Monday, April 30, 2007

The more things change...

Over the holidays I asked my year 12 class to read the whole of Livy book I, of which we will be studying extracts this year. I find it a really interesting book- more mythology than history- as Livy himself acknowledges in his preface:

"Events before Rome was born, or even thought of, have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of a sound historical record, and such traditions I propose neither to affirm nor refute. There is no reason, I feel, to object when antiquity draws no hard line between the human and the supernatural: it adds dignity to the past, and, if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming a divine ancestry, that nation is our own..."

This seems a strange way to write history, but it gives us a glimpse into what Livy thought history was meant to be. For Livy, history was not just about communicating what had happened in the past, it was meant to be something that informed how you lived in the present. And so Livy would not hesitate to include a story he doubted the truth of, as long as it fitted in with his overall aim of helping the Roman people to be more moral. Livy elaborates on his aims later in his preface:

"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 for your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid."

Livy (like many Romans I suspect) had a pretty nostalgic view of Rome's past. He saw that wealth and power had brought to Rome greed, corruption and a general moral decline,

and looked back to the great Romans of the past (Brutus, Camillus, Scipio) with sentimental fondness, imagining that their lack of wealth had made them great, indeed had made Rome herself great. This is how he himself puts it:

"I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds; none has been free for so many generations from the vices of avarice and luxury, nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such esteem. Indeed, poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment. Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death, both individual and collective."

Livy has some pretty harsh words for his contemporaries- in another place he writes of his own society "we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them."

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

[ps The sculpture at the top of this post is generally assumed to be of Etruscan origin and to date to some time in the 5th century BC. It's been known for some time that the figures of Romulus and Remus were medieval additions to the original, though an article last year suggested that it may in fact have been made sometime in the middle ages]


Sophia said...

Hellooo sir.
Haha first to comment.
I got a blog too.
How awesome am i?!
Started in the holidays since the first week was full of assignmenting.
Latin is tiring when you're not very awake.
Anywho gotta start writing notes for nxt week's test.

Mike Salter said...

Reading that intro to Livy Book 1, I'm always reminded of that line by the Greek poet at the beginning of I, Claudius. Augustus's major-domo is saying that he used to be an actor but has given up, and goes on to complain to the Greek guy that "the theatre isn't what it was, you know".

And the Greek responds: "No. And I'll tell you something else: it never was what it was."

Great little line...and very true.

Anonymous said...

nice. i've never read I, Claudius, though many people have told me I should. perhaps next holidays...

Mike Salter said...

That line was actually from the TV adaptation rather than the book(s), but the original Graves books are a fantastic read.