mates’ with them. In fact, he was a fairly ordinary – if clever – chap, and he wrote for ordinary, educated, Romans.

Livy as an Historian
Livy's History was not a philosophical exercise, or a dry, dull-as-ditchwater analysis of what-really-happened. He wrote to entertain.

•  The emphasis was on literary excellence, and on ‘ripping yarns’ infused with the Greek idea of energeia (‘animated’ writing). 

•  Like the dramatist, he encapsulated his heroes' thoughts and feelings in exciting, well-crafted speeches, rather than writing about them in an abstract, impersonal way. 

•  He used one source at a time (this is called ‘Nissen’s Law’, after the 19th century German historian who first realised this), selecting what he considered the ‘best’ source for the story. 

•  Where he discovered that he had made a mistake, he changed succeeding stories to fit his ‘facts’, rather than go back and correct the error. 


Above all, Livy was a Roman who wrote Roman history desgined to appeal to the predilections of Roman readers: 

•  A Roman bias runs throughout his work. ‘Roman virtues' always shine through … and even the Romans, despite setbacks, win in the end

•  His Roman bias also affected his choice of sources (more than accuracy or reliability); he often preferred Coelius Antipater and even Valerias Antias to Polybius because they were more ‘Roman’ in their attitudes, and more exciting. 



1. Strengths of Livy

•  Ab Urbe Condita was a literary masterpiece, a huge work, which was incredibly popular and became a classic of Roman writing

•  He simplified (though not always accurately), difficult and complicated issues, battles etc. for a general readership

•  He filled all his text with 'energeia' - making it interesting and entertaining - 'a page-turner'

•  He was accurate where his sources were accurate


2. Weaknesses of Livy

•  'Nissen's Law': his book was not a blend but a conglomeration, paraphrasing from one source, then another, in turn = the book lacks cohesion, its accuracy varies, and he sometimes repeats himself (e.g. he describes the route from the Rhine to the Alps twice)

•  His focus on old-fashioned 'Roman virtue' so contorted history that it ended up more of a fantasy world, the world as it should have been rather than the world as it was (e.g. his heroes Scipio and Fabius are very wooden and one-dimensional 'true-Roman' characters).

•  He had no experience of war or politics = he sometimes makes mistakes and his book is simplistic and stereotyped - which was of course the way his readers, similarly ignorant, liked it!

•  He had no concept of the 'validity' of a source - he chose his sources according to how 'Roman', or how exciting they were and, where numbers were concerned, tended to 'go down the middle' with no thought about which was the more reliable source (e.g. discussing the numbers lost by Hannibal over the Alps, he prefers Coelius to Polybius)

•  His geography was 'like a rambler whose compass has gone haywire' (e.g. when he makes Hannibal 'turn left' and go south at the Rhone)

•  He did no original research, but mainly copied/paraphrased others ... and he didn't even do that very carefully (e.g. when he transcribed CXL and CLX in the Battle of the Scouting Parties, or when he mistook the Greek word thureos ('shields') as thuras ('doors') and reduced the account of one battle to nonsense)

•  He was biased - against Hannibal (e.g. Livy ignores the prayers Hannibal offered before his campaign, presumably because he wanted to reinforce Hannibal's impietas).




The following web pages will help you complete the task:

This document contains the relevant sections of the set
OCR Textbook.

Livy - Mr Clare's factsheet

Four scholarly comments on Livy.




Read the following passages from Livy, and write answers to the questions which follow:

Book 21, Chapter 4
Whether the task I have undertaken of writing a complete history of the Roman people from the very beginning of its existence will reward me for the labour spent on it, I neither know for certain, nor if I did know would I dare to say.  For I see that this is an old-established and a common-place practice, each fresh writer invariably being sure that he will either find more authentic facts, or write in a better style.  However this may be, it will still be a great satisfaction to me to have taken my part, too, in studying, to the utmost of my abilities, the annals of the foremost nation in the world ….

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past – that you can see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type of human experience...  Unless, moreover, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any nation greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which greed and luxury have been so late in making their inroads, or poverty and frugality so highly and continuously honoured.  In these latter years wealth has brought greed in its train, and the unlimited opportunity for pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and depravity...

But 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 start with prayers and supplications to the gods and goddesses that they would grant a favourable and successful outcome to the great task before us.

What does this passage tell us about HOW and WHY Livy wrote Ab Urbe Condita.   [4+4]


Book 21, Chapter 4
[Hannibal was always the first choice] whenever courage and determination were needed; and there was no leader for whom the soldiers held greater affection or showed more daring.  Most fearless in seeking danger; most calculating in the presence of danger, no amount of exertion could tire his body or soul; heat and cold he endured equally. Food and drink were determined by his needs, not his desires.  His times of sleep were not set by day or night; he rested when he had finished his work, but he did not seek that rest on a soft bed or in silence – men often saw him lying on the ground amongst the guards and outposts, wrapped in his military cloak. His dress was in no way superior to that of his comrades; only his weapons and his horses.  He was by far the best both of the cavalry and the infantry, the first to enter the fight and the last to leave the field.

But these manly virtues were balanced by great vices: inhuman cruelty, treachery worse than Carthaginian; nothing of truthfulness, nothing of reverence; no fear of the gods, no respect for oaths, no sense of religion – a nature with virtues and vices.

Do you think that Livy is here giving us a reliable description of Hannibal?
You must refer both to this passage, and to your knowledge of Livy as a writer    [18]