Sunday, May 21, 2006

Comparing Livy and U Kala, author of the Burmese Chronicle

de Selincourt, Aubrey (1960) Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundation, London: Penguin Books.

Last night I picked up a cheap copy of Livy and read the introduction over a cup of coffee at the nice little cafe on Sukhumvit 24, Bangkok. Analogies in the Burmese Chronicle arose with almost every sentence that I read. I believe that Lieberman mentioned Livy in his "How reliable is U Kala" paper (reference here), but here are my observations on what I read anyway:

The first Roman history was written over three hundreds after the defining event of the period, the expulsion of the Roman kings. Subsequent writers, "did not seriously investigate or question the credentials of the traditional version of Roman history," a version that was already well-established at the time of the first writing. They took this basically oral history, "on trust and embroidered it."

Livy retells a traditional oral history of Rome, so Livy's history is not a Rankean reconstruction of what actually happened, but rather a mixture of fact and fiction, myth and what-actually-happened.

Most of Livy's stories, "are not really Roman but Greek stories reclothed in Roman dress" (12). The foundation story of Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf and found by a shepherd is "an adaptation of a Near Eastern myth." In fact, "there is practically no extensive story from early Roman history which cannot be proved to be Greek in origin. The Romans seemed to have no mythology of their own. They did not have the resources of oral epic or choral lyric by which the Greeks preserved and handed on the memories and myths of their prehistory" (13). During the Gallic occupation of Rome in 386 B.C. there was a fire that destroyed much of Rome so, "when...the Romans came to reconstruct their own history...they had to borrow heavily from Greek literature and legend. They also reused events from their more recent history."

Similar truths hold true for the historiographical traditions of Burma. To what extent was U Kala like Livy?

The early parts of U Kala's history were entirely based on Indian history. Charney (2002) traces the passage of one myth, the Pyu Sawhti myth from Arakan in western Burma into the historical textual tradition of central Burma.

Much like Livy’s history, U Kala’s Burmese Chronicle probably, "superseded previous histories so completely that only scattered fragments of them have survived" (11) Even in modern days, the 1500 pages and three volumes of the edited and printed edition of U Kala are imposing, like Livy, "it's very size," probably, "deterred men from reading it all, so that at an early date abridgements of it were made" (11). There are in fact abridgements of U Kala’s history that are attributed to U Kala himself.

Despite its mythical emplotment, there is still a factual substratum to Livy that records what actually happened. There were four ways that historians could determine what-actually-happened when they finally became interested in recording their own history in writing long after it happened.

1. Rome's neighbors had historical records regarding Rome.
2. There were still some surviving documents and inscriptions from this period.
3. Conservative Roman social and political institutions preserved the traditions of the past.
4. There were oral traditions passed down from generation to generation within families that preserved collective memories.

U Kala probably faced similar constraints when he wrote his history. Mon history by the time he wrote was probably very well-fossilized.

When did historians of Rome first begin to realise the mixed mythical-factual nature of Livy's narratives?

These observations I've just made are based on the introduction to a Penguin translation published in 1960, which doesn’t provide citations to the historiography of Rome itself.

Would we write the history of Roman historiography by condemning 19th century historians of Rome like Aung-thwin condemns the early 20th century British historians of Burma?

This history of historians and historiography is interesting in its own right, but there aren't even adequate translations of the basic historical texts for the history of Burma yet.

How could other scholars not fluent in the Burmese language adequately assess histories of histories when the basic source materials of the history are not available?

But translations are just antiquarian acts that steal from the culture, perhaps some post-colonial intellectual interjects.

If the history of Burma is to be a part of world history and not an isolated act of scholarly solipsism, translations, literal annotated translations are needed.


Michael Walter Charney, "Centralizing Historical Tradition in Precolonial Burma: the Abhiraja/Dhajaraja Myth in Early Kon-baung Historical Texts," _South East Asia Research_ 10, no. 2 (2002): pp.185-215, See this book review.