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Ab urbe condita (book)

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Ab urbe condita (book)

For the reckoning of time from the traditional founding of Rome (AUC), see Ab urbe condita.

Ab urbe condita libri — often shortened to Ab urbe condita — is a monumental history of ancient Rome in Latin begun sometime between 27 and 25 BC[1] by the historian Titus Livius, known in English as Livy. The work covers the time from the stories of Aeneas, the earliest legendary period from before the city's founding in c. 753 BC, to Livy's own times in the reign of the emperor Augustus. The Latin title can be literally translated as "Books since the city's founding".[2] Less literally it is referred to in English as History of Rome. The last year covered by Livy is 745 AUC, or 9 BC,[3] the death of Drusus. About 25% of the work survives.[4]



Ab urbe condita libri originally comprised 142 "books" (libri) which in modern terminology would be considered "chapters".[5] Thirty-five of these – Books 1–10 with the Preface and Books 21–45 – still exist in reasonably complete form.[3] Damage to a manuscript of the 5th century resulted in large gaps (lacunae) in Books 41 and 43–45 (small lacunae exist elsewhere); that is, the material is not covered in any source of Livy's text.[6]

A fragmentary palimpsest of the 91st book was discovered in the Vatican Library in 1772, containing about a thousand words, and several papyrus fragments of previously unknown material, much smaller, have been found in Egypt since 1900, most recently about 40 words from Book 11, unearthed in the 1980s.


Livy was abridged, in antiquity, to an epitome, which survives for Book 1, but was itself abridged into the so-called Periochae, which is simply a list of contents, but which survives. An epitome of Books 37–40 and 48–55 was also uncovered at Oxyrhynchus. So some idea of the topics Livy covered in the lost books exists, if often not what he said about them. The remaining books are preserved by a 4th-century summary entitled Periochae, except for book 136 and 137. However, these were not compiled from Livy's original text but from an abridged edition that is now lost. In Oxyrhynchus, a similar summary of books 37-40 and 48-55 was found on a roll of papyrus that is now in the British Museum. However the Oxyrhynchus Epitome is damaged and incomplete.


The first book starts with Aeneas landing in Italy and the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus and ends with Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus being elected as consuls in 502 BCE according to Livy's own chronology (509 BCE according to the Varronian chronology). There are a number of chronologies; these two dates represent an approximate range. Books 2–10 deal with the history of the Roman Republic to the Samnite Wars, while books 21–45 tell of the Second Punic War and end with the war against Perseus of Macedon.

Books 46–70 deal with the time up to the Social War in 91 BC. Book 89 includes the dictatorship of Sulla in 81 BC and book 103 contains a description of Gaius Julius Caesar's first consulship. Book 142 ends with the death of Nero Claudius Drusus in 9 BC. While the first ten books concern a period of over 600 years, once Livy started writing about the 1st century BCE, he devoted almost a whole book to each year.[7]


Livy wrote in a mixture of annual chronology and narrative—often having to interrupt a story to announce the elections of new consuls. Collins defines the "annalistic method" as "naming the public officers and recording the events of each succeeding year."[8] It is an expansion of the fasti, the official public chronicle kept by the magistrates, which was a primary source for Roman historians. Those who seem to have been more influenced by the method have been termed annalists.

The first and third decades of Livy's work are written so well that Livy has become a sine qua non of curricula in Golden Age Latin. Subsequently the quality of his writing began to decline. He contradicts himself and becomes repetitious and wordy. Of the 91st book Niebuhr says "repetitions are here so frequent in the small compass of four pages and the prolixity so great, that we should hardly believe it to belong to Livy...." Niebuhr accounts for the decline by supposing "the writer has grown old and become loquacious...," going so far as to conjecture that the later books were lost because copyists refused to copy such low-quality work.[9]

A digression in Book 9, Sections 17–19, suggests that the Romans would have beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived longer and had turned west to attack the Romans, making this digression the oldest known alternate history.[10]

Livy's publication

The first five books were published between 27 and 25 BCE. The first date mentioned is the year Augustus received that title: twice in the first five books Livy uses it.[11] For the second date, Livy lists the closings of the temple of Janus but omits the closing of 25 BCE (it had not happened yet).[12]

Livy continued to work on the History for much of the rest of his life, publishing new material by popular demand. This necessity explains why the work falls naturally into 12 packets, mainly groups of 10 books, or decades, sometimes of 5 books (pentads) and the rest without any packet order. The scheme of dividing it entirely into decades is a later innovation of copyists.[13]

The second pentade did not come out until 9 BCE or after, some 16 years after the first pentade. In Book IX Livy states that the Cimminian Forest was more impassible than the German had been recently, referring to the Hercynian Forest (Black Forest) first opened by Drusus and Ahenobarbus.[14] One can only presume that in the interval Livy's first pentade had been such a success that he had to yield to the demand for more.


There is no uniform system of classifying and naming manuscripts. Often the relationship of one MSS to another remains unknown or changes as perceptions of the handwriting change. Livy's release of chapters by packet diachronically encouraged copyists to copy by decade. Each decade has its own conventions, which do not necessarily respect the conventions of any other decade. A family of MSS descend through copying from the same MSS (typically lost). MSS vary widely; to produce an emendation or a printed edition was and is a major task. Usually variant readings are given in footnotes.

First decade

All of the manuscripts (except one) of the first ten books (first decade) of Ab Urbe Condita Libri, which were copied through the Middle Ages and were used in the first printed editions, are derived from a single recension commissioned by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul, 391 AD.[15] A recension is made by comparing extant manuscripts and producing a new version, an emendation, based on the text that seems best to the editor. The latter then "subscribed" to the new MSS by noting on it that he had emended it.

Symmachus, probably using the authority of his office, 391 CE, commissioned Tascius Victorianus to emend the first decade. Books I-IX bear the subscription Victorianus emendabam dominis Symmachis, "I Victorianus emended (this) by the authority of Symmachus." Books VI-VIII include another subscription preceding it, that of Symmachus' son-in-law, Nicomachus Flavianus, and Books III-V were also emended by Flavianus' son, Appius Nicomachus Dexter, who says he used his relative Clementianus' copy.[16] This recension and family of descendant MSS is called the Nicomachean after two of the subscribers. From it several MSS descend (incomplete list):[17][18]

Nicomachean Family of MSS
Location & Number Name Date
V Veronensis rescriptus 10th century
H Harleianus 10th century
E Einsiedlensis 10th century
F Paris 5724 Floriacensis 10th century
P Paris 5725 Parisiensis 9th/10th century
M Mediceus-Laurentianus 10th/11th century
U Upsaliensis 10th/11th century
R Vaticanus 3329 Romanus 11th century
O Bodleianus 20631 Oxoniensis 11th century
D Florentinus-Marcianus Dominicanus 12th century
A Agennensis
Petrarch's copy
12th-14th century

Epigraphists go on to identify several hands and lines of descent. A second family of the first decade consists of the Verona Palimpsest, reconstructed and published by Theodore Mommsen, 1868; hence the Veronensis MSS. It includes 60 leaves of Livy fragments covering Books III-VI. The handwriting style is dated to the 4th century, only a few centuries after Livy.[19]


The details of Livy's History of Rome vary from mythical or legendary stories at the beginning to detailed and authentic accounts of apparently real events toward the end. He himself noted the difficulty of finding information about events some 700 years or more removed from the author. Of his material on early Rome he said "The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian."[20]

Nevertheless, according to the tradition of writing history at the time, he felt obliged to relate what he read (or heard) without passing judgement as to its truth or untruth. One of the problems of modern scholarship is to ascertain where in the work the line is to be drawn between legendary and non-legendary events. The traditional modern view is that buildings, inscriptions, monuments and libraries prior to the sack of Rome in 387 BCE by the Gauls under Brennus were destroyed by that sack and made unavailable to Livy and his sources. His credible history therefore must begin with that date.[21] A layer of ash over the lowest pavement of the comitium believed to date from that time seemed to confirm a city-wide destruction.

A new view by Tim Cornell, however, deemphasizes the damage caused by the Gauls under Brennus. Among other reasons, he asserts that the Gauls' interest in movable plunder, rather than destruction, kept damage to a minimum.[22] The burnt layer under the comitium is now dated to the 6th century BC.[23] There apparently is no archaeological evidence of a widespread destruction of Rome by the Gauls. Cornell uses this information to affirm the historicity of Livy's 4th- and 5th-century-BCE events.

Livy's sources

For the first decade, Livy perused the works of a group of historians in or near his own times, who, rightly or wrongly, have been called "the annalists." Some twelve historians in this category are named by Livy in Book I as sources on the monarchy.[24] In order of time interval backward from Livy they are: Gaius Licinius Macer, Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius, Valerius Antias, Gnaius Gellius, Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus (consul 129 BC), Lucius Cassius Hemina, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Aulus Postumius Albinus (consul 151 BC), Gaius Acilius Glabrio, Marcus Porcius Cato, Lucius Cincius Alimentus, Quintus Fabius Pictor. Elsewhere he mentions Sempronius Asellio. Macer, the latest of these, died in 66 BCE. Fabius, the earliest, fought in the Gallic War of 225 BCE.

Livy's sources were by no means confined to the annalists. Other historians of his times mention documents still extant then dating as far back as the kingship: treaties between Servius Tullius and the Latins; Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and Gabii; three between Rome and Carthage; Cassius and the Latins, 493 BC, which was engraved in bronze. In addition the Pontifex Maximus kept the Annales Maximi (yearly events) on display in his house, the censors kept the Commentarii Censorum, the praetors kept their own records, the Commentarii Pontificum and Libri Augurales were available as well as all the laws on stone or brass; the fasti (list of magistrates) and the Libri Lintei, historical records kept in the temple of Juno Moneta.[25]

Nevertheless the accounts of Rome's early history are for the most part contradictory and therefore suspect (in this view). Seeley says, "It is when Livy's account is compared with the accounts of other writers that we become aware of the utter uncertainty which prevailed among the Romans themselves .... The traditional history, as a whole, must be rejected ...."[26] As Livy stated that he used what he found without passing judgement on his sources (which is not quite true, as he does on occasion pass judgement), attacks on the credibility of Livy typically begin with the annalists. Opinions vary. T.J. Cornell presumes that Livy relied on "unscrupulous annalists" who "did not hesitate to invent a series of face-saving victories."[27] Furthermore, "The annalists of the first century BC are thus seen principally as entertainers...." Cornell does not follow this view consistently, as he is willing to accept Livy as history for the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. A more positive view of the same limitations was stated by Howard:[28]
The annalists were not modern historians, and not one of them is absolutely free from the faults attributed to Antias. That any of them, even Antias, deliberately falsified history is extremely improbable, but they were nearly all strong partisans, and of two conflicting stories it was most natural for them to choose the one which was most flattering to the Romans, or even to their own political party, and, as the principle of historical writing even in the time of Quintilian was stated to be that history was closely akin to poetry and was written to tell a story, not to prove it, we may safely assume that all writers were prone to choose the account which was most interesting and which required the least work in verification.

For the third decade, Livy followed the account of the Greek historian, Polybius, as did the historical accounts of Marcus Tullius Cicero.[29] Polybius had access to Greek sources in the eastern Mediterranean, outside the local Roman traditions.

Machiavelli and Livy

Niccolò Machiavelli's work on republics, the Discourses on Livy, is presented as a commentary on the History of Rome.


The first complete rendering of Ab Urbe Condita into English was Philemon Holland's translation published in 1600. According to Considine, '[I]t was a work of great importance, presented in a grand folio volume of 1458 pages, and dedicated to the Queen'.[30]

The authoritative translation of The History of Early Rome, was made by B.O. Foster in 1919 for Harvard University Press. A 1960 edition, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, was printed by Penguin Books Ltd.[31]



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