T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita: Preface

Translation of the book on Roman history Ab Urbe Condita by Titus Livius (Livy): Preface

Whether it will be worth my while if I write out the full history of the Roman nation from the very beginning, I do not know well enough to say and, if I did know, I would not dare to say it, since I may see that the institution [of writing such histories] has been around a long time and will be well known as long as new authors always believe either that they are going to bring more certainty to the matter or that, with respect to writing skill, they will surpass the unsophisticated ancients. However that may be, it will please me, nevertheless, that I myself to the best of my ability will have tended to the memory of the accomplishments of the leading nation of the world; and if in such a crowd of writers my fame may be doubtful, I may console myself with the widespread fame and the greatness of those who overshadow my own name.

And besides, it is a subject needing immense work, since it is one which stretches back more than seven hundred years and which, having started out from tiny beginnings, has grown so much that now it suffers from its own great size. I do not doubt that the events at and immediately after the city’s origins may offer less enjoyment to most readers as they hurry on to these recent times in which the powers of a once exceptionally strong nation are now destroying themselves. In contrast, I will seek also for myself, as a reward of the labor, that I may withdraw out of sight of the evils that our age has seen for so many years, just as long as I am recalling in my mind all those former times, of course, freed from all the care which, although it can not turn a writer’s mind away from the truth, can however worry it.

I do not intend to either affirm or refute those traditions, more suitable to poetic fables than to authentic historical records, which are handed down from times before the founding of the city or from times just before it was founded. This favor is granted to antiquity: that it may make the beginnings of cities more majestic by mixing human activities with the divine; and if it is proper to permit any nation to immortalize its origins and to relate its founders to the gods, then when the Roman nation, having such a source of pride in war, calls the supremely powerful Mars its ancestor and its founder’s own father, the human races may indeed tolerate this as calmly as they tolerate its political dominion.

But, however those and similar myths are considered and judged, I myself will give them no importance. In my opinion each reader should focus attentively on these points: what were the life and customs? Through the actions of which men and by means of what skills, at home and in war, was dominion brought forth and increased? Thereafter the reader may follow mentally how morals collapsed, as is characteristic of a thing sitting idle, little by little when discipline was first slipping, then more and more, then began to plummet, until these times arrived in which we can tolerate neither our faults nor the remedies.

In light of this, it is especially beneficial and fruitful in the learning of history that you are examining reports of every pattern of behavior set down in a clear record; from that source you may adopt, for yourself and your government, what to imitate; from that source you may avoid what is foul from the beginning and what is foul in its outcome. Besides, either the love for this project which I have undertaken misleads me, or there has never been a country greater or more venerable or richer in good examples, nor any community which greed and extravagance entered so late, nor where poverty and thrift had so much respect for so long. There was less greed to the extent that there was less property. Recently riches have carried in greed, and overflowing sensual pleasures have brought a craving to lose oneself and blot out the entire world through luxury and pleasure.

But complaints, not welcome even when they will perhaps be necessary, may at least be absent from the beginnings of such a large undertaking. Rather, if we also may have the custom that poets have, let us more willingly begin with good omens and wishes, with prayers to the gods and goddesses that they may give us fortunate outcomes from the very beginnings of the work.

Remarks: Unintentional Chauvinism

Translation Copyright 2008 Verbifex


One Response to “T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita: Preface”

  1. verbifex Says:

    I said in About Memoria Romana that I want to translate without adding or removing anything, but then in the first paragraph of the preface of the first book I added some words: “[of writing such histories]”. An explanation is in order.
    The word I translated as “institution”, “res”, has the primary meaning “thing”, but is used for a long list of abstract ideas, including “matter”, “circumstance”, “property”, “court case”, and “topic”, et al. So, in its literal form, we have

    … I may see that the thing has been around a long time and will be well known as long as new authors always believe …

    What thing is Mr. Livy referring to? Why does it matter? Why not just leave it as “thing” and let each reader struggle with it? The reason is that “thing” does not have quite the same kind of wide usage in English that “res” has in Latin, so the translation generally uses the more specific English word that fits the context. For example, the phrase “res publica” is not translated as “public thing” but as “public business” or “government” or “politics” as the context requires. So it would be a dereliction of translatorial duty not to figure out what Mr. Livy meant.
    Some translators think the “thing” is the “theme”, i.e., Roman history itself, that has been around and will continue as long as new authors think they can do it better. Others understand “thing” as the “foible” of expressing confidence in one’s ability which is old and will continue as long as new writers have confidence in their own abilities. Neither of these is satisfactory and both seem to require fudging the translation of nearby words or adding ideas.
    But the topic of the paragraph as a whole is the writing of histories, particularly histories of Rome. This kind of project, apparently already a literary staple in Mr. Livy’s day, is still well-known even in our own time, and for the stated reason. Once the “thing” is understood as this institution, the rest of the words translate in a straightforward manner.
    So because there is evidently an ambiguity here, I give my resolution of the ambiguity in brackets so that the reader can know that something has been added beyond the normal interpretive choice of words required by translation.

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