Where do we come from? Who are our ancestors? Who built the place where we live? In short, who are we? The Romans were bound to ask such questions. By the time of the Emperor Augustus (31 BC to AD 14) – and probably long before – they had clear answers.

Stories about the origins of Rome and the Romans survive in the works of two of the Augustan Age’s leading men of letters: in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, and in Book 1 of Livy’s History of Rome. From them we learn that Rome – by then the capital city of a global superpower – was conceived as an imperial phoenix rising from the flames of burning Troy over a thousand years before.

It went like this. The hero Aeneas had escaped the destruction of Troy in 1184 BC, carrying his aged father Anchises on his shoulders, dragging his son Ascanius by the hand. Anchises clasped images of Troy’s gods to his breast as he was borne along – saving the spirits of his race to ensure its regeneration. With other refugees, Aeneas fled by sea; but, harried by vengeful gods, he found no safe haven for seven years. Then storms tossed his ships on to the shore of Carthage, where the exiled Phoenician queen Dido was building a new city. Venus, divine mother of Aeneas, tried to protect her son through union with Dido, but Jupiter, lord of heaven, and patron of the future city of Rome, ordained otherwise: Aeneas was commanded to abandon his Afro-Punic lover and fulfil an historic mission in Italy. Dido, stricken with grief and anger, cursed Aeneas, pledged her people to eternal enmity with the Trojans, and then killed herself.

Making landfall in Italy near the Bay of Naples, Aeneas encountered the Sibyl of Cumae, a prophetess of the god Apollo, and mistress of the arcane arts. Guided by her, Aeneas descended into the Underworld to meet his recently deceased father Anchises, now, in death, privy to knowledge of his people’s future. As a parade of great Romans – the spirit forms of those yet to come – passed before them, Anchises drew the lesson for his son: ‘Others … shall hammer forth more delicately a breathing likeness out of bronze, coax living faces from the marble, plead causes with more skill, plot with their gauge the movements in the sky, and tell the rising of the constellations. But as for you, Roman, let your concern be to command the nations, and may this be your skill: to impose the rule of peace, to spare the submissive, and to crush the proud.’(1) Greeks might be better artists, orators and scientists, but it was Romans who were destined to rule the world.

The price, though, was to be high. ‘Your Trojans will regret their coming,’ the Sibyl screeched. ‘I see war and all the horrors of war. I see Tiber streaming and foaming with blood.’(2) Sure enough, when Aeneas’s followers landed at Latium, about a hundred miles up the coast, they were quickly plunged into a life-or-death struggle. Would Aeneas marry the King of Latium’s daughter, secure an alliance with the Latin people, and thus win for his Trojans land, farms, and a place to build a city? Or would local warlord Turnus the Rutulian crush the interlopers? Venus persuaded Vulcan, the smith-god, to craft a fabulous panoply of helmet, sword, breastplate, greaves, spear and shield for her son. The face of the shield, made of bronze, silver and gold, was decorated with scenes of Rome’s future triumphs. At the centre was an image of a great naval battle to come, that of Actium in 31 BC, an apocalyptic struggle between Eastern barbarism and Western civilization. Aeneas ‘had no knowledge of the events, but nonetheless he found pleasure in their representations, as he lifted onto his shoulder the glory and the destiny of his heirs.’(3)

The dogs of war were unleashed. Bloody battle followed bloody battle. The fate of Italy – and the world – swayed in the balance. Would the Roman race live, or would it be ripped from its Trojan womb unborn? Finally, to decide, the two heroes met in single combat. At the climax of the fight, when the gods turned Turnus’ skill and strength to jelly, Aeneas, champion of the new order, seized his opportunity and brought Turnus down with a spear cast that pierced his thigh. Then, ‘in vengeful bitterness, his fury kindled, and terrible in his rage’(4), he smashed out the remaining life with a sword thrust through the breast.

Time passed. Aeneas died three years after the war. His son Ascanius succeeded him, but, leaving Lavinium, the settlement of his father, he founded a new city at Alba Longa in the hills nearby. Here his descendants ruled for 300 years. But the last of the Alban kings was a usurper and tyrant called Amulius, who drove out his brother Numitor, the rightful king, and made Numitor’s only child, the maiden Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. Amulius aimed to terminate the line of Numitor, for Vestals were not allowed to marry. But Amulius was foiled, for Rhea Silvia was impregnated by Mars, god of war, and gave birth to the twins Romulus and Remus. When Amulius found out, he had Rhea Silvia thrown into prison, and her sons cast into the Tiber. He was foiled again. The boys were washed ashore and suckled by a she-wolf. Later they were found, taken in, and looked after by the royal herdsman Faustulus and his wife. When grown to manhood, learning the truth of their origins, Romulus and Remus slew Amulius, restored Numitor, and set out to found a city of their own at the place where, long before, they had been saved from the waters of the Tiber.

But the House of Aeneas was now polluted by killing; and blood begets blood. Romulus and Remus each claimed the kingship. Each waited for a sign from the gods, Romulus and his followers taking station on the Palatine Hill, Remus and his on the neighbouring Aventine. First, six vultures appeared in the sky for Remus. Then, immediately afterwards, twelve for Romulus. The gods had not spoken clearly: was priority decisive, or number? Claim and counter-claim degenerated into anger and abuse. Romulus assumed control and began to build a city. But as he and his followers worked to raise a wall along the boundary – a sacred line protected by ritual and taboo – Remus leapt across. Enraged by such defiance and sacrilege, Romulus slew his own brother. Thus, in 753 BC, in an act of fratricide, was Rome founded and Romulus made its king.

Romulus, needing settlers and soldiers, offered his city as a haven for exiles, brigands and fugitive slaves. To provide wives, he abducted the women of the neighbouring Sabines. And, after a period of warfare, he negotiated the union of Latin and Sabine, ruling Rome jointly with the Sabine king Titus Tatius in the later years of his reign. Romulus was the first of seven kings. The second was Numa Pompilius, revered for his wisdom and as founder of Rome’s religious system, and the third Tullus Hostilius, a warmonger and imperialist, whose atrocities provoked Jupiter into setting his palace ablaze with a thunderbolt and burning him alive. Fourth to reign was Ancus Marcius, a moderate who preferred diplomacy abroad and public works at home – though he too could fight well enough when he had to. The fifth was Tarquinius Priscus, an Etruscan adventurer turned populist politician who charmed his way to power and then ruled as the proverbial ‘benevolent dictator’. Then came Servius Tullius, a Latin protégé of the Tarquins, who succeeded after the assassination of his patron, and imposed radical reform on army and state. Finally, having murdered his predecessor, Tarquinius Superbus, a scheming and malevolent despot, ascended the throne of Romulus. The coup which overthrew him ended the Monarchy, founded the Republic, and inaugurated the Romans’ enduring hatred of kings.

Thus was the story of Rome’s origins told in the time of Augustus. We do not know how many people believed in its literal truth, though some were certainly sceptical. ‘Events before Rome was born or thought of have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of a sound historical record,’ explained the historian Livy. On the other hand, he did not consider it his job to sort fact from fiction. The origin myths dignified the Roman past. They should be allowed to stand. Besides, ‘so great is the glory won by the Roman people in their wars that, when they declare that Mars himself was their first parent and father of the man who founded their city, all the nations of the world might well allow the claim as readily as they accept Rome’s imperial dominion.’(5)

The stories of Aeneas, Romulus, and the kings of Rome were not, then, a literal account of past happenings, but the revered texts of an imperial ideology grounded in a religious conception of the world. Rome was a superpower. Success depended on the will of the gods. Therefore, the Romans must be the gods’ anointed. Why not, then, the gods’ actual children? And who, in that pagan world where the boundary between sacred and profane was so blurred, who among the defeated and the subjugated could refute such claims? Power was the proof of myth.

Livy’s scepticism is a good starting-point for us. The myth-history of ancient Rome was an ‘invented tradition’, stories created after Rome had become a great city to fill a gap at the beginning of time. They were fashioned from the materials to hand, evolving slowly over time towards their final form in the written epics of the Augustan Age. The result was a mélange of ancient fable, religious hokum, psychodrama, contemporary politics and traditional values. There were truths here, but they were not, by and large, historical ones. Rather, from the myths, we gain insight into the thought-world of ancient Rome: we see the Romans as they saw themselves, or as they wished to be seen, and we learn how they answered those pressing questions about origins and identity with which we began.

In fact, there was no ‘Trojan’ settlement in Late Bronze Age Italy. Nor was there a city on the site of Rome in the mid-8th century BC. Neither Aeneas nor Romulus ever existed. Indeed, the awkwardness of the double-myth – the obvious merging of two separate stories – exposes the whole as an elaborate concoction. It arose from the need to bridge two ideological worlds, that of the great gods and heroes of ancient Greece, and that of the local cults of a small and unsophisticated Italic people. Once a superpower, Rome needed to discuss its origins in the lingua franca of Homeric myth. Aeneas provides the connection between parochial folk-tale and cosmopolitan high-culture. Romulus, the local Italian boy, thereby gained a stature appropriate to the founder of an imperial city: though product of the seed of Mars and the milk of a wolf, he required descent from an Homeric hero with a divine mother to underwrite his city’s claims to global supremacy.

Not that Aeneas remained particularly Homeric in the hands of Virgil. Myths were devices for talking about the present, and Virgil’s Aeneas bears little resemblance to Homer’s Achilles: he was a hero for Augustan Rome, not Archaic Greece. Joyless and ‘pious’ (the Latin pius defies simple translation), Aeneas displays the sanctimonious rectitude of an imperial overlord, not the swaggering thuggery of a robber baron; and he acts not for himself and his self-glorification, but as a tool of divinely ordained destiny, an instrument of an imperial history about to unfold. The end therefore justifies the means. The Roman people, threatened with destruction at its moment of conception, born in the fires of an Italian civil war, charged with a mission to rule the world and impose order upon it, was of necessity a race of warriors. Rome’s myth-history is her explanation for a thousand years of blood, slavery and empire. It presents the world-view of the Roman imperial ruling class at the height of its power.

Sometimes the link between mythic past and political present is explicit. Virgil has Aeneas girded for battle with a shield bearing an image of Octavian-Augustus at Actium. Usually the references are more elliptical. Virgil’s contemporaries, though, could hardly have missed them. Aeneas fights and wins a terrible Italian civil war; as Octavian had a Roman civil war. He eschews seduction by an eastern femme fatale (Dido/Cleopatra), unlike Octavian’s bitter enemy (Antony). He thus arrives at the time and place appointed, ready to play his part in the grand performance of history-yet-to-be, as Octavian also might be thought to have done. After all, Octavian was great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, who, not given to modesty, had claimed descent from Venus and Aeneas. Octavian had ended the civil wars, reconstructed the fractured Roman state, and, in a sense, founded the city anew. The spin, then, occasionally explicit, more usually implicit, was that Octavian was the new Aeneas-Romulus, a full-blooded reincarnation of his great ancestors, a second founder of the race and the city.

If Aeneas and Romulus were characters of myth, what of the other six kings of Rome? If no Trojans ever settled in Italy, and if Rome was not founded before c. 650 BC, what of the later events recounted in Book 1 of Livy’s History, which continues the story up to 509 BC? Is it all fiction? After all, the writing of formal Roman history began only in the 3rd century BC, first in Greek, then in Latin. None of these early works survives complete: we have only fragments and extracts. The earliest surviving works are of 2ndcentury date, but there is little in them about the kings. We depend for the early history of Rome largely on the testimony of two late 1st century sources, of which Livy is one, and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus the other. What can they possibly have known about real events 500 years before their own time, and 250 years before historical writing began? What primary sources, known to them but lost to us, might they have used?

Livy and Dionysius doubtless had access to the Roman state archives, as well as being sufficiently well-connected to gain entry to many private libraries. They would have found much useful material: written versions of old, orally transmitted epic poetry which, in the manner of Homer, perhaps preserved some authentic information about early Rome; an edited copy of the Annales Maximi, the whiteboards posted up for public view each year by the Roman priests, listing festival dates, election results, triumphs and portents; copies of important official documents like international treaties, decrees of the Senate, and treasury accounts; the works of 3rd century Greek historians and Roman annalists (who created formal year-by-year records of events); and – of more dubious value – aristocratic family histories which purported to list the high offices and great achievements of past members of the lineage.

These were tainted sources. History was manipulated by the powerful. Of this the ancients themselves were well aware. ‘Of course,’ explained the Roman politician Cicero, ‘the history of Rome has been falsified by these speeches [aristocratic funerary orations], for there is much in them which never happened – invented triumphs, additional consulates, false claims to patrician status, with lesser men smuggled into another family with the same name …’(6) Despite such strictures, ancient historians were often uncritical of sources and sloppy about their writing. Livy transposed obvious errors, repeated mistranslations, reproduced without comment contradictory accounts, and even, drawing on different sources, sometimes recounted the same event twice without realizing there was only one. He was often little more than a hack.

But these things mattered less to ancient historians than to modern. Literal truth was, for men like Livy, ‘a comparatively trivial matter’. If Greek historians were tragedians, Roman historians were moralists. ‘I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means, both in politics and war, by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded.’ In this, there were lessons for the present, a period in which Livy detected serious moral decline: ‘The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.’ The historian, then, was a man with a mission: to reform the morals of the age and save his fellow citizens from ‘the vices of avarice and luxury’(7). Livy’s history, no less than Virgil’s poem, was an ideological tract.

As we approach the early history of Rome, therefore, we tread gingerly through a minefield of myth and moralizing. Archaeology is our guide. Many possibilities in the written texts can be tested against the hard evidence of surviving material culture. Excavations in the heart of ancient Rome; the analysis of grave-goods from archaic tombs; landscape surveys to locate and date settlement sites from scatters of potsherds; the tracing of trade routes from the find-spots of imported exotica: in these and other ways archaeologists are creating new evidence for early Rome. Rarely can archaeological material be tied to specific historical events; it deals more with the economic, social and cultural background, and with long-term changes in settlement, land-use and trade. But it creates a framework of possibilities. Stories that cannot be fitted to this framework must be rejected. The city of Romulus turns to myth when archaeology reveals nothing more than a village of wood, clay and thatch.

Let us take this as our starting-point, this Iron Age village found by archaeologists on the Palatine Hill, deeply buried beneath the aristocratic mansions of the Late Republic, and the imperial palaces of the Early Empire. What, from this and other evidence, do we know about the origins and early history of the small Latin city-state that would one day become the greatest empire in antiquity?

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