Hi and welcome back! Today, we’ll meet one of the premier historians of the ancient age, Titus Livius, more popularly known as Livy. He lived and died right around the time of Jesus’ early lifetime, and he gave us a huge series of books about Roman history. Today, we’ll see what Livy wrote — or rather, didn’t — about the wild-eyed rock star apocalypse-huckster supposedly stirring things up in Jerusalem.
(In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting ancient figures that were contemporaneous with Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous,” not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of evidence that their Savior actually existed. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)
Everyone, Meet Livy.
Titus Livius, more popularly called Livy, lived right around the end of the 1st century BCE and into the new 1st century CE. His birth is reckoned between 64/59 BCE, with his death reckoned as being in 12/17 CE.
So, he wouldn’t have been alive for Jesus’ supposed ministry years, nor would he have known anything of Jesus’ supposed trial and death. However, he might have known about the miraculous events described in the Gospels — if they’d actually happened.
Livy was a highly-placed Roman historian. He rubbed shoulders with the members of the Imperial family at the time. He came from a town in northern Italy called Patavium (now Padua), which was known as a conservative sorta place. Indeed, this quiet fellow absorbed those values in full.
Luckily, Rome enjoyed a period of relative peace right then. Livy’s youth was probably tumultuous, since Rome was going through many civil wars around that time. But things had calmed down a bit on the home front by the 30s BCE. All of this meant Livy could focus completely on history.
And that is exactly what he did. He never held any political office, and it’s clear he never served in the military. But he did write history — a lot of history.
Livy Writes a Massive History.
We know Livy wrote a few other things besides the history I’m about to describe, but I could not find hide nor hair of them. What we have instead of all that other stuff, whatever it might have been, is a massive history of the Roman empire.
Livy began writing this history, formally called Ab Urbe Condita, or “From the Founding of the City,” in his middle years. It took him until the end of his life to finish it. It comprised 142 books. Livy starts off with the founding myths of Rome in the ancient past and ends with a military campaign that took place in 9 BCE.
And yes, that does present us with an interesting problem. But we’ve got an even bigger one than that.
The series was enormously popular from the very get-go. Not only did rich people order copies of it to be made, but other writers quoted bits of it in their own work. So we’ve got a good idea of what each book contained, and have complete sets of many books.
We find fragments of Livy’s work every so often. If you have a JSTOR account, you can read about one such fragment found in 1986 at a monastery. (It turned out to be bits of largely-lost Book 11.) In addition, we have quotes from various now-lost books that tell us a bit of what they contained. However, we haven’t ever found enough meat from those books to put together anything coherent.
I’m sure by now you can see the difficulty we’re in.
What Did Livy Believe?
It seems very clear to me that Livy did not go in for that fancy-shmancy monotheistic transcendent-divinity god that we’ll be seeing soon in Ancient Near Eastern mystic sources.
Livy begins his massive history with a prayer to “the gods and goddesses” to grant him success in telling an accurate story to his readers.Then, he launches into a description of the Fall of Troy and the Trojan War. In Part 4, we get a retelling of the mythic founding of Rome: the she-wolf suckling the abandoned babies Romulus and Remus, them growing up and starting to get ambitious about the surrounding land.
However, in that same retelling Livy tells us something interesting: those babies were the product of the rape of a vestal virgin priestess, Rhea. She accused the god Mars of the rape. Livy is clearly not convinced, however. He wrote:
The vestal Rhea, being deflowered by force, when she had brought forth twins, declares Mars to be the father of her illegitimate offspring, either because she believed it to be so, or because a god was a more creditable author of her offence.
If her claim was a desperate attempt to save her own life and that of her two babies, though, it failed:
But neither gods nor men protect her or her children from the king’s cruelty: the priestess is bound and thrown into prison; the children he commands to be thrown into the current of the river.
Thus, I’m guessing Livy was a good pagan guy who was happy to repeat all the mythic stuff pagans officially believed. But he didn’t completely buy into every single supernatural claim he heard.
In a lot of ways, Livy sounds pretty sensible.
What Was Livy Like?
In addition, I can see in Book 1 Part 1 that he was also quite conservative in outlook, as mentioned. He wrote:
But either a fond partiality for the task I have undertaken deceives me, or there never was any state either greater, or more moral, or richer in good examples, nor one into which luxury and avarice made their entrance so late, and where poverty and frugality were so much and so long honoured; so that the less wealth there was, the less desire was there. Of late, riches have introduced avarice, and excessive pleasures a longing for them, amidst luxury and a passion for ruining ourselves and destroying every thing else.
I’ve seen similar complaints all through history and even in the modern day: that when people gain access to wealth and comforts, their morality goes right out the door. Conservative Christians, of course, have been saying that for many years. But it’s not a new complaint by any means.
La Wiki tells us that Livy liked to recite his work to small audiences, but nobody recalled him ever doing the more bombastic stuff like declamations. Declamations sound like fundagelical preaching — it was public speaking, but with drama and gestures to get the speaker’s point across. Sometimes declamations looked like “open letter” blog posts, with the speaker advising absent (possibly dead) people about what they should do.
I can very easily believe that Livy would have found such displays unseemly.
Livy as a 1st Century Author.
I found Livy through various sites that list off 1st-century authors. Here’s one such site. When I decided to do this series, I decided to start with the earliest names and work toward the later ones. Livy was the first guy I saw listed anywhere, so I went with him.
And his writing is interesting, to say the least. He covers Roman history in absolutely exhaustive detail. I’m really wishing we had some of these lost books, because they offer tantalizing looks at how Rome treated its provinces. I can see that some of those missing books were supposed to describe various censuses of Gaul, for instance.
That fact makes me wonder:
Did the creator of the Birth of Jesus myth remember the indignity of submitting to a census for the hated Roman overlords? Did that memory frost his cookies even years later? I mean, Judas of Galilee led a rebellion against Rome over that exact census. The story in the Gospel artificially amped up the existing indignity level of censuses, but it sounds like Jews were plenty upset about this practice already.
As it stands, though, even if we had the last few books of Livy’s work we would still be SOL, because the last one (which is lost, remember) ends with the events of 9 BCE. That’s years before Jesus was supposedly born. The brief summaries of those last books don’t indicate that they’d have dealt much with Jerusalem anyway. It sounds like Livy was focused way more on the stuff happening in Gaul and Germania.
The actual books of Livy that we have describe events leading up to the 160s BCE. The latest quoted bits of his work we have are from Book 120 (43 BCE). That’s as far as it goes.
Grading Livy as a 1st Century Source.
Yikes, what can we say? Livy talks about so much in his histories. Obviously, he never talks about Christianity in any of his books. He very briefly mentions Judaism somewhere, apparently, chiefly writing about Jews’ unwillingness to create any images of their singleton god or even to say which deity he was. But of Christianity, we can learn nothing.
I’d give him high marks for Roman history generally, up to about 160 BCE. But we’re not talking about Roman history generally. For our actual purposes, he can tell us little.
Livy might have heard about the Star of Bethlehem if it really happened, since three foreign mystics supposedly knew of it. If the serious persecution of Jews by Herod had really happened, he might have heard of that as well.
Either way, by the time Jesus would have been active Livy had apparently stopped writing. He spent the last remaining years of his life relaxing in his hometown, Patavium.
I must therefore give him an F.
Livy does not belong anywhere on our list of 1st century authors who could have written about Jesus but strangely did not. I’m disappointed about it, yes, but I’d rather know than include him on the list in error.
NEXT UP: An explosive new survey from PRRI reveals evangelicals trailing far behind mainline Christians for the first time in just ever. We’ll check it out next time. See you then!
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Last thoughts: We know that Eusebius, a 3rd/4th-century bishop, wrote about Livy. But Eusebius was very far from an honest historian relaying unbiased, factual information, so I didn’t include him in the post. I’m just saying here that it just amazes me to see how often this early liar-for-Jesus shows up in our travels through Christianity’s history. Seriously, he’s the Willow Creek/Bill Hybels of the ancient world. We cannot get away from him.