Book Review: The Early History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy

Since finishing The Nicomachean Ethics, this has been my ‘long, slow book‘ that I have read just a few pages at a time. Having last year read The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction I wanted to read more of the primary material that underlay that greatly enjoyable start to the subject. It also felt like something of a resumption of ancient history after having, in the last couple of years, read both Herodotus and Thucydides.

If you know anything about the foundation of Rome, then you will have heard of Romulus and Remus and how they were raised by wolves. This is pretty much at the start of Livy’s work, though one should note the introduction by R. M. Ogilvie. I probably ought to add, since there are multiple versions, that this was the Penguin Classics edition translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. It’s rare for me to comment on the faithfulness of a translation, though here I couldn’t help but notice the appearance of some seemingly anachronistic idioms cropping up in the text. Seeming quite out of place and out of tone with the rest of the work, I do query whether this was the most faithful rendering of Livy’s work.

The opening of the book reads rather more like a work of mythology rather than history. The story of Romulus and Remus is fleshed out in a little detail, yet they were all too fleeting in their appearance, particularly Remus who was murdered by his brother. From here we read a little about an early period where Rome was ruled by kings, many of whom were corrupt or incompetent, so we see the seeds of a resentment of monarchy. A running theme throughout the foundation of the republic is the desire to have competent government and resisting the temptation to return to monarchy nomatter how bad things got.

Much of the book is very reminiscent of the History of the Peloponnesian War as we just get battle, death, rebuttal and a little political insight into how the early Romans organised themselves. With tribunes, consuls, military tribunes and the dastardly group known as the Decemvirs there is a fair array of models of governance on display, though without a detailed political theory, there is some ambiguity over the precise constitution. The other feature is that as seemed to happen all too frequently, in times of crisis, they would dissolve the republican model of government and appoint a dictator whose decisions could not be challenged. The idea seems to be that a single person’s choices are more readily made than a consensus. If one is familiar with later Roman history, you will be aware that the last person to hold this position was one Gaius Julius, or as he is more often referred to, Julius Caesar – the first emperor; a dictator who never gave up his position.

The most interesting parts are certainly towards the front of the book, with various episodes recounted which have seeped into later collective consciousness and re-imagined by later writers. I think in particular of the rape of Lucretia and the account of Coriolanus, the latter being adapted into a play by William Shakespeare.

That said, the end of the book (that is, book 5 of Livy’s work, the end of this volume) sets up nicely the next part of Livy’s work, in that we get an introduction to the Gauls, who are described as being quite unlike any other enemy Rome has faced and where the entire existence of the city is not only under threat, but seemingly doomed.

It’s a shame really, because while it does hint at a certain level of interest in reading on, I must confess that I think I have just about reached the end of my tether when it comes to reading the source material of ancient history. I still have a copy of Tacitus’ Histories on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, as well as a later summary: Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think I take as much from reading the early works as others with a keener interest in history. So while I pondered Plutarch, I think that will have to wait for some considerable time.

To conclude then, this is not a book for the casual reader (a category in which I place myself). It’s more for those who have an abnormal desire to dig into the origins of Roman history, but who probably already have a good understanding of the overall period, gleaned from later historians and summarisers. If that sounds like you, then absolutely do read it. You can even have my (by now, slightly dog-eared) copy.

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Early History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy

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