A review of The Early History of Rome by Livy

Livy’s Early History of Rome is an excellent study of Rome, and a quite enjoyable procession through the founding stories of a seminal world power by one of its citizens while this power was still on the rise. Or decline, depending on how you look at it. Certainly Livy laments their sad decline, but given Rome’s ultimate rise and decline, it strikes me that Livy probably should have counted his blessings for as good as he had it.

The books is lively, although not quite as entertaining as Seutonius, as livy takes us through various details and signal moments in Rome’s advent in generally quite thorough detail. The book can start to feel like an endless series of Consuls, because it largely is, year after year the things they did and the wars they fought and the temples they consecrated. Taken as a whole, it’s a sort of astonishing document, mapping as it does the relentless rise of a great power, bit by bit, politician by politician so that by the end you’ve gotten pretty much a guided tour from Romulus on down the line.

The first book is concerned with the Kings, and paints a pretty interesting picture of what life must have been like back in the day, 750bc, when Romulus made himself King of Rome. The whole thing is of course drenched in the mists of time, the stuff of deep legend, but it seems likely and clear enough, however, that there was a guy named Romulus who was the first king of Rome. And judging by the first book overall, it seems that back then one could simple put your flag on a hill and say that you were the king of the hill, as it were. Much is left unsaid about the basic mechanics of life on the italian peninsula back then, but it does sound like a bunch of tiny little cities, each one of which had someone there calling himself king. Romulus is remembered because his little city came out on top.

Romulus and Remus were the product of Mars and a Vestal Virgin, if her version is to be believed, and for some reason this caused the king at the time to want them killed, although it strikes me that if you have any belief in Mars himself, you might want to think twice about that. But people do funny things when they’re on the throne, and so the boys are suckled by a wolf, and raised by a shepherd, and when the time comes they kill the evil old king, and restore to the throne the proper king, hoorah! Then the two boys decide to set out and start a new city where they can each be king, except that there are two of them, and so of course one has to die. Sorry Remus!

So Romulus declares himself king, and declares Rome a city, and then the amazing thing is that he is, and it is, and the whole thing just sort of takes off from there. He builds fortifications, and builds temples, and has wars with neighboring cities, and is basically just an all around bad-ass. I am still unclear on the mechanics of this first instance, and Livy is no real help at all. But Romulus is king, and sets up his city, and tries to protect and extend it. When early on it’s clear that with nothing but grubby men around, Rome will not survive past its first generation, so Romulus and the Romans trick the Sabines into paying a visit so they can steal their women, which they do. And which they get away with. And it’s here that you just have to rub your eyes a bit and remind yourself that no matter how obscured by the mists of time this is, one must suppose that something along these lines almost certainly happened. We will just steal your women now. You can come back and visit them whenever you want.

After Romulus was carried up to the gods in a cloud of smoke (for real) and Rome found itself without a king, at that point there was nothing for any of them to do but of course elect another king. I don’t know why Romulus had to fight his way into the job but the next guy gets elected, but that’s how it works. And where Romulus was a great warrior, and helped lead the city to its early rise and expansion, his replacement Numa was basically a great manager, and organized the city, creating structure among its citizens, organizing its religious and civil institutions, and basically making the whole thing work. He established tribes, and classes, and rights, and was in all honestly probably the best power-holder of the whole book.

But then a couple of kings later there came to town a grasping man named Tarquin, who had with an ambitious wife, and a talent for ingratiating himself, and when Numa went to the afterworld, Tarquin was able to parlay his political position into the kingship, and so there he was. I have to say, still pretty fuzzy on the mechanics of this, but I’m pretty impressed when anyone rolls into a new town and says, I think I’m gonna take this place over, and then does. Say what you will about what a bitch Tarquin’s wife was, Livy, but you’ve got to hand it to the man, he was able to get the job done.

From there Tarquin rules for a long time, and at some point he and his wife see a boy whose head spontaneously caught on fire—but apparently didn’t kill or maim him—and they took this as a sign from god that they should adopt him and make him king when Tarquin dies, which sounds like a great and obvious idea, except that this really chaps the ass of Tarquin’s sons, who had sort of come to expect that the throne would go to them, even though that’s not really the way it worked quite yet, since the senate needed to ratify these things, and anyway there was a customary interregnum. (The Romans were crazy for rules.)

But when the fire-boy now grown into a man becomes the king on Tarquin’s death, Tarquin’s son ultimately is able to overthrow him and take the thrown for himself, which begins the reign of Tarquin Superbus, which didn’t ultimately work out well for him or anyone else. He reigns for many years, but he is not beloved, and his family is not beloved, and when one of his sons rapes the wife of a prominent man, and she murders herself in her shame, this incenses the right-thinking Romans so much that they chase the Tarquins from power and declare themselves a republic, where no man will be a slave.

Book two follows the early days of the republic, where annually they elect two consuls who are pretty much in charge, and as a system it seems to work pretty well. Their main activity is going to war with the neighboring cities, and so one gathers that the consulship is the clearest road to glory and riches, and presumably attracted just the right sort. Reading Livy, one can’t help buy be amazed at how much of their time and energy was given to war with neighboring cities, though, as it’s pretty much an annual event, and one would imagine ultimately depleting the available bodies. But the ways march on, and Rome has good success beating new enemies and re-beating the old ones, and their reach grows along with their list of enemies.

The book follows the tensions between the different classes of society. First Numa and then others divide Roman society along strictly percuniary grounds, in a way that would make Veblen proud, but things fall pretty much into two camps: the patricians and the plebs. For example, early on in the republic the common folk begin to get angry that not enough of the spoils of the annual ways are going toward them, and too many are being bound over for debt, so they refuse to assemble for the next way things get pretty dicey and things get pretty dicy for the senate.

The commoners create a new institution called the Tribunes who are the representatives of the people, and weild great power accordingly. And so we have two dueling institutions, the consuls vs. the tribunes, and each fights for the prerogative of the class they serve. The plebs then periodically want agrarian reform, so that they can get some of the land for themselves, but of course the existing landowners, occupying the senate, are quite inclined to leave things they way they are.

And so it goes, for consuls in endless pairs, a new set comes in, and there’s a war with the neighboring cities, and trouble with the plebs, and heroic deeds of great men, and impassioned speeches, and dire straights overcome with the grit of those who would not be slaves. It’s an impressive roll of success, frankly, if it does grow somewhat tedious page after page, war after war, consul after consul. And Livy works hard to make it all very heroic, and imbues his characters with the portent of the moment to good effect, and it’s a pleasant enough read overall.

I was struck in reading the book how much the class struggled endures through the story, and never seems to resolve or abate, the same anger and distrust between the haves and the have-nots being passed among generations like blue eyes. And it seems particularly poignant at this moment in time, as income inequality is as such a height and the subject of such acrimony and tension. Given the way it worked out in old Rome, I don’t necessarily have much hope for the Occupy crowd, but one can always hope. The plebs did get their tribunes after all.

The other thing that was so amazing was the propensity for war. It’s just endless, the fights with neighboring cities, and the plunder and subjugation, oftentimes with utter brutality. There are times when they don’t just sack a town, but kill all the men, sell everyone else into slavery, take all the stuff, and burn the rest to the ground. And then march back into Rome in triumph, of course. I know as I’m reading that the story ultimately shifts from republic to empire, and the Consuls become the Emperors, but it’s pretty clear that the general plotline stays the same for centuries, and that the machinery set up by Romulus and Numa back in the beginning, got these people moving in a direction that just stuck. That paired with a good bit of luck had them ruling the world, ultimately.

Overall, a good read, enjoyable and informative.


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