History as Myth
The Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus
One of the great works of literature is Livy’s History of Rome1 and the most popular section was indisputably the first section describing the early history of Rome. Livy was a very good writer and his retelling of the early history of Rome was exciting and full of stories of heroism and courage and winning against long odds. It was a history of heroism, courage a virtue and has stuck onto the Western tradition. The sheer vividness of the stories has led to them being accepted as history proper by many people. So that people talk about the early history of Rome in Livy’s account has if it was “real” history. Sadly it all too dubious has history, and this is particularly true of the history of the Roman Kings before the establishment of the Republic.
We have some idea that the early history of the Roman Republic was not made up from the fact that we have lists of Consuls going back to the establishment of the Roman republic to the traditional date of 509 B.C.E.2 The list of Consuls goes back to the records kept by Priests on Capitol hill, which included the chief magistrates of the city for the year and included very brief short notices, generally single sentences, of important events. Still it appears that much of Livy’s narrative of this time period is simple legend and / or made up stuff to fill in the bare bones of what was actually known. So that the “History” of the early Roman Republic as outlined by Livy is in fact almost entirely myth. Further it was patriotic, edifying myth. Livy ignored, downplayed etc., variations from the tradition he was writing that did not conform to his edifying, improving narrative. However since Livy’s account was the one that survived it became the canonical, “traditional” version and all the other versions were largely forgotten.
Thus we get a whole series of problems with Livy’s account, which were downplayed, ignored but because they were written by a great historian, writing in Latin these obviously questionable accounts were taken completely seriously.
For as M. I. Finley said:
The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. How else could they have filled the blatant gaps in their knowledge…3
Thus we get to the first of two problem areas regarding early Roman history. The first is the list of Roman kings the second is the foundation of the Republic.
Before I get into the problems with the list of Roman kings, I just like to mention that the date canonized by Livy for the foundation of Rome – 753 B.C.E., was not in any sense the date the ancient Roman, traditional date for the foundation of Rome. It was simply the date that Livy selected. Other dates included 814 B.C.E.4
In fact the whole story as recounted by Livy is simply one redacted, idiosyncratic version created by Livy. Livy for example kept the whole descended from Aeneas, prince of Troy business, but bridged the huge gap between the traditional date of the Trojan War and the establishment of Rome with myths and legends. And of course the whole Aeneas tale is a legend designed to associate the Roman with Greek myth.
In fact the idea that Livy’s version to the early history of Rome was thee canonical version of an homogeneous tradition is blown away by the following long quote from Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
72 1 But as there is great dispute concerning both the time of the building of the city and the founders of it, I have thought it incumbent on me also not to give merely a cursory account of these things, as if they were universally agreed on. For Cephalon of Gergis, a very ancient writer, says that the city was built in the second generation after the Trojan war by those who had escaped from Troy with Aeneas, and he names as the founder of it Romus, who was the leader of the colony and one of Aeneas' sons; he adds that Aeneas had four sons, Ascanius, Euryleon, Romulus and Remus. And Demagoras, Agathyllus and many others agree with him as regards both the time and the leader of the colony. 2 But the author of the history of the priestesses at Argos and of what happened in the days of each of them says that Aeneas came into Italy from the land of the Molossians with Odysseus and became the founder of the city, which he named after Romê, one of the Trojan women. He says that this woman, growing weary with wandering, stirred up the other Trojan women and together with them set fire to the ships. And Damastes of Sigeum and some others agree with him. 3 But Aristotle, the philosopher, relates that some of the Achaeans, while they were doubling Cape Malea on their return from Troy, were overtaken by a violent storm, and being for some time driven out of their course by the winds, wandered over many parts of the sea, till at last they came to this place in the land of the Opicans which is called Latinium, lying on the Tyrrhenian sea. 4 And being pleased with the sight of land, they hauled up their ships, stayed there the winter season, and were preparing to sail at the beginning of spring; but when their ships were set on fire in the night and they were unable to sail away, they were compelled against their will to fix their abode in the place where they had landed. This fate, he says, was brought upon them by the captive women they were carrying with them from Troy, who burned the ships, fearing that the Achaeans in returning home would carry them into slavery. 5 Callias, who wrote of the deeds of Agathocles, says that Romê, one of the Trojan women who came into Italy with the other Trojans, married Latinus, the king of the Aborigines, by whom she had three son, Romus, Romulus and Telegonus, . . . and having built a city, gave it the name of their mother. Xenagoras, the historian, writes that Odysseus and Circê had three sons, Romus, Anteias and Ardeias, who built three cities and called them after their own names. 6 Dionysius of Chalcis names Romus as the founder of the city, but says that according to some this man was the son of Ascanius, and according to others the son of Emathion. There are others who declare that Rome was built by Romus, the son of Italus and Leucaria, the daughter of Latinus.
73 1 I could cite many other Greek historians who assign different founders to the city, but, not to appear prolix, I shall come to the Roman historians. The Romans, to be sure, have not so much as one single historian or chronicler who is ancient; however, each of their historians has taken something out of ancient accounts that are preserved on sacred tablets. 2 Some of these say that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were the sons of Aeneas, others say that they were the sons of a daughter of Aeneas, without going on to determine who was their father; that they were delivered as hostages by Aeneas to Latinus, the king of the Aborigines, when the treaty was made between the inhabitants and the new-comers, and that Latinus, after giving them a kindly welcome, not only did them might good offices, but, upon dying without male issue, left them his successors to some part of his kingdom. 3 Others say that after the death of Aeneas Ascanius, having succeeded to the entire sovereignty of the Latins, divided both the country and the forces of the Latins into three parts, two of which he gave to his brothers, Romulus and Remus. He himself, they say, built Alba and some other towns; Remus built cities which he named Capuas, after Capys, his great-grandfather, Anchisa, after his grandfather Anchises, Aeneia (which was afterwards called Janiculum), after his father, and Rome, after himself. This last city was for some time deserted, but upon the arrival of another colony, which the Albans sent out under the leadership of Romulus and Remus, it received again its ancient name. So that, according to this account, there were two settlements of Rome, one a little after the Trojan war, and the other fifteen generations after the first. 4 And if anyone desires to look into the remoter past, even a third Rome will be found, more ancient than these, one that was founded before Aeneas and the Trojans came into Italy. This is related by no ordinary or modern historian, but by Antiochus of Syracuse, whom I have mentioned before. He says that when Morges reigned in Italy (which at that time comprehended all the seacoast from Tarentum to Posidonia), a man came to him who had been banished from Rome. His words are these: "When Italus was growing old, Morges reigned. In his reign there came a man who had been banished from Rome; his name was Seicelus." 5 According to the Syracusan historian, therefore, an ancient Rome is found even earlier than the Trojan war. However, as he has left it doubtful whether it was situated in the same region where the present city stands or whether some other place happened to be called by this name, I, too, can form no conjecture. But as regards the ancient settlements of Rome, I think that what has already been said is sufficient.5
That gives a better view of the very messy traditions that Livy actually had to work with and which he refined into a redacted version that became canonical due to Livy’s literary talents and sheer survival.
It for example rather clear, from archaeology that the earliest settlements at the site of Rome date from the 10th, (1000-900 B.C.E.), or slightly earlier centuries B.C.E. Thus the date of 753 B.C.E. for the founding of Rome is simply wrong, the site is far older than that.6 And of course why 753 should be preferred to 728, 747, or 814 and others is mysterious.7
Now Livy gives in his account of the rule of the Kings8 (They supposedly reigned c. 753-509 B.C.E.), the sayings and doings of 7 Kings. The seven Kings are as follows:
Romulus reigned for 37 years.
Numa reigned for 43 years
Tullus Hostilius reigned 32 years
Ancus Marcius reigned for 24 years
Lucumo Tarquin reigned for 37 years
Servius Tullius reigned for 44 years.
Tarquin the Proud reigned for 24 years.9
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived and worked at the same time as Livy in Rome gives the same figures for the reign lengths, and the same kings.10 It appears that the canon of the kings was established fairly early, but does that make it in any sense reliable? Probably not.
Note that of the early Kings the shortest reign is 24 years. Now we know the reigns of the first Roman Emperors The first 5, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero reigned almost exactly 100 years and 44 of those years were the first Emperor Augustus. Excluding Augustus not one of those Emperors reigned as long as the two shortest monarchs in the King list. In fact the longest is Tiberius with a reign of 23 years, Caligula had 4, Claudius had 13 and Nero 14 years. If we exclude the 3 emperors who were briefly Emperor for only a few months each during the year of the 4 Emperors (69 C.E.), and we add the next 2 emperors Vespasian, who reigned 10 years and Titus who reigned 2 years. We still only get 112 years for 7 rulers, and not one of them except for the first, Augustus exceeds, or even equals the minimum reign lengths of the kings given by Livy et al. In fact all but one, Tiberius, and excepting Augustus, have reigns significantly shorter than the minimum length of the reigns given by Livy et al.11
In fact reign lengths of 20 years or more are unusual among the Roman Emperors and in fact during the period up to the fall of Rome (476 C.E.), only once was the length of the reign of Augustus equalled and then exceeded and that was by Theodosius II, who reigned for 48 years. (402-450 C.E.) And Emperors who reigned more than 30 years were few and far between.12
Thus we can agree that the list of Roman Kings and their reign dates is highly dubious. Not because the reign lengths are impossible but because in a context of low life expectancy and with the reign lengths that we can compare them to they are inherently improbable as a list. The reign lengths are simply not believable and as such cast a shadow over the historical validity of the whole list.
For example it is rather painfully obvious that Romulus is mythical figure based on the name of Rome and almost certainly he has zero historical validity. This is indicated by the various stories recorded by Dionysius of Halicarnassus about the foundation of Rome and where the name Rome came from. As for Numa, he seems to have originated as some sort of minor deity and to “explain” certain features of Roman life and religion. The next two Kings are similarly dubious as historical figures.
It is only with Tarquins, (The last three Kings of Rome.) do we seem to enter history. The Tarquins built and left monuments including the temple of Jupiter on the Capital in Rome. Further they left some inscriptions in Rome. That they were Etruscan in origin seems virtually certain. Just how many Tarquins were kings in Rome, when did they start ruling etc., are unanswerable however.
If the stories about the first 4 kings are basically nothing more than myth about figures who probably never existed then the stories about the Tarquin kings of Rome are just as suspect, despite the fact that these stories are about Kings who seem to have actually existed. For example it was disputed by some, Livy included that the second Tarquin was in fact even an Etruscan and Tarquin. The amount of myth and legend that has encrusted around these figures is so massive has to make history virtually impossible to recover. I frankly think historians should not even try.13
Thus as M. I. Finley says:
Presumably no one today believes the Alban king-list to be anything but a fiction, but any suggestion that there is insufficient ground to give credence to the Roman king-list is greeted with outraged cries of ‘hyper-criticism’ and ‘shades of Ettore Pais’. Such epithets do not meet the issues. To begin with, a 250 - year period occupied continuously by only seven kings is a demographic improbability, perhaps an impossibility: the first seven emperors under the Prncipate reigned for a total of one hundred years. Then to conclude about the second king, Numa Pmpilius, that the ‘only historical fact’ about him is his name and his biography is ‘legendary’, is effectively to remove one of the seven from the record And so on almost ad infinitum: it is our incurable weakness that we completely and absolutely lack primary literary sources for Roman history down to about 300 BC and that we have very few available to us for another century. So did Livy and the other later Roman Writers (apart from a handful of miscellaneous and often unintelligible documents).14
If the history of the kings in Livy is dubious so is the version that became canonical of the establishment of the Republic.
The whole story of the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin the Proud’s son Sextus is a rather juicy soap opera plot but is simply not believable in the slightest as real history. Neither is the idea that this outrage provoked a rebellion against Tarquin that led to the establishment of the Republic. This is very flattering, for the Romans, melodrama, but it is not history.15
In fact just why the story was concocted is immediately apparent. In the Roman tradition Lars Porsenna king of Clusium attacked Rome and supposedly was held off by the bravery of Horatius at the bridge and of the assassin Mucius who supposedly thrust his hand into a fire to indicate Roman determination.16
The cold reality that creeps into some Roman accounts is that Lars Porsenna captured Rome and imposed his rule on it. Further it is possible that he drove out the Tarquins and imposed the first Consuls has his own magistrates to rule Rome for him. Lars Porsenna subsequently failed to take the city of Arica and was driven out of Latium by the Latins, leaving Rome free of his rule. The patriotic tale was concocted to hide an embarrassing reality that was anything but heroic.17
In fact two Roman accounts preserve what really happened:
The Roman historian Tacitus writes:
Though no foreign enemy threatened though we enjoyed the fevour of heaven as far as our failings permitted, the sanctuary of Jupiter Best and Greatest solemnly founded by our fathers as a symbol of our imperial destiny – a temple which neither Porsenna on the capitulation of the city nor the Gauls on its capture had been able to desecrate – was now, thanks to the infatuation of our leaders, suffering utter destruction.18
Then there is the brief mention of Pliny the Elder:
Indeed there have been some instances in which it has been proved that iron might be solely used for innocent purposes. In the treaty which Porsenna granted to the Roman people, after the expulsion of the kings, we find it expressly stipulated, that iron shall be only employed for the cultivation of the fields; and our oldest authors inform us, that in those days it was considered unsafe to write with an iron pen.19
The terms translated as granted and treaty are actually much stronger in the Latin in implying submission and control.
And almost as embarrassing was an episode that was almost entirely suppressed by the Romans. It appears after the expulsion of the Kings and the frustration of Lars Porsenna’s ambitions that various adventurers tried their luck in Latium including an adventurer named Macstarna, who appears to have conquered Rome and in the process killed a certain Cn. Tarquinius of Rome. There survived in Roman accounts two very garbled brief mentions of this event.20
|Macstarna freeing a Friend|
Rather intriguingly there survives from Volci in Italy a tomb with a painting illustrating the life of Macstarna and the adventures of some friends of his including the killing of Cn. Tarquinius. All of this would seem to indicate that at some point Macstrana had control of Rome and possibly if the death of Cn. Tarquinius is anything to go by may in fact have been the one to overthrow the Tarquins of Rome.21
|The Killing of Cn. Tarquinius|
The banal reality was that Lars Porsenna captured Rome and was not the last Etruscan adventurer to do so despite what the heroic Roman tradition says.
Thus in regards to the “History” of early Rome preserved in Livy et al the following note of caution must be accepted:
The second problem is more subtle. Many episodes of Roman history have been invented (or at the least distorted) in order to provide Roman equivalents to Greek historical events. The obvious example is the 300 Fabii at Cremera who re-enact the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. The analogy between the Tarquins and the Pisistratids at Athens has already been alluded to, and the possible synchronism of their expulsion was noticed by at least one Roman scholar, Aulus Gellius (17.21.4). Hippias, the Pisistratid tyrant, was expelled in 510 BC as a result of an abortive (homosexual) love-affair. Tarquin, more characteristically Roman, was expelled as the indirect result of another (heterosexual) love-affair. There may be some truth in the oral tradition, but the tendency to assimilate the events to the sad end of Hippias, in date and detail, is unmistakable. As a result 510 BC becomes a peculiarly suspect date.22
Thus in the end aside from an outline, until about c. 300 B.C.E., all we have for the history of Rome is a bare outline. The rest is legend and myth.
1. Only 35 books of Livy’s 142 survive intact. We have brief summaries of most of the missing books. See Livy, Early History of Rome, (Books 1-5), Penguin Books, London, 1960.
2. Finley, M. I., Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 121-122.
3. Finley, M. I., Ancient History, Chatto & Windus, London, 1985, p. 9.
4. See of Halicarnassus, Dionysius, Roman Antiquities, Book 1, s. 74, Lacus Curtius, Here.
5. IBID, Book 1, s. 72-73.
6. See The Founding of Rome, The Roman Empire Here.
7. Footnote 4.
8. Livy devotes Book 1 of his history of the Kings.
9. Livy Book 1.
10. Dionysius, Book 1, s. 75.
11. List of Roman Emperors, Wikipedia Here.
13. See Finley, 1985, pp. 8-11, and Footnote 6, and Ogilvie Introduction in Footnote 17.
14. Finley, 1985, pp. 9-10.
15. Livy, Book 1, s. 57-58. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his Roman Antiquities says something similar, Book 4, s. 64-85.
16. Livy, Book 2, s. 10-13.
17. Finley, 1977, pp. 110-123, Ogilvie, R. M., Introduction, in Livy, pp. 7-29, at pp. 22-24, and Rome and the Etruscans, Fontana, London, 1976, pp. 88-91.
18. Tacitus, The Histories, Penguin Books, London, 1964, Book 4, s. 72.
19. The Elder, Pliny, Natural History, Book 34, ch. 39, s. 139, Perseus Here.
20. Ogilvie, 1976, pp. 87-88.
21. IBID, pp. 88-89.
22. IBID, p. 81.