Titus Livius (better known as Livy, c. 59 BCE- 17 CE), one of the most famous writers from ancient Rome, came from a prominent (but not senatorial) clan in the city of Patavium (now Padua). Unlike many of his scholarly peers at that time, he did not study abroad in places like Greece, but instead remained in Italy, where he was instructed in philosophy and rhetoric, and he also made use of local libraries to learn from the works of older Roman historians and antiquarians. As Livy’s family did not have access to the Roman Senate, his upward mobility in government was limited in comparison to other scholars who were also Senators. Not pressing the issue, Livy decided to intentionally stay away from public offices and government, instead devoting himself to writing history. Nor did he overtly join the social circles of the politically-minded Roman poets and politician-historians who published academic works to propel their political careers. Livy, contrastingly, seemed to have been one of the few ancient historians who wrote his works for the sake of history and literature, itself.
Livy began writing his gigantic History of Rome soon after Augustus’ victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE. He would continue writing for the rest of his life, producing 142 books of continuous history—unfortunately, only 35 of the books have survived. As Livy began to incrementally publish the books of his History of Rome, Roman readers and listeners took notice of the text. Within Livy’s own lifetime, his History of Rome was greeted with great acclaim, praise, and popularity, quickly becoming the definitive narrative of Rome’s ancient monarchy and its early Republic.
As the History of Rome gained influence in the Roman Empire, Livy became something of a celebrity. His growing fanbase started seeing Livy as a larger-than-life figure. Perhaps Livy’s greatest fan was a man from the Iberian Peninsula who took a pilgrimage to Italy in order to view the historian. As the story goes, the man lived in Gades (modern Cadiz, Spain), and he was so awed by Livy’s writings that he decided to travel all the way to Patavium or Rome to see the writer of the History of Rome. The man succeeded in his journey and managed to lay eyes on his hero, Livy. After seeing the historian, all of the fan’s goals, wishes and interests were complete—content, he left Italy without any further sightseeing. The tale of this man from Gades apparently became a well-known local story in Italy. Pliny the Younger (c. 61-112) mentioned the familiar incident in a letter to his pen pal, Nepos, writing, “Have you never read of the man who lived at Gades who was so fired by the name and glory of Titus Livius that he came from the remotest corner of the world to see him, and returned the moment he had set eyes on him?” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, II.3).
Although Livy was a famous figure and well acquainted with the imperial family, he largely maintained his intentionally-imposed distance from the rulers of Rome. Evidently, the closest that Livy allowed himself to become involved in the imperial dynasty was to tutor the future emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) in the ways of history—and few at that time would likely have thought that Claudius would ever become emperor. After having lived much of his life in the city of Rome, Livy eventually moved back to his birthplace of Patavium, where he died in the year 17.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from Christian Dirce, painted by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Warsaw).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.