Some Penguin Classics get overshadowed by others, and that's certainly the case with the Aubrey De Selincourt translation of the first five books of the Roman historian Livy. This volume was done in 1960, but when readers think "DeSelincourt" and "Livy," they think of that translator's fantastic, reads-like-a-novel Penguin Classics volume titled The War with Hannibal, the praises of which we've sung often here at Stevereads. That Hannibal volume is a kind of masterpiece, but even so, The Early History of Rome deserves its day in the sun.
This is the story of Rome's earliest mytho-history, from the foundation of the city and the tale of Romulus and Remus to the Gallic invasion of 386 b.c. Here are the Tarquin kings and the virtuous virgins and the squabbling in-fighting and the oversized characters like Coriolanus who so profitably fed the imagination of Shakespeare that he sometimes doesn't even bother to change Livy's words as he's purloining them.
The reason for this is the superb drama of Livy's prose. He himself concentrates on that drama in an appealingly unashamed way - as R. M. Ogilvie points out in his introduction, Livy had no political occupation or administrative duties; the purpose of his entire life was to write, and despite the stories we read of his public readings at Rome being sparsely attended, he clearly wrote to be enjoyed. He appears to have led no public life other than that of a working historian - he came to Rome from Padua at an early age, and when he was around 30 he began work on the great history that would consume his life: a sprawling, cinematic work of 142 books, of which only 35 survive. He write his prose epic for forty years with the full encouragement of the emperor Augustus (who jokingly accused him of Pompeian loyalties), and when he died in a.d. 17 he was famous throughout the Roman world (there's an anecdote about a man from Cadiz, with which I shall not trouble you, since you've undoubtedly read about it elsewhere).
35 books isn't much. For those of us who've read them over and over for the sheer fun of it, the number is heartbreaking. But there's a consolation to be taken in these first five books of the Ab Urbe Condita. Livy started here, after all, and these five books were meant as a rhetorical unit. They were proofread, indexed, and sold separately from the rest of the work, even when the rest of the work was well advanced and garnering fans of its own. Something about these elemental stories of Rome's chaotic founding (stories Livy transmuted from the mostly Greek originals he came across and denied using) held a narrative appeal that retained its strength for long centuries after their storyteller was gone. In Livy's later sections dealing with Rome's consolidation of power in Italy and the Mediterranean, there are many spots where the master nods - but in The Early History of Rome there's scarcely time to take a breath between one incredibly charged moment and the next.
Take the example of the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, a human drama so stark that even De Selincourt's Edwardian circumlocutions fail to blunt it:
"My body only has been violated. My heart is innocent, and death will be my witness. Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer will be punished - he is Sextus Tarquinius. Hi it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death - and his, too, if you are men."
The promise was given. One after another they tried to comfort her. They told her she was helpless, and therefore innocent; that he alone was guilty. It was the mind, they said, that sinned, not the body: without intention there could never be guilt.
"What is due to him," Lucretia said, "is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent or unchaste women to escape what they deserve." With these words she drew a knife from under her robe, drive it into her heart, and fell forward, dead."
Her father and husband were overwhelmed with grief. While they stood weeping helplessly, Brutus drew the bloody knife from Lucretia's body, and holding it before him cried: "By this girl's blood - none more chaste till a tyrant wronged her - and by the gods, I swear that with sword and fire, and whatever else can lend strength to my arm, I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius the Proud, his wicked wife, and all his children, and ever again will I let them or any other man be King in Rome."
Or the scene from the story of Coriolanus where he confronts his mother before the walls of the city he's intending to sack for its insolence to him - a scene that will be familiar to lovers of Shakespeare but in Livy's hands lacks not one bit of the Bard's pathos:
"I would know," she said, "before I accept your kiss, whether I have come to an enemy or to son, whether I am here as your mother or as a prisoner of war. Have my long life and unhappy old age brought me to this, that I should see you first an exile, then the enemy of your country? Had you the heart to ravage the earth which bore and bred you? When you set foot upon it, did not your anger fall away, however fierce your hatred and lust for revenge? When Rome was before your eyes, did not the thought come to you, 'within those walls is my home, with the gods to watch over it - and my mother and my wife and my children'? Ah, had I never borne a child, Rome would not now be menaced; if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country! But now there is nothing left for me to endure, nothing which can bring to me more pain, and to you a deeper dishonour, than this. I am indeed an unhappy woman - but it will not be for long; think of these others who, if you cannot relent, must hope for nothing but an untimely death or life-long slavery."
De Selincourt's translations rolls on magnificently from page to page, and the reader is swept along. Penguin Classics has four volumes of Livy (and in my library of dream-volumes from Penguin - a library whose contents we'll get to by-and-by - they come out with one hugely satisfying plump big trade paperback of all four of those volumes together), and as noted, The War With Hannibal is the best of them, the most vivid and exciting and pivotal in terms of real, verifiable history. But The Early History of Rome takes a close second place and is utterly fascinating in its own right - not only for the drama of its stories but for the uncanny window it opens into how one very intelligent man thought the Romans under Augustus might want to see themselves - or their ideal selves.