I do not know if a history on the origins of the Roman people will be worth the labor, nor if I did know, would I dare to say. Historians always believe that their work will be more definitive or well-written than previous histories, but in any case, I will enjoy studying the deeds of the world’s most powerful people, and even if others outshine me, I will console myself that I am outdone by truly great and worthy writers.
This study is an immense project, as it spans more than 700 years of history, growing from small beginnings to a subject that requires enormous labor. No doubt, most of my audience will have very little appetite for reading about the origins of the city, and they will skip ahead to recent events, in which a once powerful people have wasted their strength in fighting each other. I, however, seek a different reward, for I will turn my attention away from the evils of our own age and return to our earliest history, completely free from those cares that might affect the soul of an historian, even if they do not deflect him from the truth.
The legends concerning the city’s origin make for good stories but not for very good history (res gestae), and I neither want to confirm nor refute them. In order to dignify our origins, our ancestors mixed the stories of the gods with human history. Yet, if any people should be allowed to claim divine origin, the Romans should. We have won so much glory in war that other nations have little difficulty accepting our claims of divine ancestry, just as they have little difficulty accepting Roman authority itself.
However, I do not consider any of these concerns a matter of great importance; rather, I ask the reader to consider the following: what were the lives and the morals of our ancestors? With what men, what virtues, and what policies was Rome born and its empire increased? Then, let the reader see how we gradually lost our discipline and sunk into moral degeneracy. Then, let the reader see that as we slipped, we began to fall headlong into the abyss, until we reached these times, in which we are neither able to bear our vices nor apply their remedies.
Knowledge of history makes for a healthy mind because it gives us clear historical examples of every type. Thus, individuals and nations should imitate good historical examples and avoid the disgraceful ones, and unless my love for the city deceives me, there has never been a greater, more holy, or more exemplary republic than Rome. Nor has there ever been a city in which greed and luxury were so long kept away or where poverty and thrift were so long considered honorable. The fewer things the Romans had, the less greed they had. Lately, riches have stimulated greed, and large appetites have caused many to lose themselves in luxury and lust.
Nevertheless, these annoying yet necessary criticisms should not grace the preface of such a work. Rather, let me imitate the custom of the poets and ask the gods and goddesses to give success to my words and my work.