By Alex Hu '23
Edited by Daevan Mangalmurti '24 and Louie Lu '23
Although Livy suggests that he consulted only “reliable records of historical events” to compose his Annales, he nonetheless begins his narrative with an account of Aeneas’ mythical arrival in Italy, an event both more ancient and less verifiable than the founding of Rome itself (preface; 1.1). Likely recognizing this apparent contradiction, Livy asserts that he attaches “no great importance” to “events before the city was founded or planned” (preface). He implores his readers to focus instead on learning “moral principles” from studying “how men lived” (preface). But this diversion is disingenuous. Throughout the opening chapters of Book 1, he conspicuously riddles his account with alternative theories about the allegedly divine ancestry of Iulus, the first king of Alba Longa, and Romulus, the first king of Rome. In doing so, Livy casts doubt upon the role of the gods in the city’s founding, an idea with profound moral implications. Thus I propose that Livy’s persistent and active framing of controversy is neither accidental nor ambivalent, but instead reflects a conscious effort to recover the role of human agency in Roman history.
While the preface to the Annales superficially expresses toleration for myths of divine intervention, a more careful reading shows that these stories are in tension with Livy’s broader historical aims. From the outset, Livy insists upon the importance of factual accuracy, describing the historian’s role as one who aspires to “bring greater accuracy to the facts,” and for whom contemporary “evils [...] cannot deflect [his mind] from the truth” (preface). Hence, while Livy claims that he intends “neither to affirm nor refute” the belief that Mars is the “parent” of Rome, he nonetheless identifies the tradition as dubious, referring to the myths as “poetic fictions” and an “indulgence” (preface). In addition, Livy offers up a poor defense of the popular desire to “reckon the gods as [Rome’s] founders,” explaining that people believe that “the glory of the Roman people in war” justifies a loose interpretation of facts; this is an obvious non sequitur (preface). Livy’s reference to “glory [...] in war” is also ironic, as he writes his history after decades of civil wars had devastated the Roman Republic and ushered in the despotic rule of the emperor Augustus. Thus the outwardly triumphant claim that “the nations of the world would as easily acquiesce in this claim as they do in our rule,” rings hollow in light of Rome’s recent self-subjugation. Since the purpose of Livy’s history is to instruct readers on “what to emulate [and] avoid” in an age of moral decline, feel-good stories about Rome’s predestined greatness are not only unhelpful, but counterproductive (preface). A history that emphasizes the consequences of human actions is of far greater pedagogical utility than one that ascribes ultimate responsibility for events to capricious gods.
Livy first brushes up against mythological controversy when he questions the parentage of Iulus, a possible ancestor to both Romulus and the emperor Augustus. After Greek learning spread in Rome, it became fashionable to conflate Iulus with Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, who allegedly accompanied his father into exile after the Trojan war. The poet Virgil legitimates this idea in the Aeneid by using the two names interchangeably in an epic narrative where the gods (particularly Aeneas’ mother, Venus) shepherd Aeneas to Italy so that his descendants may rule over a vast empire. As Augustus’ family, the Julii, had long claimed to be descended from Iulus, the emperor began to use this association with divinely-guided Ascanius to bolster his political legitimacy. But Livy disputes the Trojan connection, boldly entertaining the possibility that Ascanius and Iulus may be entirely different people, and that Iulus was perhaps Aeneas’ son by a Latin mother, Lavinia. Assuming the persona of the impartial historian, Livy dwells on this point to almost comical effect: “this Ascanius, wherever born and from whatever mother [...] handed over to his mother - or stepmother…” (1.3). He also sets up a challenge to the Augustan connection with an unusually contemporary reference, reminding readers that the “Julian family” claims Iulus as their ancestor (1.3). Livy’s professed inability as a historian to settle the issue of Iulus’s identity – “for who could establish the truth of a matter so ancient”– implies that Augustus himself has no way of verifying his ancestry (1.3). This realization in turn enables an even more subversive thought: Could there really be nothing that legitimates Augustan rule besides force and fortune? Is he simply a necessary despot for an age where Roman citizens “can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them” (preface)?
Livy disputes the idea of divine involvement in the Roman founding again when he emphasizes the murky circumstances surrounding the conception of Romulus and Remus. The traditional account reports that Mars copulated with Rhea Silvia, a princess of Alba Longa, and that their twin sons would found the city of Rome with martial prowess in their blood. But Livy hints that Rhea Silvia might have been guilty of fornication, writing that “[Rhea Silvia] named Mars as the father of her dubious progeny” (1.4; italics mine). He cues readers to be suspicious by presenting the myth as though it were Rhea Silvia’s own report of events. By emphasizing her role in its transmission, he introduces the possibility of subterfuge. Livy states that there are two possibilities: either “she thought [Mars] really was the father or [...] naming a god as the one responsible for her transgression made a more respectable story ” (1.4; italics mine). Given that Rhea Silvia’s tyrannical uncle, Amulius, murdered her entire family before forcing her into life-long virginity to maintain power, deception seems reasonable (1.3). But even if Rhea Silvia genuinely “thought” she encountered Mars, she may have just been mistaken. Either way, Livy undermines the connection between Mars and the Roman founding, which elevates the importance of human agency in the historical narrative. Had Amulius been more brutal, or Rhea Silvia been less cunning, Rome might never have been founded.
But Livy is not content simply to remove Mars from the founding legend. He pushes his readers to embrace more iconoclastic conclusions by suggesting that even the auspicious events surrounding Romulus’ childhood may have been mundane or misreported. The traditional account of the Roman founding begins with Amulius ordering the twins’ deaths by exposing them on the banks of the Tiber. However, the plan fails as the river god Tiberinus ferries them to safety, a she-wolf suckles and raises them, and the shepherd Faustulus adopts them. Livy begins his own telling by suggesting that perhaps Amulius’ men placed the twins in a basket beside a shallow current on the edge of the floodplain (1.4). Hence, the twins may have been carried along a gentle side channel, without any need for divine aid. He also raises the possibility that “she-wolf” may actually be a nickname for Faustulus’ wife, Larentia, “because of her sexual promiscuity” (1.4). Here Livy sets up another subversive possibility for the reader. Should he accept the connection between Larentia and the she-wolf, then the she-wolf wouldn’t have existed, and another miraculous symbol of Roman greatness vanishes. Larentia’s promiscuity also casts further doubt upon Romulus’ lineage – could it be possible that the twins are her own children? If Larentia is their real mother, then the twins had neither divine nor royal heritage, and Rome’s founders were no more than enterprising commoners who retroactively invented a royal genealogy – perhaps like the emperor Augustus? Livy cements these doubts by moving on with the deceptively non-judgmental remark: “So were the boys born and so were they brought up.” (1.4). By resolving nothing, he once more implies that human actions might better account for extraordinary events than the designs of the gods.
Although Livy does refer to fate and providence in the passages on the Roman founding, he divorces these concepts from the intentions of any particular god. For example, he opens the passage about the twins’ birth with the proclamation: “In my view the fates ordained the founding of this great city and the beginning of the world’s mightiest empire, second only to the power of the gods” (1.4). Even if we set aside the possibility that these remarks consist merely of platitudes, Livy still only attributes the founding of the city to ambiguous “fates;” he mentions the gods only as a benchmark to describe Rome’s future power. When he later refers to the unusual circumstances as a “providential accident,” he still does not attribute them to any specific divinity (1.4). Livy’s skepticism toward stories of divine intervention is thus consistent. In a later account about Romulus’ successor, King Numa Pompilius, he even refers to early Roman religion as a “miraculous fiction” and alleges that Numa only ever “pretended” to consult the gods (1.20). Livy thus attributes all miraculous events in the founding myths to human agency and fortune, warning readers that these causes are so powerful that leaders may falsely attribute their effects to the gods for the sake of political advantage.
Livy’s interrogation of the mythological record thus carves out far greater space for human agency in Roman history than the celebratory myths permit. By showing that human, rather than divine, intentions are principally responsible for the city’s founding, then it follows that human causes remain at least as influential throughout subsequent periods of Roman history. The promise of human agency thus encourages readers to take more responsibility for their own affairs, and to properly attribute the rise and decline of Rome to the work of men like themselves. For if nothing predetermines the course of history, then unexpected opportunities may arise again in the future for men to shape world affairs. Livy thus lays the groundwork for readers to understand that the study of moral exemplars from history remains a worthwhile endeavor. His injunction to “pay the closest attention to the following: how men lived, what their moral principles were, under what leaders and by what measures at home and abroad our empire was won and extended,” takes on a special significance in a world where the gods are peripheral and human agency is central (preface).
Livy, The Rise of Rome, trans. T.J. Luce (Oxford: Oxford University press, 2008).
Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Random House LLC, 1990).