20 June 2011

Livy, Books VI-X

Having completed books VI-X of T. Livius’s The History of Rome From Its Foundation, I have now read almost all of Livy’s work that hasn’t been lost to antiquity. The writings of Livy, who lived during the reign of Caesar Augustus, are fascinating for me simply because of the sheer scope of his endeavor. Utilizing previous Greek and Roman sources as well as official government annals, Livy attempts to piece together a history of Rome from its founding all the way up to the present time of Augustus. One can tell from the work that Livy is a great patriot of his country, and thus we get little reliable information about non-Roman peoples. However, Livy is not so biased that he is above criticizing his own people for their follies or, for example, praising Hannibal the Carthaginian for his heroic qualities. Aside from the fact that Livy was highly regarded in the middle ages, and thus references to stories from Livy are found everywhere in Western literature, the narrative Livy lays out of great men, wars, and political strife is an engrossing, if sometimes tedious, read.

Books VI-X are different both from the books that come before and those that follow. In Books I-V, Livy recounts the history of Rome from its founding in c. 753 B.C. to Camillus’s defeat of the Gauls in 386 B.C. Most of this material is legendary and we get a good number of exciting adventures. Romulus and Remus, the Sabine women, the haughty Tarquins, the rise of the Republic, the exploits of Cincinnatus, Camillus, and other heroes are all there as well as information about the foundation of the great political division between patricians and plebeians that would drive Roman politics throughout the time of the Republic.

In contrast to the 370 or so years covered by the first five books, books XXI-XXX cover a mere twenty-one years, roughly from 222-201 B.C. This is the time of the Second Punic War when Hannibal famously crossed the Alps and waged war with Rome on her own soil. These books have a much clearer historical basis and Livy includes exhaustive detail about battles and politics during the war. Aside from the speeches, which were almost always fabricated for the occasion in ancient histories, we get a very clear and vivid picture of the time period.

Books VI-X are somewhere between these two. At the beginning of book VI, Livy writes, “In the five preceding books, I have exhibited a view of the affairs of the Romans from the building of the city of Rome, until its capture; under the government, first, of kings; then of consuls and dictators, decemvirs, and consular tribunes; their foreign wars, and domestic dissensions: matters involved in obscurity, not only by reason of their great antiquity, like objects placed at such a distance as to be scarcely discernible by the eye; but also because that in those times, the use of letters, the only faithful guardian of the memory of events, was very rare. And besides, whatever information might have been contained in the commentaries of the pontiffs, and other public or private records, it was almost entirely lost in the burning of the city. Henceforward, from the second origin of Rome, from whence, as from its root, receiving new life, it sprung up with redoubled health and vigour, I shall be able to give the relation of its affairs, both civil and military, with more clearness and certainty.”

In these books, covering the period between 389 B.C. and 292 B.C., we see Rome at war with her neighbors, mostly the Etruscans, Volscii, and Samnites. By the end of the tenth book, Rome arises as the supreme power on the Italian peninsula. We get more great stories of battle and deeds of heroism, some of which are probably more legendary than historical, propagated by descendants of the men in question. We hear more of Camillus, and see the deeds of Torquatus, Corvinus, Manlius and others. The Roman code of honor stands out here, probably more a product of Livy’s patriotism than anything else. We also continue to follow the squabbling politics of the Roman people to some important end. The plebeians continue to gain political power, and, in a political act that resonates even to our day, Rome passed a law ending the practice of throwing debtors into prison.

If you are an ancient history buff, Livy is required reading. However, there are lessons to be learned here far beyond the realm of the historian. As Livy writes at the beginning of his first book, “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” Livy’s history is primarily centered on the great men, the movers and shakers of history. In examining the characters and motivations of these men, Livy wants the reader to take note of those characteristics which stand out as noble, good and honorable as well as those which are base, vile, and corrupt. The greatest benefit a reader will get from Livy is not a detailed knowledge of Roman history, but a sense of the variety of humanity and a series of moral examples which are often to be found in the best of literature.

4/5 stars

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