Roman historians looked upon history as a hybrid child of rhetoric and philosophy: if we may believe them, they wrote to illustrate ethical precepts with eloquent narrative- to adorn a moral with a tale. Livy was trained as an orator; finding oratory censured and dangerous, “he took to history,” says Taine, “so that he could still be an orator.” He began with a stern preface, denouncing the immorality, luxury, and effeminacy of the age; he buried himself in the past, he tells us, to forget the evils of his time, “when we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.” He would set forth, through history, the virtues that had made Rome great- the unity and holiness of family life, the pietas of children, the sacred relation of men with the gods at every step, the sanctity of the solemnly pledged word, the stoic self-control and gravitas. He would make that stoic Rome so noble that its conquest of the Mediterranean would appear as a moral imperative, a divine order and law cast over the chaos of the East and the barbarism of the West. Polybius had ascribed Rome’s triumph to its form of government; Livy would make it a corollary of the Roman character. The chief faults of his work derive from this moral intent. He gives many signs of being privately a rationalist; but his respect for religion is so great that he accepts almost any superstition, and litters his pages with omens, portents, and oracles, until we feel that here too, as in Virgil, the real actors are the gods. He expresses his doubts concerning the myths of early Rome; he gives the less credible ones with a smile; but as he goes on he ceases to distinguish legend from history, follows his predecessors with scant discrimination, and accepts at their face value the laudatory romances that earlier historians had composed to ennoble their ancestry. He rarely consults original sources or monuments, and never bothers to visit the scene of an action. Sometimes he paraphrases Polybius for pages. He adopts the old priestly method of annals, narrating events by consulates; consequently there is in him, aside from his moral theme, no tracing of causes, but only a succession of brilliant episodes. He makes no distinction between the rude patres of the early Republic and the aristocracy of his day, nor between the virile plebs that had created Roman democracy and the venal mob that had destroyed it. His prejudices are always patrician.

The patriotic pride that makes Rome forever right in Livy was the secret of his greatness. It gave him an enduring happiness in his long toil; seldom has any writer executed so vast a plan so faithfully. It gave his readers, and still gives us, a sense of Rome’s grandeur and destiny. This imperial consciousness contributed to the energy of Livy’s style, the vigor of his characterizations, the brilliance and power of his descriptions, the majestic march of his prose. The invented speeches in which his history abounds are masterpieces of oratory, and became models for the schools. The charm of good manners pervades the work: Livy never shouts, never severely condemns; his sympathy is broader than his scholarship and deeper than his thought. It fails him forgivably when he comes to Hannibal; but he atones with a sweep and splendor of narrative that reaches its zenith in describing the Second Punic War.