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The Early History of Rome

Over the course of teaching this year, I feel I've been inundated with ancient histories. I've read The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, The Histories by Herodotus, and, currently on the side, Plutarch's Lives. For readability and clarity, none of these has come close to Livy's The Early History of Rome. Beginning with the legendary deeds of Romulus around 800 B.C. and ending with Camillus' breathtaking deliverance of Rome from the Gauls in 386 B.C., there is not a dry moment in the book.

Livy focuses on individual people and their families throughout his history, providing human interest in the midst of great political movements and wars. Certain names are reused within families, giving the reader the ability to easily follow family trees and relationships. "Oh no, here comes another Appius!" or "Yay, another Valerius!" It is this interest in telling stories that makes Herodotus such a lively read. However, unlike Herodotus, Livy organizes his material in a clear and chronological format without skipping back and forth between countries and centuries. Plutarch is great because of his focus on individuals, great men with virtues to imitate and flaws to avoid. Livy accomplishes the same thing but weaves it into a continuous narrative rather than a series of unrelated mini-biographies. Finally, like Thucydides, Livy is concerned with accuracy and seeks to (as best as he can) relay the actual events that occurred. If we don't have the actual speeches of the men, at least Livy tries to give us the gist of what must have been said. However, Livy constantly has his eye on the dramatic. He knows where the human drama is to be found and he highlights and emphasizes it giving the impression of an epic rather than a list of events.

Of the histories I've read this year, Livy's is the most accessible to the modern reader, and I recommend it for anyone interested in Greek or Roman history.