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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

By Livy (59 B.C.–17 A.D.)

IF “history” is to be held firmly to its original meaning, investigation, Livy hardly deserves to be classed among historians at all. Certainly we shall not wonder that Macaulay condemns him, with his usual unsparing vigor; and we can but smile at Dante’s no less sweeping indorsement of “Livy, who erreth not!” Nevertheless, fiction widely accepted is often infinitely more powerful in molding the minds of later men, than forgotten reality. The obscure beginnings of Roman political life will never be adequately illuminated; but the Æneid, and the romantic inventions of the annalists, will probably never wholly fade from the imagination of mankind so long as any record of earlier civilizations is preserved and conned.

In this, and in many other respects, Livy is not unworthy of a place beside Herodotus. Like his Greek predecessor and master, the Roman author also may more fairly be described as an essayist. Each treated a single theme of immense importance, with consummate charm in narration and description. Each was so successful as to overshadow and outlive all rivals. Neither had any glimmer of “modern methods of research.” Indeed, it is difficult to realize that Herodotus was a contemporary of Thucydides, while Livy, it is very probable, actually had Polybius’s conscientious work among the scanty volumes upon which he drew for his materials. Yet these easy-going lovers of the picturesque have a truthfulness of their own. Through their books, as by no others, we come to realize how the terrific pageant of Xerxes, the heroic march of the legions toward worldwide dominion, impressed the imagination of contemporaries. So it has come to pass, not unnaturally, that the favorite dream for centuries of those who love best the antique life and literature has been the recovery of Livy’s lost volumes, the complete possession of his hundred and forty-two books on the story of Rome.

Livy was born just before Cæsar’s great campaigns in Gaul began; and was just too young to bear arms when Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero flung their lives away in the last struggle for “freedom,”—or rather for the dying rule of the old senatorial aristocracy. The comparatively peaceful and settled conditions under Augustus’s sway, Livy accepted at best with the resignation of Horace, certainly not with the enthusiastic subservience of Virgil. Like Catullus, Nepos, and other gallant spirits of the age, Livy came from beyond the Po. His native city Padua was famed, says Pliny, for purity of morals. He evidently enjoyed all the advantages of wealth and good social position. He early acquired some repute as a writer on philosophic themes, and composed a manual of rhetoric, dedicated to his son, in which the study of Demosthenes and Cicero was especially urged. These are just the studies from which we would wish to know that Livy approached his life task. A passage in the first book (§19, 3) reveals that he is writing in 27 or 26 B.C. The account stopped at the death of Drusus in 9 B.C., as we learn from the scanty abstract of the lost books. We are told—by the epitomator—that the last two decades were composed after Augustus’s death (14 A.D.). This is hardly credible, as Livy’s own life closed at Padua only three years later. Still, he may have been surprised by death in the midst of a final rapid effort to complete the record for that most memorable of reigns.

We have preserved for us the first, third, and fourth decades entire, half the fifth in a rather tattered condition, the epitome just mentioned, and meager bits cited by later authors,—notably the famous passage on Cicero’s lack of stoicism in disaster. There is extant, then, about a fourth of the whole work; for which, entire, Martial declares his own library had not room! The scale was not colossal, however, considering the magnitude of the theme. Livy’s achievement coincided most exactly in length with Charles Knight’s ‘History of England,’ which in general purpose and scope also, as in the genial, truth-loving, yet warmly patriotic spirit of the author, may perhaps deserve mention in the same breath.

The subdivision, already alluded to, into groups of five and ten books each, was made by Livy himself, and helps to render the parts still extant far less tantalizing and fragmentary than might be supposed. Thus Books i.–v. carry the story down to the sack of Rome by the Gauls, in 390 B.C. Book vi. opens with a fresh preface, confessing that the scanty memorials which had ever existed from the earlier time had nearly all perished at that crisis in the burning city. We are now promised a clearer and more trustworthy account for the later periods. This throws an amusing light backward upon the graphic details, the copious speeches reported verbatim, etc., already provided for the regal and early republican times! We give below, for instance, the passage upon which Macaulay’s ballad of ‘Horatius at the Bridge’ leans so heavily. The very existence of Tarquin, Lars Porsena, and the rest, is debatable; and certainly Livy’s account, beginning like Virgil’s with the destruction of Troy and Æneas’s flight to Italy, must be read in quite the same spirit as the great patriotic epic itself. Both contain something far mightier than painfully sought historic truth; namely, what the Romans taught their children to believe concerning the remote past.

Books xxi.–xxx., again, contain a complete account of the Hannibalic war. Here the historic element is altogether larger, and the struggle between patriotic detestation of the Carthaginian, and chivalric admiration for valor and good generalship, reveals Livy’s own pleasing nature with great clearness. All this may be supported even by so brief a passage as the opening characterization of Hannibal, here cited.

Livy is at his best in the speeches with which all his books were thickly studded. These have usually little or no historical foundation, but are revelations of the purpose and character of the chief actors, as Livy saw them. His broad descriptions of battles, marches, etc., are probably drawn with almost as free a hand. Certainly he did not as a rule embarrass or limit himself by any accurate study of the topography on the spot. These strictures apply less than usual to his picture of the fight by Lake Trasimenus, where he was upon ground familiar to him, as it is to many of his modern readers.

We get a little out of patience at times with Livy’s assurances of Roman magnanimity and Punic treachery. Curiously enough, however, after these have occurred in speeches, or even in Livy’s own introductory remarks, the clear stream of the narrative proper often runs in quite another direction. Occasionally, again, we get a purely humorous variation on the hackneyed theme; as when the schoolmaster of Falerii leads his princely boys into the besiegers’ camp, and the Romans equip the youths with long sticks, to flog the treacherous pedagogue back into the beleaguered town! Again, Livy is too good a rhetorician to make the alien speeches notably weaker than the Roman pleas. When Rome repudiated the disgraceful peace which released her army from the Caudine Forks, and offered up to Samnite vengeance the consuls who had exceeded their powers, but refused to send the army back into the trap, the gallant Samnite Pontius cried out:—

  • “Will you always find a pretext for repudiating the pledges made in defeat? You gave hostages to Porsena—and by stealth withdrew them. With gold you redeemed your city from the Gauls: they were cut down in the act of receiving it. You pledged us peace, to regain your legions: that peace you now cancel. Always you cover deception with some fair mask of justice.”
  • Our heaviest loss is doubtless in the later books. Livy seems to have written with dignified frankness on the period of the civil wars. For instance, he expressed a doubt whether the life of the great Julius had been on the whole a curse or a blessing; and his admiration for the dictator’s military rival caused Augustus to stigmatize the historian good-humoredly as a “Pompeian.” Such a man must have left a record, based largely upon his own memories, far more connected and impartial than Cicero’s letters, more trustworthy than the late and inferior historians yet extant. Livy detested both extremes, tyranny and democracy. He took a pessimistic view of the present and future of Rome; and indeed he counts it a sufficient reward for his labor that “while reviewing in thought those earlier days,” he may “escape, at least for the time, from the many evils which this generation has seen.”

    Upon the whole, then, Livy can hardly be assigned a place at all among scientific investigators of historical fact; since the chief monuments and other data, even in Rome itself, rarely attracted his critical attention. He was a fair-minded, patriotic man, of wide culture and exquisite taste, a master of rhetoric, a delightful story-teller, with a fair respect for truth, but—endowed with a dangerously vivid imagination. Many, perhaps most, of his best passages, are true only as Landor’s ‘Imaginary Conversations’ are: true to artistic taste, and usually also to the larger historical outlines of the character described.

    The text of Livy is in very bad condition, and numberless heroic emendations have been necessary. Here the bold methods of the great Danish critic Madvig have found their most fitting field: a large proportion of Livy’s sentences have first become intelligible under this surgeon’s healing hand. Even of the extant books there is no adequate annotated edition in English. That of Weissenborn, with German notes, is indispensable to Latinists. The best recent piece of translation is Books xxi.–xxv., by Church and Brodribb (to whom we are especially indebted also for a complete English Tacitus). This volume, attractively printed by Macmillans in their Classical Series, is the best introduction to Livy for the English student. The Bohn, though oppressively literal, is not remarkably inaccurate.

    The lost books of Livy are not likely to reappear. Indeed, abridgments and epitomes displaced them largely even under the early empire; and the very epigram of Martial, cited above, evidently accompanied such a condensation:—

  • “Here into scanty parchment is monstrous Livy rolled;
  • He whom by no means when entire my library could hold!”