Tag: Livy

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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167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

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.

Digressions/diversions:
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