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History of Rome according to Livy

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Various decorative and architectural elements from Etruscan and Roman temples
Various decorative and architectural elements from Etruscan and Roman temples in the area of ​​the archaeological area of ​​Sant'Omobono, Capitol and Palatine Hill in Rome, from the period of the 7th - 5th century BCE. | Photos: Michal Kubicz

I am reading “From the Founding of the City” by the ancient historian Titus Livius, and although I am only slowly absorbing the first books of his work, today I would like to share some reflections with you.

Livy was a historian who lived at a time when a republic was turning into an empire. His “History of Rome” is fascinating reading. First of all, I am full of admiration for the enormity of work he put into writing such an extensive study of the history of the state. The Polish translation has over 1,700 pages, and yet, according to conservative estimates, it is only about 1/3 of the original volume! The “History of Rome” is also the work of Livy’s life, something that gave his existence meaning. He wrote them for forty years. In this gigantic work, he captured the history of Rome from its founding to the beginning of the empire, that is, almost eight centuries.

Very little is known about the earliest history of the Roman state (before the 3rd century BCE). Also, what Livy told us is more the subject of myths and legends, and in no way can it be treated as a source of reliable and verified historical information. Reading this book, however, one can understand what the Romans themselves thought about the beginnings of their state. What is contained in the first books of “Acts” probably has little to do with real events. Even Livy himself carefully stipulates that many issues are unclear, many are interpreted in various ways by historians older than him. Sometimes, with surprising sobriety, he rationally verifies some legends about the founding of Rome. For example, in the case of the she-wolf, who was supposed to feed Romulus and Remus, he coldly notes that the she-wolf (“magnifying glass”) is also a cheap prostitute, so who knows how the divine twins were supposed to be suckled and by whom… Skepticism is also visible in the passage referring to the impregnation of Rhea Silvia by the god Mars or to the ascension of Romulus after death. Livy seems to approach the theory of this “immaculate conception” with a kind of reserve, so characteristic of the ancient Romans.

Reading the first books of the “History of Rome”, one must constantly fight with one’s own image of the Roman Empire covering the entire Mediterranean basin. Descriptions of individual wars waged by the ancient Romans, and especially the indications with whom the Romans fought, constantly remind us that we are talking about Rome being a small town. Although virtually every reader familiar with the history of the Eternal City is aware that the empire arose from a small rural structure, I rather expected from Livy that he would try to apply the standard known to him to this primitive Rome. In other words, that in his descriptions I will find a reflection of Rome in the period of imperial greatness. Meanwhile, Livy makes us understand again and again that this primitive Rome was a small semi-agricultural community.

I noticed, for example, that in the descriptions of constant wars there is still the theme of looting – but not looting gold, silver, but … herds of oxen. Significant, right? Elsewhere, he mentions the reward that the Senate decided to award to one of the war heroes: arable land – as much as the recipient will be able to plow on his own in one day. There is something lovely about Chapter 26 of Book Three where Livy writes:

The sole hope of the empire of the Roman People, Lucius Quinctius, cultivated a field of some four acres across the Tiber, now known as the Quinctian Meadows, directly opposite the place where the dockyards are at present. There he was found by the representatives of the state. Whether bending over his spade as he dug a ditch, or ploughing, he was, at all events, as everybody agrees, intent upon some rustic task. After they had exchanged greetings with him, they asked him to put on his toga, to hear (and might good come of it to himself and the republic!) the mandates of the senate. In amazement he cried, “Is all well?” and bade his wife Racilia quickly fetch out his toga from the hut. When he had put it on, after wiping off the dust and sweat, and came forth to the envoys, they hailed him Dictator.

The scale of the wars waged by Rome in this early period described by Livy is evidenced by the fact that they were conducted within a radius of 20-30 km from the Forum … In one of the battles, 306 Romans died, and Livy mentions that the Senate considered it a terrible defeat and took action special actions to save the state.

As I mentioned, today it is impossible to say anything with certainty about which of the events described by Livy actually took place. Most of it is probably a literary supplement to fragmentary historical studies, not reaching further than the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, priestly fasti, and various legends and stories passed down in individual families from generation to generation. But perhaps there is a grain of truth in these messages. It would not be surprising if the oldest patrician gens cherished some stories about the achievements of ancestors in the distant past (which would also explain the colorful detail of some descriptions emphasizing the heroism of some and the villainy of others, as well as black and white assessments of reality – almost like from a fairy tale for children).

For me, it is an extraordinary experience to read the stories about the circumstances of the exile of the last king of Rome, how Tarquin the Superb fought to return to the throne, how he tried to regain his royal fortune, etc. The stories of Coriolanus who died in disgrace, of Verginia killed by her own father, who only in this way could save her virtue, about the haughty Claudius despising the commoners, about the circumstances of the enactment of the law of the Twelve Tables … Even if the details are mostly distorted or even made up, the descriptions give insight into topics that were important in those prehistoric times and have survived in collective memory: conflicts between plebeians and patricians, issues of access to land, abuse of power, etc.

And finally: the possibility of confronting Livy’s story with archaeological material from the oldest Rome is interesting. Some artifacts can be found in the Museum on the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Museums in the wing that few tourists visit – the showcases contain objects and architectural decorative elements, so different from our idea of ​​imperial Rome: terracotta sculptures referring to the Etruscan style, clay finishing elements of temples column bases. These are barely crumbs, but they give an idea of ​​the reality in which the people described by Livy in his first books of the “History of Rome” lived. It wasn’t “Rome of Marble” but of clay and terracotta, the Rome of colored temples. Rome dappled.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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