Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Humor of Livy?

Titus Livius was perhaps Rome’s greatest Historian. Born in 59 B.C. in Padua, Livy died there in 17 A.D. after living most of his adult life in Rome. He spent most of his life writing a history of Rome from its beginning to 9 B.C. This history was named Ab Urbe Condita (From the City Having Been Founded).

There were in total 142 volumes in Livy’s chronology, but only 35 volumes (1-10 and 21-45) are extant.

Livy has enjoyed both popularity and ridicule in the modern age: popularity over his work as one of the primary surviving windows into the early history of Rome and ridicule over the factual basis of his writing. There is no question that much of the history is composed – more literary than factual, more mythical than real. Sometimes Livy tells us when he is weaving myth.

Before criticizing, however, we must be careful not to compare contemporary historical writing with the ancient type. Historians in that age did not view their work as historians do now – dependent on rigorous fact verification. Ancient historians were, in fact, part story tellers who helped create the myths and lore of their cultures. What could they be expected to do in cases were there were no facts available? They had to find a way to fill in the blanks.

I ran across a humorous section (not intended?) of Book Three Section 10, which describes events from the year 461 B.C. when Volumninus and Sulpicius were serving as consuls.

“That year was marked with ominous signs: fires blazed in the sky, there was a violent earthquake, and a cow talked – there was a rumor that a cow talked the previous year, but nobody believed it: this year they did. Nor was this all: it rained lumps of meat. Thousands of birds (we are told) seized and devoured the pieces in mid-air, while what fell to the ground lay scattered for several days without becoming putrid.”

It takes a great imagination to create a story like this. Livy goes on to say.

“The Sybilline Books were consulted by two officials, who found in them a prediction that danger threatened from a ‘concourse of alien men’, who might attack ‘the high places of the city, with the shedding of blood.”

According to Livy the attack that was anticipated never occurred.

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