A Rare Manuscript from Livy’s Seminal Work: From a 15th c. copy of the History of Rome

Written in the 15th Century, it describes Roman consolidation of power, collected by the famous Otto Ege who wanted to put a Medieval manuscript in every home

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Purchase $4,600

A very uncommon leaf from Livy, very few manuscript examples having survived

Rome, having survived the invasions of the Celtic Gauls in the early 4th century BC, set its sights on further expansion in the middle part of the century. They re-conquered those Latin and Etruscan towns that had left the fold...

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A Rare Manuscript from Livy’s Seminal Work: From a 15th c. copy of the History of Rome

Written in the 15th Century, it describes Roman consolidation of power, collected by the famous Otto Ege who wanted to put a Medieval manuscript in every home

A very uncommon leaf from Livy, very few manuscript examples having survived

Rome, having survived the invasions of the Celtic Gauls in the early 4th century BC, set its sights on further expansion in the middle part of the century. They re-conquered those Latin and Etruscan towns that had left the fold during the Gallic occupation, and in absorbing others, reconsolidated their position as the dominant force in Latium and Central Italy. With their home turf secured (or so it seemed) the Romans looked south towards Campania.

At this time, the Samnites had moved into the fertile lands of Campania, from the south-central Appenines. They already controlled the towns of Capua and Cumae to the south of Rome, and held sway to the east, as well. Rome, to protect its flanks while still in the midst of re-taking Latium and Etruria, wisely entered into an alliance with the Samnites in 354 BC. Conflict with Samnium over Campanian dominance was inevitable, however, and would soon turn into a series of wars lasting from 343 – 290 BC.

The years surrounding the Samnite Wars were not only one of military prowess for Rome, but of great public works, as well. In 329 BC, the Circus Maximus got one of many face-lifts throughout its history, gaining permanent horse-stalls and starting gates. The first Roman road, the Via Appia, was constructed from Rome to Capua in 312 BC and the first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was also established at the same time. These magnificent structures not only were of great benefit to Rome and her people, but proved the flourishing disposition of the state even during time of war and expansion. At the end of the Samnite Wars, Rome held perhaps as many as 150,000 people making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean region. As many as 1,000,000 people claimed citizenship to Rome, and vastly larger numbers were obligated through Latin rights and allied status.

With the defeat of Samnium, the last major Italian threat, Rome was the master of nearly the entire Italian peninsula, save for the Gauls occupying the Po valley in the north and the Greek holdout cities like Tarentum in the far south. This growing power soon gained the attention of regional powers in Greece and later, the masters of the Mediterranean, the Carthaginians.

Livy, or Titus Livius, (59 BC – 17AD), wrote his history of Rome starting with the foundation myth of Aeneas (510 BC) up to the successful German campaigns and death of Emperor Drusus (9 BC). This history comprised 142 books. Of those books, 35 survive to present day, with the bulk being the first 10 years (Books 1-10), fragments of 11, Books 21-45, fragments of 91, and scattered quotations preserved in secondary works.

Though the accounts differ, the destruction of Livy’s work has been attributed to the hand of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604), who was trying to eliminate pagan works from Christian hands. This biblioclasm, whether it was through the Pope’s doing or through the natural loss of material to time, has severed us from an important access point to Roman history, as some of the material used by Livy has not been found in his source texts.

With the bulk of the texts destroyed, Livy’s History of Rome passed into the Middle Ages primarily through summary, and with the extreme length of the work, the original Classical and Early Medieval manuscripts were not recopied and fell into decay and loss. Thus, by the so-called 12th Century Renaissance, Livy’s historical writing was quite rare. It was not until the 1300s that Livy regained popularity. Dante was one of those who respected Livy, and in his Inferno the poet references Livy, “come Livïo scrive, che non erra” (as Livy wrote, who does not err).

The hunt was on for Livy’s lost manuscripts, even just a fragmental scrap was a treasure worth finding in the 1300s. Even Pope Nicholas V turned his efforts towards finding these rare manuscripts, some of which had been destroyed by his papal predecessor. The Italian Humanist period into the Renaissance increasingly sought any extant versions of this history; as the esteem for, and ardent imitation of, Greco-Roman culture increased, so did the need for access points to this history. Entire country homes in Italy were sold to buy a single manuscript of Livy’s works, copied by one of the men primarily responsible for the new handwriting style, now known as the Humanist hand. Scholarship and commentary, ranging from England, by Dominican Friar Nicholas Trevet, to Italy, by Laurentius Valla, paved the way for further analysis of the Roman historian.

This Italian manuscript leaf, likely from the mid-1400s to the very early 1500s, comprises part of Book 9, from BC 308. With only minor deviations from the Loeb Classical Library text, which is the scholarly standard. These deviations indicate that this manuscript descends from a different stemma than the most common, or most “correct,” one which was for the Loeb edition, further painting the picture of the Humanist effort to grasp this fading history from the jowls of history, and the pains to retaining the original text despite the lack of exemplars.

In addition to representing an important moment in the recuperation of history, the script throws us into modernity. Towards the end of the 14th century, several Italian humanists, including Niccolò Niccoli and Poggion Bracciolini, began set about to reform the increasingly dense Gothic handwriting which had dominated book making since the mid-13th century. The Gothic script, whose legacy in printing extends to 20th century German fraktur found in pre-war books, was full of letters fused together, ornate thorns and hairlines, and single strokes called minims which became impossible to read. These 14th century Italians set about to recreate a script that utilized space between each letterform and simpler strokes— a new take on the handwriting endorsed by Charlesmagne himself for the education of his Holy Roman Empire. This script, known as Humanist, caught on and proliferated. By the time texts were bring printed at the end of the 15th century, the printers looked to this script to make a font and further, our modern Times New Roman font is based on the Humanist script, which is, in part, why this text of Livy is so legible to us as a modern audience.

Pierre Maréchaux, “The Transmission of Livy from the End of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Seventeenth Century: Distortion or Discovery, a Story of Corruption,” A Companion to Livy, ed. Bernard Mineo, (John Wiley & Sons: 2014), pp. 437-452.

More details

LEAF FROM LIVY’S AB URBE CONDITAS, in Latin, text manuscript on parchment [Northeastern Italy, perhaps Padua, 1456] Single column of 34 lines written in brownish ink in Humanist hand with some slant and ligatures. Letters beginning sections set in margins, with two hatch marks in pen next to all but one of the initials. Single correction, indicated by strike through with amended word written above (line 15, recto); Ruled horizontally in red ink. Distinct hair and flesh sides. Modern pencil number 185 at the bottom left hand of the column on verso. Provenance: Sothebys, March 1825, Payne and Foss, 1825, Sothebys, 1902 & 1923, Parke-Bernet 1941, Otto Ege. Gwara Handlist 52.

Text & Translation:

…ruperat, Fabius consul nec dubia nec difficili victoria dimicat. Ipsum oppidum—nam ad moenia victor accessit—cepisset, ni legati dedentes urbem exissent. Praesidio Perusiae imposito, legationibus Etruriae amicitiam petentibus prae se Romam ad senatum missis consul praestantiore etiam quam dictator victoria triumphans urbem est invectus; quin etiam devictorum Samnitium decus magna ex parte ad legatos, P. Decium et M. Valerium, est versum; quos populus proximis comitiis ingenti consensu consulem alterum, alterum praetorem declaravit.

XLI. Fabio ob egregie perdomitam Etruriam continuatur consulatus; Decius collega datur. Valerius praetor quartum creatus. Consules partiti provincias: Etruria Decio, Samnium Fabio evenit. Is profectus1 ad Nuceriam Alfaternam, cum pacem petentes, quod uti ea cum daretur noluissent, aspernatus esset,oppugnando ad deditionem subegit. Cum Samnitibus acie dimicatum. Haud magno certamine hostes victi; neque eius pugnae memoria tradita foret, ni Marsi eo primum proelio cum Romanis bellassent. Secuti Marsorum defectionem Paeligni eandem fortunam habuerunt.

Decio quoque, alteri consuli, secunda belli fortuna erat. Tarquiniensem metu subegerat frumentum exercitui praebere atque indutias in quadraginta annos petere. Volsiniensium castella aliquot vi cepit; quaedam ex his diruit ne receptaculo hostibus essent; circumferendoque passim bello tantum terrorem sui fecit ut nomen omne Etruscum foedus ab consule peteret. Ac de eo quidem nihil impetratum; indutiae annuae datae. Stipendium exercitu Romano ab hoste in eum annum pensum et binae tunicae in militem exactae; ea merces indutiarum fuit.

Tranquillas res iam in Etruscis turbavit repentina defectio Umbrorum, gentis integrae a cladibus belli, nisi quod transitum exercitus ager senserat. concitata omni iuventute sua et magna parte Etruscorum ad rebellionem compulsa tantum exercitum fecerant ut relicto post se in Etruria Decio ad oppugnandam inde Romam ituros, magnifice de se ac contemptim de Romanis loquentes, iactarent. Quod inceptum eorum ubi ad Decium consulem perlatum est, ad urbem ex Etruria magnis itineribus pergit et in agro Pupiniensi ad famam intentus hostium consedit. Nec Romae spernebatur Umbrorum bellum, et ipsae minae metum fecerant expertis Gallica clade quam intutam urbem incolerent, Itaque legati ad Fabium consulem missi sunt, ut si quid laxamenti a bello Samnitium esset, in Umbriam propere exercitum duceret. Dicto paruit consul magnisque itineribus ad Mevaniam, ubi tum copiae Umbrorum erant, perrexit.

Repens adventus consulis, quem procul Umbria in Samnio bello alio occupatum crediderant, ita exter-ruit Umbros ut alii recedendum ad urbes munitas…

In the same year the consul Fabius fought a battle with the remnants of the Etruscan forces near Perusia—which, together with other cities, had broken the truce—and gained an easy and decisive victory. He would have taken the town itself—for after the battle he marched up to the walls—had not ambassadors come out and surrendered the place. Having placed a garrison in Perusia and having sent on before him to the senate in Rome the Etruscan deputations which had come to him seeking friendship, the consul was borne in triumph into the City, after gaining a success more brilliant even than the dictator’s; indeed the glory of conquering the Samnites was largely diverted upon the lieutenants, Publius Decius and Marcus Valerius, of whom, at the next election, the people with great enthusiasm made the one consul and the other praetor.

In recognition of his remarkable conquest of Etruria, Fabius was continued in the consulship, and was given Decius for his colleague. Valerius was for the fourth time chosen praetor. The consuls cast lots for the commands, Etruria falling to Decius and Samnium to Fabius. The latter marched against Nuceria Alfaterna, and rejecting that city’s overtures of peace because its people had declined it when it was offered them, laid siege to the place and forced it to surrender. A battle was fought with the Samnites, in which the enemy were defeated without much difficulty, nor would the engagement have been remembered but for the fact that it was the first time that the Marsi had made war against the Romans. The Paeligni imitated the defection of the Marsi, and met with the same fate.

Decius, the other consul, was also successful in war. When he had frightened the Tarquinienses into furnishing corn for the army and seeking a truce for forty years, he captured by storm a number of strongholds belonging to the people of Volsinii. Some of these he dismantled, lest they should serve as a refuge for the enemy, and by devastating far and wide he made himself so feared that all who bore the Etruscan name begged the consul to grant them a treaty. This privilege they were denied, but a truce for a year was granted them. They were required to furnish the Roman army with a year’s pay and two tunics for each soldier; such was the price they paid for a truce.

The tranquility which now obtained in Etruria was disturbed by a sudden revolt of the Umbrians, a people which had escaped all the distress of war, except that an army had passed through their territory. Calling up all their fighting men, and inducing great part of the Etruscans to rebel, they mustered so large an army, that they boasted, with much glorifying of themselves and fleering at the Romans, that they would leave Decius behind them in Etruria and march off to the assault of Rome. When this purpose of theirs was reported to the consul Decius, he hastened by forced marches from Etruria towards the City, and encamped in the fields belonging to Pupinia, eagerly waiting for word of their approach. At Rome no one made light of an Umbrian invasion. Their very threats had excited fear in those who had learnt from the Gallic disaster how unsafe was the City they inhabited. Accordingly envoys were dispatched to carry word to Fabius the consul, that if there were any slackening in the Samnite war he should with all speed lead his army into Umbria. The consul obeyed the order, and advanced by long marches to Mevania, where the forces of the Umbrians at that time lay.

The sudden arrival of the consul, whom they had believed to have his hands full with another war in Samniurn, a long way from Umbria, so dismayed the Umbrians that some were for falling back on their fortified cities, and others for giving up the war…

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