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Notes on Livy and Humour

One of the few sources we have on the subject of origins of Rome or the war with Hannibal is Livy. He was writing in a time when historical tradition was very much intertwined with mythology, so it was not considered “bad history” to recount legendary events or credit something with a mythological origin. This was simply how it was done.

History like Livy’s is problematic for a number of obvious reasons. For one, it is hard to discern without the accompaniment of extensive historical source material what is true and what is not. We can easily discard anything legendary, but things that seem “rational” are far harder to categorise when our source material is limited to just the one. Many historians use archaeology in tandem with written sources to mull out truth and fiction, but archaeology itself is even very limited in what it can tell us about the past.

For example, Paul sent me a wonderful link recently about a curious archaeological discovery in Keswick. In short, a disc was found, which researchers guess was used as jewellery, that displays on it a very confusing cluster of symbolic representations: scorpion, phallus, snake and crab. This find represents perfectly how confusing archaeological discoveries can be. Simply put, without the right historical context, we never really know what some things are, mean, or were used for. The disc, while it can tell us much about the general wealth of the region, what sort of adornment people liked, what metals were being used, etc, cannot be explained by mere sight alone. We must find something that can help us discover the true meaning of the disc. What did it say? Yes, it is jewellery, but what was the wearer trying to convey?

Just the same, Roman history cannot be told without the use of archaeological material. The entire field of Late Antiquity survives on and evolves with archaeology. Sadly we have also reached an historical precipice where our written source material has been exhausted, and all new discoveries are coming from archaeological discovery, which, when used with the written material, continues to tell historians very much.

Yet Roman historians, despite knowing the problems of depending solely on Livy, still respect him as an historian of his time. It is not at all looked down upon for professors of Roman history to assign Livy as part of a student’s reading material. I do. I realise that Livy can be a bit dense, confusing, and extensive. Penguin Classics has published about 35 of Livy’s books into four topical volumes, for instance. It is the relevancy and importance of Livy that puts his writing in academic demand such that it continues to be mass published.

My intent when writing this was not to give some dry lecture on historiography or historical sources. Rather, what I want to point out is much simpler: Livy, as students often miss, is quite entertaining. Livy often presents a number of amusing scenarios to explain any one event. I wish to impart a few of my own favourites. Any bolding of portions is my own and for emphasis.

On the origins of Romulus and Remus, Book I, Chapter IV:

“The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king’s cruelty; the priestess was thrown into prison, the boys were ordered to be thrown into the river. By a heaven-sent chance it happened that the Tiber was then overflowing its banks, and stretches of standing water prevented any approach to the main channel. Those who were carrying the children expected that this stagnant water would be sufficient to drown them, so under the impression that they were carrying out the king’s orders they exposed the boys at the nearest point of the overflow, where the Ficus Ruminalis (said to have been formerly called Romularis) now stands. The locality was then a wild solitude. The tradition goes on to say that after the floating cradle in which the boys had been exposed had been left by the retreating water on dry land, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to them, gave them her teats to suck and was so gentle towards them that the king’s flock-master found her licking the boys with her tongue. According to the story his name was Faustulus. He took the children to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to bring up. Some writers think that Larentia, from her unchaste life, had got the nickname of ‘She-wolf’ amongst the shepherds, and that this was the origin of the marvellous story.

My own English copy of Livy has this last sentence rather than the one shown above:

Portion of Livy's Early History of Rome
Portion of Livy’s Early History of Rome

So Romulus and Remus were either raised by an actual wolf or by a prostitute whose trade name was The Wolf, which opens up all new avenues of curiosity. I think it goes without saying which of the two interpretations Romans favoured.

On the disappearance of Romulus, Book I, Chapter XVI:

“After [his] immortal achievements, Romulus held a review of his army at the ‘Caprae Palus’ in the Campus Martius. A violent thunder storm suddenly arose and enveloped the king in so dense a cloud that he was quite invisible to the assembly. From that hour Romulus was no longer seen on earth. When the fears of the Roman youth were allayed by the return of bright, calm sun-shine after such fearful weather, they saw that the royal seat was vacant. Whilst they fully believed the assertion of the Senators, who had been standing close to him, that he had been snatched away to heaven by a whirlwind, still, like men suddenly bereaved, fear and grief kept them for some time speechless. At length, after a few had taken the initiative, the whole of those present hailed Romulus as ‘a god, the son of a god, the King and Father of the City of Rome.’ They put up supplications for his grace and favour, and prayed that he would be propitious to his children and save and protect them. I believe, however, that even then there were some who secretly hinted that he had been torn limb from limb by the senators-a tradition to this effect, though certainly a very dim one, has filtered down to us. The other, which I follow, has been the prevailing one, due, no doubt, to the admiration felt for the man and the apprehensions excited by his disappearance.

In other words, Romulus was either taken away in a mythical cloud, or ripped limb by limb by Senators. Those are two vastly different occurrences.

Livy wasn’t intentionally trying to be funny. But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh, and neither does it mean we disrespect his legacy and work. But really, the absurdity of some things in the past. It is in some part because of the things above that I enjoy being an historian so very much.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Livy and Humour

  1. I suppose I have to give Livy second chance. I have one volume of his “ab urbe condita” but after a seemingly endless enumeration of who was elected senator or consul, who became governor of this or that province and so forth I decided I’d move on to another book. But your examples and explanations made me curious what else might be in there.

    So what about other historians like Tacitus? I read his “Germania” not so long ago and I noticed the following: Some passages sound very reasonable, objective and like a serious try to describe a people which is very different from his own.
    But other passages clearly have not been written to give accurate account on a land and its inhabitants but to teach lesson of morality. Probably aimed at his fellow Romans. This comes especially clear when he describes the customs concerning marriage.
    Then again he lapses into praises of the Roman victories above the tribes of Germania. (I avoid using the terms Germany and Germans on purpose since it’s a deficiency of the English language to use the same words for very different things in this case. The Germans Tacitus wrote about and the people living in this area today are separated by a couple of centuries, countless wars and a view big migration periods. French people and Gauls aren’t the same either, nor are Romans and Italians.)

    Well, my point is, I haven’t read much written by Livy but I found this unintended humour in another Roman historian. The part where I laughed hardest reading Tacitus was right at the beginning of Germania when he complains how ugly the landscape is. Sure, it’s hard to rival with places like Tuscany for example but he makes it sound worse than the orcus.

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    1. Roman historians each had their own unique way of telling history. I must admit that I like Tacitus a bit less than I do Livy, though only because I love Livy’s acceptance of mythological history. Though if I had to encapsulate what it was to be a true Roman in writing style and form, it would be Tacitus because he is concise, to the point, and avoids flowery description without sacrificing quality or specifics. I respect him as an historian because he was very devoted to his source material, and was more discerning in what he used, as opposed to Livy.

      Germania is my favourite of Tacitus’s, as well. He had all the bias of a Roman, and all of a snobbery of a true imperial citizen. I am likewise amused by his descriptions of the ways of his various Germanic tribes because I have a very special spot in my heart for Roman snobbery. In retrospect it was so incredibly unwarranted and close-minded, yet it was what made us so very great.

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