Livy, The History of Rome (Excerpts)

Prof’s Notes:

The Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) wrote The History of Rome during the reign of Augustus (ca. 31 BCE-14 CE), the first official emperor of Rome. The History of Rome is comprised of ten lengthy volumes in which Livy attempted to write a complete history of Rome, from the city’s founding to the reign of Augustus.

Livy is a good historian. He provides multiple accounts of an event if the sources conflict, shows great attention to detail, and aimed to communicate “clear historical truth” (History of Rome, 1.1). He was critical of the morals and culture of his day and longed for what he perceived as a more virtuous past – but he isn’t always positive about past events either.

Livy knew his audience too. In the prologue, he writes:

I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. [5] I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years; so long, at least, as I am devoting all my thoughts to retracing those pristine records, free from all the anxiety which can disturb the historian of his own times even if it cannot warp him from the truth.

Livy, History of Rome, 1.1

I’ve given you some of the stories from the “earliest times” recorded in Livy’s text. In terms of genre, these stories are more myth than history – and Livy knows it. He’s recording Roman traditions about the founding of the city in order to highlight specific virtues or pitfalls in the past.

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.

As a final reminder: 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, feel free to contact me for an alternate reading. Just be aware that the content of this reading will come up in class.

Livy, The History of Rome (Excerpts)

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. 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. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king’s cruelty; the priestess was thrown into prison, the boys were ordered to be thrown into the river. 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 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. 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. 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 grow up, they go back to reclaim 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

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. 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 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 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. 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.’ 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: 

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. 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. 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. 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.

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.’ 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.’ Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. 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 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 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 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. […]

Prof’s Note:

In the chapters that follow, the Sabine parents return to wage war against the Romans. The Romans run out to meet them on the battlefield, but their Sabine wives run out in front of them. Pleading with their husbands on one side and their family members on the other, the women broker peace between the two cities.


  1. In Roman culture, a Vestal was a woman who dedicated her life to worshipping Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home. Vestals were the highest ranking female religious figures in Roman society and their vows of chastity were absolutely sacred. They could not marry or take lovers. For a Vestal to become pregnant would have been considered a blasphemous and the woman herself would likely have been punished or executed for breaking her vows.

  2. Note that Livy gives you two accounts of the Vestal’s motives here. He’s doing due diligence as a historian; if there are conflicting accounts, both should be told.

  3. 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.

  4. The Tiber River flows through the modern-day city of Rome. The Romans believed the river was inhabited by a powerful deity and the river itself had sacred powers.

  5. See for more info

  6. Here again, Livy is giving you two accounts. In this instance, and his comments on the Vestal above, it’s worth noting that he’s providing both a supernatural account and a mundane account. He’s willing to acknowledge that there might be something divine or supernatural in these stories, but accounts for events through reference to human actions too.

  7. The kingdom of Alba predates the founding of the city of Rome and would originally have been much more powerful. Albans spoke a different language than Romans too, marking them as culturally/linguistically different than the Latin towns, of which Rome is a part.

  8. Guardian/protector deities

  9. 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. Romans looked for signs from birds either by observing different types of birds and their patterns of flight or by sacrificing a bird, dissecting it, and looking for specific patterns in the entrails.

  10. 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.”

  11. Another, but smaller, of Rome’s seven hills.

  12. “Freemen” or “freewomen” in Rome refers to people who were formerly slaves. These men/women purchased or were granted their freedom (manumitted) by the men who owned them.

  13. Remember – the city is founded by slaves and freemen. All male.

  14. This just refers to intermarriage/procreation. Not to actually mixing blood.

  15. A festival, ostensibly founded by Romulus, dedicated to Consus – the god of secret deliberations. See UChicago’s website for more info.

  16. The aristocracy, more or less.

  17. Everyone else. But we’ll talk about the complications of this in class.

  18. Livy is trying to explain the origins of a marriage custom practiced during his own period here. During a Roman wedding, guests would shout or sing Talassio! Historians are still unsure of the meaning or purpose of this – and it appears Livy himself wasn’t entirely sure.

  19. Here’s the deal. You don’t have to agree with this passage in the least. You just need to try to understand it. The fact that Romulus appeals to affection and the Romans themselves express “endearments” to the Sabine women would have been important to the Romans. It suggests that Roman readers valued affection in marital relationships and found affection persuasive.

  20. Here too, this reveals something about the Roman mindset. Women, they believed, were naturally persuaded by affection/expressions of passion.