Posts Tagged ‘history books


At War With The Samnites: Rome and Italy by Titus Livy (Trans. by Betty Radice)

Rome and Italy: Books VI-X of the History of Rome from its FoundationRome and Italy: Books VI-X of the History of Rome by Titus Livy
Translated by Betty Radice
Introduction by R.M. Ogilvie

The second volume of Livy’s monumental history of Rome, Penguin’s Rome and Italy covers a less famous period of history but is still a blast to read.

It picks up where the first volume leaves off, just a couple years after the first Gallic sack of Rome, with a rebuilding Roman citystate and a bunch of other communities looking to shake off any obligation to Rome. Soon these skirmishes blow into full-scale conflicts: The Samnite Wars. Livy’s history covers this century in detail as the Samnites deal Rome a huge blow at the Caudine Forks, but fail to take Pontius’ advice and make a powerful, resentful enemy. The book follows these wars through their conclusion in the early 3rd century BC, when Roman armies routed the Samnites through the countryside.

Okay then, so why read Livy and not a more contemporary historian? After all, his account is a little muddled at times and certainly far from objective. But aside from the charm of reading something written by (and for) the Romans, Livy’s accounts are packed like a novel: between Livy recreating speeches and the dramatic action scenes, he colours in these ancient stories with fascinating detail. When these armies clash, the Roman commander yells aloud and throws himself into a pile of soldiers. The senate doesn’t just disagree, they debate back and forth. There’s even some sly humour about a group of Roman pipe-players who get tricked by a group of citizens.

But as with the other volumes, Livy (and translator Betty Radice) is at his best when describing combat. For example, there’s the account of Alexander, the King of Eprius, meeting his demise in battle:

Betty Radice’s translation is fluid and free of jargon, although the footnotes are kept to a minimum, usually to reference a related passage in elsewhere in Livy. R.M. Ogilvie’s introduction is nice, too, breaking down Livy’s sources, structure and comparing his account to surviving evidence. A slight downside: I would’ve appreciated a better selection of maps: Penguin’s comes with just four, one of which is stretched over two pages and loses a section in the middle.

Rating: 7/10. A fun, readable account of an oft-overlooked period of Roman history, Rome and Italy shows the start of Rome’s rise from a citystate to an empire, slowly overwhelming the other players in the surrounding country. It’s not as dramatic as Hannibal crossing the Alps, nor as famous as the Roman civil wars, but it’s a fascinating period nonetheless. Still if you’re new to Livy, I’d recommend starting at the beginning.


The Travels by Marco Polo

The TravelsThe Travels by Marco Polo (trans. Ronald E. Latham)

Today, it’s relatively easy to hop on a jet and find yourself on the other side of the planet, to catch a Greyhound and travel to the far coast. And it’s an obvious point, but even 100 years ago, that was unthinkable. You could catch a ship and travel across the Atlantic, but that took time. It wasn’t something you could bang out over a weekend.

And the other day, while I was looking at flights online, I was reminded of a book I’d read a few months before: The Travels, Marco Polo’s account of travelling to the far East and back again in the 13th century.

The product of several different relationships, all of which happened at just the right time, The Travels of Marco Polo is an interesting document of one of the first men to really travel. Marco was the son of a merchant and travelled across Europe, Asia and the Indian Ocean in a time when most people never left their hometowns. He met with people on the coast of Africa, travelled as far north as the Arctic Ocean and spent years living in China in the court of Kublai Khan. As translator Ronald Latham notes in his introduction, not only was Polo’s route unprecedented, some of the places he travelled weren’t widely used for centuries afterwards.

Born in Venice to a family of traders who travelled as far east as Constantinople, Polo just about had travel in his genes. Although he didn’t spend much time with his dad as youth (young Marco remained at home), the two of them set out on a trading expedition in 1271. They wouldn’t return for nearly a quarter of a century.

In his book, Polo writes of travelling overland at first, up through the Middle East and across modern China. His trip took him across the Gobi desert to mainland China. Mostly, his book’s concerned with things he experienced first-hand, only rarely falling into fantasy and rumour. It’s interesting to compare him to Sir John Mandeville, who colours a mostly fictional narrative with flourishes borrowed from Polo.

By the time Polo returned to Venice, the area was in turmoil and he soon found himself on a warship and then in prison. It was here he met with Rustichello, a capable writer of Arthurian romances who’d turn what could have been a handbook of trade routes, cities and inventories into a coherent trek across the world.

By and large, Polo’s book is pretty plain: he mostly sticks to what he saw first-hand and only occasionally indulges in the fantastic; although when he does it’s pretty memorable: people with the heads of dogs, a story about a drunk Russian who got his beard frozen to his wife’s butt, unicorns living in the jungle. Just as interesting are the details he omits like The Great Wall or Chinese writing. It’s likely that Polo was setting this down for the people who’d follow him on trade routes, and even then only at Rustichello’s direction. Did he only mention what he thought was relevant to other traders? Did he forget? Or was the book based more on rumour than he cared to admit? We’ll likely never know.

Such arguments are a counter to the book as a literal truth or guidebook. Today it’s value is it’s look back at a world unrecognizable to us, at once fantastic and ancient. This world Polo travelled closed shortly after he journeyed through it: the Yuan Dynasty collapsed shortly after Polo’s death, closing the Mongol-run overland route, and it was centuries before anyone else made a similar trip and lived to write about it.

That’s also looking past Polo’s greatest achievement: his book’s a fun read, a lot more fun than Mandeville or Columbus (himself a fan of Polo!). Ronald Latham’s translation for Penguin is good, too: it occasionally reads a little stiffly, but his introduction gives not only a ton of history on Polo, but on the messy manuscript tradition of his memoirs.

Rating: 8/10.  Recommended, especially for people interested in history or travel writing.

Related: You’d Have To Be Crazy To Do It: Columbus’ Four Travels

Related: Journey Through the Past: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville