How did they understand Livy my grandfather my great grandfather
certainly they read him in high school
at the not very propitious time of the year
when a chestnut stands in the window—fervent candelabras of blooms—
all the thoughts of grandfather and great grandfather running
breathless to Miziawho sings in the garden shows her décolleté also her heavenly
legs up to the kneesor Gabi from the Vienna opera with ringlets like a cherub
Gabi with a snub nose and Mozart in her throat
or in the end to kind-hearted Józia refuge of the dejected
with no beauty talent or great demands
and so they read Livy—O season of blossoms—
in the smell of chalk boredom naphthalene for cleaning the floor
under a portrait of the emperor
because at that time there was an emperor
and the empire like all empires
seemed eternal

Reading the history of the City they surrendered to the illusion
that they are Romans or descendants of the Romans
these sons of the conquered themselves enslaved
surely the Latin master contributed to this
with his rank of Court Councillor
a collection of antique virtues under a worn-out frock coat
so following Livy he implanted in his pupils the contempt for the mob
the revolt of the people—res tam foede—aroused loathing in them
whereas all of the conquests appeared just
they showed simply the victory of what is better stronger
that is why they were pained by the defeat at Lake Trasimeno
the superiority of Scipio filled them with pride
they learned of the death of Hannibal with genuine relief
easily too easily they let themselves be led
through the entrenchments of subordinate clauses
complex constructions governed by the gerund
rivers swollen with elocution
pitfalls of syntax
—to battle
for a cause not theirs

Only my father and myself after him
read Livy against Livy
carefully examining what is underneath the fresco
this is why the theatrical gesture of Scevola awoke no echo in us
shouts of centurions triumphal marches
while we were willing to be moved by the defeat
of the Samnites Gauls or Etruscans
we counted many of the names of peoples turned to dust by the Romans
buried without glory who for Livy
were not worth even a wrinkle of style
those Hirpins Apuleans Lucanians Osunans
also the inhabitants of Tarentum Metapontis Locri

My father knew well and I also know
that one day on a remote boundary
without any signs in heaven
in Pannonia Sarajevo or Trebizond
in a city by a cold sea
or in a valley of Panshir
a local conflagration will explode

and the empire will fall

This Issue

November 6, 1986