I wasn’t quite bored. I had just completed a fourth-year Latin final with plenty of extra time and now was trapped in the classroom until the allotted hour expired. I looked at my blue book. The last exercise in it was a translation of a paragraph from the Roman historian Titus Livius of Padua—Livy—the aftermath of a siege and a battle. With nothing else to do, I added a retranslation of the same passage into blank verse. It was an idle exercise to no good purpose except the fun of it.
Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) wrote more than 140 books of his Roman history, generally titled Ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city.” Of these, thirty-five survive more or less complete, as far as the Punic wars. It is generally considered that Livy wrote his best prose in the earliest part of the story, and most interest focuses on the first five books, carrying us through around 390 BCE. Aubrey de Sélincourt’s translation, published as the Penguin Classic The Early History of Rome, first appeared in 1960. As far as I know, there has been none other since.
Livy invites embroidering. The engaging stories embedded in his chronicling cry out for expansion, but they are compactly laid out, with lots of the ablative syntax and parallel constructions Latin teachers love. In his volumes and volumes of histories—stretching from the foundation of the city through his own imperial times, more than seven hundred years if we include the lost majority—he covers so much ground that it’s easy to miss how briskly he does it. When you take the time to pause over a passage or two, you want to do something with it, fill in the gaps, play with the form and language, flesh it out—especially in the rousing early history, which is largely legend, a complication grudgingly admitted to by the author.
Non sine fraude, as the poet Horace characterized the foundations of Rome, difficult to put into English: not without—what? deception, fraud, crime, offense, error, injury, transgression—fraus being one of those Latin words covering a multiplicity of criminal meanings.Horace knew in poetry what Livy tells us in prose: Rome has the primal eldest’s curse upon it, a brother’s murder. Two significant rapes also punctuate the early Latin story: that of Rhea Silvia, the Alban Vestal Virgin whose violation by an unknown man or god engenders the founding twins Romulus and Remus, and that of Lucretia, whose shame and suicide at being ravished by Sextus Tarquinius spark the expulsion of the kings and the establishment of the Republic. In addition to these, there is the mass abduction of the Sabine daughters. Livy gives details: “ . . . at a given signal all the able-bodied men burst through the crowd and seized the young women. Most of the girls were the prize of whoever got hold of them first, but a few conspicuously handsome ones had been previously marked down for leading senators . . .” Boko Haram could use such snappy public relations; the circumstances sound remarkably similar.
For the last couple of hundred years at least, Livy has been a sourcebook for contemporary politics. Rome the Eternal, most of us tend to forget, was not always Rome. As far back as we know—the traditional date is 753 BCE—it was a scruffy little riverside hill town in central Italy. The mythology and history of its wars, alliances, and shifting governments leading it to empire became fundamental documents in the way subsequent political entities thought of themselves. American founding fathers consciously studied the strengths and weaknesses of Roman government. We carry the evidence on our coinage, in our Constitution, and in the nomenclature of our geography.The French Republic quite literally styled itself on classical Rome. And while England was forging its own empire, enshrining Duty as a household god in the nineteenth century, it, too, looked back to the Roman historians. Livy was conscious of this use of his discipline. He wrote,
Hoc illud est praecipue in cognitione rerum salubre ac frugiferum, omnis te exempli documenta in inlustri posita monumento intueri; inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu foedum exitu quod vites,
which de Sélincourt exuberantly expanded to,
The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.
In general, de Sélincourt had grand fun with the text he translated. We can look at one lively representative passage:
Meanwhile, Rome was growing. More and more ground was coming within the circuit of its walls. Indeed, the rapid expansion of the enclosed area was out of proportion to the actual population, and evidently indicated an eye to the future. In antiquity the founders of a new settlement, in order to increase its population, would as a matter of course shark up a lot of homeless and destitute folk and pretend that they were “born of earth” to be his progeny; Romulus now followed a similar course: to help fill his big new town he threw open, in the ground—now enclosed—between the two copses as you go up the Capitoline Hill, a place of asylum for fugitives. Hither fled for refuge all the rag-tag-and-bobtail from the neighbouring peoples: some free, some slaves, and all of them wanting nothing but a fresh start. That mob was the first real addition to the City’s strength, the first step to her future greatness.
Believe me, the chumminess of “rag-tag-and-bobtail” and the guided tour of Rome (“as you go up the Capitoline Hill”) are all the translator’s own, as is the formality of “hither” and the amazingly apposite allusion to Hamlet with the remarkable verb “sharked.”A kind of timelessness folds Shakespearian, Edwardian, and contemporary English into the Latin batter until history becomes not a single story with a beginning and an end but an eternally recurring monument, a constant reference. It reflects Livy’s own practice, at least in the early history of his city, weaving compelling and emblematic individual stories and legends into the chronology of development, and the moralizing as he works out political definitions of a balanced government. But it’s more what we expect of literature, not of historiography. We do not treat Herodotus or Thucydides like this in translation.
De Sélincourt caught and amplified Livy’s motives and energy. One of the Roman historian’s harshest critics could have been referring to the translation when he wrote of the original:
He seems to have cared only about the picturesque effect of his book, and the honour of his country. On the other hand, we do not know, in the whole range of literature, an instance of a bad thing so well done. The painting of the narrative is beyond description vivid and graceful. The abundance of interesting sentiments and splendid imagery in the speeches is almost miraculous.
The critic is Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his 1828 essay “History,” in which the English writer savaged the Roman historian for being unhistorical.
He contemplated the past with interest and delight, not because it furnished a contrast to the present [Livy’s present being the beginning of the Augustan empire], but because it had led to the present. He recurred to it, not to lose in proud recollections the sense of national degradation, but to trace the progress of national glory.
In the interest of his good stories, Macaulay accused, Livy played fast and loose with historical memory. No matter that most of that memory was legendary in the first place, history as story.
Macaulay then proceeded to do the same thing in the 1830s while he was working in the British Indian administration and helping to invent Victorian England. His own take on events narrated by Livy constitute a further kind of translation of national glory, one more inspired than the schoolboy’s idle half-hour after his examination question but in the same vein. With the Lays of Ancient Rome, Macaulay tried to counter Livy’s versions by resurrecting a putative popular bardic poetry (I can’t help thinking of Macpherson’s Ossian) in Roman-English. Beside Macaulay’s muscular verse, Livy’s accounts seem as dry as ancient history can be made.
Where the Roman had written:
The Tarquins, meanwhile, had taken refuge at the court of Lars Porsena, the king of Clusium. By every means in their power they tried to win his support. . . . Porsena, who felt that his own security would be increased by restoring the monarchy in Rome, and also that Etruscan prestige would be enhanced if the king were of Etruscan blood, was convinced by these arguments and lost no time in invading Roman territory.
Macaulay, in lines I had memorized by the age of fifteen and can still roll out almost endlessly, wrote:
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the royal house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
To summon his array.
and continued the stirring tale of Horatius Cocles holding the bridge over the Tiber against the Etruscan armies for sixty-nine more stanzas. “Horatius” is the first of four Lays, all equally sonorous, equally self-conscious, and inimitably British.
De Sélincourt also translated Books XXI through XXX for Penguin, The War with Hannibal, published in 1965, three years after his death. Another translator, Henry Bettenson, picked up the fallen baton for Books XXXI-XLV, Rome and the Mediterranean (published in 1976), but without the inspiration or the gusto of the earlier volumes. In style and content, de Sélincourt had demonstrated that his Livy was necessary but not sufficient.
Every translation is its own particular critical reading. There are some works that need to be translated for each new generation. There are some works that benefit from a variety of different simultaneous readings. There are some works that perhaps can stand on the versions we already have of them in English. There are some works that are over-translated, chewed to an abstraction, like a dog’s bone. But I’d like to argue for a sensitive, thoughtful new Livy, well annotated, a Livy for the twenty-first century, not to replace de Sélincourt, but to give us a fresh look in English. It’s not likely to be a commercial smash hit. Is there anyone out there with idle time after his or her last exam, ready to take on the project?