Plot: The first five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its establishment (dated around 757 BC) up to the Gaulish invasion of 390 BC.
My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt (ISBN 9780140448092)
My thoughts: Livy is writing here on events 400-700 years before his time, so much is based on previous historians and legends. As he himself admits several times:
“one cannot hope for accuracy when dealing with a past so remote and with authorities so antiquated” (Book II.21, page 132)
Or more poetically
“the mists of antiquity cannot always be pierced” (Book IV.24 page 315)
The history of Rome traditionally starts with the arrival of Aeneas and his followers escaping the fall of Troy, and depending on the version, being either welcomed or victorious in securing a foothold in Laurentum in Italy. A string of kings from Aeneas’ lineage followed, until twin boys were conceived upon a Vestal Virgin by the god Mars. Cast adrift on the Tiber to drown, the twins Romulus and Remus were succoured by a she-wolf until found by the king’s herdsman. They grow to manhood, quarrel over who is rightfully King, and Romulus strikes Remus down.
Finding themselves short of enough women to ensure the survival of their settlement, the Romans approach their neighbouring cities, but no one is willing to allow their daughters to intermarry. The Romans instead host a festival and then abduct the young women. After some years the Sabine tribe believe themselves strong enough to rescue the women, and the fierce battle is interrupted by the women forcing themselves between the warring armies to insist on peace.
Eventually the succession of kings is replaced with a Senate of aristocrats (patricians) and two elected consuls to act as magistrates and generals.
Books II, III and IV are a constant series of battles over a hundred years between the Romans and the various surrounding tribes. The clockwork predictability of these conflicts is only interrupted by equally regular internal political squabbles between the aristocratic class and the commoners (plebians) and their elected representatives the Tribunes; who use their ability to muster and form armies from the common people to try and score political changes to do with agricultural land reform and party representation. This internal bickering is seen as weakness by their neighbouring cities, leading them to attack again, and so on and so on. This repetitive pattern soon becomes tedious to the non-scholar, and I started to wish for the excitement of the years of the end of the Republic.
Book V is remarkably more interesting, as it breaks the pattern – firstly by the Romans laying siege to the current enemy Falerii, and the episode where a Faleriian schoolteacher abducts the children of the city’s noble families and delivers them to the Romans as hostages, and the Roman general Camillus returns them to Falerii, with the schoolteacher stripped, bound and being thwacked by the kids with sticks Camillus provides.
“Neither my people nor I, who command their army, happen to share your tastes. You are a scoundrel and your offer is worthy of you. As political entities, there is no bond of union between Rome and Falerii, but we are bound together nonetheless and always shall be, by the bonds of a common humanity. War has its laws as peace has, and we have learned to wage war with decency no less than with courage. We have drawn the sword not against children … but against men armed like ourselves …. These men, your countrymen, you have done your best to humble by this vile and unprecedented act … I shall bring them low … by the Roman arts of courage, persistence and arms.”
(Book V.27 , page 401)
The Faleriians were so impressed by Camillus that they immediately sued for peace and willingly put themselves under the dominion of Rome.
Of course, politics later interferes and Camillus is banished from Rome.
But then the local squabbles are superceded by the invasion of Italy by Gaulish tribes from beyond the Alps. For once, the Roman generals are overwhelmed and respond very ineffectively, and the Gauls literally walk into Rome through undefended open gates. The civilians and Senate are trapped inside the Captiol and are close to bribing the Gauls to leave them alone, when Camillus returns from exile and scares the Gauls away.
When a victorious Roman general returns to Rome, he may be granted a Triumph by the Senate (in which he enters the streets of the city with his troops) or the lesser honour of an Ovation (entering without his troops) – damned by faint praise!
Personal rating: The repetitive content of books II-IV made for monotonous reading, but book V saved the day and lifts it to a 5/10.
The reads in between:
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King.
Stephen King’s latest horror/fantasy is a father-and-son joint work : an apocolyptic saga similar to The Stand and Desperation, but the characters are not as clear-cut good and evil.
“All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. if awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent….”
Only one woman seems immune to the sleeping sickness and some men will do anything to get control of her. A huge cast leads to a three-way battle and civilization-changing decisions. Not his best work but still eminently readable.
Next : Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton