History, Myth, and Talking Cows

I started reading The Early History Of Rome by Livy a little over two years ago, but today I finally finished it. It's a good book and a fun and illustrative read, but there's a reason it took me so long to get through.

Livy, or Titus Livius, as he was actually known, was a Roman writer born in 64 or 59 BC, so his writing style is... strange by modern standards. I would often have to re-read multiple pages after realizing that I had no idea who was doing what. This is compounded by the fact that there are literally hundreds of names and, in a very Roman tradition, they are all incredibly similar. I'm also a fairly slow reader, so between the constant re-reading, my overall slow reading speed, and huge reading backlog, I could only finish 20 pages before getting distracted with another easier book.

That said, Livy's work is certainly worth reading if only for some of the truly amazing stories he tells. Sometimes the stories are so completely outlandish that I have to stop and remind myself that this isn't a fantasy story, it's history. Now, obviously there is myth and legend interspersed with it, and in these early histories they're effectively inseparable. After all, it's claimed —by multiple Roman authors— that the city was founded by two children nursed by a wolf, before the oldest kills the youngest, becomes king, and ascends to heaven in a cloud. It's an interesting read.

I'd like to share just one passage that I earmarked early on in the book. For context, know that the Romans were incredibly superstitious. They were constantly on the lookout for signs from the gods and they rarely did anything without performing some sacred ritual and seeking approval from the gods (see the story of the Sacred Chickens). In this passage, the consuls for the year (461 BC) had just been elected, and war would soon come to the Romans though they didn't know it yet.

The year was marked by ominous signs: fires blazed in the sky, there was a violent earthquake, and a cow talked — there was a rumor that a cow had talked the previous year, but nobody believed it: this year they did. Nor was this all: it rained lumps of meat. Thousands of birds (we are told) seized and devoured the pieces in mid-air, while what fell to the ground lay scattered about for several days without going putrid. The Sibylline Books were consulted by two officials, who found them in them the prediction that danger threatened, from 'a concourse of alien men' who might attack 'the high places of the City, with the shedding of blood'. There was also found, amongst other things, a warning to avoid factious politics.

– Livy, History of Rome, 3.10

There is so much that I love about this passage, but my absolute favorite thing is that Livy reports that a cow talked, but for some reason the first time this happened it was dismissed, and that a cow talking is apparently a warning to avoid factious politics. If that's the case, then I kinda wish a cow would talk today.

I've already purchased the second volume of Livy's work and it's on my shelf ready to go. Hopefully I can get through this one a bit quicker.


Filed under: history, book
RSS