Saturday, 25 August 2012

Review: The Early History of Rome by Titus Livy

This book covers the first five volumes that Livy wrote (unfortunately the majority of what he put together has been lost to time), and the version I bought was translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. It describes the events that occurred from just prior to the foundation of Rome through to the kingship of Romulus and his successors and finishes after about three or four centuries after Rome's founding.

The book's very easy to read and engaging throughout. It is worth pointing out that Livy takes a somewhat credulous view of ancient superstitions (things like a boy's head being on fire while he's asleep, but he's fine), making it more like Herodotus than Thucydides when it comes to a commitment to absolute accuracy/realism.

It's fascinating to read about the development and growth of Rome as the patricians and plebeians tussled for power and new offices and powers were created to try and soothe the almost unending tensions between the two sides. Livy seems to favour the patricians most of the time, although given he was writing about events centuries before his time it makes it hard to see whether that's necessarily bias or simply an accurate reflection of the tribunes acting like a bunch of rabble-rousing idiots.

There is a sense that he's instilling into his ancestors quite a lot of virtue, in contrast with the lack of such in his own time (a theme that seems constant throughout human history). On the other hand, the imperial system did lead to a degeneration of Roman virtues and serial regicide, so maybe he had a point.

It's mostly historical but there are elements of myth, as mentioned above. Lots of the little stories (Gaius Mucius Scaevola, Horatio and the bridge and so on) are well-known in their own right.

So, provided you don't mind your history peppered with myth it's a highly enjoyable read and I'd recommend it to anyone who has an interest in classical history.



  1. Thaddeus-
    I am so happy to find someone blogging about Livy. I have not read more than this post of yours, as I only discovered it last night. I am interested in the work of Livy and refer to him often in my work. I am going back to Herodotus and Thucydides soon, too. Looking forward to reading more of what you have to say here, I read some of the Secret History by Procopius. If you do not know it you may find it similarly interesting. He was the official historian for one of the most important Roman generals, but he wrote the work I have just mentioned unofficially, and it includes references to demons and other spiritual beliefs that are no longer dominant in western culture. Fun. Thanks for your blog.

  2. Thanks very much, Miss Malter :)

    Must say I prefer Thucydides' fairly objective approach to Herodotus, who has quite a lot of fairy stories as well as history.

    I read the Secret History this year, and whilst I enjoyed the alternative perspective and appreciate the courage it must've taken, Procopius really, really lays it on. Poor old Belisarius is practically the only one who emerges with any credit (competence in warfare) at all.