Livy’s Early History of Rome offers a great overview of Roman history from the founding story of Romulus straight through to the end of the republic, when Julius Caesar turned it into an empire. The book also gives you a pretty good view of the sensibilities of the Roman people in the early empire around the time of Augustus, the second and arguably the greatest of all the emperors. It was a strange time for Livy to be writing this history, concerning as it does the founding of the republic and the celebration of the idea that no Roman will be a slave, when our pal Julius Caesar had only recently done away with the whole idea by declaring himself emperor. It’s a funny tension you can’t help but be aware of as you read. Livy makes a show of lamenting that Rome’s greatest days had passed, but as I was reading I couldn’t help but think that far worse days were just ahead. If he only knew.
The book is lively, although not quite as entertaining as Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Livy starts with the founding of the city and the story of Romulus and Remus before proceeding to take us through each king that followed until kings were banished. Then, he tells us about each pair of consuls who were elected, straight on down the line. Livy dives into the seminal moments, so we get deep into details on the city’s founding, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the ass kicking dealt to Tarquinius Superbus, the prick. After that things get a bit monotonous as he relates the actions of each pair of consuls, because each of them essentially do the same thing, year after year: They fight wars with neighboring cities, they consecrate temples, and they try to stay out of the perennial squabble between the patricians and the plebs. But taken as a whole, it is an 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 to the empire that Caesar seized.
The book is divided into two parts, and the first part concerns the Roman kings. Livy paints a pretty interesting picture of what life must have been like back in the day, 750 BC, 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 that there was a guy named Romulus who was the first king of Rome. And judging by the first book overall, it does seem that back then you could simply put your flag on a hill and say you were the king of that hill, as it were. Much is left unsaid about the broader workings of the social order on the Italian peninsula back then, but it sounds like a bunch of tiny little cities, each with its own self-proclaimed 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 causes one of the local kings to want them killed, although it strikes me that if you actually believe in Mars, 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. When the time comes, they kill the evil old king and restore the proper king to the throne, huzzah! Then the two boys decide to set out and start a new city where they can each be king, except that whoops! there are two of them, and so of course one has to die. Sorry, Remus!
So Romulus pronounces 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 temples, and he fights wars with neighboring cities, and he is basically just an all-around badass. I am still unclear on the mechanics of this city-building—Where did the people come from? And the bricks?—and Livy sheds no light on the matter. But still, Romulus is king, and he sets up his city and tries to protect and extend it. 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, amazingly, they get away with. Romulus literally invites a neighboring city for a visit and then steals all the single women. It’s in places like this 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.
Then Romulus is carried up to the gods in a cloud of smoke (or maybe he was killed by jealous senators—hard to say) and Rome found itself without a king, at which point there is nothing to do but elect another one. I don’t know why Romulus had to fight his way into the job while the next guy just gets elected, but that’s how it works in old Rome. And where Romulus was a great warrior and was clearly the right guy to lead the city in its early rise to power, his replacement, Numa, is a great manager who focuses on organizing the city, creating structure among its citizens, organizing its religious and civil institutions, and basically making the whole thing work. He establishes tribes, classes, and rights, and is in all honesty probably the best ruler of the whole book.
A couple of kings later there comes to town a grasping man named Tarquin, who has an ambitious wife and a talent for ingratiating himself. When the top job has a vacancy, Tarquin is able to parlay his political position into the kingship. I have to say, I’m still a little fuzzy on specifically how he pulls this off, but I’m pretty impressed with a guy who rolls into a new town and says, “I think I’m gonna take this place over”—and then does. Say what you will about Tarquin’s wife, Livy, but you’ve got to hand it to the man, he gets the job done.
From there Tarquin rules for a long time. At some point, he and his wife see a boy whose head spontaneously catches on fire—apparently magic fire that does not kill or maim him—and they take this as a sign from the gods that they should adopt him and make him king when Tarquin dies. This sounds like a great and obvious idea, except that this really chaps the asses of Tarquin’s two 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 after Tarquin’s death, one of Tarquin’s sons is able to overthrow him and take the throne for himself, thus beginning the reign of Tarquin Superbus, which doesn’t ultimately work out well for him or anyone else. He reigns for many years, but he and his family are not beloved. When one of his sons rapes the wife of a prominent man, causing her to kill herself in shame, the right-thinking Romans are so incensed that they chase the Tarquins from power and declare themselves a republic, where no man will be a slave. Cue the inspirational music.
Part Two follows the early days of the republic, where annually they elect two consuls who are pretty much in charge. As a system it seems to work pretty well. Rome’s 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 this attracted just the right sort. Reading Livy, one can’t help but be amazed at how much of their time and energy is given to these wars, marching out on an annual basis and somehow not depleting the available able-bodied men. But they march on, and Rome has good success beating new enemies and re-beating old ones, and their reach grows year by year.
The narrative steadily traces the tensions between the different classes of society. First Numa and then others divide Roman society along strictly economic grounds, in a way that would make Veblen proud. In the end, people fall into two camps: the patricians and the plebs, the eternal haves and have-nots. For example, early on in the republic the common folk begin to get angry that not enough of the spoils of the annual wars are going to them, and too many are being bound over for debt, so they refuse to assemble for the next war and things get pretty dicey for the Senate. This conflict seems to repeat itself in the narrative until it becomes a feature of the landscape, like mild autumns.
Ultimately, the commoners create a new institution called the Tribunes, who are the representatives of the people and wield great power accordingly. And so now 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 the way they are.
And so it goes: consuls in endless pairs, wars with neighboring cities, trouble with the plebs, heroic deeds of great men, impassioned speeches, and dire straits overcome with the grit of those who would not be slaves. It’s an impressive roll of success, frankly, even if it does grow somewhat tedious reading page after page of war after war, consul after consul. And Livy works hard to make it all very heroic, and he imbues his characters with the portent of the moment to good effect.
I was struck in reading the book how much the class struggle endures through the story and never seems to resolve or abate. The same anger and distrust between the haves and the have-nots gets passed among generations like blue and brown eyes. And this feels particularly poignant at the current moment, as income inequality widens and the nation’s haves continue to wall themselves from the rest of us. Eventually the plebs did get their Tribune, and all it took was enduring rampant inequality and oppression several centuries. So maybe we can abolish the Electoral College.
The other thing that amazed me was the propensity for war. It’s endless, the fights with neighboring cities, the plunder and subjugation, oftentimes all with utter brutality. There are times when the Romans 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, eventually had them ruling the world.
Excerpt from The Early History of Rome, by Livy
This people, who were at that time in possession of Ardea, were, considering the nature of their country and the age in which they lived, exceptionally wealthy. This circumstance really originated the war, for the Roman king was anxious to repair his own fortune, which had been exhausted by the magnificent scale of his public works, and also to conciliate his subjects by a distribution of the spoils of war. His tyranny had already produced disaffection, but what moved their special resentment was the way they had been so long kept by the king at manual and even servile labour. An attempt was made to take Ardea by assault; when that failed recourse was had to a regular investment to starve the enemy out. When troops are stationary, as is the case in a protracted more than in an active campaign, furloughs are easily granted, more so to the men of rank, however, than to the common soldiers.
The royal princes sometimes spent their leisure hours in feasting and entertainments, and at a wine party given by Sextus Tarquinius at which Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was present, the conversation happened to turn upon their wives, and each began to speak of his own in terms of extraordinarily high praise. As the dispute became warm, Collatinus said that there was no need of words, it could in a few hours be ascertained how far his Lucretia was superior to all the rest. “Why do we not,” he exclaimed, “if we have any youthful vigour about us, mount our horses and pay our wives a visit and find out their characters on the spot? What we see of the behaviour of each on the unexpected arrival of her husband, let that be the surest test.” They were heated with wine, and all shouted: “Good! Come on!” Setting spur to their horses they galloped off to Rome, where they arrived as darkness was beginning to close in. Thence they proceeded to Collatia, where they found Lucretia very differently employed from the king’s daughters-in-law, whom they had seen passing their time in feasting and luxury with their acquaintances. She was sitting at her wool work in the hall, late at night, with her maids busy round her. The palm in this competition of wifely virtue was awarded to Lucretia. She welcomed the arrival of her husband and the Tarquins, whilst her victorious spouse courteously invited the royal princes to remain as his guests. Sextus Tarquin, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonour. After their youthful frolic they returned for the time to camp.
A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquin went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, “Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die.” When the woman, terrified out of her sleep, saw that no help was near, and instant death threatening her, Tarquin began to confess his passion, pleaded, used threats as well as entreaties, and employed every argument likely to influence a female heart. When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour.
Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief at such a frightful outrage, sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her, each accompanied by one faithful friend; it was necessary to act, and to act promptly; a horrible thing had happened. Spurius Lucretius came with Publius Valerius, the son of Volesus; Collatinus with Lucius Junius Brutus, with whom he happened to be returning to Rome when he was met by his wife’s messenger. They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband’s inquiry whether all was well, replied, “No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him.”
They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. “It is for you,” she said, “to see that he gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.” She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry.
Whilst they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” Then he handed the knife to Collatinus and then to Lucretius and Valerius, who were all astounded at the marvel of the thing, wondering whence Brutus had acquired this new character. They swore as they were directed; all their grief changed to wrath, and they followed the lead of Brutus, who summoned them to abolish the monarchy forthwith.
Public domain. Translated by D. Spillan