History of Rome

Work Name: History of Rome
Work Type: Historiography
Date: 9 b.c.
Movement: Ancient Literature

History of Rome

The book History of Rome, sometimes referred to as Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Founding of the City), is a monumental history of ancient Rome, written in Latin between 27 and 9 BC by the historian Titus Livius, or "Livy", as he is usually known in English. The work covers the period from the legends concerning the arrival of Aeneas and the refugees from the fall of Troy, to the city's founding in 753, the expulsion of the Kings in 509, and down to Livy's own time, during the reign of the emperor Augustus. The last event covered by Livy is the death of Drusus in 9 BC. 35 of 142 books, about 25% of the work, is still extant. The surviving books deal with the events down to 293 BC (books 1-10), and from 219 to 166 BC (books 21-45).



The History of Rome originally comprised 142 "books", thirty-five of which—Books 1–10 with the Preface and Books 21–45—still exist in reasonably complete form. Damage to a manuscript of the 5th century resulted in large gaps (lacunae) in Books 41 and 43–45 (small lacunae exist elsewhere); that is, the material is not covered in any source of Livy's text.

A fragmentary palimpsest of the 91st book was discovered in the Vatican Library in 1772, containing about a thousand words (roughly three paragraphs), and several papyrus fragments of previously unknown material, much smaller, have been found in Egypt since 1900, most recently about 40 words from Book 11, unearthed in 1986.

Some passages are nevertheless known thanks to quotes from ancient authors, the most famous being on the death of Cicero, quoted by Seneca the Elder.


Livy was abridged, in antiquity, to an epitome, which survives for Book 1, but was itself abridged in the fourth century into the so-called Periochae, which is simply a list of contents. The Periochae survive for the entire work, except for books 136 and 137. In Oxyrhynchus, a similar summary of books 37–40, 47–55, and only small fragments of 88 was found on a roll of papyrus that is now in the British Museum classified as P.Oxy.IV 0668. There is another fragment, named P.Oxy.XI 1379, which represents a passage from the first book (I, 6) and that shows a high level of correctness. However the Oxyrhynchus Epitome is damaged and incomplete.


The entire work covers the following periods:

Books 1–5 – The legendary founding of Rome (including the landing of Aeneas in Italy and the founding of the city by Romulus), the period of the kings, and the early republic down to its conquest by the Gauls in 390 BC.

Books 6–10 – Wars with the Aequi, Volsci, Etruscans, and Samnites, down to 292 BC.

Books 11–20 – The period from 292 to 218, including the First Punic War (lost).

Books 21–30 – The Second Punic War, from 218 to 202.

Books 31–45 – The Macedonian and other eastern wars from 201 to 167.

Books 46 to 142 are all lost:

Books 46–70 – The period from 167 to the outbreak of the Social War in 91.

Books 71–90 – The civil wars between Marius and Sulla, to the death of Sulla in 78.

Books 91–108 – From 78 BC through the end of the Gallic War, in 50.

Books 109–116 – From the Civil War to the death of Caesar (49–44).

Books 117–133 – The wars of the triumvirs down to the death of Antonius (44–30).

Books 134–142 – The rule of Augustus down to the death of Drusus (9).

Table of contents


Livy wrote in a mixture of annual chronology and narrative, often interrupting a story to announce the elections of new consuls. Collins defines the "annalistic method" as "naming the public officers and recording the events of each succeeding year". It is an expansion of the fasti, the official public chronicles kept by the magistrates, which were a primary source for Roman historians. Those who seem to have been more influenced by the method have been termed annalists.

The first and third decades (see below) of Livy's work are written so well that Livy has become a sine qua non of curricula in Golden Age Latin. Some have argued that subsequently the quality of his writing began to decline, and that he becomes repetitious and wordy. Of the 91st book Barthold Georg Niebuhr says "repetitions are here so frequent in the small compass of four pages and the prolixity so great, that we should hardly believe it to belong to Livy...." Niebuhr accounts for the decline by supposing "the writer has grown old and become loquacious...", going so far as to conjecture that the later books were lost because copyists refused to copy such low-quality work.

A digression in Book 9, Sections 17–19, suggests that the Romans would have beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived longer and had turned west to attack the Romans, making this digression the oldest known alternate history.

Livy's publication

The first five books were published between 27 and 25 BC. The first date mentioned is the year Augustus received that title: twice in the first five books Livy uses it. For the second date, Livy lists the closings of the temple of Janus but omits that of 25 (it had not happened yet).

Livy continued to work on the History for much of the rest of his life, publishing new material by popular demand. This explains why the work falls naturally into 12 packets, mainly groups of 10 books, or decades, sometimes of 5 books (pentads or pentades) and the rest without any packet order. The scheme of dividing it entirely into decades is a later innovation of copyists.

The second pentad did not come out until 9 or after, some 16 years after the first pentad. In Book IX Livy states that the Cimminian Forest was more impassable than the German had been recently, referring to the Hercynian Forest (Black Forest) first opened by Drusus and Ahenobarbus. One can only presume that in the interval Livy's first pentad had been such a success that he had to yield to the demand for more.


There is no uniform system of classifying and naming manuscripts. Often the relationship of one manuscript (MS) to another remains unknown or changes as perceptions of the handwriting change. Livy's release of chapters by packet diachronically encouraged copyists to copy by decade. Each decade has its own conventions, which do not necessarily respect the conventions of any other decade. A family of MSS descend through copying from the same MSS (typically lost). MSS vary widely; to produce an emendation or a printed edition was and is a major task. Usually variant readings are given in footnotes.

First decade

All of the manuscripts (except one) of the first ten books (first decade) of Ab Urbe Condita Libri, which were copied through the Middle Ages and were used in the first printed editions, are derived from a single recension commissioned by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul, AD 391. A recension is made by comparing extant manuscripts and producing a new version, an emendation, based on the text that seems best to the editor. The latter then "subscribed" to the new MS by noting on it that he had emended it.

Symmachus, probably using the authority of his office, commissioned Tascius Victorianus to emend the first decade. Books I–IX bear the subscription Victorianus emendabam dominis Symmachis, "I Victorianus emended (this) by the authority of Symmachus." Books VI–VIII include another subscription preceding it, that of Symmachus' son-in-law, Nicomachus Flavianus, and Books III–V were also emended by Flavianus' son, Appius Nicomachus Dexter, who says he used his relative Clementianus' copy. This recension and family of descendant MSS is called the Nicomachean, after two of the subscribers. From it several MSS descend (incomplete list):

Epigraphists go on to identify several hands and lines of descent. A second family of the first decade consists of the Verona Palimpsest, reconstructed and published by Theodore Mommsen, 1868; hence the Veronensis MSS. It includes 60 leaves of Livy fragments covering Books III-VI. The handwriting style is dated to the 4th century, only a few centuries after Livy.

In the Middle Ages there were constant rumors that the complete books of the History of Livy lay hidden in the library of a Danish or German Monastery. One individual even affirmed under oath in the court of Martin V that he had seen the whole work, written in Lombardic script, in a monastery in Denmark. All of these rumors were later found to be unsubstantiated.


The details of Livy's History of Rome vary from arguably legendary or perhaps even mythical stories at the beginning to detailed accounts of certainly real events toward the end. He himself noted the difficulty of finding information about events some 700 years or more removed from the author. Of his material on early Rome he said "The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian." The first book has been one of the most significant sources of the various accounts of the traditional legend of Romulus and Remus.

Nevertheless, according to the tradition of writing history at the time, he felt obliged to relate what he read (or heard) without passing judgment as to its truth or untruth. One of the problems of modern scholarship is to ascertain where in the work the line is to be drawn between legendary and historical. One view has been that buildings, inscriptions, monuments and libraries prior to the sack of Rome in 387 BC by the Gauls under Brennus were destroyed by that sack and were scarcely available to Livy and his sources. This view originates from Livy himself, who notes this fact. A layer of ash over the lowest pavement of the comitium believed to date from that time seemed to confirm a citywide destruction.

A new view by Tim Cornell, however, deemphasizes the damage caused by the Gauls under Brennus. Among other reasons, he asserts that the Gauls' interest in movable plunder, rather than destruction, kept damage to a minimum. The burnt layer under the comitium is now dated to the 6th century BC. There apparently is no archaeological evidence of a widespread destruction of Rome by the Gauls. Cornell uses this information to affirm the historicity of Livy's account of the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Livy's sources

For the first decade, Livy studied the works of a group of historians in or near his own time, known as annalists. Some twelve historians in this category are named by Livy in Book I as sources on the period of the monarchy. In date order backward from Livy they are: Gaius Licinius Macer, Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius, Valerius Antias, Gnaeus Gellius, Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus (consul 129 BC), Lucius Cassius Hemina, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (consul 133 BC), Aulus Postumius Albinus (consul 151 BC), Gaius Acilius Glabrio, Marcus Porcius Cato, Lucius Cincius Alimentus, Quintus Fabius Pictor. Elsewhere he mentions Sempronius Asellio. Macer, the latest of these, died in 66. Fabius, the earliest, fought in the Gallic War of 225.

Livy's sources were by no means confined to the annalists. Other historians of his time mention documents then extant dating as far back as the Roman monarchy. These include treaties between Servius Tullius and the Latins, between Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and Gabii, three between Rome and Carthage, and one between Cassius and the Latins, 493, which was engraved in bronze. In addition the Pontifex Maximus kept the Annales Maximi (yearly events) on display in his house, the censors kept the Commentarii Censorum, the praetors kept their own records, the Commentarii Pontificum and Libri Augurales were available as well as all the laws on stone or brass; the fasti (list of magistrates) and the Libri Lintei, historical records kept in the temple of Juno Moneta.

Nevertheless, the accounts of Rome's early history are for the most part incomplete and therefore suspect (in this view). Seeley argues, "It is when Livy's account is compared with the accounts of other writers that we become aware of the utter uncertainty which prevailed among the Romans themselves... The traditional history, as a whole, must be rejected..." As Livy stated that he used what he found without passing judgement on his sources, attacks on the credibility of Livy often begin with the annalists. Opinions vary. T.J. Cornell presumes that Livy relied on "unscrupulous annalists" who "did not hesitate to invent a series of face-saving victories." Furthermore, he argues, "The annalists of the first century BC are thus seen principally as entertainers..." Cornell does not follow this view consistently, as he is willing to accept Livy as history for the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. A more positive view of the same limitations was given by Howard:

The annalists were not modern historians, and not one of them is absolutely free from the faults attributed to Antias. That any of them, even Antias, deliberately falsified history is extremely improbable, but they were nearly all strong partisans, and of two conflicting stories it was most natural for them to choose the one which was most flattering to the Romans, or even to their own political party, and, as the principle of historical writing even in the time of Quintilian was stated to be that history was closely akin to poetry and was written to tell a story, not to prove it, we may safely assume that all writers were prone to choose the account which was most interesting and which required the least work in verification.

For the third decade, Livy followed the account of the Greek historian Polybius, as did the historical accounts of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Polybius had access to Greek sources in the eastern Mediterranean, outside the local Roman traditions.

Machiavelli and Livy

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


The first complete rendering of Ab Urbe Condita into English was Philemon Holland's translation published in 1600. According to Considine, "it was a work of great importance, presented in a grand folio volume of 1,458 pages, and dedicated to the Queen".

A notable translation of Livy titled History of Rome was made by B. O. Foster in 1919 for the Loeb Classical Library. A partial but important translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt was printed in 1960–1965 for Penguin Classics.

An online English translation is available.




Further reading

External links

Primary sources

  • Livius, T. "Ab Urbe Condita Libri" (in Latin). The Latin Library. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Livius, Titus; Baker, George (Translator) (1823). The History of Rome... in Six Volumes. New York: Peter A. Mesier et al; The Online Library of Liberty. Retrieved 4 February 2010.
  • Livius, Titus; Freese, John Henry (Translator); Church, Alfred John (Translator); Brodribb, William Jackson (Translator); Osborne, Duffield (Contributor) (2004) [1904]. "Books I-III". Roman History. Project Gutenberg. Archived from the original on July 9, 2007. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Livius, Titus; Spillan, D. (Translator) (1853). The History of Rome by Titus Livius: The First Eight Books. London: Henry G. Bohn.
  • Livius, Titus; Spillan, D. (Translator); Edmonds, Cyrus (Translator) (1868). The History of Rome by Titus Livius: Books Nine to Twenty-Six.
  • Livius, Titus; Edmunds, Cyrus (Translator) (2004) [1850]. The History of Rome by Titus Livius: Books Twenty-Seven to Thirty-Six.
  • Livius (Livy), Titus. "Book XLVI". In McDevitte, William A. (ed.). The History of Rome by Titus Livius, with the epitomes and fragments of the lost books, literally translated, with notes and illustrations. London, Medford: George Bell and Sons, Tufts University: the Perseus Digital Library.
  • "Livy: Periochae 126–133". livius.org.
  • "Livy: Periochae 134–142". livius.org.
  • From the Foundation of the City Vol. 1 public domain audiobook at LibriVox

Secondary sources

  • Hasselbarth, Hermann (1889). Historisch-kritische Untersuchungen zur dritten Dekade des Livius (in German). Halle, San Francisco: Verlag der Büchhandlung des Waisenhauses, Internet Archive.
  • Lendering, Jona (2006–2009). "Livy (2): Scope of the History of Rome". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Livius.org. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Lendering, Jona (2006–2009). "Livy (3): Characteristics". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Livius.org. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Lendering, Jona (2006–2009). "Livy (4): Sources". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Livius.org. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Lendering, Jona (2006–2009). "Livy (5): Assessment". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Livius.org. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Lendering, Jona (2006–2009). "Livy (6): Livy 29.19". Livius Articles on Ancient History. Livius.org. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  • Nissen, Heinrich (2001) [1863]. Kritische Untersuchungen über die Quellen der vierten und fünften Dekade des Livius (in German). Berlin, San Francisco: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Internet Archive.
  • Rodgers, Barbara Saylor (2007). "Outline of Early Books of Livy". University of Vermont. Retrieved 13 August 2009.

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