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Book of the Month

October 2005

Third Decade of the History


Milan: c.1450
MS Hunter 370 (V.1.7)

Our October 'Book of the Month' is a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript. The text is a classical work by the Roman writer Livy who began writing his History of Rome over two thousand years ago. This manuscript copy is unusual because, at this time, humanist copies of Livy were not normally illustrated. Moreover, the illustrations in this volume are exceptionally beautiful.

Book One: detail of initial letter showing Battle of the River Trebia
(folio 1r

The author:
Titus Livius (Livy) was born in Patavium (modern Padua) in the north of Italy in 59BC. He died in AD17. He began writing his History of Rome when he was about 30 years old, in around 29BC.

Unfortunately, the majority of Livy's writing has not survived. What remains, including summaries written by later authors, indicates that the History was an extensive work. It spanned nearly 800 years from the foundation of the city of Rome (753BC) to the death of Cicero (43BC) with a summary covering events down to 9BC.

The volume featured here comprises what is known as the 'Third Decade' of the History and deals with the period of the Second Punic War (218-201BC). As Livy describes it, "...the story of the most memorable war in history: that, namely, which was fought by Carthage under the leadership of Hannibal against Rome." It includes the journey of Hannibal's army across the Alps with war elephants, the siege and fall of cities and battles in Italy, Spain and Africa. The final battle of this period, the Battle of Zama, resulted in Hannibal's defeat by the Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio (Scipio Africanus).

The image on the left, taken from the opening page, shows Hannibal's early defeat of Roman forces in 218BC at the Battle of the River Trebia (shown flowing at the bottom of the picture).




Book One: first page of the manuscript
(folio 1r)

The illustrator:
The name of the artist responsible for the illustrations is not known. However, on stylistic grounds it is believed that the same artist worked on many other religious and classical works during the first half of the fifteenth century. These include an Italian translation of Suetonius’s 'Lives of the Twelve Emperors' (now in the Bibliothéque Nationale de France: Italien 131). From this work the artist is known as the 'Master of the Vitae Imperatorum' and has been described as " of the foremost miniaturists working at the court of Milan in the early and mid fifteenth century."
At this time Milan was governed by two powerful families: the Dukes of Visconti and, after 1450, the Dukes of Sforza.

Each book of the Third Decade begins with a large initial illustrating episodes from the text which follows. Given the content of the manuscript, these are all scenes of battle, invasion or execution. Despite the violent subject matter, the artist's skill and attention to detail has created some beautiful images.


Book Three: detail of initial letter showing clash between
the armies of Hannibal and the Roman general Marcellus
(folio 66r)
The scribe:
The text is written in Latin and on vellum. The scribe has been identified as Laurentius Dolobella who also wrote the text for a work by Plutarch (now in the British Museum: Add. MS 22318). He has written in a round, upright, humanistic script. This style of writing became well established in the later fifteenth century. It was considered easier to read than the heavier, Gothic style of script which preceded it and developed as part of the renaissance humanist movement of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which emphasised the importance of classical literature and learning.


Book Four: initial R in the text
(folio 107v)

Book Five: extract from the text showing the humanistic style of script
(folio 137r)

Book Five: initial A in the text
(folio 137r)
Livy initially worked in units of five books, this length being governed by the size of the papyrus rolls he wrote on. The Third Decade consists of ten books which are numbered in Latin as 'Primus', 'Secundus', 'Tertius' and so on. Within the organisation of the History as a whole, the Third Decade comprises Books 21-30 of the original 142.

Livy was not the first to attempt writing a complete history of Rome and he was able to draw on the writings of predecessors including the Greek historian Polybius (c.203BC-120BC). Polybius had been a tutor of Scipio Africanus the Younger (adopted grandson of the Scipio Africanus who defeated Hannibal at the decisive Battle of Zama).

There is no record of Livy as a political figure, unlike many classical writers whose work has survived, and at least one of his contemporaries criticised him for being 'provincial'. It is considered that Livy's lack of public office meant that he did not have first-hand experience of how the Roman government worked, the effect being that he saw historical events in personal and moral terms rather than political ones. This is viewed critically by some and is certainly a factor in considering Livy as an historical source. However, the fact that manuscripts such as this were being produced 1400 years after his death is a strong indication of the continued popularity of Livy's work.

Book Seven: initial letter showing the head of Hasdrubal brought to his brother Hannibal
(folio 185r)

Book Ten: detail of initial letter
showing defeat of King Syphax
(folio 279v) 

Dramatic scenes convey the speed and turmoil of battle. An elephant is crushed beneath the horses (above) and people are shown bombarding their attackers from the top of the walls (right) on which is written the city's name, 'Syracuse'.


An illuminated manuscript is one which has had gold or another metal applied. In this manuscript the treatment has been applied to the frames of the initial letters and used to pick out details such as the king's crown in the picture on the left. This type of approach is fairly typical but the extent and overall quality of the illustration is not.

Illuminators and painters sometimes belonged to the same trade guilds or confraternities and the "painterly qualities" of these illustrations have been commented on, the unified approach to the designs and the "precise awareness of tonal values". Also of note is the artist's representation of armour and clothing, including the types of helmets worn by the soldiers and the draping and folding of robes such as that worn by the figure on the right. The artist evidently took inspiration from the fifteenth-century society in which he lived, rather than the classical Rome of Livy's History.

Such a fine manuscript would have been very expensive to produce, both in terms of materials and the skilled people commissioned to undertake the work. The possession of such a luxurious item would have been a significant sign of status.

Book Six: detail of initial letter
showing an execution
(folio 153r)

The artist depicts various emotions - solemnity, fear, anger, horror - in the faces of these individuals (above and left).

Book Five: detail of initial letter
showing attack on city of Syracuse
(folio 124r)

Book Four: detail of initial letter
showing an execution

(folio 95v)
Book One: armorial achievement from the first page of the manuscript
(folio 1r)
This manuscript is over 500 years old. It had passed through the hands of a number of owners before it arrived at Glasgow University in the early nineteenth century. Although the precise history of the manuscript has still to be established, the identity of the first owner may be linked to the initials (I. A.) and the armorial achievement (shown on the left) which appear on the first page of the manuscript. The shield is charged with, what appears to be, an eagle with outstretched wings. The whole is surmounted by an impressive dragon crest.

At the end of the volume there are some notes on the family connections of Guillaume de Rochefort, Chancellor of France, who died in 1492. From the style of the handwriting it is thought that these notes were added later, in the sixteenth century. It would seem possible though that Rochefort had some connection with the manuscript. He is known to have visited Italy in the service of the Duke of Burgundy.


Extract from the biographical notes regarding the Rochefort family
(folio 308r)

Book Five: initial page
(folio 124r)

By the eighteenth century the manuscript was certainly in the hands of a Frenchman, Louis Jean Gaignat (c.1697-1768), an official at the Palace of Justice in Paris. He was a renowned collector of books and art and after his death his library was sold at auction. The Livy manuscript, Lot 2886, was listed in the general history section relating to the "...four ancient monarchies (Chalcydians, Babylonians, Assyrians, the Persians)..." It was purchased by Dr William Hunter (1718-83), an anatomist and teacher of medicine who was at one time Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte. He was also a collector of books, manuscripts, coins, medals, paintings, shells, minerals and anatomical and natural history specimens. Under the terms of his will, his library (including the Livy manuscript) and other collections came to the University in 1807. 

Extract from the incomplete index
(folio 308v)


The last two books of the Third Decade record Rome's victory in the battles against Hannibal and his allies. Livy describes the journey of the Roman army to Africa: "Scipio, apart from his forty warships, used nearly 400 transports to carry his troops and their gear."
"Scipio asked the name of the nearest headland, and on being told it was called the Cape of the Beautiful One, exclaimed that the omen was good and gave orders to steer for it. The fleet came to land, and all the troops were disembarked."

Book Nine: initial letter showing
the Roman general Scipio sailing to Africa with his army
(folio 253r)

Book Ten: initial letter showing, in the bottom half of the picture,
Hannibal's defeat at the Battle of Zama

(folio 279v)

Livy on the Battle of Zama (202BC):
"Next day, to decide this great issue, the two most famous generals and the two mightiest armies of the two wealthiest nations in the world advanced to battle, doomed either to crown or to destroy the many triumphs each had won in the past."

He records the devastation on both sides:
"More than 20,000 Carthaginians and their allies were killed on that day, and about the same number captured, together with 132 military standards and eleven elephants. The Romans lost about 1,500 men. In the confusion Hannibal escaped with a few horsemen and fled to Hadrumetum."

Pliny the Younger wrote in a letter that, in AD79, he had remained at Misenum, reading and taking notes from a volume of Livy, while Mount Vesuvius erupted nearby. Livy's work continues to be read today, not least because of the importance and dramatic nature of the events he described and the vivid manner in which he wrote. Most surviving fifteenth-century copies of his work are quite plain productions. This illustrated copy is a rare and stunning exception.


Book Nine: Livy's name from the initial page
(folio 253r)

General: J J G Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work, London: 1992 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B162 1992-A; The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume II Latin Literature, Cambridge: 1982 Level 10 Main Lib Classics D1 CAM Vol 2; Church & Brodribb, Livy: Books XXI-XXV, London: 1883 Level 10 Main Lib Classics NL156 2/1883-C; T A Dorey (Ed.), Livy, London: 1971 Level 10 Main Lib Classics NL150 7/DOR; Charles Mitchell, A Fifteenth Century Italian Plutarch, London: 1961 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B162:27 1961-P. For a translation of Livy's Third Decade: Aubrey de Sélincourt (Trans.), Betty Radice (Ed.), Livy: The War with Hannibal, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965 Level 10 Main Lib Classics NL155 2/1965-D; For detailed commentary on the manuscript see Nigel Thorp, The Glory of the Page, London: 1987 Various locations and references, especially Albinia de la Mare 'Florentine Manuscripts of Livy in the Fifteenth Century' in Dory (Ed) Livy (see above). For the purchase by William Hunter see G F de Bure, Supplément à la Bibliographie instructive, ou catalogue des livres du cabinet de feu M. Louis Jean Gaignat, 2 vols. Paris: 1769 Level 12 Spec Coll Sp Coll Hunterian Bn.3.21-22  and David Weston 'William Hunter, Zodiac Man' in Scottish Book Collector, Issue 7:8 Autumn 2003 Level 8 Main Lib Gen Hum Pers SC640.




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Sarah Hepworth October 2005