Titus Livius – The Early History of Rome

Faster than I had expected I have completed The Early History of Rome (c. 25 BC) by Titus Livius (Livy for the Anglicized version). The main reason for this was not only that the story was compelling, but most of all that the translation was pretty much done in smooth modern English prose. I’ve read other works by Livius in the Dutch translation and although I enjoyed them I remember them to be more in a Latin style (from what I know of the language) than modern Dutch. If the Dutch translation had been more strict or English is simply so different that the translation creates easier prose I don’t know, but it does make this classic work more easily accessible.

The edition itself consists of Books I to V of Ab Urbe Condita (Since the Foudation of the City), which is the great history consisting of no less than 142 books by Titus Livius. These five books together are already some 400 pages in total, so it’s really a massive work. Most of the books have been lost over time, but the first ten have surprisingly survived completely. The first five books deal with the early legends of Rome until the sack by the Gauls in 386 BC. The first book deals with the early settlers, refugees from Troy, to the foundation of the city and the seven kings who would rule for a period of 250 years.  That these are legends is clear, especially with each king ruling for 30 or 40 years and often until a high age. The next four books covers a period of 120 years in much more detail and almost year by year. As I’ve already started in Book VI (first part of Rome and Italy, the next five books) it is remarkable to note that Livius states that anything written before that book was very fragmented and hardly accurate, as few consistent records survived those times, especially as Rome had no historians until 200 BC. So what Livius actually tells is that Books I-V are mostly made up history with a core of true elements.

If one has read Books II to IV one will be somewhat surprised as the books tell in detail how Rome started as a republic and gradually changed and improved their democracy. This process is very well written when you can see the development year by year. This part is hard to believe as fake.

The more unreliable parts consist of the almost continuous wars Rome fight. First to establish itself as a dominant city and later to sustain this status. There is hardly peace and the enemies are often the same. Several times it is mentioned the enemy has virtually been broken, but only a few years laters they are back at full strength. That Rome rarely obtains a decisive victory is also awkward.  Of course there are losses but the victories are far more plentier.

Overall this history is a mix of short wars, political strife and other events. The variation is exactly right so it never becomes boring. Livius adds in plenty of speeches, short and long, to create a greater feel of a story and not just a series of events. There are many great characters that stand out and create their place in time. It is no surprise these first books became so popular and survived time so well. Within the history is also a hidden theme. It is a moral theme where Livius praises the virtues and condemns the vices. The good usually prevail in the end, the bad often lose. That this does not get noted so easily is because the good and the bad are not of separate parties but are found among every party, either Roman or enemy. Although Rome is the great one overall, it is not a black and white story. Rome also has to develop and grow up and mistakes are part of it.

Although The Early History of Rome is a history it is, like in the classical tradition, also a story, to entertain the people. This history reminded me somewhat of the Histories of Herodotos, who wrote to entertain and to inform in the form of a history. Livius writes in a far more structured and concentrated way, but is also very enjoyable to read. Very much recommended.

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