Boccaccio and Ab Urbe condita, XXI, iv, 8

  «conserto proelio»
and Boccaccio's translation
      H O M E   

Tito Livio



The concordance of Livy tell us that the expression conserto proelio has a very low frequency in his Ab Urbe condita1. In fact it appears only twice in this form. One takes place in the fourth chapter of book XXI, where Livy describes the character of Hannibal. Although the Roman historian seldom illustrates the individuality of his characters2, here he uses a full chapter to delineate the virtues and vices of the Carthaginian general. Among his virtues, Hannibal has also the merit of being the first to go into the battle and the last to leave the battlefield. The Oxford edition3 of the Third Decade reads as follows:

equitum peditumque idem longe primus erat:
princeps in proelium ibat,
ultimus conserto proelio excedebat.

By far the first among horsemen and foot soldiers
he was the first to go to the battle,
and, battle engaged, he was the last to leave.

Now, if we compare this translation with the one done by the XIV century Italian translator of the Third Dacade who «worked in the shadow of Petrarch», and whom Billanovich has identified with Boccaccio4, we will note an immense discrepancy in the translation of the syntagm conserto proelio. Here is Boccaccio's translation:

Di gran lunga era sempre il primo di cavalieri e di pedoni;
egli andava nella battaglia primo,
e, quella finita, era l'ultimo chessi partiva.5

By far the first among horsemen and foot soldiers
he was the first to go to the battle,
and, battle finished, he was the last to leave.

It is clear that from the conserto proelio of Livy to Boccaccio's translation of it as "once the battle was finished" the leap is not only gigantic but also incomprehensible. So that the reader of the two texts is drawn away from the semantic field within which the concept of "beginning" is structured, and driven into its opposite semantic area under which the concept of "ending" is organized.

Beyond its stylistic linearity and classic simplicity, the Latin text seems to conceal a big problem in so far as the meaning is concerned. How is it possible that a general such as Hannibal, who is endowed with so many warlike virtues, decides to leave the battlefield once ths battle has begun? And then what sense is there in saying that "having the battle been engaged, he was the last to leave"? Had this been the case, no one for sure would have remained in the field to fight the battle. Because, if he is the the last to leave, it is obvious that the others—horsemen and foot soldiers—had left before him!

If it is true that the Latin reading in the context in which it appears makes obvious its semantic incongruity, is also true that the expression as translated by Boccaccio has the merit of rendering that context clear and logical in its meaning. And consequently it is certainly difficult to think that the manuscript from which Boccaccio was translating may have been corrupted in that particular place.

On the other hand it seems obvious that here we are dealing with a corrupt script—although it is hard to say to what extent it may be spread in the manuscripts used for the modern texts, including those used for the Oxford edition mentioned above. Obviously only an accurate collation of the manuscripts pertaining to the group that derives from Petrarch's restoration of the Third Decade could give reliable results. As we know, it was one of those manuscripts that was used by Boccaccio for his translation.6

Now, if we were to do an inverse operation, that is to say a re-translation into Latin of Boccaccio's Italian version, the expression "quella finita" would certainly come out as "confecto proelio".

Well I will hasten to say that the reading "confecto proelio" is found in a passage of Paolo Beni's L'anticrusca,7 and precisely in a part of the work in which the classicist and polemicist was committed to celebrate the elegance and the clarity of a modern writer such as Francesco Guicciardini and to the detriment of an ancient writer such as Boccaccio. Beni compares the style of Guicciardini to the style of Livy (and of Sallust),8 transcribing part of chapter four of Ab Urbe condita XXI book, and juxtaposing it with Guicciardini's description of Alexander VI.9

We know that by the end of Cinquecento Ab Urbe condita had undergone various emendations and had been "corrected" in several places.10 But the exact correspondence of the re-translation into Latin of Boccaccio's Italian expression may be sufficient to reassure us that the manuscript used by Boccaccio for his translation was reading, in fact, confecto proelio.

There is scarcely any need to point out that the reading "confecto" can very easily be confused with the reading "conserto" (and vice versa). It is a common error of confusion of letters: the "f" has been confused and taken for a long "s" and thus—perhaps out of necessity, and/or automatically—the following "c" has been read as an "r".

In conclusion, on the basis of the principle which may be called of the "lectio contextualis", I would like to propose the reading "confecto proelio" as the correct reading. This reading, as we have seen, is sustained by the translation of Boccaccio and corroborated by Paolo Beni's citation. Of course, it will have to be probed by a study of several Pliny manuscripts. But this is the responsibility of the future editor of the Third Decade.

© Gino Casagrande