Livy and the Study of History

Polybius is well known for his discourse on the checks and balances of Republican Rome, which served as a model for framers of the American Constitution. But the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius) also provides an enduring analysis, not just of the rise of a civilization, but also its decline. Flourishing a century later than the Greek writer, Livy witnessed Rome’s tragic decent into civil war and tyranny.

A friend recommended the first book of Livy’s famous history to our local reading group. It is titled “Rome Under the Kings” in the well-known Penguin edition translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. The opening passage alone is worth stuyding:

I am aware… that most readers will take less pleasure in my account of how Rome began and in her early history; they will wish to hurry on to more modern times…. My own feeling is different; I shall find antiquity a rewarding study, if only because, while I am absorbed in it, I shall be able to turn my eyes from the troubles which for so long have tormented the modern world….

He goes on to write:

The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.

Livy’s epitaph on Rome’s decline remains all too pertinent. Human nature, and the capacity for good and evil, does not alter with time or technology.

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 it, in love with death both individual and collective.

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