The other day, I pulled out my copy of Livy's book Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Founding of the City), which I had thumbed through many times during my days as a history graduate student. In the English-speaking world, we generally call it, quite simply, "Livy's History of Rome." It was written in the late 1st Century BC and the early 1st Century AD, during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Livy attempted a monumental task; nothing less than an entire history of Rome and its people from the legendary founding of the city down to his own time. Sadly, the majority of Livy's books have been lost and only about a quarter of the history has survived down to the present day.
What's left, though, is magical. Reading it makes one feel like they are stepping into another world.
Some of the stories about which Livy writes are well-known to educated people. Aeneas and the arrival of his Trojan refugees on the shores of Italy. The rightful rulers Romulus and Remus being cast into the Tiber River by an evil uncle and rescued by a great she-wolf. The treason and agony of Coriolanus, whom Livy had immortalized sixteen centuries before Shakespeare got his hands on him.
Other stories told by Livy are not especially well-known to modern audiences, but are no less enthralling. The hero Horatius defending a critical bridge by himself against a powerful Etruscan army. The drama of the Battle of Lake Regillus. The three hundred and six members of the Fabii family (Livy can be very specific) going off by themselves to fight the enemy city-state of Veii.
It's fascinating to try to draw the line in Livy between what is real and what is purely legendary. Livy himself understood this and says many times that he is unsure if whatever anecdote he is relating can be considered factual. He states quite openly that the stories of Aeneas and Romulus are probably mythical and that he personally doubts the account of Horatius defending the bridge. On the other hand, two thousand five hundred years from now, will anyone believe the story of Washington crossing the ice-choked Delaware to surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton? The very fact that even the most outlandish stories in Livy's great tale just might be true, or at least based in truth, gives a certain excitement to the whole thing.
Was there really a tyrannical king named Tarquinius Superbus? Was he really overthrown by a Roman hero named Lucius Junis Brutus? Was there really a reluctant dictator named Cincinnatus, who could have made himself king but decided, in an unprecedented display of civic virtue, to retire back to his farm? The tantalizing answer is: maybe.
Moreover, we know that the general course of Livy's narrative is true. There really was a series of wars between the Romans and the various enemies described in his books: Latins, Volscians, Aequi, Hernici, and others. When one reads Livy and passes through his descriptions of these battles and sieges, it as though one is being allowed to glimpse, ever so briefly, into a historical shadow land.
There's a modern phenomena of large numbers of people becoming devoted fans of fictional literary "universes". We see this with the Lord of the Rings book, Star Wars, Star Trek, and numerous others. I have occasionally felt this pull myself; my wife never lets me forget that once, when I was a foolish boy nearly two decades ago, I attended a Star Trek convention. But I confess I have never understood this obsession with fictional universes. Real ancient history, written by historians who actually lived two millennia ago, is so much deeper and more sophisticated, besides having the infinitely desirable quality of being at least largely true. I love reading Tolkien as much as anyone, but it's peanuts next to reading Livy. Or, for that matter, reading Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Sallust, Polybius, Suetonius, or Tacitus.
What's amazing is that these priceless pieces of historical literary are so easy to obtain. Many of them can be downloaded free of charge on e-book readers. Paperback versions, perhaps discarded by short-sighted graduate students, can be found for one or two dollars in most used book stores. Even brand new copies can be purchased for the price of a cheap meal. I honestly cannot think of a better way to spend money.
Next time you have a quiet evening, I urge you to pour yourself a glass of wine (an Italian red, preferably), sit down in a comfortable chair, and open up a copy of Livy. You won't regret it.