171. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books VI-X, by Livy (c. 24 BC)

171. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books VI-X, by Livy (c. 24 BC)

Plot:   The second set of five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its recovery from the Gauls’ attack in 390 BC to pretty much the end of the Third Samnite War and Rome’s domination of central Italy by 292 BC.

“Who would begrudge the length of time spent on writing or reading of wars which did not wear down the men who fought them?”   (p. 333)

My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 0140443886)

My thoughts:  Livy set out to make the writing of Rome’s history his life’s work, intending to write 120 books in sets of 5, with every 15 marking a stage. The first fifteen covered the rise of Rome to become masters of Italy, the next fifteen the Wars with Carthage, and so on, from the mythical establishment of Rome in 757 BC to his own time (c.24 BC). He started to add a further 30 books which were not finished by his death in 17 AD. Of the 142 he did write, only four sets survive.  I have already read books I-V covering Rome’s beginnings and move from kingship to Senatorial government, and now face books VI-X which consists almost solely of continuous warfare with neighbouring tribes until they are on the verge of being the dominant peoples in central Italy.

Livy writes about each year in succession, starting with the names of the newly elected consuls, and which wars they were assigned for the year (yes, it was that regular). Little mention is made of any other aspect of Roman life but politics and warfare. He has more sources to rely on compared with the earlier years, and cites them and any doubts he has about their timelines or accuracy. He also interrupts his own narrative in book IX to give his opinions on Alexander the Great’s likelihood of defeating a Roman army had such an opportunity arisen, and like a good Roman, he comes down on the side of his own nation.

Despite annual wars with their neighbours, and the making and breaking of treaties and peace accords, I can see the beginnings of empire in Roman offers of citizenship (with or without voting rights) to defeated tribes, and the sending of colonists to take up land conquered. Each year the numbers of killed enemies was in the thousands and tens of thousands, so empty farmland couldn’t have been in short supply. And yet the same tribes somehow have thousands more young men to send to their deaths the next year.

Politically the plebeian party gains more power over the hundred years covered by these books, significantly reducing the interest rates on debts, removing the enslavement of debt defaulters, and markedly gaining the prestige of being included to stand in elections for consulship.

Favourite lines/passages:

Many of the years and battles have a predictable sameness of events, so the ones that stand out have interesting stories

  • A young Roman soldier Marcus Valerius takes up the one-on-one challenge from the champion of the Gauls. As they began to fight, a raven suddenly landed on Valerius’ helmet and stays, pecking and clawing at the Gaul’s face until he was half-blind, and Valerius can kill him with a sword thrust. (p. 131)
  • The Roman army is trapped in a valley with no way out except to surrender. They are stripped naked and forced to walk one by one “under the yoke” and promise peace (p. 223) This humiliation is redressed by later battles as the enemy in their excitement did not use the correct form of words in extracting the promise, binding only the general himself, who after reporting his failure to the Roman people, insisted on being stripped and bound and handed back to the enemy.
  • The devotio (intentional suicide by a general by throwing himself into the enemy single handed to lift the Gods’ displeasure with his army) by Publius Decius Mus, repeating the same act his father committed in battle years before.
  • And the Romans being a superstitious lot, always consulted the auguries before entering battle. The ever present Keepers of the Sacred Chickens would check how the birds were eating their corn to decide if an attack would be propitious. The general Lucius Papirius fighting the Samnites in 293 BC was told the chickens were eating well (the corn was ‘dancing’, which was untrue) and planned his attack. Some cavalry officers heard the chicken-keepers arguing about their false report, and told Papirius, who continued with his plans, but moved the chicken-keepers into the front line to face the brunt of the enemy’s assault. (p. 346)

Personal rating:   5/10

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