The History of Early Rome

by Livy

When Livy wrote this history (in the time of Augustus), Rome was already 700 years old; the fact that he was able to dig up so much material demonstrates a lot of diligence on his part. After all, writing was uncommon on the Italian peninsula until perhaps 500 BCE, and the survival of ancient documents for centuries was not assured. While much of Livy’s material on the founding of Rome is legend rather than history, he was able to obtain detailed histories of the early republican years, providing year-by-year listings of the consuls. It seems obvious that he was working with official annals that were stored in state archives, but his material was also supplemented with other sources, because he presents anecdotes and tales that would not have shown up in official records. All in all, the research that went into this book was impressive, given the poor quality of record-keeping in those days.

Sadly, Livy’s history is quite boring; I gave up on it about halfway through. It’s mostly a tale of endless warfare. Conflict was endemic in the Italic societies of that time; it would seem that attacking the neighbors was the standard thing to do unless there was some other crisis (such as somebody else attacking you) demanding higher priority. The Romans in this history divided their time between a) attacking a neighbor; b) defending against a neighbor’s attack; and c) political conflict between patricians and plebeians. The patricians were always accumulating wealth and buying up land; the plebeians were landless and were constantly demanding redistribution of land. One reason for the constant warfare was that it served as a distraction from politics; whenever the plebs started getting too noisy, a good war would remind them of their patriotic duty and put a stop to the political battles. Besides, a successful war obtained new lands that could (it was promised) be redistributed to the plebeian soldiers who won the victory (although this rarely happened in practice).

The Romans had a number of standard enemies whom they fought continuously. Closest was Veii, a big Etruscan town only ten miles from Rome. The Romans fought a lot of wars with the Veii, and also allied with them on occasion against other cities. Another constant enemy were the Volscians, who occupied territories about 50 miles southeast of Rome. There were also the Aequi, who lived in the hill country east of Rome, and the Sabines, north of the Aequi. On the plus side, the Romans were generally allied with the Hernici, who lived south of the Aequi. As you can see, this was a regular soap opera with a few regular villains and the occasional betrayal. Most wars were just extended raids aimed at stealing whatever could be carried. Given the general poverty of farms in those days, such raids seldom accomplished much other than to burn crops.

Livy’s tale, then, is just a long annal of consuls, political battles, and wars. The Romans generally came out well, at least according to Livy; how Rome’s enemies managed to suffer so many defeats yet keep coming back for more, Livy never explains. True, Rome eventually overcame all these enemies and conquered Italy, but that process took several centuries, and Livy’s rather triumphant tone strikes me as overly rose-tinted.

I did garner one truly interesting factoid from the book: one of the consuls of early Rome bore the name Spurius Furius Fuscus. There’s a name with some heft to it, a name that commands attention if not respect, a name worthy of inclusion in the pages of history. Sadly, Spurius Furius Fuscus (known as “Spurry” to his friends) never did anything of significance. Still, it’s such a grand name that you might consider bestowing it upon a son.