The main evidence for our knowledge of the history of the Roman Republic is books, mostly written from the first century B.C. to the period of the high empire in the third century A.D. Monkish summarizers and authors of miscellanies of various kinds stretch into the Byzantine era. Most offer narrative accounts, but those which address Rome’s beginnings do not succeed in distinguishing fact from legend and, where there are gaps in the records, tend to fill them in with what was thought to be appropriate rather than with what actually happened. Events from the Republic’s declining years are allowed to reshape early stories. Sometimes an incident that took place in one era is copied and inserted into a previous one.
Livy (59 B.C.–A.D. 17), a northern Italian and an almost exact contemporary of the emperor Augustus, wrote a vast history from Rome’s foundation to his own day. When complete, it comprised 142 “books” (that is, long chapters). However, much ancient literature failed to survive the fall of empire and the judgments of Christian monks. Today, we have only thirty-five of Livy’s books. He was a literary artist of a high order, and some of his set pieces are gripping to read, but he added moral color and drama to his canvas; this needs to be cleaned off before the bare essentials of a partial truth can be discerned.
By contrast, the Greek Polybius (about 200–118), who spent much of his life as an exile in Rome, where he mixed in leading circles, wrote of the (for him) recent past. He investigated the period between 264 and 146, when Rome emerged as a leading Mediterranean power. No great stylist, he was a stickler for accuracy. He spoke to survivors of the events he described, examined documents (for example, treaties), paid attention to geography (often visiting sites in person) and was present at some occasions himself. “The mere statement of a fact may interest us,” he remarked. “But it is when the reason is added that the study of history becomes fruitful.” His general attitude resembles that of Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century. Of the original forty volumes of his History, only the first five are extant in their entirety; much of the work has come down to us in collections of excerpts that were kept in libraries in Byzantium.
Another talented Greek was Plutarch, whose life straddled the turn of the first century A.D. He had the off-the-wall idea of writing “parallel” lives of famous Greeks and Romans—for example, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. These comparisons threw little new light on Plutarch’s subjects, but each biography is a fascinating stand-alone text. The author profitably plundered every source he could lay his hands on, although he did not always sufficiently assess their reliability. He made no claim to be a historian and was, rather, a moralist who explored the impact of character on men’s destinies. He had a sharp eye for the telling anecdote. Plutarch was also a copious essayist, and his works bring together a wide range of useful information on the Greek and Roman world.
Toward the end of the first century, a Greek, Diodorus Siculus, published a “universal” history, although in fact it concentrates on Greece and his homeland of Sicily, and later Rome. Fifteen of a total of forty books survive, and others in fragments. He is a rather careless writer and is only as trustworthy as his often unnamed sources, which he tends to follow closely.
Cassius Dio (about 164 to after 229) was a Greek who became a Roman senator and consul. He wrote an eighty-book history of Rome from its foundation to A.D. 229. Ten books on the Punic Wars are lost. The part dealing with the period from 69 B.C. to A.D. 46 survives, although with gaps after A.D. 6. The rest has come down in fragments and summaries. He is stolid, usually sound but unexciting.
In the shadows, behind the writers we have are those numerous historians on whom they depended, but whose work has disappeared. One of these was the first Roman to compose a history of the city, a Roman senator named Quintus Fabius Pictor, who lived in the second half of the third century. He wrote in Greek, partly because he wanted to apply Greek principles of historiography to Rome and partly to acquaint the Hellenic world with this newly emergent state.
Quintus Ennius (230–169) wrote an epic, Annales (Annals), which tells the story of the Roman People from the fall of Troy and the wanderings of Aeneas down to his own times; only tantalizing fragments remain. His friend Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor, did much the same with his Origines, also lost; his originality was to write in Latin prose.
A number of important, but lost, Greek historians took notice of Rome, among them Hieronymus of Cardia and Timaeus of Tauromenium (a Sicilian whose alleged distortions aroused the ire of Polybius).
But where did the first Roman historians find the information they needed to fill their narratives? Family tradition was a useful source: the great aristocratic houses preserved details of their ancestors, of the offices they held and of the triumphs they celebrated. However, caution was needed, for the spirit of emulation often led to exaggerated claims.
Then there must have been oral traditions, which may have expressed themselves as dramas performed during the ludi: for instance, the story of the overthrow of the first Tarquin reads like a theatrical farce. (We know that in the late Republic, plays that dealt with Roman themes were regularly presented—for example, about Romulus, the overthrow of the kings, and the Battle of Sentinum during the Samnite Wars.)
Officials of the Republic kept archives. The pontifex maximus was responsible for the annales maximi, annual accounts of important events and the names of officeholders. Other institutions may also have kept records, and the plebs had their own files in the Temple of Ceres on the Aventine Hill. These documents probably went back to the beginning of the Republic and in the early centuries were thin and basic. Treaties, laws, and dedications were also written down, sometimes as inscriptions on stone or in bronze.
From the second century B.C., educated Romans became interested in antiquarian studies. It has been wittily said that an antiquarian can be defined as “the type of man who is interested in historical facts without being interested in history.” Cicero’s friend Varro was the greatest antiquarian of his age and an indefatigable author. Ancient texts such as the Twelve Tables, the buildings and monuments of Rome, the state archives, the Latin language, the calendar, religious cults, family histories, social customs, place names, and ritual formulas fell under his scrutiny. Unfortunately, some interpretations were wildly off the mark, especially in the field of etymology, but much curious and interesting information was gathered. Another copious antiquarian was Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who flourished at about the same time as Augustus; his aim was to reconcile the Greeks to the rule of Rome. He is a prosy bore, but his lengthy Roman Antiquities is a treasure-house of curious detail about Rome’s legendary beginnings.
Cicero makes useful comments in his Republic on the city’s early history, which are not only interesting in themselves but reveal what was the received narrative in the first century. In Laws, he studies the nature of law and proposes detailed reforms of Rome’s constitution.
Roman and Greek historians had little to say about social matters, the arts and design, the role and status of women, and economic development. They focused their attention on political and military affairs and on the deeds of great men. Fortunately, much of Cicero’s private correspondence has survived, and illuminates what it was like to live through the destruction of the Republic. So have a variety of medical texts—for example, the writings of Celsus. Some poets in the late Republic and the empire evoke the upper classes at leisure. However, for a broader picture of how the Greco-Roman world functioned, we must depend on the increasingly sophisticated and instructive findings of the archaeologist and on a multitude of carved inscriptions, which throw a fascinating light on the doings of local authorities across the Mediterranean region and on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. This material is fragmentary and can be hard to interpret but is nonetheless valuable for that.