Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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Of the lost treasures of classical literature, it is doubtful whether any are more to be regretted than the missing books of Livy. That they existed in approximate entirety down to the fifth century, and possibly even so late as the fifteenth, adds to this regret. At the same time it leaves in a few sanguine minds a lingering hope that some unvisited convent or forgotten library may yet give to the world a work that must always be regarded as one of the greatest of Roman masterpieces. The story that the destruction of Livy was effected by order of Pope Gregory I, on the score of the superstitions contained in the historian's pages, never has been fairly substantiated, and therefore I prefer to acquit that pontiff of the less pardonable superstition involved in such an act of fanatical vandalism. That the books preserved to us would be by far the most objectionable from Gregory's alleged point of view may be noted for what it is worth in favour of the theory of destruction by chance rather than by design.

Here is the inventory of what we have and of what we might have had. The entire work of Livy--a work that occupied more than forty years of his life--was contained in one hundred and forty-two books, which narrated the history of Rome, from the supposed landing of Æneas, through the early years of the empire of Augustus, and down to the death of Drusus, B.C. 9. Books I-X, containing the story of early Rome to the year 294 B.C., the date of the final subjugation of the Samnites and the consequent establishment of the Roman commonwealth as the controlling power in Italy, remain to us. These, by the accepted chronology, represent a period of four hundred and sixty years. Books XI-XX, being the second "decade," according to a division attributed to the fifth century of our era are missing. They covered seventy-five years, and brought the narrative down to the beginning of the second Punic war. Books XXI-XLV have been saved, though those of the fifth "decade" are imperfect. They close with the triumph of Æmilius, in 167 B.C., and the reduction of Macedonia to a Roman province. Of the other books, only a few fragments remain, the most interesting of which (from Book CXX) recounts the death of Cicero, and gives what appears to be a very just estimate of his character. We have epitomes of all the lost books, with the exception of ten; but these are so scanty as to amount to little more than tables of contents. Their probable date is not later than the time of Trajan. To summarize the result, then, thirty-five books have been saved and one hundred and seven lost--a most deplorable record, especially when we consider that in the later books the historian treated of times and events whereof his means of knowledge were adequate to his task.

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