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So What Really Happened?

THE STORY SO FAR IS WHAT THE ROMANS WANTED TO be told, and how they believed it should be told. But to what extent is the account of Rome’s foundation and the monarchy in the previous chapters true? It is hard to be quite sure, but the question seems to have two answers: on the one hand, very little and, on the other, quite a lot.

The Romans themselves recognized that some elements of the tradition were not to be trusted. Livy refers forgivingly to “old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of sound historical record” and goes on to say, “It is the privilege of antiquity to mingle divine things with human; it adds dignity to the past and if any nation deserves the right to a divine origin, it is our own.”

The link with Troy was foisted on the Romans by Greek historians, who liked to bring interesting new foreign powers within their cultural net, but this was not an unwelcome gift. The Greeks saw the Trojans not as slippery Asiatics but as honorary Greeks. Indeed, some said that they were “a nation as truly Greek as any and formerly came from the Peloponnese.” This meant that the Romans, much in awe of Hellenic culture and suffering from an inferiority complex regarding their own, could award themselves a Greek identity. Their admiration concealed envy and hostile emulation; by associating themselves with the Trojans, they cast themselves as rivals who might one day conquer Greece and so avenge their ancestors.

It is possible that there was a war of some sort at Troy around the traditional date, 1184 B.C. The city certainly existed, and its remains have been uncovered by modern archaeologists. Even at this early stage, Greeks and Phoenicians sailed around the Mediterranean and eventually founded “colonies,” independent city-states, but most of this happened four centuries or so later. Aeneas can hardly have called in at Carthage, for it did not then exist. (The Greek historian Timaeus believed that Dido founded the North African city in 814.) But then Aeneas did not exist, either. The panoply of gods and heroes whose adventures are described in Homer’s Iliad is invented.

As for Romulus and Remus, they are equally fictional. In essence, Romulus means “founder of Rome” (the “-ulus” is Etruscan and denotes a founder), and Remus may be etymologically connected with the word Rome. Tales of exposed infants who rise to greatness are familiar features of ancient mythology (remember Moses, Oedipus, and, of course, Paris of Troy).

The real difficulty the Romans faced was that there were two contradictory foundation stories that ostensibly took place hundreds of years apart, the one about a wandering Trojan hero, and the other about local boys Romulus and Remus. They decided to accept both, and were then faced with reconciling them and knitting them together in a plausible narrative. Aeneas was limited to having discovered Italy and setting up house in Latium, so that Rome itself could be given to the twins. In order to fill the long time gap, a catalog of totally imaginary kings of Alba Longa was cooked up to link the two legends.

Roman historians in the last days of the Republic did not necessarily imagine things, but they tended to see remote and legendary events through the eyes of their own time. The fact that Romulus developed despotic tendencies and was assassinated in the Senate House may very well reflect a response to the traumas of their own day. Hence the uncanny pre-echoes in Livy of Caesar’s death.

There was much discussion about the date of Rome’s foundation. Most commentators favored a year sometime in the eighth century. As we have seen, 753 was the choice of Varro. It became the generally accepted date. This led to a second chronological conundrum. Only seven kings reigned between Romulus and the expulsion of the Tarquins. This meant an implausibly long average reign of thirty-five years apiece.

The Romans accepted this, but modern scholars have been more skeptical. Perhaps there were additional kings, of whom no record survives. Archaeologists seem to have settled the question: slight traces of primitive settlements have been found that go back many hundreds of years, but solid evidence of city as distinct from village life begins only in the middle of the seventh century. So the real foundation date was about one hundred years later than originally believed. This has helped, for although some monarchs may have slipped from view, the canonical number now fits comfortably into the time available. Also, bits of dug-up evidence begin to fall into place alongside the literary tradition. Thus, the Regia, or palace, in the Forum was constructed in the late seventh century, just where the new chronology places the reign of Numa Pompilius, who is credited with having commissioned it. Rome’s first Senate House was attributed to Tullus Hostilius (hence its name, the Curia Hostilia): its remains have been identified, dating to the early sixth century, when we now suppose that Tullus ruled Rome.

It is a long time before we meet personalities who are (more or less) certain to have lived in history as distinct from myth. The first four kings seem to be largely if not entirely fictional, even if events in their reigns did actually take place. They were each given specialist tasks, which were in truth accomplished during the monarchy, but not necessarily by one particular king.

Romulus established an orderly social and political system with tribes and curiae; the un-warlike Numa was allocated everything concerning religion and (in Cicero’s phrase) “the spirit of tranquillity”—cults, priestly colleges and a public calendar of sacred and secular days; the untranquil Tullius Hostilius and Ancus Marcius fought expansionist wars with an effective conscript army. Whether or not Ancus himself had anything to do with it, Ostia and the Pons Sublicius were certainly built. However, we can say with confidence that the two Tarquins and Servius Tullius lived real lives (although, because their recorded achievements are very similar, the Tarquins may have been only one person). The best estimate proposes that Priscus came to power between 570 and 550 B.C.

As we approach the end of the monarchy, the picture comes more and more sharply into focus. Although the story of Lucretia was “written up,” its melodramatic trappings may conceal a true-life scandal. Even if we are suspicious of his antic disposition, Brutus is a major historical figure who helped establish the republican institutions that lasted for more than five hundred years.

Once we lift the mists of myth, we can make out a landscape of fact. Having comprehensively rubbished the traditional narratives, we have to concede that they do, after all, contain important ingredients of historical reality. During the monarchy, Rome did grow from being a small town beside a ford into a power in central Italy, extending its territory by countless miniature wars with local tribes in Latium. Political institutions such as the Senate and the People’s Assembly were developed, and it is almost certainly the case that some method of linking wealth to political influence and military obligation was invented by the kings, and very probably by a ruler named Servius Tullius. (However, the details of the complicated centuriate system refer to a later period, for Romans tended toward a modernizing fallacy; namely, they supposed that the early Republic was identical to, if smaller than, its more elaborate incarnation in subsequent centuries.)

So a recognizable constitution evolved, as did an unresolved conflict between ordinary citizens and the lordly patricians. The later kings were indeed very like turannoi, who claimed a popular mandate, carried out aggressive foreign policies, and invested in the arts and architecture.

The grand public edifices that a thriving and ambitious city-state demanded were indeed built; the Forum was transformed from a muddy bog into a great public square. Some have argued that, for a time, Rome was forcibly enlisted as an Etruscan city, but recent scholars have demurred for lack of evidence. It seems that, although deeply influenced by the imperial Etruscan civilization to the north, where it obtained two of its kings, Rome retained a fierce independence.

It developed its own culture as a diverse community, welcoming to outsiders but proud of its own, traditional way of doing things. These two character traits were as old as the earliest stories about Rome. After all, it was Romulus who made a point of inviting foreigners to become citizens, and his successor Numa Pompilius, who, so Cicero claimed, introduced “religious ceremonial [and] laws which still remain on our records.” Indeed, a cosmopolitan openness to the world and fidelity to the mos maiorum, the Latin term for “ancestral custom,” may have been interrelated: if social cohesion was to be maintained, the one needed to be corrected by, or balanced with, the other. In any event, this was a tension that would mark Rome’s subsequent history.

AS ROMANS OF the first century—Cicero and his friends, for instance—looked at themselves in the mirror of a distant, royal past, what did they see? First and foremost, they were a chosen people. It was their destiny to found the world’s greatest empire. By their feats of arms, they would outdo the Mediterranean’s dominant power, the Greeks, whose arts and culture and military successes were unparalleled. As Trojans, they were not barbarians beyond the pale of civilization but guest Hellenes. And, as Trojans, they would at last make good the fall of Troy.

Rome was not built in a day. In many foundation myths, cities suddenly appear from nowhere, fully grown and ready to go. Not so with Rome: Romulus, the official founder, was merely a milestone in an immensely long process that began in the embers of Troy and ended in Lucretia’s bedroom. The story really gets going properly only with the expulsion of the Tarquins and the arrival of the Republic.

The Romans were deeply religious, but their religion, much influenced by the Etruscans, was little more than a complex web of superstitions. The gods were incalculable powers who had to be placated at every turn. Every aspect of life was governed by ritual procedures, whether it be the repair and maintenance of a bridge or the business of making a treaty.

This was a highly aggressive society, but one that understood a vital political truth: military victory can be secured only by reconciliation with the defeated. Although most empire-builders in the ancient world were cruel and unforgiving, this was not altogether an original insight. Thus, after his conquest of the Persian Empire in the fourth century, and much to the fury of his trusty Macedonians, Alexander the Great promoted leading Orientals to positions of power in his new administration and insisted on harmony between victor and vanquished. In a move that recalls the rape of the Sabine women, he even forced his soldiers to marry local women. What was remarkable about the Romans was the consistency, over many centuries, with which they pursued their policy. They could see that it enabled them not only to foster consent to their rule among their former enemies but also to constantly enlarge their population and, by the same token, the manpower available to their armies.

There was a difficulty, though. A war had to be just, a response to someone else’s aggression. That was what religion and the law said. Romans believed, self-righteously, in the sacredness of treaties. But it was obvious even to them that they did not always live up to expectations; the rape of the Sabine women was a clear example of bad behavior (albeit redeemed by the women themselves).

By the same token, Rome’s mixed constitution, a product of the collective wisdom of generations, was an achievement to be very proud of. It was a bitter paradox, then, that right from the outset great men undermined it. Romulus was the city’s founder, but he also set a precedent for tyrannical behavior. The Romans were very skilled at doing exactly what they wanted, while at the same time, and with the straightest possible face, convincing themselves of the propriety of their deeds.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic quality of Roman life was the way that it brought together three very different functions that are, in most societies, kept apart. Political, legal, and religious activity was completely fused: there was no separate priestly class, for the priest and the politician were one and the same person. So were the politician and the general, and the politician and the advocate. Above all, political activity was inflected by, and embodied in, hallowed ceremony. The Romans took very great care to ensure divine endorsement.

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