Finding Rome in writing – an article by C.J. Lee

In this fascinating exploration of the foundations of Ancient Rome, C.J. Lee has produced an insightful exploration of what is so often ignored in history lessons and even in aspects of our literary thought– questioning the very foundations of historical constructs, and possibly uncovering more in the process. This is a highly structured, sensitive piece which opens up the accessibility of knowledge and text, and, as writing should, raises ever-the-more questions about ourselves today.

 

The foundation of Rome is an event shrouded in mystery, myth and legend, only dimly illuminated by modern archaeological and literary investigation. There are, however, many issues regarding the investigation of the earliest Roman history, in both archaeology and literature, and the illumination received by both is indeed precious. Archaeology, though an integral weapon in the ancient historian’s arsenal, can provide only a basic framework around which the padding of literature and contemporary historical writings can be placed, in order to provide a more complete picture of the era. Archaeology can provide clues about the chronology of the peoples living in the distant past, for example which artefacts and buildings were in use at which time. It can also provide some clues about the life and death of the individuals living at the time, but for a complete idea of the way of life of the ancients we must turn to literary evidence written by those who lived in the period we are investigating.

 Unfortunately however, the amount of historical writing written in the mid eighth century BCE regarding Rome is none existent. In this case then, we must rely on the writings of later historians, such as Quintus Fabius Pictor, Polybius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Titus Livius. Unfortunately the writings of these men (who’s lives span from c.250 BCE to c.50 CE) have had to withstand the ravages of time and the political wills of various emperors and invaders whose view of the past may not be consistent with the actual events recounted to us by these ancient historians; the accounts may have been tampered with. It is, in fact, reasonable to question the actual validity and reliability of these men and their literature. For example, they may have been biased in one direction or another, in order to glorify Rome as much as possible, or to place a bias on one family or another who may have been associated to one of these men. They may also have had to bend to the political will of an important figure of the period (for example Titus Livius who was not totally free to recount the facts as he understood them, due to the will of the newly ordained Emperor Augustus). Another feature of the literature of these men is that none of the historians had the ability to see the events as they were taking place; they had to rely on word of mouth, myths, and (perhaps) some writings written before their lives which have not survived to the modern era.

It is very difficult to separate and amalgamate the facts from the disparate sources of myths, the literature of the ancient historians and evidence from modern archaeology. The fact is that in investigating such ancient events, a large amount of speculation is required.

For about half a millennium after the founding of Rome (c.753 BCE) there were no historical records regarding it, and the earliest view of the city was provided by Greek colonists, who had been settling along the Italian coast from the eighth century BCE in the area known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).

Therefore, it could be considered that it is literature which provides the most comprehensive and thrilling account.  The national epic poem of Rome, the Aenid, written by Virgil (an ancient Roman Poet of the Augustan Period) tells of how the Trojan refugee, Aenas, lead the survivors from the Greek sack of Troy on a series of adventures around the Mediterranean. These include a stop at the newly founded Carthage under the rule of Queen Dido, and eventually to the Italian coast. Aenas and his followers then founded the city of Lavinium. The son of Aenas, Ascanius, went on to found Alba Longa, whose line of kings included King Procas, who was the father of Amulius and Numitor. When Procas died Numitor became king, but Amulius captured him, threw him in prison, and made himself king of Alba Longa. To ensure his kingship wouldn’t be challenged, he forced the daughter of Numitor, Rhea Silvia, to become a virgin priestess among the Vestals. This meant the rights of marriage and procreation were denied to her, ensuring that no heir to Numitor could be born who would challenge the kingship of Amulius.

This myth of Aenas, which was Greek in origin, had to be reconciled with the founding myth of Romulus and Remus. This was done by purporting that Mars (the god of war) himself came down from heaven and impregnated Rhea Silvia. Nine months later, the famous twins Romulus and Remus were born, and an outstanding literary combination.

The twins were subsequently thrown into the Tiber by an angry Amulius, and they washed up on the banks of the river a little further downstream, where they were found by a she-wolf, who nursed them until the shepherd Faustulus found them and raised them with his wife Acca Larentia. When they had grown up, the twins made their way to Alba Longa, threw Amulius from the throne and reinstated Numitor as the rightful king of Alba Longa. The twins then went and founded Rome. Once they had decided on an acceptable place to build their new city, Romulus built a fortified enclosure on the Palatine Hill. To Romulus’ great displeasure, however, Remus kept jumping over his walls so, quite acceptably, he murdered his brother.

Whether the Romans actually believed in this myth, or whether it was simply an ‘official’ story crafted by the government for use as propaganda against ‘unromanised’ barbarians is difficult to answer. But the answer doesn’t really matter, as the stories were imprinted in the life of Romans throughout the rest of the life of the city as a state in and of itself, and are still of prominence today.

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