Ancient History & Civilisation


Section Two


According to legend Rome was founded in (what we call) 753 BC. We don’t have any contemporary Roman literature, in large quantities, until the second century BC – although there are plenty of later Roman accounts looking back to the city’s origins, elaborating the stories of Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and all kinds of (frankly unbelievable) deeds of heroism by self-sacrificing noble Romans.

One big question about early Roman history is how far those stories are founded on fact. And if many of them are more myth than history (as most people now believe), then how can we now tell the story of the early centuries of Roman history, before the city became the vast marble metropolis, and cosmopolitan capital of the empire? What was Rome really like, in other words, when it was still ‘on the way up’?

This section starts (Chapter 6) by going right back to Romulus and Remus, and the puzzling question of why Rome had not just one but two founders; and, more than that, why one of them (Romulus) was supposed to have murdered the other (Remus). When was that story first told? Who invented the tale of fratricidal struggle, and why? This brings us face to face with a whole series of deductions and speculations (some inspired, some decidedly dodgy) about the culture of early Rome, and in particular about its lost traditions of public drama, in which the story of the unfortunate Remus may have taken shape. For Rome was almost certainly just as ‘theatrical’ a society as ancient Athens – and it used the stage to present shared myths, and to debate shared problems and concerns. But, in the Roman case, very few of the key plays actually survive, and they have to be reconstructed, almost wholesale, out of a few snatches of text, the occasional quotation in later authors, and maybe an early illustration or two. This is an adventurous business and it can open our eyes to a side of ancient Rome that we don’t often see. But it’s a risky business too (the classical equivalent of the virtuoso trapeze act) and it may not be all that far from the kind of imaginative reconstruction that we saw at Arthur Evans’s ‘prehistoric’ Palace at Knossos (Chapter 1).

The final chapter in this section wonders how we might fill another gap in our surviving evidence for early Rome: that is, the point of view of the ordinary Roman. Almost all the Roman writing that we have comes from the pen of the wealthy and privileged, which leaves us wondering about what the other Romans made of the city’s history and politics. What did the poor think of Rome’s victories and massacres? How did they react when a cabal of the rich assassinated Julius Caesar in the name of (their own) ‘Liberty’? Chapter 10 shows how clever detective work can help to unearth some of the views, heroes and political slogans of the Roman underclass.

I am not meaning by this that the more traditional characters of Roman Republican history have lost their allure. Far from it. Chapter 7 explores the leading figures in the great war between Rome and Hannibal (and finds the origin of the British ‘Fabian Society’ way back in ancient Rome). It reflects too on how the Roman historian Livy made a story out of this conflict – raising the question of quite how good an historian Livy was, and delivering a dose of scepticism on that famous boy-scoutish tale of Hannibal blasting a way through the Alps by pouring vinegar onto the frozen rocks.

Chapters 8 and 9 turn to one of the larger-than-life characters of the first century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero: Rome’s most famous orator, a self-advertising politician and an extraordinarily prolific writer (many volumes of his private letters, philosophical treatises, speeches, and a bit of dreadful doggerel poetry still survive). We probably know more about Cicero than about any other ancient Roman who ever lived (though, even so, as Chapter 8 insists, it proves very hard now to write a straight ‘biography’ of him); and we still find his words and the issues he raised all around us – in some unexpected places. His catchphrases have been quoted by modern political activists from John F. Kennedy to radical Hungarian demonstrators in 2012; and his presence lurks (or it ought to) behind our own discussions on all kinds of topics from art theft to the prevention of terrorism. Cicero was at one point driven into exile, precisely because – in the interests, he claimed, of homeland security – he executed a group of presumed Roman terrorists, without trial or due process. One of classical history’s best warning lessons.



Just next door to the imperial palace in Rome stood a small wooden hut, said by the Romans to be the house of Romulus, the sole surviving trace of Rome’s very first settlement, built (if you follow the traditional dating) somewhere in the eighth century BC. Who really made this hut (some pious antiquarian, a Roman entrepreneur with an eye on the ancient tourist trade, or Romulus himself), we do not know. But it was lovingly (or cynically) cared for until the fourth century AD at least, as a memorial of the city’s founder. For all who passed by, it would have prompted thoughts of Rome’s origins, of the primitive village that had become the capital of the world, and of the baby Romulus, son of the god Mars by a disinherited princess, cast out by his wicked uncle, found and suckled by a wolf, then raised by herdsmen until he was old enough to overthrow his uncle and found his own city, Rome.

At the same time, Romulus must have prompted thoughts of his twin brother Remus. According to the familiar story (as told, with slight variations, by Livy and others), Remus was Romulus’ partner until the very moment that the new city was to be established; the brothers at that point each took up different positions to watch for heavenly signs that would authorise their foundation; Romulus claimed his signs the stronger (he saw twelve vultures, Remus only six) and started to build fortifications; in jealousy, Remus jumped over Romulus’ ditch and was immediately killed either by Romulus himself or by one of his men; ‘so perish all who cross my walls’, as Livy puts into the mouth of Romulus, a slogan that was no doubt used to justify many of the appalling acts of fratricide that were to mark Roman history over the next thousand years. Other versions, though, seem to have given different stories of this partnership: that, for a time, the twins ruled the new city together, until Romulus became tyrannical and murdered his brother; or even that Remus outlived Romulus.

One of the aims of T. P. Wiseman’s Remus: A Roman myth is to focus attention back on to the murdered twin as a central element in Rome’s foundation story (for Romans, in fact, who regularly spoke of ‘Remus et Romulus’, in that order, he was the prior element). Wiseman has three main questions. Why did this particular foundation legend involve twins at all? Why was Remus called Remus? And why, in the canonical tale, did he get murdered? Why, in other words, did the Romans invent the story of a twin founder only to kill him off before the foundation was done? What kind of community was it that made its founder’s first act in power the callous destruction of his brother and helpmate?

Many modern historians have refused to be interested in Remus’ story, its oddities, or what those oddities meant for Rome’s view of its own past. This is not merely a question of the standard index entry ‘Remus, see Romulus’. It is more a question of an almost wilful lack of concern for the implications of the myth. Even Arnaldo Momigliano could write (with an uncharacteristic lapse of curiosity) that ‘the Romans took in their stride the idea that they … had a fratricide in the foundation ritual of their city’. But Wiseman reserves his sharpest attacks for those of his predecessors who have actually tried to make sense of Remus and his death. Much of the first half of the book is concerned with a demolition, first of the theories of comparative Indo-Europeanists (for whom Remus is the cosmic primal twin, characteristic of creation myths in most early Indo-European cultures), followed by an elegant exposure of the inadequacies of almost every other explanation ever ventured. Hermann Strasburger’s ingenious notion, for example, that the story of Remus and Romulus is so unflattering to the Romans (the rape of the Sabine women is the next problematic episode in the tale) that it can only have been invented by Rome’s enemies, fails to explain why the Romans themselves took it up so enthusiastically. Theodor Mommsen’s idea that the twin founders in some way represent the institution of the Roman consulship (always a dual magistracy) hardly accommodates the murder of one of the twins; the point of the consulship, after all, was that both consuls ruled together, not that one speedily disposed of the other, to govern Rome alone.


5. The so-called ‘Bolsena Mirror’. Engraved on the reverse is what appears to be an early image of the wolf and twins.

Wiseman insists that you cannot possibly understand the myth without understanding how, when and why it was first invented. And so starts his own elaborate reconstruction. He first reviews every surviving reference to the legend, visual and literary, and concludes that (unlike Romulus) Remus did not emerge until the third century BC, hundreds of years after the foundation of the city: our familiar double act of ‘Romulus ’n’ Remus’ was originally just ‘Romulus’. This argument alone is not without its difficulties. It involves, for example, dismissing the evidence of a famous fourth-century engraved mirror from Bolsena: this mirror depicts a scene that to any casual observer would be instantly recognisable as the infants Romulus and Remus suckled by the wolf, but which Wiseman (to preserve the idea of Remus’ late appearance) has to make into an illustration of the obscure deities ‘Lares Praestites’.

But more difficulties are to come. Wiseman returns to Mommsen’s idea of political duality, focusing not on the duality of the consulship itself, but on the sharing of the consulship between patricians and plebeians (the late fourth century saw the end of the so-called ‘struggle of the orders’ and the full opening of magistracies, previously restricted to aristocratic patricians, to the rest of the citizens – the plebeians – as well). Remus, then, was invented to represent the plebeian principle in Roman politics. His name, deriving from the Latin for ‘delay’, indicates that the plebeians were long delayed in achieving their share of power. His story was developed in a series of plays (now lost, but whose existence Wiseman zealously reconstructs) presented in the late fourth and early third centuries. The idea of his murder was somehow (I am afraid I have failed to understand exactly how) connected to a human sacrifice in the early third century that accompanied the building of the new Roman temple of Victory.

This is all immensely enjoyable, often seductive, argument. Wiseman is well known for his influential work reasserting the importance of Roman myth and culture (against its better-known Greek counterpart); and in Remus he succeeds in communicating his own excitement in that enterprise. It is one of the best-written, most engaging and provoking books on ancient history to have appeared in the last fifty years; in many respects, quite simply brilliant. At the same time, much of it is closer to fantasy than history. A whole series of lost Roman plays are concocted out of next to no evidence at all, and then made into major agents in the transmission of the myth. (I see nothing, for example, to make his ‘two-act performance at the far end of the Circus Maximus in front of the temple of Mercury, with the god coming out of his own temple and escorting Lara to the underworld via the nearby grove of the Bona Dea’ anything more than a complete Wiseman figment.) Human sacrifice in the early third century is deduced from some literary references to a religious crisis, plus an unexplained (possibly quite innocent) grave under the foundations of the Victory temple. The list could go on and on.

So what has gone wrong? Wiseman knows a good argument when he sees one; and he repeatedly admits how perilous his own reconstructions are (‘It will be obvious by now that my argument in this section is even more tenuous and conjectural than usual’). Why then does he do it? A large part of the answer lies in his understanding of the nature of myth. He does not see myth (as surely you must, particularly in Rome) as a process, a complex set of culturally specific ways of thinking about the world and its history; he sees it as a story (or stories), with an identifiable moment of invention, locked into the occasion of its first telling.

This leads him back relentlessly on a search for origins; and it enables him to conceal from himself, no doubt, as much as from his readers, that the one time when we can clearly see the myth of Remus and Romulus being important at Rome is not the murky third century BC at all, but the quite different, and much better-documented, period of the early Empire, three centuries later. The story of Romulus was a particularly live issue under the first emperor Augustus: when it came to choosing an imperial title, he apparently considered taking the name Romulus, but rejected it because of its fratricidal connotations; while the poet Horace writes of Roman civil war as an inevitable legacy of Rome’s founding twins. Tacitus, too, more than a century later, reflects a similar attitude when he records public reaction to Nero’s murder of his young brother Britannicus: brothers, so it was said, were traditional enemies; two kings wouldn’t fit into one palace. Remus and Romulus, in other words, were paraded as a paradigm of imperial monarchy and its dynastic tensions.

A number of other books have chosen to examine in detail the specifically Augustan debates on Romulus and Rome’s other early kings. None has the verve or the learning of Wiseman’s Remus; but they all prise apart, with varying degrees of success, the complexities of these early imperial mythic tales. Matthew Fox’s Roman Historical Myths takes each major Augustan writer individually, attempting to show in each case that the period of the early Roman kings was not (as some modern studies have come close to suggesting) simply a useful political metaphor through which writers could comment on the imperial regime – criticism of Romulus being altogether a safer option than criticism of Augustus himself. Fox argues cogently (though occasionally over-elaborately) that we should think more carefully about what it was the Romans thought they were doing when they retold the myth/history of their own city, and where they placed the boundary between mythic and historical truth, or between myth and contemporary history.

Gary Miles, by contrast, in his Livy: Reconstructing early Rome, concentrates on just one historical account of Rome’s origins – a promising enough target and even now a text that does not always get its due attention. In fact, Miles offers a routinely fashionable set of observations about how Romans questioned their own cultural identity, intermingled with some (not always necessary) tabulations which look like a parody of structural anthropology (illustrating, for example, how the ‘rusticity’, ‘marginality’ and ‘egalitarianism’ that in Livy characterised the cooperation of Romulus and Remus are to be contrasted with the ‘urbanism’, ‘centrality’ and ‘authoritarianism’ of the rule of Romulus on his own).

A far more interesting study of an individual text is Carole Newlands’ Playing with Time, focusing on Ovid’s Fasti, an extraordinary poem on the Roman calendar, which retells many of the myths of regal Rome to explain the origin of the city’s many religious festivals. Only once in the Fasti does Romulus seem to appear in a noticeably positive light, when the murder of Remus is ascribed not to the new king himself, but to one of his thuggish henchmen. But, as Newlands sharply points out, the narrator has, at the start of this section, called for inspiration on the god Quirinus, that is Romulus himself in his deified form. Ovid has set this up, in other words, as an explicitly partisan account, even a joke about Romulus’ own attempt to shift the blame on to someone else.

None of this is Wiseman’s territory. For his concern is with what he sees as the origin of the myth, and also with what he calls ‘The Other Rome’: the small city-state before it became the multicultural capital of a world empire, and before the era of the surviving literature that has defined its character in modern scholarship. That too is the concern of T. J. Cornell in The Beginnings of Rome. In many ways, this is as significant a book as Wiseman’s, for it is the first major historical study of early Rome to integrate the results of recent intense archaeological activity in central Italy (often improving, it must be said, on the interpretations of the excavators themselves). It is almost bound to become a standard textbook, and rightly so. But writing the ‘history’ of a culture from which almost no contemporary writing of any sort survives has its own dangers; and the further back you go, the more acute those dangers are.

Cornell is committed (he has to be) to the idea that we can actually know something about earliest Rome; that the histories of the early city written by Romans centuries later are based on ‘real information’ that is, on documentary evidence still surviving, or at least on earlier historians who had access to evidence that was later lost. This commitment inevitably forces him into credulity, on a sometimes alarming scale. A case in point is the trustworthiness, or not, of the so-called consular Fasti (the same Latin title as Ovid’s poem, but here referring to the list of consuls stretching back to the very foundation of the Republic, after the departure of the kings). If this list, as it was known in a canonical form to Romans in the first century BC, is an accurate guide to the chief magistrates of the city back into the sixth century, then it provides some kind of solid framework for a narrative account of Rome’s history, even at an early period.

Of course, it almost certainly does not. Wiseman (who admittedly is committed to scepticism here, for the sake of his own argument) argues powerfully that a good deal of fixing, fudging and rationalisation by Roman antiquaries themselves lies behind the apparently neat list we have. He might have added that any document that has been worked on and emended with such intensity by modern scholars was probably (and it’s a good rule of thumb) worked on equally enthusiastically by their Roman counterparts: a typical antiquarian creation. Cornell, on the other hand, claims that he can find no good reason for disbelieving its broad accuracy and the chronological framework it offers.

Cornell’s problems are yet worse when he gets back to Romulus and the six kings who, according to myth, succeeded him. He seems clear enough at the outset that the foundation story of Romulus is ‘legendary and has no right to be considered a historical narrative’. But before long we find that ‘although Romulus is legendary, institutions attributed to him can be shown to be historical and to date back to the early regal period’ which already goes a long way to reinstituting a regal ‘personality’, even if not necessarily on Livy’s model. By the time he reaches the fourth and fifth kings, that personality is almost taken for granted: ‘Ancus Marcius (641–617 BC) and L. Tarquinius Priscus (616–578 BC) are more rounded, and perhaps more historical, figures than their predecessors.’ A few pages later, the issue has become how to make a mere seven kings fit into the 244 years traditionally assigned to their reigns (whether by supposing that there were in fact more than seven, or by shortening the chronology); and the historical mirage is completed by a neat family tree of the Tarquin dynasty (just to show that there is nothing inherently implausible about the relationships implied in the traditional Roman sources). Those of us who still need convincing that every single one of these kings is not a later Roman fiction (and all the more interesting for that) must long at this point for the inspired fantasy of a Wiseman.

But does any of this speculation on the prehistory of Rome matter very much? Matthew Fox, in the introduction to Roman Historical Myths, dares to raise the question of ‘why the discourse of the (Roman) regal period should itself be interesting in the 1990s’ conscious, maybe, that a great many historians (Moses Finley stridently among them) have thought it decidedly uninteresting. It is a great virtue of Cornell and (especially) Wiseman that they manage to convince the reader that indeed it might be interesting and matter; and in Wiseman’s case he seems almost to have convinced himself as well. Characteristically, one of his sections opens with the sentence: ‘The nineteen-seventies started unpromisingly for Remus.’ This may or may not be a joke, smartly self-ironic or naively sincere. But, whichever way you choose to take it, it is typical of Wiseman’s wry engagement with his subject; typical of this wild and wonderful book.

Review of T. P. Wiseman, Remus, A Roman Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1995); Matthew Fox, Roman Historical Myths: the Regal Period in Augustan literature (Clarendon Press, 1996); Gary B. Miles, Livy, Reconstructing early Rome (Cornell University Press, 1995); Carole E. Newlands, Playing with Time, Ovid and the Fasti (Cornell University Press, 1995); T. J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome, Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c 1000–264 BC (Routledge, 1995)

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