Victor Nuovo, Machiavelli: Living in dark times with Livy

Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.
The title of Machiavelli’s book, “Discourses on Livy,” requires an explanation. Livy (Titus Livius; 59 BCE–17 CE) was a Roman historian, a contemporary of Caesar Augustus, who wrote a history of Rome from its founding until his own day (De urbi condita libri — “Books from the founding of the city”). 
He witnessed the decline of the Roman republic and the establishment of the Roman imperial principate by Caesar Augustus, a passing that he describes as “the dark dawning of our modern day, when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.” His work is an elegy, perhaps a cri de coeur for a passing excellence.
“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 and noble deeds; none has been free for so many generations from the vices or avarice and luxury; nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such esteem. Indeed, poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment. Of late years, wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.”
Readers of this essay may wonder, “Why bother about Rome and Roman historians?” I would respond first by calling attention to the remarkable durability of ancient Rome, which was made possible by its laws and political institutions. The city was founded in the middle of the 8th century BCE, and for 250 years it was ruled by a succession of kings. 
In 509 BCE, a revolution occurred and the monarchy was succeeded by a republic that continued for nearly 500 years. During this period Rome established an empire that, according to the historian Polybius (200–118 BCE), ranged over almost “the whole of the inhabited world” — an overstatement, to be sure, but the vastness of the empire is nonetheless remarkable, and even after the end of republican rule, the laws and institutions founded during the republic enabled the empire to last for almost another 500 years notwithstanding its many dysfunctions. There are lessons to be learned here, and Livy is a good teacher.
Since the decline of Rome, empires have come and gone. 
The British Empire, which some of us still remember and to which we once belonged, could claim a vaster dominion — an “empire on which the sun never set,” although the Spanish beat them to it, but it lasted a mere three and a half centuries, if that long. 
The American Republic, our so-called “Empire of Liberty,” is barely two and a half centuries old and now seems to be in trouble. The same abuses that Livy supposed forecast the republic’s downfall prevail today: excessive greed, selfishness, vain ambition, political dysfunction, rival factions, and the abuse of executive power. We too are living in dark times, which, of course, is not to suppose that our past is full of light and innocence.
Times like these should make us reflective and turn our attention to history, if for no other reason than to find consolation where all hopes fail. We learn from Livy how many of our basic institutions have Roman precedents, and at the very least, like Livy, we may take pride in them because of their excellence. The greatest of these institutions is the rule of an impartial law as a guarantee of liberty. 
The opening sentence of his second book epitomizes this point of view: “My task from now on will be to trace the history of a free nation, governed by annually elected officers of state and subject not to the caprice of individual men, but to the overriding authority of law.”
Livy explains the founding of the remarkably long-lasting republic. In the new Roman constitution, the monarchy was replaced by two chief executives or Consuls, who were elected annually from the Senate; they also served as commanders in chief of the Roman armies. Upon their election, they drew lots to decide which of them should carry the emblem of head of state, but in all other respects they had equal if not rival power. (Perhaps the framers of our constitution should have considered a dual presidency?) 
The Senate continued as an aristocratic body; but the people were now also empowered by law and they had their own representatives, the Tribunes of the People, elected from their own ranks. This body had authority to veto any legislation that they believed violated the rights and interests of the people. 
The Tribunes also were authorized to summon a people’s assembly, which had legislative power. Thus was created, if not the first, certainly the most accomplished political system of checks and balances in the ancient world. Conflict and rivalry did not end, but their excesses were regulated and channeled by law. Livy’s history describes how all this came to be, and the passion and heartache that accompanied it.
The hero of the founding of the Roman Republic was Lucius Junius Brutus (not to be confused with Marcus Junius Brutus, the assassin of Caesar, who was also a heroic defender of the republic). This “first Brutus” led the revolt that overthrew the last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and ended the monarchy. Brutus had two sons. Young and impressionable, they were persuaded to join a conspiracy to restore the monarchy. They were apprehended, and because their father had been elected consul in the new government, it became his duty to condemn them and witness their execution. “Throughout the pitiful scene [their public execution] all eyes were on the father’s face, where a father’s anguish was plain to see.” 
Postscript: Livy’s “History” contained 142 books, of which only 35 have survived. These have been translated and are available in English in paperback editions, published by Penguin and Oxford World Classics. Consult your local bookseller. Also worth reading is Edward Gibbon’s classic, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and for a short readable history of Rome, Mary Beard’s “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” (SPQR, is an acronym signifying the official name of the Roman state: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus — The Senate and People of Rome). 
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