Spurius Postumius Albus, Aulus Manilius and Publius Sulpicius Camerinus were sent to Athens with instructions to take down in writing the laws of Solon and acquaint themselves with the way of life and the political institutions of other Greek communities. (Livy 3.31)
At the height of the social crisis within Rome, she dispatched three citizens according to Livy to Athens in order to find out what the appropriate constitutional forms might be. The report from Athens was eagerly awaited and led to major reforms in the Roman constitution. (3.33) Livy points out that such reforms were not actually that successful - he argues that the constitution created was 'all wood and no fruit' (3.33) but of course no reader could not fail to appreciate that the new formation produced the Twelve Tables of Roman Law- the basis for Roman law down to Livy's day and something that we shall move to discuss later. But let us focus for a moment on the central point Livy makes here- that Roman constitutional innovation proceeded from seeking the advice of another city. There are a couple of interesting issues here- why Athens in particular was mentioned and why Rome's story includes discussions of other cities necessarily.
Firstly why Athens? I do not think that Livy could prove that the senators did go to Athens- indeed there is an implausibility to it as Rome was far closer to the Greek cities of southern Italy. Rather the reason that Athens is mentioned here I think is the prestige that the name involves. Athens was the most famous example of democracy in the ancient world- Sparta its opponent the most famous example of what Plato called timarchy. That Livy identified Rome with Athens is not surprising to any reader of Fergus Millar's lectures on the Republic: Rome had democratic features. The office of the tribunate and the powers of the popular assembly can be underrated in Roman history, and when we see the class conflict in Livy we see two classes who can both fight against each other. Athens looks a logical place to go for lessons for stability therefore for the ancient Romans- and an obvious place for them to have absorbed lessons about constitutional conflict- particularly the Athens of Solon and not the Athens of the fifth century itself.
The Ancient world prided itself on its law makers- Solon, Brutus, Lycurgus- who provided models to their cities of how they ought to politically proceed. These statesmen moulded their cities in their images- and created civic structures to perpetuate their genius- to turn personal virtu into political virtu. In many senses these figures stood between the age of heroes and the age of constitutions- they straddled the world of personal heroism, the Odyssey and Illiad, and the world of constitutions. The problem that Rome had at this point in her history was renewing her own constitutional framework- how natural to look to the laws devised by one of these great lawgivers in pursuit of reform. What is interesting though is that for Livy these people remain Romans- they remain Brutan in their constitutional thinking and the Solonic innovations do not work. Curiously therefore the Athenian influence that Livy maps is one of failure- the Athenian implant did not succeed in changing the Roman state into Athens- what it does is extend the Brutan nature of the people by providing a graft extending a principle embodied already. The end of the decemvirs is the 12 tables- something that fits into Roman nature- the end of the decemvirs though is swift as the structure did not fit.
One might ask why Livy feels necessary to include this episode- what does he think it tells us about Rome. I'd say that Livy acknowledges here a part of the Roman story that cannot not be acknowledged- that Rome was influenced and changed from the first moment of her history by the interference of foreigners. At points like the Claudii from the Sabines they were other Italians- but often it was not other Italians, but the more important example of Greece that changed Rome. The fact that in Greek political life- whether Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Corcyra, Argos, Thebes, Chalcis, Mytilene or all the other cities, famous in story and in song- the formations of life and politics possible in a polis had been tried and a long history of political thought had been developed in order to understand those regimes in antiquity before Livy. It is more likely that Rome's first contact with this was through the cities of southern Italy that the Greeks had founded- possibly even that was where Romans sought some constitutional inspiration- they didn't have to go to Greece. But Livy had to in order to invoke the genius of the Athenians and Solon.
What Livy tells is a complicated story about the development of Rome- I have mentioned that Livy definitely believes in the mystical idea of Rome surviving down the centuries- he sees a continuity between Romulus and Augustus. But he is too good a historian not to understand that other places influenced Rome- for Livy, stressing the greatness of Rome, those other places have to be equally great and the point he wants to stress is that their influence did not change the course of Roman history. Influence pushed Rome in directions which were Roman but could not change the history of the Republic from becoming a regime led by consuls into victory on foreign fields. Athenian influence led to the decemvirs in Livy's view- the only constitutional experiment that did not last- its historically plausible that actually more of the original Roman regime was influenced by foreign example- but Livy wants to stress this marginal influence because he wants to stress the continuity of Roman history.