Holland’s Livy

Livy (CA. 59 B.C.-A.D.17); Holland, Philemon (1552-1637), translator

The Romane historie vvritten by T. Livius of Padua. Also, the Breviaries of L. Florus: with a chronologie to the whole historie: and the Topographie of Rome in old time. Translated out of Latine into English, by Philemon Holland, Doctor in Physicke

London: Adam Islip, 1600


Folio: 32.7 x 21.7 cm. [12], 804, 809-1351, 1354-1403, [43] pp. Collation: [A] B-6F . (with blank [A]6 and without blank 6F6)


This is a very fine copy in contemporary calfskin, ruled in gold, with decorative tools at the corners of the central compartment, and a fine arabesque at the center of the boards, gilt. A woodcut portrait of Queen Elizabeth is printed on the verso of the title page; a second portrait, of Livy, is printed on A4 verso.

This is the first complete rendering into English of the most important Roman historian. The scholar-surgeon Philemon Holland is one of the great literary figures of the twilight years of the Elizabethan age. Like his contemporary John Florio, who translated Montaigne’s “Essays” into English in 1599, Holland not only made the works that he translated accessible to English readers, but also put his own stamp on those works, creating something at once faithful and new. The translations provided a wealth of material for English writers; it is possible that Shakespeare himself read Holland’s “Livy” (See Muir, The sources of Shakespeare’s plays (1977), p. 238)

“Holland's first book, the first complete rendering of Livy into English, was published in 1600 when he was nearly fifty. It was a work of great importance, presented in a grand folio volume of 1458 pages, and dedicated to the queen. The translation set out to be lucid and unpretentious, and achieved its aim with marked success. It is accurate, and often lively, and although it does not attempt to imitate the terseness of Latin, it avoids prolixity. As part of his book Holland translated two other substantial works—an ancient epitome of Roman history that provides an outline of the lost books of Livy, and Bartolomeo Marliani's guide to the topography of Rome—as well as some smaller texts. These were taken from the edition of Livy published in Paris in 1573; by translating them, Holland was making available in English a great learned compendium of historical knowledge, not simply a single ancient author.”(ODNB)

Livy’s “History”

"Livy's narrative began with the mythic origins of Rome, that is, with Aeneas' flight from Troy, and came down to the death of Drusus, Augustus' stepson, in Germany in 9 BC. It is possible that Livy's plan, interrupted by his death, was to reach the death of Augustus in AD 14.

"Several times, both in the preface and elsewhere, Livy refers to the fact that for him the narrating of Rome's glorious past is a refuge from the distress he feels when he comes to narrating more recent and contemporary events [the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, the subsequent war waged by Octavian (soon to be the first Roman emperor, Augustus) against Marc Antony and Cleopatra]. Although he recognizes that the crisis is epochal rather than episodic, Livy refuses to focus on that alone; rather, he strives to view it within the general context of Roman history.

"When Livy turns his gaze to the more than seven centuries that have brought Rome, a small city of Latium, to mastery of the world, he shows reverence, almost dismay, before such vast time and vast achievements. In evoking that immense journey, he feels the pressure of history, the weight of the influence that the images of the past exercise upon the consciousness of the present time. These images act as models of social and individual behavior, positive and negative; they are invitations to virtue and warnings against wickedness. The mythology of the past, in short, not only has meaning for contemporary men but also gives meaning to their actions, in that it can illustrate through examples their own ideological needs.”(Conte)

STC 16613; Pforzheimer 495; Luborsky & Ingram, English illustrated books, 1536-1603, 16613