Livy unveiled? —the periodic style


It is daunting for a student to be confronted by a Latin passage in the periodic style: its long sentences appear in a rectangle of text, such being the format of a book. But the young Roman attending his rhetor did not visualise words massed in an oblong block. Rhetoric was about aural memory, and the mind and ears were trained to remember the sounds of words, and the clauses and phrases in their different lengths. Such memory became almost unconscious, as things in the auditory memory do.

Attached under the Texts menu above is a passage of Livy in two formats: the first as a block of text, and the second arranged in its clauses and phrases. The extract, about Scipio in XXVI.42, was chosen randomly, except that it is memorable. The shape that emerges is interesting.

A thoughtful student may ask whether Livy wrote a passage like this currente calamo, or whether he drafted, redrafted and crafted. How difficult to answer! There are some people who can write in a beautiful and lucid way without effort. Bertrand Russell was an example. He says that, after Logan Pearsall Smith had advised him always to rewrite,

‘I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time.’
Bertrand Russell, How I write: essay in Portraits from Memory, 1956.

What about Livy? It may be that an immersive training in rhetoric made it easier for him to produce a passage like this one; but if he was like most of us frail mortals, then he had to elaborate it.

Next post: Media and messages.

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