Friday, 13 January 2017

Review: Rome and Italy, by Titus Livy

This is the third book by Livy I’ve read (the others being The War With Hannibal, and The Early History of Rome). The edition I read was published by Penguin, translated by Betty Radice.

Rome and Italy follows immediately on from the Early History, and covers the aftermath of the city’s recovery from the Gauls. After some minor wars, the meat of the book is concerned with the prolonged and challenging Samnite Wars (which occurred just before the Pyrrhic and Punic conflicts).

I knew practically nothing about this period of Roman history. Livy’s style, as ever, is engaging and easy to read, although it’s worth recalling he isn’t Captain Objective. The edition I read made good use of footnotes to explain certain points or remind the reader of minor inconsistencies in the history.

There’s a fascinating contrast between the ruthless pragmatism of the Romans, and their superstitious nature (repeatedly appointing dictators specifically to hammer in a nail to propitiate the gods). Likewise, asking chickens their opinion before deciding whether to engage in battle or not.

There are some broad themes that are actually quite in tune with the modern world, particularly the conflict (sometimes almost warfare) between the wealthy, privileged, aristocratic patricians, and the numerous but poorer plebeians. On an individual level, there’s heroism and sacrifice, bickering and selfishness, and some intriguing characters (Titus Manlius Torquatus, Marcus Valerius Corvus, Lucius Papirius Cursor and the first Quintus Fabius Maximus, to name a few).

The only real downside was that I found the maps rather iffy. Detail was swallowed by the spine and they weren’t particularly clear (cluttered, and the fonts are too small).

If you liked Livy’s other writing, you’ll enjoy this (NB if you haven’t read anything by Livy I’d advocate starting with The War With Hannibal, as it’s about arguably the most interesting war in history).


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