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Julian Meynell's Books

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Livy's Early History of Rome

The Early History of Rome: Books I-IV of the History of Rome from its Foundation - Livy, Aubrey de Sélincourt

Previously I have read Livy's war with Hannibal. At the time I read that I thought that it was OK, because Livy is not a master stylist like Herodotus and lacks the historical insight of a Thucydides or a Tacitus. However, for whatever reason much of the book stuck with me and it is Livy's strength that he often tells these short little anecdotes which for one reason or another come alive. This is despite the fact that his overall style is very much "then this happened and then this happened and then this happened."


In this work we have the first five books of Livy's monumental history. The first book is really a collection of folk tales and legends and we get such things as the tale of Romulus and Remus and Horatius at the bridge. With the expulsion of the Kings we suddenly find ourselves into history proper. The natural tendency with the very early history of Rome is to project an image of Rome the superpower onto Rome the tiny Latin village.


Unfortunately, Livy strongly suffers from this and so its easy to forget that these five books deal with a tiny village essentially bullying its neighbours. The main enemy of Rome in the book is Veii which was a little Etruscan village less than 20 miles away. Furthermore, if one reads between the lines of the Gaulish invasion of Rome, we see something more akin to a Viking raid than an actual invasion.


Keeping all this in mind, however much does come through. The fact that the mechanics of the government of the Republic were created to balance the competing powers of the plebeians and the patricians who were at each others throats until an external threat showed up. In addition, the shear pigheadedness of the Romans comes through and the fact that warfare at this time was really a way of supplementing income through pillage and pretty much an annual event. The fascinating but brutal politics, it all shows the Roman personality in embryo. If one strips away the epicness, one probably does get reasonably decent history. Furthermore, you get these lovely tales that have informed western culture, such as Cincinnatus being repeatedly recalled from his tiny farm to save Rome and then returning there at his earliest opportunity. Finally, where the Roman character was forged, a character that allowed them to build one of the greatest empires comes through. That there reaction to these tiny local squabbles could be so effective, despite being so dysfunctional does give one a new insight into the Roman mentality.


Its all well worth reading, despite the fact that Livy is no genius.