The Top Five Things I Read in Livy

Livy wrote the history of Rome ab urbe condita, that is, from its legendary foundation in 753 BC, down to his own time.  When he died in AD 17, he had completed 142 long chapters, or books, of which about a quarter survive.  For the last month I’ve been working on the first ten.  Now I’m toying with Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.

Instead of summarizing four hundred some years of Roman history, here are five cool things from Livy:

5) The Romans were surprisingly superstitious.  I’d known this in a general way, but I had not expected religion to play such a role in political life.  There were frequent instances of consuls, other magistrates, and even dictators resigning from office based on some sort of religious flaw in their election.  At least twice Livy describes a dictator, the most powerful possible officer of state, being chosen simply for the ritual of hammering in a certain nail during a plague.  It wasn’t that the Romans lacked priests.  In fact, the priestly offices were among the last to be opened to the lower class, long after plebeians had been elected consuls and dictators.

Towards the end of the Samnite wars, around 290 BC, Livy describes what happened when the auspices did not turn out favorably before an important battle.  At first the augurs lied, and told the dictator that the birds had behaved appropriately.  When the dictator was told the true story, he went ahead with the battle, saying that the spirit of the ritual had been fulfilled.  Machiavelli says this shows that Roman religion was merely a show to keep the people in line, and the leaders knew better.  The degree to which the Romans mixed church and state is still striking.

(To be continued…)