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4.9.19 Camillus in Tusculum


There are times when the canon – the set body of Latin texts from ancient Rome that are read and studied today – can feel a bit claustrophobic. When you find yourself reading a text that is so intensely interested in – to pick a characteristic set of themes – war and virtue, barbarians and the state, you begin to realize how limited some of Latin’s famous texts are, how restricted the community of readers that has kept these texts centre stage. And that is not to say that those same texts cannot be, at the same time, impressive and meaningful works of literature. On first glance, the history of Titus Livius, or Livy, is the kind of text I’m talking about: volume after volume on how Rome came to rule the world, its chapters a succession of military campaigning and men’s speeches. But there is an interesting complication: Livy is a good storyteller.

One of the things I’m curious about is the gap between fact and fiction, specifically the gap between fact and fiction in the writing of history. Now, in the standard modern definition of history, it’s a place for facts and figures, careful and analytical research, sober and considered judgement. And that’s all good and important. Distortions of the past can be dangerous things. But I also think that fiction can be ‘true’ too, that a good novel can be as truthful about the past (or present, or future) as any bit of historical prose. Reading the novels of Ursula Le Guin over the summer brought this home to me, and I remembered John Berger’s words on James Joyce’s Ulysses, when he says this: ‘to separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea.’

What does all this have to do with Livy? Well, one of the most distinctive things about the famous Roman historians, and about Livy in particular, is that the history they write is stylish, dramatic, artful. It’s often closer to what we would call historical fiction, or even (in the case of Tacitus) a 1940s film noir. And for me the stories in Livy are often just as worthy of the label ‘history’ as his formal narration of politics and war. In his work you find all the usual stuff of Roman history, but you’ll also find good stories, stories that he has very probably created (invented) with only a cursory regard for what we would call historical evidence. And in fairness to Livy, when he is writing the semi-mythical history of early Rome several centuries after the event, he can’t have had much to go on anyway.

My favourite bit of Livy is what you might call a utopian moment. It looks like there’s going to be a war between Rome and Tusculum (modern Frascati), and the Roman hero Camillus goes to investigate. But when he arrives in Tusculum he finds a scene straight out of daily life, and it’s clear that, for once, peace, not war, is the order of the day. And the kind of street scene he writes is just the kind of scene that is so rarely depicted in Latin literature, one that could belong to the present as much as to the past. There are women and children, for a start, there is the hussle and bussle of trade and people getting on with their day. In short, the kind of scene that historians, then and now, don’t often care that much about, but one which you could imagine still happening in villages and small towns in the world today. The ‘great man’ of traditional historiography becomes a bystander. But don’t take my word for it, here’s the passage in my English translation (if you’d like to read the Latin, it’s Livy 6. 25. 7–11, available here). I hope you find it interesting.

‘But there wasn’t any war with the Tusculans, and the Roman aggression they couldn’t match in war they tackled with a studied peace. As the Roman army came into their territory, no one along the route moved away, the work in the fields continued, and the men of Tusculum opened the gates and came out in their togas to meet the Roman generals; supplies for the camp were brought without rancour from the town and the surrounding fields. When he had pitched camp before the gates, Camillus wanted to see whether the kind of normality he saw around him was also to be found inside the town itself, and so he went in to find out. There he saw doors wide open and goods placed out on the stalls in full view, craftspeople going about their business, and schools full of the din of children learning; the streets were full of women and boys going this way and that, wherever their errands took them. Not only were they not afraid of Camillus, they didn’t even notice him. He looked around at all this, scanning for any evidence of war. But there was no sign of any preparation for a conflict: everything was so calm, so persistently normal, that it was as if word of the war had barely reached them.’

Note: The Ursula Le Guin novels I liked (not least for their own ‘utopian moments’) are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and the John Berger quote is from p. 86 of his essay ‘Forthflowing on a Joycean Tide’, in Landscapes: John Berger on Art, published by Verso and edited by Tom Overton. I recommend them all.