Optimism in Livy and Ovid

The work of the Roman historian Livy in his  History of Rome and the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses had a dim view of the current state of affairs in in Rome and the world, but did offer some hope. Both of them showed that mankind was getting worse and worse, but offered advice for improving the future.

Livy, the late first century BC to early first century AD historian, wrote a book called the History of Rome in the downfall of the republic. This book was more of a poem than a historically accurate scholarly work. In it, Livy makes it clear that the reason which Rome prospered in the beginning was that the people had little wealth. He believed that wealth lead to moral degeneracy and corruption, and prosperity is due to lack of wealth. He implied that the reason Rome was in such a bad state (in the time Livy was writing) was because of too much wealth among its citizens. The nature of Livy’s History of Rome was intended to give hope to its readers. The stories, which were not necessarily historically accurate, were meant to inspire confidence in the city of Rome.

The poet Ovid wrote a series of 15 books, containing 250 stories, called the Metamorphoses, which centered around transformation. He began with the creation, and particularly the creation of mankind. The first age of mankind was called the golden age, in which there was no scarcity, no legal system (because nobody did anything wrong), in short, everything in this age was perfect. Next came the silver age, which was not as good as the golden age, but still good. In this age, agriculture and animal husbandry were developed,  implying scarcity. Then came the bronze age, which had war and violence, but no crime. After that, the iron age, which was the origin of greed, strife, crime and evil. This story of creation is similar to Hesiod’s story in Works and Days, but emphasizes the evil and greed of mankind more. There is obviously an implication of man’s moral degeneracy over time, but his next story offers hope.

In Ovid’s next story, Jupiter (or Zeus, for the Greeks) visited the house of a man named Lycaon, who tried to deceive Zeus by serving him human flesh. Jupiter was so angered by this act that he changed Lycaon into a wolf, and destroyed mankind with a deluge. He found, However, that a man and his wife had survived the flood. These last members of the human race were found by Jupiter to be righteous. They had lost all hope, so they visited the temple of the god Themis, and asked her council. They were given hope when she told them cryptically how to restart the human race, which they eventually did. So even though mankind was almost completely destroyed, there was still hope.

Even though Ovid and Livy may have portrayed the current state of mankind as bad, they offered hope. Livy offered hope in his retelling of historical events by inspiring confidence in Rome. Ovid showed that mankind had been in a downward spiral since creation, but offered the hope that even after mankind’s destruction, it would still survive.

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2 thoughts on “Optimism in Livy and Ovid

  1. Pingback: The Significance of Rome | supererling

  2. Pingback: The Twelfth-Century Renaissance | supererling

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