Cleveland, OH. It is often said that history is written by the victors – except it almost always isn’t. A case in point is Titus Livius, better known to us simply as Livy. He was the author of a monumental history of Rome, the Ab Urbe Condita Libri, most of which was lost to the vicissitudes of history. What remains, however, is considered an undisputed classic of Latin literature. Far from extolling the victors of the Roman civil wars, Livy subtly deconstructs the Augustan regime and imperium—praising the old republic, shaming his contemporaries for what they had become compared to what they were, and leaving us with the thesis that moral virtue is the safeguard of liberty.

That Livy was a controversial figure even in his time shouldn’t be surprising to those of us with even a cursory knowledge of Roman history. He was derided as a “Pompeiian.” In contrast to the men who surrounded Augustus, Livy was openly hostile to the first emperor. Following Aristotle, Livy was concerned with the character of men’s souls, and his history is filled with moral moments to precisely manifest that character of courage that was now lost – at least in Livy’s mind. Livy offers a historia moralia a century before Plutarch!

Pudor, shame, was a quintessential Roman value. Pudicitia, sexual and moral virtue, was another quintessential Roman value. Livy, it could be said, was the godfather who elevated the concept of shame in Roman consciousness in his history as he regularly employed terminology relating to virtue, shame, and sexual uprightness and degeneracy throughout his work. Livy saw shame as a teachable moment: something to awaken the moral slumber of his fellow Romans to regain what they had. The purpose of Livy’s wielding of shame was to revive the moral character necessary for republican liberty. Shamelessness was antithetical to republicanism. (We who live in twenty-first century America should take note of this ancient wisdom.)

Looking back at the liberty the Romans had and looking out at the present condition of his countrymen, Livy was startled by what he found. Livy asserts that shamelessness led to decadence which, in turn, led to greed and eventually devolved into demagoguery and tyranny. His assertion that Roman liberty and equality were destroyed by the decadence of the civil wars and buried with the emergence of the Augustan regime had far reaching influence. In the late Renaissance and early modern period in Europe, Machiavelli, James Harrington, and John Milton all followed in Livy’s analysis of Rome. The collapse of moral virtue doomed the republic, and in that degeneracy the darkness of despotism swept the land. Moral virtue was, for the republican thinkers of early modernity, one of the prerequisites for the liberty offered in a republic. This wasn’t unique to them but inherited from the pages of Livy. Tocqueville’s reflections on the necessity of republican moral virtue for the advancement and safeguarding of liberty and democracy was equally Livian in character.

Livy’s history of Rome, then, is a moral project. It is also subversive. It is moral in the sense that Livy hoped to inspire the reading class, the aristocrats, who were once so noble and so brave in his estimation, to reclaim their noble heritage and patriotism. In this moral revival there was also subversiveness. It would lead to their independence from Augustus and end the despotic sycophancy that dominated Roman politics (Livy wanted the aristocrats to break away from their dependency on the emperor). Understanding this dual project – moral rejuvenation and subtle subversiveness toward the Augustan regime – helps the reader make sense of the awkward individual moments scattered throughout Livy’s history and his employment of shame throughout the work.

One of the great achievements of the Augustan era writers was their construction of “traditionalism” in the form of pietas (duty). It wasn’t aimed at buttressing the regime of Augustus Caesar. On the contrary, it was a subversive counterweigh to Augustus’s autocracy. To the republican writers now watching the march to empire, the traditional values of filial piety, respect for the gods, and martial virtue as citizen – not as professional soldier – went together with the republican liberty that had been extinguished by the maelstrom of civil war and the imposition of Augustus’s singular rule. The subversiveness is therefore seen in their cultivation of the ideology of pietas: duty to family, duty to the gods, duty to Rome – not Augustus or any individual general. That was what made Rome great and its ideals of liberty so strong. And that needed to be recovered for Roman liberty to be restored.

The rape, or more precisely the intervention, of the Sabine women is one of the most celebrated incidents of Roman history and consciousness. The military prowess of the combatants isn’t what Livy extols, however. Rather, it is the filial piety and the peace – harmony – that filial love and respect brought that Livy praises (brought forth by women too):

With loosened hair and rent garments they braved the flying spears and thrust their way in a body between the embattled armies. They parted the angry combatants; they besought their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, to spare themselves the curse of shedding kindred blood. “We are mothers now,” they cried; “our children are your sons—your grandsons: do not put on them the stain of parricide. If our marriage–if the relationships between you–is hateful to you, turn your anger against us. We are the cause of strife; on our account our husbands and fathers lie wounded or dead, and we would rather die ourselves than live on either widowed or orphaned.” The effect of the appeal was immediate and profound.

Note what Livy praises in his imagined speech of the Sabine women. They appeal to fathers, husbands, and sons to end the bloodshed. Family is presented as the instrument of peace and the restoration of liberty. They also call for an end to the shedding of filial blood as they are intermarried and part of a new filial body politic. Rather than live with the indignity of parricide, widowhood, and orphanhood, the Sabine women assert their willingness to be sacrificed for the greater good of all. Family matters.

In the aftermath of the civil wars, Livy’s reimagined speech of the Sabine women would have struck a chord. (It was designed intentionally to do so and reflects more on recent Roman history than the ancient history it pretends to cover.) The conceited pride of those who fought the civil war is shamed by the example of the Sabine women. Instead of following their path of filial piety which brought peace, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and the armies of the civil war engaged in parricide: treachery toward fathers, murdering of sons, butchering of brothers. Such crimes are nothing to be proud of! There is also a subversive sexual and gender dynamic being employed by Livy here: the men who fought in the civil wars are shamed by the virtue of the Sabine women.

Furthermore, the heroism that Livy celebrates is not without preceding acts of religious fidelity to the gods. This is intentional too. Often before heroic men of the republic die, they invoke the gods. Their memory, then, is inseparable from their devotion to the gods above. Their religious devotion made them heroes and not their own self-strength. When, for instance, Tarquinis Pricscus captures prisoners and saves Rome from potential plunder, he “made…an offering to the god Vulcan.”

The great hero Horatius, in confronting that eternal enemy of the Romans – the Etruscans – offers prayers in his lone stand against the butchering enemies of Rome and her people: “Horatius caught the missiles on his shield and, resolute as ever, straddled the bridge and held his ground.” When he endangers his life by delaying the Etruscan assault – permitting his Roman comrades time to destroy the bridge and sending him and the Etruscans plunging into the river Tiber – he offers up a prayer in his final moment: “Horatius, with a prayer to Father Tiber to bless him and his sword, plunged fully armed into the water.” Livy admits that if the story is legendary, it still deserves to be celebrated because of the values and virtues it communicated.

Time and time again, throughout Ab Urbe Condita Libri, Livy highlights the nobility and heroism of individual Romans in this manner. Success is accompanied by the religious rites and offerings to the gods. Disasters are manifested when one neglects the gods. Individual acts of heroism are magnified, in Livy’s construction, when related to one’s religious devotion. Livy doesn’t want his audience to forget that the heroism we celebrate is connected to the gods whom he feels are being forgotten by his contemporaries. Why praise Augustus? He may claim divinity, but the real subjects of praise are the gods. In Livy’s creation, Rome’s greatest heroes manifest that subtle traditionalism our historian is incorporating throughout his work. We cannot celebrate the heroism of Horatius, in the above example, without being reminded of his piety to the gods.

Duty to Roman liberty – not oneself and one’s leisure – is another great theme Livy develops and lavishes heaps of praise on.

This goes as far as to offer a rehabilitation of Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus (Brutus), one of the conspirators who slayed Julius Caesar. Brutus, as we know, has a noble lineage. His family traced their genealogy back to the very early foundations of the republic. They were chief among the families that overthrew the monarchy, chasing out Tarquin the Bad and creating the institutions of the republic in place of the monarchs.

After Tarquin was chased out of Rome, he gathered an army of Rome’s mortal enemies and marched on the city intending to recapture it. The freedmen of Rome, cherishing their newly won liberties, took up arms to meet their despotic foe. Lucius Junius Brutus, an ancestor of the more famous Brutus, heroically stood up to the drumbeat of tyranny. Livy’s reimagining of Brutus’s noble heritage comes to the fore when the Romans rally around his leadership and confront Tarquin and his army.

Livy drew explicitly on the memory of Brutus and the republican struggle at the Battle of Philippi in retelling how the Romans, under Lucius Junius Brutus and Valerius, fought Tarquin and the armies of tyranny. Though they emerged victorious – in contrast to Brutus, Cassius, and the republicans at Philippi (42 BC) – the battle is described with the echoes of what Livy knew from that horrendous battle that would stamp out the flame of republicanism and lead to the Triumvirate and the battles between Augustus and Mark Antony. Per Livy:

The battle which followed was indecisive; both armies were successful on the right, unsuccessful on the left; the contingent from Veii, accustomed to defeat by Rome, was once more routed, while the men of Tarquinni, who had no previous experience against Roman troops, not only held firm but forced the Roman left to withdraw.

The Battle of Philippi was much the same in the first day where both sides were successful on the right and unsuccessful on the left which caused great confusion as to who had won the day. Unlike at Philippi, when Lucius Junius Brutus had rallied to the republican cause in 509 BC the forces of tyranny eventually withdrew and the republic saved. Lucius Junius Brutus’s death, for Livy, became a symbol of republican martyrdom. The intent, by Livy, is unmistakable: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus is to be seen in the same light as his forefather Lucius Junius Brutus. Though Philippi was a defeat for republicanism, the parallel lives of Lucius Junius Brutus and Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus exemplify republican martyrdom and what Rome had fallen from in Livy’s imagination. They were martyrs of liberty. Once again, Livy draws on the fresh memory of the civil war and retroactively projects that back into the distant Roman past he is writing about.

In detailing the various episodes that dot the Ab Urbe Condita Libri, we return to what Livy said in his preface: “every writer on history tends to look down his nose at his less cultivated predecessors, happily persuaded that he will better them in point of style, or bring new facts to light.” Contrary to this conceit of the contemporary generation, Livy is arguing the present generation of Romans – under Augustus – are far beneath their predecessors. The “story of the greatest nation in the world,” which is Rome, is not a celebration of present greatness but of past greatness that Livy is constructing to shame the present-day Romans into recapturing and re-emulating: “[S]o great is the glory won by the Roman people in their wars that, when they declare that Mars himself was their first parent and father of the man who founded their city, all the nations of the world might well allow the claim as readily as they accept Rome’s imperial dominion.”

The “glory won by the Roman people” was of the past generations and not the current generation. The current generation, Livy writes, is a degenerate generation that has stagnated and therefore shames their noble and glorious ancestors who had sacrificed so much for their posterity and to the greatness of Rome itself: “Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put in, in love with death both individual and collective.” In other words, in reading Livy’s history of Rome’s expansion and rise to greatness the readers of his history should become ashamed of their present degeneracy and recapture the old values that moved Rome to greatness – pietas, duty to the gods, duty to the family, duty to Rome – rather than the sensual pleasures of the self and the pursuit of self-interest and the treasures that will ultimately bring one’s individual demise and with it the demise of Rome.

Livy was no stooge for Augustus and the Augustan regime. While he may have agreed with Augustus’s campaign of restoring “traditional” values, it was Livy and the other Augustan era writers – almost all of whom either served in the republican cause or had republican sympathies – who wrote the histories and stories of Rome. The losers, in other words, and not the victors, shaped the memorial consciousness and historical understanding of the Roman people. In doing so men like Livy were also subtly critiquing Augustus and the “empire.” We are still the children of this cultural tradition when we judge our shortcomings by looking admiringly back at our ancestors. When we look in this mirror, we should see Livy.

The subsequent history of European political conflicts against despots and tyrants followed the model of Livy and the republican writers and their sympathizers. No one can read Harrington, Milton, and the American Founding Fathers – all of whom read and cited Livy and others – without recognizing what they knew: moral virtue is the buttress against tyranny and despotism, and without moral virtue the flame of liberty dies. Livy’s history, then, is also the history of moral decline. But it is also an appeal to recover liberty and the things that really matter in life.

The idea of the decline and fall of Rome didn’t begin with Edward Gibbon and his “scribble, scribble, scribble” per the Duke of Gloucester. It began with the Roman historical project under Livy and has been with us ever since. But in Livy’s war for restoring moral virtue and using shame as a tactic to achieve his goal, we must also be aware that he was critiquing Augustus and the empire at the same time – if Romans regained moral virtue they would, like their heroic forefathers, throw off the shackles of the new-old despotism and rekindle the light of liberty and quite possibly exceed the liberty and virtue of their ancestors. There is, then, a spirit of hope in the pages of Livy. Reclaiming moral virtue and the liberty that comes with it is always a possibility, but we must know that moral virtue and liberty, alongside duty to divinity, family, and fatherland, are the fruit and safeguard of freedom.

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