Titus Livius
Relevant Non-Istrians

itus Livius, known in English as Livy, was born in Patavium (modern Padua).  This was clearly stated by Quintilian, the author of a book on the education of orators, who wrote that Livy never lost his Patavian accent. According to Cato the Younger (95 B.C.-46 B.C.), a politician and statesman, Livy was probably born in 61 B.C., but according to Marcus Terentius Varro (116 B.C.- 27 B.C.), a Roman scholar and writer, it was 59 B.C., the year of the great Caesar's first consulship. Another date for his birth has been given as 64 B.C.


born in Patavium (Padova)
c. 59 B.C.

Patavium, one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Italy in Livy's time, belonged to a province of the Roman empire that was known as Gallia Cisalpina which received full Roman citizenship in 49 B.C., ten years after Livy's birth. During Livy's youth, its governor was Julius Caesar, and it is likely that the boy often heard stories about the wars in Gaul. However, he never got used to military matters. His writings betray that he knew next to nothing about warfare. This, and his lack of political experience, would normally have disqualified Livy as a historian, but as we will see, he was able to write a very acceptable history.

Francis L. Hawks, ed. Pictorial Cyclopaedia of Biography (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1856) 502. From an antique bust.

The life of Titus Livius is not well known. Almost everything we know about the author of the voluminous History of Rome from its foundation is derived from a handful of anecdotes recorded by later authors, who may have found them in a (now lost) book by the Roman biographer Suetonius called Historians and philosophers. Nevertheless, we know something about Livy's life, and that is more than we can say about several other important ancient authors (e.g., Homer).

Apart from telling us that Livy was born in 59 B.C., St. Jerome also says that he died in 17 A.D. If authentic, an inscription on a tomb at Patavium commemorating a Titus Livius supports Jerome claims as to both the place and time of Livy's death. This makes Livy a near contemporary of the Roman politician Octavian, who was born in 63, became sole ruler of the Roman empire in 31, accepted the surname Augustus in 27, and died in 14 CE.

We also know nothing about Livy's parents. Several inscriptions from Padua mention members of the Livius family, but none of them can convincingly be connected to the historian. Livy's family appears to have been of the middle class, possibly merchants. The family was well-to-do, for Livy apparently never wanted for money and was able to devote his life to the writing of history. He undoubtedly received his early education in Padua similar to that given to any wealthy young Roman except that he did not have the usual culminating period of study in a Greek city. This has been indicated by Livy's difficulties with the Greek language which suggests that he did not enjoy higher education in, say, Athens, which a Roman boy from the richest families certainly would have visited. The History of Rome from its Foundationn offers no indication that he ever traveled to Greece.

When he was about ten years old, civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey the Great. It was decided in 48 B.C. during the battle of Pharsalus. Later, Livy recalled a miraculous incident. His own description is not known, but a century later, the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea retold the story:

"At Patavium, there was a well-known prophet called Gaius Cornelius, who was a fellow-citizen and acquaintance of Livy the historian. On the day of the battle this man happened to be sitting at his prophetic work and first, according to Livy, he realized that the battle was taking place at that very moment and said to those who were present that now was the time when matters were being decided and now the troops were going into action; then he had a second look and, when he had examined the signs, he jumped up in a kind of ecstasy and cried out: 'Caesar, the victory is yours!' Those who were standing by were amazed at him, but he took the garland from his head and solemnly swore that he would not wear it again until facts had proved that his arts had revealed the truth to him. Livy, certainly, is most emphatic that this really happened."

[Plutarch, Life of Caesar 47; translated by R.Warner]

All that we know of his early life is that for some time he practiced as a rhetorician and wrote and taught it in his in his native town. He is said to have also written philosophical dialogues in his youth (Elder Seneca, Controversiae 10 Praef. 2) which have not survived. His fame to this day rests entirely on his 142-book history of Rome, called Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City), which he started working on around 29 or 30 B.C., after moving to Rome. By now, he was in his early thirties. From that time onward, he lived and worked mainly in the capital city.

We don't know anything about Livy's private life, but an average Roman man would at this age be married and have children. Quintilian states that the historian had a son, for whom he wrote a treatise on style, and a daughter, who was married to a teacher of oratory named Lucius Magius. Pliny the Elder quotes a geographical work written by a son of Livy. It is possible that he may have owned a house somewhere to the northeast of Rome, because he wrote down remarkably accurate descriptions of the valley of the Anio or Teverone (now Aniene) River, a major tributary of the Tiber (Tevere) River. However, he never traveled outside of Italy, apart from a possible trip to Athens.

As far as we know, Livy never held public office nor played a role in politics. We also know that could not have served in the military as his writings betray the fact that he knew almost nothing about warfare. However, soon after his arrival in Rome he became acquainted with Augustus and remained on friendly terms with the Emperor and his family from then on, but there is no indication that he ever depended on imperial patronage for his livelihood as did, for example, Horace and Virgil who depended on the patronage of Maecenas.

After the violent death of Julius Caesar, a new round of civil war followed. Padua played a minor role and it is possible that the young Livy witnessed some of the fighting in 44/43. In 31, Caesar's adopted son Octavian was victorious, and many people had a feeling that now, after eighteen years of fratricide, the situation in Italy would normalize. Academic studies were resumed. The poet Virgil wrote his optimistic Georgics and Greek authors like Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Strabo of Amasia came to the capital. Livy seems to have shared in their sentiment. Since Livy's family was prosperous, he probably inherited enough property to enable him to devote all his time and energy to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome from its Foundation), from its founding (traditionally dated to 753 B.C.) through the reign of Augustus in Livy's own time, on which he continued to work almost to the end of his days, publishing it in installments. (References to the Histri and/or Istria are in Books 40, 41 and 43, with Book 41 describing the war with the Histri and final battle at Nesactium.)

Livy's History was meant as an example to the Romans. They had suffered, but that had been due to their own, immoral behavior. However, a moral revival was still possible, and Livy offered some uplifting and cautionary tales. It was a serious and important project that interested Augustus. Scholars debate the extent to which Livy and Augustus shared common goals. The later Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 4. 34) reports that Augustus called Livy a "Pompeian". It may have occurred after the publication of Books 91-105 that Augustus made a good-natured joke that Livy still was a supporter of Pompey, the enemy of Caesar. If this was a reproach at all, it was not serious. While Livy did not belong to the inner circle of Rome's first emperor, nor was he a protégé of Maecenas, we also hear that Livy was close enough to the imperial court to encourage the young prince Claudius in his historical studies (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 41). The future emperor became a productive author: his histories of Rome, Carthage and the Etruscans consisted of sixty-nine books.

Livy became a well-known person in his lifetime, and there is a famous anecdote, told by Pliny the Younger, that once, a man came all the way from Cadiz in Andalusia, from the legendary edges of the earth, to see the historian. Yet, Livy was not a very popular man. There were, it is said, never many visitors when he recited from his work. Compared to his more popular contemporary, the elegant poet Ovid, the serious historian from Padua lacked charm, irony, and other cosmopolitan qualities. His world view never was that of the Roman literary elite, but he always remained a provincial. It comes as no surprise that Livy probably died in his native Patavium in 12 A.D. (17 A.D. according to St. Jerome), thereby outliving the Emperor August by three years.

Niccolò Machiavelli's work on republics, the Discourses on Livy, is presented as a commentary on the History of Rome.

Selected works (excerpts): Ab Urbe Condita

  • English - University of Virginia Library, Electronic Text Center - The History of Rome / Titus Livius - http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/modeng/modengL.browse.html
  • http://www.britannica.com/biography/Livy
  • Latin - The Latin Library - Livy - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/liv.html
  • Drawing - www.librarything.com/authorpics/livy2369.jpg
  • Drawing - http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/latinliterature/ss/romanauthortime_4.htm
  • http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110Tech/Livy.html

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Created: Monday, March 04, 2002; Updated Thursday, October 22, 2015  
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