Comparisons of the Histories of Livy and Tacitus:
A Glimpse into the Decline of the Roman Empire?
In examining the histories presented by Livy and Tacitus, it is crucial to take into account the agendas of the respective authors. While both set out to portray as accurate of a historical representation as possible, it is evident that both renowned historians and rhetoricians intended to deliver several significant messages regarding their thoughts on Rome. Both authors do, indeed, acknowledge the greatness of Rome and champion the core of Roman values; however, Livy and Tacitus tactfully elaborate on different troubles that face the Roman Empire. The histories put forth by these great men aim to present the past as an aid to promote the betterment Rome as a Republic and to prevent the fall of the Roman Empire.
Although Livy and Tacitus differ in several ways in their perceptions of Rome, they do share several common thoughts on core Roman values and the superiority of their motherland. Both historians avidly support the values of patriotism, piety, duty, self sacrifice, responsibility, and discipline, which are all at the heart of the Roman identity. In his preface, Livy says, "I hope my passion for Rome's past has not impaired my judgment; for I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens or noble deeds." Even though Livy critiques Roman society in various ways, he does not deny that Rome is supreme in his eyes. Tacitus also indicates his support for the "Roman Way" by presenting elements that represent basic Roman principles in a positive light. These elements include Tacitus' description of his father-in-law, Agricula, who serves as an archetypical patriot with an extreme sense of duty to ones country. Similarly, Tacitus also portrays the Germans as "Noble Savages" because of their strong allegiance and loyalty. Both Tacitus and Livy maintain that sticking to these core Roman values is absolutely vital in the quest to preserve Rome as the prestigious Republic and Empire that they both had come to love.
Both the works of Tacitus and Livy are clearly meant to critique Roman society in some way, but the authors of each respective work have different criticisms of the Rome in which they live. Livy, in taking on the task of presenting the early history of Rome, also displays what he views as a widespread moral decline within the Republic. Livy does unashamedly praise his country's virtues, but he also strongly urges against its excesses, in order to keep it great. He claims that decadence and a lack of regard for a disciplined moral code had led to "the dark dawning of our modern day, when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them." According to Livy, Rome had conquered the world but had lost its soul in the process because of the frivolity of the people of Rome. Throughout his story, he often gives examples of how courage and piety are rewarded and how incorrect behavior is punished. For example, Lucius Tarquin, who had bribed and connived his way to the throne, was ultimately exiled from Rome after Brutus had helped oust his family from royalty and the country in response to his wife being raped by Tarquin's son, Sextus. This is but one of many examples of punishment of immoral behaviors in Livy's history.
Livy also tells the stories of several "moral exemplars" in hopes of presenting examples of well-meaning Romans and restoring many of the old Roman qualities that he felt had been lost. Perhaps the most significant instance of morally exemplary behavior comes from the aforementioned story in which Lucretia, Brutus' wife, had been raped by Sextus Tarquinius. Lucretia achieves martyrdom by committing suicide after this dreadful event, a noble and entirely moral act in the eyes of Livy. This self sacrificing and responsible woman proclaims that she will not be a "precedent for unchaste women to...
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