Penguins on Parade: Livy!
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve seen, are overshadowed by their own brethren. Authors pour their hearts into the things they write, but no matter how their own estimations fall, the reading public has a much louder say – and it’s almost never how the author would like things to go.
Human nature being what it is, we can be sure beyond much doubt that the Roman historian Titus Livius had that very experience during the decades in which he was writing and serially publishing his life’s work, Ab Urbe Condita, which ran to 142 books, of which only 35 survive. In writing his sprawling history of the Roman Republic, Livy made extensive use not only of the Greek historian Polybius but also of two beetling industrious Roman annalists who provided a great deal of raw material that cried out for a professional historian and rhetorician to shape and polish.
Shape and polish it all he did, but the results could never be as even as he might have hoped. No matter how talented a writer you are, sometimes Monday is just a slow news day. The principal complaint lodged against Books XXXI-XLV has always been brutally simple: they’re not as exciting as Books XXI-XXX, which feature the story of the Second Punic War and Rome’s fateful confrontations with Hannibal on Italian soil. Hannibal makes a hell of a story; practically anything coming right after him is going to seem like an anticlimax.
Books XXI-XXX were translated for Penguin Classics by Aubrey de Selincourt in the irresistible volume The War with Hannibal, which I’ve praised enthusiastically here at Stevereads. But although such praise is entirely warranted, it can overshadow the other excellent Penguin volumes of Livy, including Henry Bettenson’s sturdy, learned 1976 translation of Books XXXI-XLV in a Penguin Classic volume called Rome and the Mediterranean. It’s true that Bettenson doesn’t have nearly as neatly dramatic a story to convey to his readers as de Selincourt had.
Even so, he’s got one heck of a story to convey. Rome and the Mediterranean covers the years of the second century BC during which Rome turned its attention from beating Hannibal to systematically mopping up the Eastern and Mediterranean states that had sided with Carthage or even sought merely to profit from Rome’s distraction. With Hannibal defeated, Rome is able to turn to stamping out, garrisoning, or coercing all the scattered kingdoms Alexander the Great had left in his wake centuries before. In a passage full of his unfeigned combination of humility and hubris, Livy is the first person to admit this can make for less gripping reading:
The peace with Carthage was followed by the war with Macedon. This latter conflict was in no way comparable with the Punic Wars for the gravity of the peril, either in respect of the qualities of the enemy commander, or by reason of the fighting strength of the troops engaged; and yet it had a claim to fame almost greater, beause of the ancient renown of the Macedonian nation, and the vast extent of their empire, which gave them possession, by conquest, of large tracts of Europe, and the greater part of Asia.
(The legal-deposition tone there, it should quickly be pointed out, comes almost entirely from the translator, not the author)
These wars, not only against Macedon (fought in many theaters and sometimes touch-and-go) but also against Antiochus III, the Great King of Syria, lasted for almost forty years on and off – and their many conclusions left Rome as virtually unrivaled mistress of the entire Mediterranean world. Livy gives all his main characters stirring, beautifully-organized speeches, and he balances his bigger plots with a steady stream of local monstrous births and prodigies, all the thousand monthly omens that were such catnip to his hayseed’s soul. And through it all there pulses his intense patriotism – a honeyed, uncritical patriotism that might strike some 21st century Americans as eerily familiar:
There really was, it seemed, a nation on this earth prepared to fight for the freedom of other men, and to fight at her own expense, and at the cost of hardship and peril to herself; a nation prepared to do this service not just for her near neighbours, for those in her part of the world, for lands geographically connected with her own, but even prepared to cross the sea in order to prevent the establishment of an unjust dominion in any quarter of the globe, and to ensure that right and justice, and the rule of law, should everywhere be supreme.
The point of his Hannibal books was to create a sense of tension where no tension could really exist, and it worked: for centuries, schoolboys and passionate readers have turned the pages of those books at times breathless with excitement, eager to know who wins, even though every single one of those readers – in Livy’s day or our own – knows the answer ahead of time. Carthage is destroyed, pirates are rounded up and executed, petty dictators are overthrown, and whole countries are brought under the Roman yoke, for their good or ill.
It’s a big, complex subject, and Livy handles it (his factual mistakes notwithstanding) wonderfully. Penguin readers coming straight from The War with Hannibal will be understandably skeptical about moving to a lesser stage, but the feeling won’t stick around (as surely the Penguin editors must have gambled); on any stage, with any raw materials, Livy comes through. Give him a few facts and some room to moralize, and he’ll do the rest.