The Histories (Livy)

Prof's Notes:

A quick trigger warning - this reading is violent and there is more than one overt reference to rape/abduction/assault. If you would prefer not to read this text, please read the Cincinnatus excerpt instead. Just be aware it may come up in class.

Livy wrote his History of Rome during the reign of Augustus (c.31 BCE-14 CE), the first official emperor of Rome. The work is not precisely “history”; Livy is often more interested in documenting the myths and legends of Rome than he is in writing history. He is particularly interested in the foundational myths (the cultural origin stories) of the Roman Republic - despite the fact that he’s living in the Roman Empire. [You may wish to review the Crash Course to get a handle on those terms.]

Suggested focus: As you read don’t worry too much about whether or not events actually happened. Read instead for the values, identity, and ethics these stories are intended to communicate.


Foundation Stories, History of Rome

by Livy (1st Century CE)
Book 1, Chapter 4: Romulus and Remus


But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven. [2] The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. [3] But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king's cruelty 1 ; the priestess was thrown into prison, the boys were ordered to be thrown into the river. [4] By a heaven-sent chance it happened that the Tiber was then overflowing its banks, and stretches of standing water prevented any approach to the main channel. Those who were carrying the children expected that this stagnant water would be sufficient to drown them, so under the impression that they were carrying out the king's orders they [5] exposed the boys at the nearest point of the overflow, where the Ficus Ruminalis (said to have been formerly called Romularis) now stands. The locality was then a wild solitude. [6] The tradition goes on to say that after the floating cradle in which the boys had been exposed had been left by the retreating water on dry land, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to them, gave them her teats to suck and was so gentle towards them that the king's flock-master found her licking the boys with her tongue. According to the story his name was Faustulus. [7] He took the children to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to bring up. Some writers think that Larentia, from her unchaste life, had got the nickname of ‘She-wolf’ amongst the shepherds, and that this was the origin of the marvellous story.



Prof's note: When the boys have grown, they go back to re-claim the city of Alba on behalf of their ancestor, and the rightful king, Numitor. See note about the king, Amulius, above for further context.

Book 1, Chapter 6-7: The Foundation of Rome

[3] After the government of Alba was thus transferred to Numitor, Romulus and Remus were seized with the desire of building a city in the locality where they had been exposed. There was the superfluous population of the Alban and Latin towns, to these were added the shepherds: it was natural to hope that with all these Alba would be small and Lavinium small in comparison with the city which was to be founded. [4] These pleasant anticipations were disturbed by the ancestral curse —ambition —which led to a deplorable quarrel over what was at first a trivial matter. As they were twins and no claim to precedence could be based on seniority, they decided to consult the tutelary deities of the place by means of augury 2 as to who was to give his name to the new city, and who was to rule it after it had been founded. Romulus accordingly selected the Palatine 3 as his station for observation, Remus the Aventine.

Remus is said to have been the first to receive an omen: six vultures appeared to him. The augury had just been announced to Romulus when double the number appeared to him. Each was saluted as king by his own party. [2] The one side based their claim on the priority of the appearance, the other on the number of the birds. Then followed an angry altercation; heated passions led to bloodshed; in the tumult Remus was killed. The more common report is that Remus contemptuously jumped over the newly raised walls and was forthwith killed by the enraged Romulus, who exclaimed, ‘So shall it be henceforth with every one who leaps over my walls.’ [3] Romulus thus became sole ruler, and the city was called after him, its founder.


Prof's note: In the intervening chapters, Romulus founds the city by making it a place of refuge for low-born members of other city-states. Livy writes, "A promiscuous crowd of freemen and slaves, eager for change, fled thither from the neighbouring states." With an increased population, Romulus appoints 100 senators to govern and sets out laws to govern the city. These senators become the ancestors of the Patrician class - but more on that later.

Book 1, Chapter 9-10: The Rape of the Sabines: 4



The Roman State had now become so strong that it was a match for any of its neighbours in war, but its greatness threatened to last for only one generation, since through the absence of women there was no hope of offspring, and there was no right of intermarriage with their neighbours. [2] Acting on the advice of the senate, Romulus sent envoys amongst the surrounding nations to ask for alliance and the right of intermarriage on behalf of his new community. [3] It was represented that cities, like everything else, sprung from the humblest beginnings, and those who were helped on by their own courage and the favour of heaven won for themselves great power and great renown. [4] As to the origin of Rome, it was well known that whilst it had received divine assistance, courage and self-reliance were not wanting. There should, therefore, be no reluctance for men to mingle their blood with their fellow-men.

[5] Nowhere did the envoys meet with a favourable reception. Whilst their proposals were treated with contumely [insulting language], there was at the same time a general feeling of alarm at the power so rapidly growing in their midst...The Roman youth could ill brook such insults, and matters began to look like an appeal to force.

To secure a favourable place and time for such an attempt, Romulus, disguising his resentment, made elaborate preparations for the celebration of games in honour of ‘Equestrian Neptune,’ which he called ‘the Consualia.’ [7] He ordered public notice of the spectacle to be given amongst the adjoining cities, and his people supported him in making the celebration as magnificent as their knowledge and resources allowed, so that expectations were raised to the highest pitch. [8] There was a great gathering; people were eager to see the new City, all their nearest neighbours-the people of Caenina, Antemnae, and Crustumerium-were there, and the whole Sabine population came, with their wives and families. [9] They were invited to accept hospitality at the different houses, and after examining the situation of the City, its walls and the large number of dwelling-houses it included, they were astonished at the rapidity with which the Roman State had grown.

[10] When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. [11] The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. [12] One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, ‘For Talassius.’ [13] Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites.2 Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious [14] perfidy [deceitfulness, untrustworthiness].

The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and —dearest of all to human nature-would be the mothers of [15] freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay to make up for the loss of parents and [16] country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion —a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman's nature.

The feelings of the abducted maidens were now pretty completely appeased, but not so those of their parents. [...]

  1. The king in question here is Amulius. His brother, Numitor, ought to have been the king because he was the eldest son. Amulius is a usurper, according to the story.
  2. Augury was an essential spiritual practice for the Romans. Like oracle bones in China, augury was a way to ask questions and gain knowledge of the future. The Wikipedia page offers a decent introduction.
  3. The Palatine would have been immediately recognizable to Roman listeners or readers. It was the highest of the famous seven hills of Rome and was considered sacred. It is, by the way, where we get the word “palace.”
  4. So here’s the thing - you’ll find lots of material noting that “rape” in the case of this story really just means “abduction.” The Latin raptus carries both meanings. I agree we should be attentive to the original language, but let’s not use it to cover up the terror inherent in this text.