The Oxford University Press, centuries old and the biggest academic press in the world, founded its World’s Classics series in 1906 (having bought the imprimatur lock, stock, and barrel from the brilliant publisher Grant Richards in 1901). For over a hundred years, the line has produced reasonably-priced and expertly-edited canonical texts, proving that great and challenging books never go out of fashion and paving the path for later imitators like the Modern Library and Penguin Classics. New or old, it’s always a pleasure to celebrate Oxford World’s Classics here at Stevereads.
The Roman historian Livy wrote his enormous work Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”) over the course of decades; the work began in the early 20s BC and eventually reached 142 books, spanning the whole of Roman history from Romulus and Remus to Livy’s own day. Even measured by the feverish book-industry of the Romans, it was an epic work, and the chunks of it that survive today (Books 1-10, and Books 21-45) give us irresistible and tantalizing glimpses of what the whole thing must have been like: sometimes lively and action-packed, sometimes lost in procedural turgidity, always crafted of the finest, most sinuously beautiful Latin our corpus of ancient literature has to offer.
J. C. Yardley has been steadily translating the whole of those surviving books for Oxford World’s Classics, slowly supplanting the older standards put out by Penguin Classics decades ago. In this latest volume, translating books 6 t0 10 and here titled Rome’s Italian Wars, Yardley faces all the usual obstacles to translating Livy – his unending sentences, his masterful, chromatic shifting of moods, his profusion – and sails over them with ease: in the original Latin, Livy is a compulsively readable storyteller, and more than any previous English-language version, Yardley’s captures that.
But there’s one obstacle Yardley can’t overcome, and that’s because Livy couldn’t overcome it either: not every epoch he covers is lucky enough to have a Punic War, or a Hannibal – as Livy’s books 21 to 30 (and Yardley’s excellent 2006 Oxford translation of them, Hannibal’s War) do. Rome’s Italian Wars, as its title suggests, has plenty of action and suspense and drama – but no Hannibal.
Still, there are compensations aplenty. This volume features Rome’s increasingly violent and systematic wars to conquer the whole of the Italian peninsula, and the years of events chronicled here present readers with characters very nearly as outsized as Hannibal. There’s the great, forbidding general Papirius Cursor, and the valiant Camillus, who saved the City from the Gauls in 390. There’s Manlius Torquatus, whose fight with an enormous Gallic chieftain feels like the stuff of mythology. And in many ways most vividly of all, there’s caustic, brilliant Appius Claudius, famous for building the Appian Way and in these pages the subject of many deliciously gossipy stories.
Of course when we’re dealing with Livy, the question of historical reliability comes up. Modern historians – the good ones, anyway – double- and triple-check every fact and assertion, grounding as much as possible on primary sources. Rome’s virtuoso historians for the most party pursued a different ethic, making them look – as Sydney University’s Dexter Hoyos points out in his wonderful Introduction – a bit lazy to modern eyes:
There is not, in fact, much evidence that Livy consulted primary records himself. When he finds reason to cite sources, they are invariably previous historians: from Fabius Pictor around 200 BC to Macer, Tubero, Valerius Antias, and Claudius Quadrigarius of just a generation before Livy himself … He announces the treaty made with Carthage in the mid-fourth century and its renewal in 306, but says nothing of its contents – even though he could have made the effort to view it, as Polybius had done.
And then there are the famous speeches Livy puts in the mouths of his characters, those seductively dramatic long monologues that have little or no basis in fact but read so right every time. Modern sensibilities discount them too quickly; they answer all the needs that historical fiction does today and offer incredible insights into Livy’s own mind and time, for readers patient enough to read between the lines. Luckily, Hoyos is one of those readers and doesn’t sniff at the speeches as other translators have done:
A modern reader may feel that such compositions, plainly with no basis in reliable records, are not just implausible but hold up the action. By contrast, for Livy and his Roman readers (and many later ones) they are desirable artistic creations in their own right, and furthermore vividly illustrate the speakers’ characters and the issues addressed.
In fact, Hoyos, bless him, goes so far as to call Livy’s big book “a historical work that is irreplaceable” but also “a literary masterpiece.” The former may be nowadays beyond dispute, but the latter has never had a stronger illustration than this current Oxford volume – Hannibal or no Hannibal.