On Urban Conditions:
Reading Livy in a time of pandemic
Titus Livius, abbr. Livy, is the most celebrated of Roman historians: most famous for his account of the politics and warfare of Rome, from its founding to the historian’s own day: entitled by him, Ab Urbe Condita (‘From the City’s beginning’), but now known best as Livy’s History of Rome. Almost since its initial publication, this series, comprising 142–150 books (35 extant), has served more than a little of the purpose claimed by its author, to offer ‘evidence of every sort of behavior… you may select for yourself and your country what to emulate, what to avoid’ (trans. T.J. Luce). Indeed, Roman history in toto is often invoked as an apt analogy for the behavior of modern nations; sometimes made to correspond therewith, episode by episode, for the purpose of illuminating modern times, by way of recurrent events, and in support of a uniformitarian theory of history.
Upon an initial reading, Livy’s history seems ideal for this purpose. Most of the Roman concerns are familiar to every city-dweller of our own day: the problem of debt, the question of the franchise, endless wars, and the eternal struggle between liberty and tyranny. Most of the efforts to resolve these concerns, are as inconclusive in antiquity as in modernity, and for much the same reasons: evidence, perhaps, of the saying, Those who forget the past, are condemned to repeat it.
When it comes to plagues and epidemics, however, Livy’s work is somewhat less instructive. There is frequent mention, throughout Books III-VI, of ‘pestilence’; but even the worst plagues and epidemics amount to no more than a paragraph each. In a way, this is heartening to modern sufferers, not of the plagues themselves (whom it cannot easily encourage), but of the plagues’ effect of society. In Livy’s account, the Roman people reverted, as soon as the spread of sickness abated, to their old debates, as if the disease were no more than an interruption thereof; and there is no compelling reason to believe, our own civilizations, however threatened for the moment, shall not do the same. In that respect, the Roman example is encouraging, and offers a hope, that the objectives and habits embraced by modern peoples prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, may be resumed without loss in the coming years.
Most commentary on the COVID-19 outbreak, declare it ‘Unprecedented’, and forecast revolutions as a result of it, and demises of familiar social habits. A study of Livy’s history, and indeed of any history of any civilization admired by us in modern times, proves otherwise, and gives the reader a hope for the future.