148. (Livy)

Reading Livy in English translation is a compromised experience, no doubt, but the exhaustion from even the first few books of the massive history (how many Classicists have been secretly thankful that they do not have to read any more of it, I wonder) is telling. It is a matter of both willing and unwilling exertions of energy that the historian inspires and demands. In Livy, everything is measured by Rome; there is no other standard; even personal ambition, of the Tarquins for instance, is only satisfied if it is realized in that city; it is magnet to which all must return, towards which all are drawn, enemies and heroes alike. This might be the real sense in which, for the Romans at least, all roads lead to that city; there is no other destiny that Livy can imagine, or that Livy’s heroes can imagine.

The first volumes of Livy’s history of Rome are a history of individuals who are swept up by a code of values bound together and animated by patriotism alone; Livy is not exempt from the patriotism, and one of the mysteries of the work is how it can escape the sentimentality that it is easy to imagine must have impelled generations of imperial readers and admirers to feel as they contemplated their own patriotic lives in its light.

As patriotic as the history is, it is strangely (to a novice reader, like me) silent—as Virgil, for instance, is not—on what patriotism means; in Livy, patriotism is what happens to and in Rome as it survives and flourishes. Livy, in other words, is low on ideals. But one matters, and becomes tied, inexorably, to “patriotism” over the course of the narrative: “liberty.”

It’s impossible to consider Livy, patriotism, and liberty without turning to his most brilliant reader: Niccolo Machiavelli, who sees that Livy, in all of his writing about virtue, comes as near as anyone to setting political action and decision apart, an arena for judgments and arguments that cannot be subsumed beneath the ethical or the religious. Machiavelli teases out the implications of “liberty” in his Discourses on Livy, though he draws on a great deal of history that is not in Livy, as well as events of the sixteenth century, in which he wrote: the crucial chapter is the sixth, “On whether a Form of Government could have been set up in Rome that could have removed the Enmity between the Populace and the Senate”: his answer is “no.” His key insight, here and elsewhere, is that politics is always inter-national or inter-city as well as intra-national or intra-city. For any city to be free, it has to remain able to withstand other cities. It is, Machiavelli implies repeatedly, natural for cities to expand outwards, to confront other cities in conflict; in the course of time they will either subject, be subjected, or remain threatened by subjection. Machiavelli suggests that the “greatness” of a city depends on its expansion; expansion is not popular unless the populace are engaged in the military; once this happens, they need also to be accommodated within its political structure. If a city does not expand, they can happily be ruled by a small elite, as in the cases of Venice and Sparta. But the happiness of those city depends also on the fortunate geography and circumstances which make them difficult for others to conquer. Even in respecting the stability of Sparta and Venice, Machiavelli suggests that stability is not a likely ambition of any state; as often in Machiavelli, the suggestion is oblique and coyly positioned in the text. At the end of the fifth chapter, discussing an anecdote from Livy’s ninth book, he draws a conclusion: “In most cases the discord is caused by those who possess, because the fear of losing generates in them the same desires as those who wish to acquire. Men do not feel their possessions secure if they do not also acquire the possessions of others.” So, we might think, it is for states.

The principle leads also to consider how Machiavelli understands “liberty” within Livy’s Rome: it depends on possession and the capacity to possess more, even if not everything. It depends, in short, on power and on being able to exercise power in determining how power and property is distributed. Reading Livy and then Machiavelli on Livy, it is difficult to accept that “liberty” and the potential “vivere libero” that he holds dear are quite as pure as “active participation in civic government”—as if that were an end in itself; it is an end in so far as it depends on a control over the material conditions of life. “Liberty” in Livy, the core of Rome, takes in a whole bundle of what we might think of as rights, responsibilities, and deserts, but they amount to widespread institutionalized pathways by which the power of a great many people can check the acquisitive power of a few, and by which the power of a few can check the destructive power of many.

Here is Livy in one of the relatively rare moments of sustained political analysis and historical reflection:


One has but to think of what the populace was like in those early days—a rabble of vagrants, mostly runaways and refugees—and to ask what would have happened if they had suddenly found themselves protected from all authority by inviolable sanctuary, and enjoying complete freedom of action, if not full political rights. In such circumstances, unrestrained by the power of the throne, they would, no doubt, have set sail on the storm sea of democratic politics, swayed by the gusts of popular eloquence and quarrelling for power with the governing class of a city which did not even belong to them, before any real sense of community had had time to grow. That sense—the only true patriotism—comes slowly and springs from the heart: it is founded upon respect for the family and love of the soil. Premature “liberty” of this kind would have been a disaster: would should have been torn to pieces by petty squabbles before we had ever reached political maturity, which, as things were, was made possible the long quiet years under monarchical government; for it was that governments which, as it were, nursed our strength and enabled us ultimately to produce sound fruit from liberty, as only a politically adult nation can.


The brief characterization of “true patriotism” is as far as Livy goes on the matter in the first ten books; it is, as discussions of patriotism tend to be, colored by sentimentality (“respect for the family and love of the soil”), but its placement is revealing: there can be no liberty without patriotism; the greatness of Rome depends upon a liberty that depends upon a belief in the greatness of Rome. But also: liberty depends on the greatness of Rome that depends on liberty. “Patriotism” is the sound fruit from liberty, but also liberty’s sustaining virtue.

Writing in the United States in 2017, it is hard not to feel repelled by that sort of formulation; it is one that has been twisted and hollowed out, as have the words in it. Livy perhaps felt the same writing in his Rome, under Augustus. A challenge he faces as an author and Roman, then, is how to resuscitate these ideals and ideas, or how to re-present and refresh them—and to do so without drawing the Emperor’s ire. That he succeeds is established by Machiavelli’s reception of the history some 1500 years after it was written; Machiavelli is the reader that Livy needed; he could not do more than what he does as a historian, and whether or not Machiavelli gets Livy right, he seems to be doing the sort of thing that Livy demands: theorizing in the field Livy opens. More than Thucydides or Herodotus, Livy feels incomplete; he leaves more to be said (and perhaps that is why painters, dramatists, and others have stepped up to the task alongside Machiavelli).

What he does say is both simple enough to evade Augustan censure and effective enough to provide others with what they need to say more. Livy is absolutely certain, in the histories (and here he is, by all accounts, genuine; his patriotism was real and deep), that Rome is a reality with an essence, whatever its expansions of citizenship, borders, and laws; and that the essence of Rome is so unshakeable, authoritative, and profound a foundation for life and action that debates over the conception of what it is are secondary to the need for its survival.  That essence, as we’ve seen, is “liberty.”

Rather than offer debates over conceptions of liberty—debates over the conception of what Rome is—he offers instances of people acting in accord, or not, with it. Because Livy takes as implicit the real nature of Rome, he can hold up some as heroes and denounce others as villains without having to grant that their visions of patriotism might have differed. He can be stringently patriotic on the grounds that patriotism is a matter of actions that serve the true idea of Rome, so obvious or so stable as to require no debate. Kingship, dictatorship: these are obvious threats to Rome. To say why, to engage in debates over their nature, and over competing conceptions of Roman liberty (in the early books at least), would be to overtly criticize the new Emperor; as it is, the path to criticism is cleared but not pursued. There is even a possible defense of Augustus in the histories, since the ideal is always Rome itself and any claim to be preserving that takes priority over all else in Livy’s account.

At the same time, starting with an unshakeable, usually implicit notion of “liberty,” Livy reveals its depth and contours in the anecdotes he tells. Here his novelistic flair for scene and gesture comes to the fore—the raw material for painters and poets (though Shakespeare is most indebted to Plutarch for his retelling of the following scene):


In these circumstances the women of Rome flocked to the house of Coriolanus’s mother, Veturia, and of his wife, Volumnia. Whatever their motive—whether it was fear of impending disaster or a piece of state policy—they succeeded in persuading the aged Veturia and Volumnia, accompanied by Marcius’ two little sons, to go into the enemy’s lines and make their plea for peace. Men, it seemed, could not defend the city with their swords; women might better succeed with tears and entreaties. The first effect upon Coriolanus when he was told that a number of women had arrived was a hardening of his resolution; and indeed it is not to be expect that women’s tears would move a man who had remained inflexible before ambassadors and priests—before the majesty of a national deputation and the awful influence of religion upon eyes and heart.

One of his friends, however, recognized Veturia, marked by her look of deep distress, as she stood between Volumnia and the two boys. “Unless my eyes deceive me,” he said, “your mother is here, with your wife and children.” Coriolanus was profoundly moved; almost beside himself, he started from his seat and, running to his mother, would have embraced her had he not been checked by her sudden turn to anger. “I would know,” she said, “before I accept your kiss, whether I have come to an enemy or to a son, whether I am here as your mother or as a prisoner of war. Have my long life and unhappy old age brought me to this, that I should see you first an exile, then the enemy of your country? Had you the heart to ravage the earth which bore and bred you? When you set foot upon it, did not your anger fall away, however fierce your hatred and lust for revenge? When Rome was before your eyes, did not the thought come to you, “Within those walls is my home, with the gods that watch over it—and my mother and my wife and my children”? Ah, had I never borne a child, Rome would not now be menaced; if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country! But now there is nothing left for me to endure, nothing which can bring to me more pain, to you a deeper dishonor, than this, I am indeed an unhappy woman—but it will not be for long; think of these others who, if you cannot relent, must hope for nothing but an untimely death or life-long slavery.”

His wife and children flung their arms round him; the other women all burst into tears of anguish for themselves and their country, until at last Coriolanus could bear no more. He kissed his wife and the two boys, sent them home, and withdrew his army.


We are perhaps to recall that Coriolanus’ hatred of the commoners of Rome arose from a shortage of grain; and here it is his family, his mother and wife and sons, who dissuade him from attack. The scene, then, brings together those two elements in Livy’s earlier sketch of patriotism: family and soil. More profoundly, the scene gives depth of meaning to Livy’s earlier description by offer an exemplary instance of how patriotism can serve as a means for preserving liberty: not to rally troops, not to con the masses, and not to sentimentally blur the mind. Instead, patriotism is a path of sentiment through which actions serving and preserving liberty might be influenced. Veturia appeals specifically to the soil on which he was raised, and the family he has left behind. But in the context of the histories, her appeal does not sound blinkered, narrow, or exclusionary; we have seen already how Rome has expanded itself to take new land, how families who were not Roman have been incorporated in the city’s power; she does not appeal to a purist or racist notion of Rome. The soil where Coriolanus was raised and the family to which he belongs are to be valued because they are a part of Rome, “a free country”—free both in regard to its independence among competing Italian tribes, and free within its walls. She, after all, claims she would rather have had no family at all than to have raised a son who would sacrifice walls; and the “soil” she speaks is whatever soil lies within the walls, where the politics of Rome are established. Already, then, Veturia’s words suggest a relationship between family, soil, and liberty. Livy, however, suggests more through the broader telling. Coriolanus’ actions, his reckless betrayal of Rome and service to an enemy, establish a distance between liberty and the exertion of the will. Shakespeare has Coriolanus utter, as he leaves Rome, the astonishing: “There is world enough elsewhere.” But liberty, for Livy, cannot be found “elsewhere” and cannot be expressed in turning away from politics, as Coriolanus would. His story is a tragic betrayal of Rome because, as with so many tragic betrayals of Rome, it represents a malignant outgrowth of one of the forces that establishes and perpetuates Roman liberty.  It is not cautionary or even illustrative of a moral; it is illustrative, as much as the positive examples, of what Rome, and the liberty of Rome, essentially are. What is more, it is illustrative of what exercising liberty–in the person of Veturia–and in the person of Coriolanus–is and is not; it is an illustration of correct and incorrect political reasoning on the level of the individual.


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