The Land and Its People

ASIDE FROM TARQUIN’S HAT, WHAT ELSE DID THE eagle see, on its unceasing search for prey, as it swooped and climbed, floated and dived in the humid air above Latium?

It was a countryside that for many ages had been unfit for human habitation. Until as late as 1000, volcanoes had spewed copious ash and lava over a coastal plain that was also prone to a contrasting peril, frequent floods. More than fifty craters can be found within twenty-five miles of Rome. When at last the eruptions fell silent (a shower of stones in the Alban Hills was recorded as late as the reign of Tullus Hostilius), a layer of ash rich in potash and phosphates covered the land. Forests spread quickly over the hills, and a rich surface soil was formed that contained nitrogenous matter. Farming, a new technology, was now possible, and here former nomads could settle, till the loamy earth, and flourish.

Today, cereal crops are harvested in June and during the summer months the sun is pitiless, the air parched, and the deforested hills and fields arid. The landscape is a nude, bony skeleton. Our eagle flew over a very different countryside—lush, fertile, and overgrown. Harvesttime was a month later, in July. Latium was well watered. Laurel, myrtle, beech, and oak grew on the plain, and evergreen pine and fir on the mountain slopes. Everywhere, dotted among the forests, were ponds, lakes, lagoons, and streams. The valley between hills that became the Roman Forum was typical of Latium, with its marshy soil and its transformation into a temporary creek when the Tiber regularly broke its bounds.

During its flight across Latium, the eagle could see fifty or more villages, probably protected by palisades, some of which were approaching the scale of small towns. They stood on cleared land where wheat, millet, and barley were planted. Domesticated animals were widespread—oxen, goats, sheep, and pigs. The fig was cultivated, as was the olive; the vine was new, having been introduced by the Etruscans. Demand for timber hastened the gradual process of deforestation. The geographer Strabo, writing in the first century A.D., observed: “All Latium is blessed with fertility and produces everything.” Malarial marshes in southern Latium were the single black spot.

However, farmers were only too well aware that rainwater dripping down the hillsides would gradually sweep away the fertile volcanic soil, on which their livelihoods depended. They constructed tunnels and dams, partly to irrigate the fields but, of equal importance, to stabilize the thin layer of earth. The Tiber poured so much mud into the sea that the new port at Ostia, founded not long ago by the first Tarquin’s predecessor on the throne at Rome, would soon begin silting up.

If our eagle spread its wings and ventured farther afield, it could patrol the narrow Italian peninsula, seven hundred miles long. The icebound Alps blocked it off from the European landmass; at their feet stretched a wide, flat plain through which the vast river Padus (today’s Po) wended its leisurely way. Cut off from the rest of Italy by the mountain range of the Apennines, running almost due east and west, the Romans saw this plain as part of Celtic Gaul and nothing to do with Italy proper.

Then the mountains turned southward and became a long limestone spine, crossed and broken up by narrow gorges. Terraces, high valleys, and grassy uplands made these highlands eminently habitable, and easily defended, by hardy, pastoral hill folk, who specialized in breeding livestock and selling such by-products as wool, leather, and cheeses.

On the eastern seaboard, there was sometimes hardly space for a road to run between steep heights and the sea. There was little good land and few harbors. Finally, as our eagle approached Italy’s boot and high heel, the chain widened out into the dry, windy prairies of Apulia.

The western coastline was a friendlier place. The beautiful hill country of Etruria, intersected and circumscribed by mountain ranges, contained few but extremely productive plains. Along with Varro, another first-century B.C. polymath, Posidonius, the Greek philosopher, politician, geographer, and historian, noted that the Etruscans’ very high standard of living was due in large part to the fecundity of their land, which nourished all manner of fruits and vegetables: “In general, Etruria, being altogether abundant, consists of extended open fields and is traversed at intervals by areas which rise up like hills and yet are fit for ploughing; also, it enjoys moderate rainfall not only in the winter season but in the summer as well.” To the south lay the broad, productive expanses of Latium and Campania. This is where Rome had the good fortune to be founded.

ITALY FACES WESTWARD. Its only disadvantage is that there are few navigable rivers and few good natural harbors along its littoral. Any great state to come into being there would have to be an agricultural land power rather than a nation of sailors.

This fact had a profound effect on a Roman’s idea of himself, on his collective identity. The teeming countryside of Latium was close to his deepest feelings about place and about the good life. When in the city, he longed for an idealized smallholding. Describing the happy man, the poet Horace (properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus), who flourished a little after Cicero’s day, gave this nostalgia its classic formulation:

[He] avoids the haughty portals of

great men, and likewise the Forum;

he weds his lofty poplar trees

to nubile shoots of vine;

in some secluded dale reviews

his lowing, wandering herds;

he prunes back barren shoots

with his hook and grafts on fruitful;

he stores pressed honey in clean jars;

he shears the harmless sheep.

Elsewhere, such a man gratefully acknowledges his good fortune when he acquires a small farm:

This is what I prayed for. A piece of land—not so very big,

with a garden and, near the house, a spring that never fails,

and a bit of wood to round it off. All this and more

the gods have granted. So be it. I ask for nothing else.

This taste for rural simplicity went hand in hand with a belief that, originally, Romans were brave and frugal. The neighboring Sabines, a different group from those who were now Roman citizens, were famous for maintaining a severe, old-fashioned morality for many centuries and ignored the comforts of a later, decadent epoch. The city of Rome itself was more virtuous and more admirable when it had hardly become a city. Propertius, a younger contemporary of Cicero and Varro, evoked a remote, admirable past:

The Curia, now standing high and resplendent with Senators’ purple-fringed togas,

then housed skin-clad Fathers, rural hearts.

Horns gathered the old-time citizens to the moot:

a hundred of them in an enclosure in a meadow formed the Senate.

In this golden age, there was little gold to be found. Politicians were poor and disinterested, and patriots. Only time would tell whether this ideal state of affairs would survive the growth of Roman wealth and power.

THE STONE AGE opened about two and a half million years ago, when early human beings began to use stone tools. An empty Italy, capable of supporting life, became a home for successive waves of incomers. Small bands, perhaps twenty-five to a hundred strong, roamed the peninsula, gathering edible plants and hunting, or scavenging, wild animals.

Around the year 10,000, the planet warmed markedly and sea levels rose. The conditions of life eased. Human beings learned to farm and began to give up their nomadic ways. They developed pottery, and ground and polished stone into sophisticated artifacts. Settled agricultural communities appeared here and there in the peninsula from about 5000. Evidence of their presence has been found in Liguria in the north, the foothills of the Apennines, and in the neighborhood of Rome. Immigrants from the east (perhaps crossing the Adriatic Sea) arrived in northern Apulia. They lived in villages surrounded by defensive ditches. A pastoral people, with goats, pigs, oxen, asses, and dogs, they moved on to new places when they had exhausted the land around their homesteads.

Sometime during the second millennium, stone tools and weapons gave way to bronze. Two predominant social groupings emerged; in the flatlands of the central Po Valley, the terramare (so named after the piles of black earth—terra mara, in modern local dialect—found in the low-lying villages of these Bronze Age communities), and to the south a less advanced Apennine culture. The population, though sparse, was growing.

Toward the end of the millennium, a series of tremendous convulsions shook the more advanced civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean. At its largest extent, the great empire of the Hittites (properly, the Land of the City of Hattusa) controlled most of what is now Turkey and Syria. With a claim to have been the world’s first constitutional monarchy, it boasted a sophisticated legal system. After about 1180, the Hittite state disintegrated thanks to civil war and an external threat of some kind, of which we know next to nothing.

In about the same period, Troy was sacked; we do not have to rely on Homer for this information, since the work of archaeologists has unearthed the ruins of a burned-out city which have been dated to between about 1270 and 1190 (not far from the traditional date of the ten-year siege, as described in the Iliad, and where Homer placed it) and might as well be called Troy as anything else.

In mainland Greece, the Mycenaean civilization was predominant. The colossal ruins at Mycenae, in the Peloponnese, still amaze modern visitors, and were the setting of one of Greek myth’s tragic narratives, the fall of the house of Atreus. Atreus’s sons Agamemnon and Menelaus led the campaign against Troy, and on his return Agamemnon was assassinated by his unfaithful wife and subsequently avenged by his matricidal children. In about 1100, the Mycenaeans disappeared in a storm of violence. Many of their cities were sacked, and a subsequent lack of inscriptions suggests the onset of a “dark age.” It is not known who was responsible for the catastrophe, but it may have been invaders who were later called Dorians, one of the subgroups into which classical Greeks divided themselves.

Egyptian records report invasions by mysterious marauders, known as the Sea Peoples. Modern scholars are unsure who, exactly, they were, and it is possible that they played a part in the fall of the Mycenaeans and the Hittites. Whatever their origin, they brought havoc with them.

WHETHER OR NOT there really was a dark age, we have to wait a couple of centuries before there is evidence of an economic revival. From the mid-700s, seafarers began voyages of exploration and trade, as a great increase in pottery finds across the Mediterranean goes to show. The general direction of travel was from the wealthier and more advanced East to the less developed West—that is, along the North African coast to Italy and Spain. The Phoenicians, with their great commercial entrepôts at Carthage and Gades, led the way. As already noted, Greece emerged as a patchwork of small city-states, many of which sent groups of citizens to found “colonies”—that is, similar independent city-states, usually with sentimental links only to their founders. Within a hundred and fifty years or so, almost every likely region in the classical world saw the arrival of Greek settlers.

Sicily and southern Italy were especially popular destinations, and so many large city-states were founded there—among them Parthenope, or Neapolis (today’s Naples), and Cumae, both of them in Campania south of Latium, Tarentum (Taranto), Brundisium (Brindisi), and Syracuse—that the region was called Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece. As the name implies, the center of gravity for Hellenic culture shifted decisively westward—in much the same way that the growth of the United States in the nineteenth century came to overshadow the “old world” of Europe.

What the Greeks found in central and northern Italy when they arrived in the peninsula was what scholars today call the Villanovan culture (so named after an estate where an ancient cemetery was unearthed in 1853). All that we know about it is derived from grave goods. The Villanovans were not a people; rather, they were simply people who shared common cultural characteristics. Unlike other Italian communities, they cremated their dead. Most important, they learned the uses of iron. Their economy was based on hunting and stock-raising. By the eighth century, the high quality of their pottery and of bronze metalworking strongly implies that craft production was the specialized responsibility of professional artisans. The population continued to expand, and in some settlements could be numbered in the thousands.

THERE WERE VILLANOVANS in Etruria. Now what was it that transformed them into the sophisticated and unique civilization of the Etruscans, which came into flower from the eighth century? The ancient theory that the cause was a migration from Lydia, as set out in Chapter 3 [see this page], or, alternatively, of Pelasgians (a legendary people displaced from Greece by their successors, among them the Dorians and the Ionians), seems to have been invented to give the Etruscans a proper Hellenic pedigree.

In fact, a plausible answer to the question is looking the inquirer in the face. The Etruscans disposed of large reserves of iron ore, which was much in demand as the Iron Age gained speed. They traded ore with the Greeks and, in return, amassed wealth and acquired many of the appurtenances of Hellenic culture, in terms of both goods (such as Athenian ceramics) and attitudes (such as a taste for sexy dinner parties). The economy and the arts thrived. (This leaves unaccounted for the enigmatic Etruscan language, but we may surmise that it was a chance survivor from an age before the arrival in Italy of all the peoples who spoke the dominant Indo-European tongues.)

Although the Etruscans were a loose federation of independent cities rather than a unitary state, they made territorial gains outside Tuscany, taking over much of Campania. They even allied themselves with the superpower of the Western Mediterranean, Carthage, fighting alongside it in a great victory at sea in 535 against Greek traders and founders of the city of Massilia (today’s Marseille). The result was that the Carthaginians took control of Sardinia while they themselves claimed Corsica.

This glittering world on its doorstep was strongly attractive to provincial Rome at the very time that its villages were coalescing into a city. The notion that Rome was occupied by the Etruscans is unsubstantiated, but their influence was profound. They set an example in religious observance, agricultural improvement, large drainage works, metalwork, and the construction of public buildings. In Latium, the new cities of Etruria were an encouragement for villagers to join forces and create larger settlements. By the time of the expulsion of the Tarquins, in 509, the original fifty or so small communities had been transmuted into ten or twelve substantial towns. These dominated the region, and the most populous—Praeneste (today’s Palestrina), Tibur (Tivoli), and Tusculum (today a ruin)—dealt with Rome on equal terms.

Economic growth brought with it social stratification—or, in plain terms, a class system. An aristocracy emerged in Latium, and princely chamber tombs have been excavated that contained jewelry and treasure—armor and chariots, brass cauldrons and tripods, gold and silver vessels, pottery from Corinth, and Phoenician amphorae.

The magicians who brought about these extraordinary transformations both in Etruria (as already noted) and, more slowly, in Latium were the Greeks. Their traders introduced the idea of the alphabet (so, too, we may suppose, did the Phoenicians), advanced technology, art and architecture, the Olympian gods and goddesses, myths and legends—including, of course, the story of Troy. Homer probably wrote his great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, a little earlier in the eighth century. They celebrate the virtues of aristocracy. Men such as Achilles had a pronounced sense of personal honor; in their eyes, they fought wars or engaged in politics in order to win glory, an imperishable name that was the nearest thing to immortality to which human beings could aspire. They were inordinately proud of their family trees (often fictional), and of their generous hospitality to strangers. They held that blood and bravery were qualities more desirable than the pursuit of wealth.

All of this the Romans digested and made their own. The patricians were Homeric in their pride and ambition for glory, in their hereditary claim to power in the state, and in their scorn for anything resembling a democratic form of government. In later ages, traditionalists liked to claim that Rome developed separately and only in its maturity discovered Hellenic civilization. Cicero has one of the speakers in his dialogue, The Republic, say, “We Romans got our culture, not from arts imported from overseas, but from the native excellence of our own people.” That could not be more wrong. Greece was in the room at the birth of Rome, and was in truth her midwife.

WE MAY SMILE at the legendary adventures of Romulus and Remus, but when classical authors imagined the site of Rome at its earliest beginnings they did not go far wrong. They pictured wooded hills and ravines, occupied by different villages, whose inhabitants were herdsmen and shepherds, although it was not long before they also included farmers. Virgil wrote in his national epic, the Aeneid, that the inhabitants

had no settled

Way of life, no civilization: ploughing, the formation of

Communal reserves, and economy were unknown then.

They lived on the produce of trees and the hard-won fare of the hunter.

They were an “intractable folk.” The Capitol, “golden today, [was] then a tangle of thicket.… Cattle were everywhere, lowing in what is now the Forum of Rome.”

As already mentioned, the Romans believed that Romulus’s fortified town was built on the Palatine and regarded the Casa Romuli, Romulus’s house, on the western side of the hill, as a monument to those primal times. An assemblage of wattle and daub with a thatched roof, it survived for many centuries and often had to be repaired, either because it burned down, thanks to careless priests with their sacrificial fires, or to redress the ravages of weather and time.

It is here that the foundations of a village have been excavated. At the lowest strata, contemporary with the first huts, hearths have been found with pottery of a kind common in the eighth century—a happy coincidence with Varro’s date for Rome’s foundation, 753. There have been other suggestive finds—graves, for example, that contained pottery and bronze implements very similar to those of contemporary cultures south of Rome among the Alban Hills. Also, graves in the marshy land that was to become the Roman Forum are of two types: ditches (fossae), in which the bodies of the dead were buried in coffins; and pits (pozzi), in which after cremation their ashes were placed in urns. This tends to confirm the tradition that different groups with different customs occupied different hills.

However, as we have seen, Varro was too early. Evidence from under the ground has confirmed that a hundred years had to pass before the villages among the seven hills were amalgamated into a single settlement. It is only now, in the mid to late 600s, that Rome comes into being as an urban community and, in all probability, a monarchy was established.

How do we know this? In the marshy valley beneath the Palatine and the Capitol, there used to be a marketplace, doubtless consisting of little more than a few tables or carts. In about the middle of the seventh century, some huts were demolished, infill was imported to level the ground, and a rough, beaten floor was laid—the first public square, or Forum. Later, the pavement was extended to take in the Comitium, an open-air space for the holding of Assemblies. In its earliest phase, the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Drain, helped to dry out the land and make it usable for public meetings, shops, and temples. A building dating from about 600 has been identified as the Senate House.

At one end of the Forum, a small triangular edifice survives to the present day. Once larger than it is now, the structure was built on a site previously occupied by a group of ten or twelve huts, which were demolished to make way for it. This was Numa’s Regia, and its name suggests that this was the king’s official residence.

The foundations of a vast, archaic temple can still be seen on the Capitol. This was the Tarquins’ Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest. It testifies to the magnificence of the Rome they governed.

The eagle that stole Priscus’s hat at the Janiculum saw across the river a patchwork of huts on the tops of wooded slopes. If the bird were to survive a normal span of thirty years and once again fly over the cluster of hills by the Tiber, it would be startled by the spectacle below—a busy market square, bright colored shrines and temples, shops and public buildings. A shiny, brand-new city.

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