Monday, August 31, 2015


James H. Richardson, Federico Santangelo (ed.), The Roman Historical Tradition: Regal and Republican Rome. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 372. ISBN 9780199657858. $49.95 (pb).

Reviewed by S. J. Northwood, Charterhouse (

Version at BMCR home site


At the last count there were thirty-eight volumes in this burgeoning series of Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. The current volume stands a little apart from the others, which mostly concern individual classical authors or genres rather than historical themes or periods. Richardson and Santangelo propose to explore 'the strategies with which the past was understood and constructed in Roman culture' (1). They acknowledge the problematic nature of this enterprise, and they include amongst their collection articles by scholars with widely divergent views on the reliability of Roman accounts of their past, ranging from Carandini at one extreme through to Wiseman at another. Indeed it is one of the purposes of this collection to illustrate the variety of competing and complementary approaches.

The collection opens with Carandini's often polemical essay (2003). He dates the foundation to c.750 BC, based on his excavations of the Palatine wall, gate, and watchtower that were part of the transition from proto-urban to urban community effected by Rome's first king. The foundation myth, in place before the late seventh century BC, reflects many authentic aspects of this foundation and was confirmed by 'more than twenty generations of Romans without break of continuity in their memory' (26).

Humm (2004) examines the myth of Numa's Pythagoreanism. The late fourth-century statue of Numa on the Capitol shows he was already established in the Roman tradition when the roughly contemporaneous statue of Pythagoras was placed in the comitium. This reflects contact between Rome and Tarentum and the associated diffusion of Tarentine Pythagoreanism. Aristoxenus speaks of Romans as disciples of Pythagoras, but Humm prefers a Roman origin for the myth: Roman gentes responding to the new philosophy by claiming descent from Numa.

Zevi (1995) argues that the migrations of Demaratus from Corinth to Tarquinii, and his son, Tarquinius Priscus, from there to Rome are not an (unreliable) composite of Greek and Roman legends but a single organic tradition recorded at the court of Aristodemus of Cumae. Tarquinius Superbus had made Aristodemus his heir, so the Cumaean story emphasized the non-Roman origin of the Tarquins' wealth and thus legitimized the bequest. Roman annalists invented the stories of Egerius and Arruns, members of a poor branch of the Tarquins, to do the opposite.

The longest contribution is Ridley's (1975), which emphasizes how ideologically important Servius Tullius became for both conservatives and radicals in later Rome. Layers and layers of interpretation, reinterpretation, and fabrication surrounded his origin, accession, death, conquests, religion, constitution, census, coinage, and associations with topography. Few firm conclusions are offered aside from accepting Servius as an Etruscan friend of Vibenna who became king of Rome by conquest. Ridley accepts the Fran├žois tomb frescoes as evidence for a mid-fourth-century BC tradition independent of Roman historiography.

Wiseman (2003) argues that since Greek historians had no interest in the internal history of Rome there is no reliable contemporary source for the expulsion of the kings; by 200 BC the canonical stories of Brutus, Lucretia, Collatinus, and Valerius had been hopelessly distorted by multiple layers of politically motivated invention. Wiseman privileges remnants of various uncanonical early versions in order to reveal a Brutus who may have expelled Superbus but became a powerful figure in his own right rather than holder of a joint magistracy.

Bremmer (1993) is equally sceptical about the tradition on early Rome. He points to a relative lack of authentic myth in early Rome and explores aetiology instead. The relationship between Egeria and Numa was invented by Ennius; the copying of the original ancile was based on the story of the Trojan Palladium and was therefore late ('the Homeric cycle was accepted relatively late by the Romans'); other aspects of the legend are very late, the product of a "mythological 'workshop'" employed by Augustus. Turning to the three aetiologies of Mettius Curtius, Bremmer sees his escape through a swamp during Romulus' war against the Sabines as the earliest version: precise location and freedom from Greek motifs are the criteria.

These first six pieces are well chosen in that they illustrate several important issues and some very divergent responses. For Wiseman, Greek sources convey authentic early information and act as a control on the later canonical version produced after centuries of politically charged invention. Bremmer concludes the opposite: Greek elements are a sign of late invention, a fashionable introduction of Greek motifs for literary purposes. For Carandini too, Romanness of myth is a sign not only of authenticity, but even truth, collapsing the gap between founder and myth to less (and maybe much less) than a century and a half. Humm and Wiseman also reflect a growing focus on the later fourth century BC as a key period in Roman myth-making.

Pais (1906) starts by contradicting a shared assumption in all the previous contributions, viz. that Roman literary history began c. 200 BC. For him prose histories by Ap. Claudius Caecus, Cn. Flavius, and Sempronius Sophus had fixed the tradition a century earlier and allowed later historians only to interpolate rather than reconstruct. Fabius reworked the Tarquinienses' killing of 307 Roman prisoners after the defeat of M. Fabius Ambustus in 358 BC into an heroic self- sacrifice of 306 at the Cremera in 477 BC.

Spurius Cassius's third consulship (486 BC) is the subject of Gabba's well-known article (1964), introducing us to retrojection by annalists from Piso onwards of the political controversies and methods of the late republic. Cassius, who according to the earliest version was killed for aspiring to kingship, now pursues his ends by means similar to those of the Gracchi: a land law, grain dole, and extension of citizenship to non-Romans.

Crawford has rewritten his important piece on colonization (1995) in which he argued Roman views of their own colonial history were bedevilled by ignorance of its variety in time and place and confused by contested definitions of colonial status driven by contemporary issues, e.g. the lex Iulia (90 BC) and the measures of Cn. Pompeius Strabo, such that 'we simply do not know what the term colonia populi Romani meant to a Roman of the late Republic' (205).

Cornell's classic article (2000) debunks the Roman tradition on the senate: a regal body of 300 senators connected with three tribes and 30 curiae is schematic nonsense. Roman views on its relationship to the king and patriciate either before or after 509 BC are equally unreliable. The lex Ovinia, as reported by Festus, points to the truth: the senate, which had in fact been an ad hoc council of personal advisers chosen by the senior magistrates, now became a permanent formal body independent of the magistrates, and chosen by the censors.

The contributions of Pais, Gabba, Crawford, and Cornell all explore ways in which the history of the early republic was expanded and falsified by later historians. This theme is brought down to the second century BC by Richard (1972), who aims to show the Gracchan crisis influencing accounts of events just decades earlier. Livy's account of the elder Ti. Gracchus' persuasion of M. Aburius not to veto M. Fulvius Nobilior's triumph was based on a source hostile to Gracchus' sons that wanted to show how far they had departed from the honourable example of their father.

Rawson's important article (1972) shows that Cicero had more sympathy for antiquarianism than for historiography, exploring the development of Cicero's own historical reading and appreciation of antiquarian method. She shows Cicero being unusually serious in constructing the historical contexts of his dialogues and speculates that it was the difficulties he saw in reconciling the findings of antiquarianism with the annalistic tradition (a similar theme to that in Cornell's piece) that discouraged him from writing history. Her judgement on Cicero's historical digression on L. Crassus as an example of history carried out to the standards advocated at de orat. 2.51-64 remains relevant to recent debate: 'we should take care not to be over-indulgent to much ancient historical writing on the grounds that ancient standards were altogether different from our own' (282).

Flower (2000) reassesses the supposed tradition of the spolia opima. Unsurprisingly she rejects the Romulean example as unhistorical, but rejects too that of Cossus, usually regarded as the first genuine occurrence. The argument is that when Marcellus in 222 BC claimed to reinstitute an archaic institution by identifying his trophy as spolia opima, and Jupiter Feretrius as its recipient, he was inventing a tradition in order to place himself beyond the reach of his competitors. The spolia opima do not figure significantly in the narrative of Romulus, and Cossus was a Roman soldier who killed a notorious enemy, not a commander who killed his opposite number. Flower suggests that Cossus' achievement was later adorned in order to undermine Marcellus' claim to uniqueness. The spolia attracted attention again under Caesar and Octavian.

Study of the Roman historical tradition is an international enterprise, and it is a strength of this collection that six of the thirteen articles are translated from the original Italian or French (quotations — both ancient and modern — have also been translated throughout). The translations are accurate, indeed I detected only one mistake: 'the middle of the seventh century' (24) ought to be 'the middle of the eighth century'. I have also not spotted any typos or proof errors that do not also appear in the originals of the thirteen contributions.

The editors provide largely bibliographic (but admirably up to date) addenda for the majority of the contributions. Flower, Humm, and Richard add their own, which allow them to engage briefly but usefully with later literature and to add further comment. An unintended consequence of Crawford's rewritten piece having no addendum is that we are not directed towards important recent work on colonization, e.g. by Bispham, Bradley, Fentress, and Pelgrom.1

To cover the Roman historical tradition on regal and republican Rome coherently in just thirteen contributions and 320 pages is a tough task. The editors have wisely chosen to prefer discussion of individual stories rather than individual ancient authors, and in spite of their different conclusions the contributions share well-chosen themes. The editors admit 'a certain emphasis on early Rome, as it is here that the tradition is most controversial' (6). This is an understandable emphasis. In fact I feel that by attempting to go beyond regal and early republican Rome the tightness of inter-relation and the critical mass of shared themes falls away somewhat towards the end. Maintaining focus on the earlier period might have been better. Indeed this would have allowed consideration of the pontifical annals and the consular fasti and made the collection watertight.

For contextualisation of the contributions we rely largely on the editors' admirable introduction (1-15). They take pains to emphasize the variety of legitimate approaches and the degree to which conclusions can be driven by judgements on finely balanced issues. One cannot expect the editors to be partisan, but a desire to avoid controversy may have led them to stop short of pointing out some essential cruxes. For example, when we are told that Carandini has found little support, it would be useful to know why. Likewise it would be helpful to have summarized for us, without prejudice of course, the different understandings of myth encountered in the collection, or the evidence for and against the dynamic role of Greek myth in early Rome, all issues which drive contributors in different directions. The material in this collection is not easy, and even the more experienced end of its intended audience of students and scholars might have benefited from such an approach.

In spite of what may be a missed opportunity for greater boldness in the introduction, the editors have done us a service in assembling and editing this collection, and I should recommend it to those wishing to familiarise or refamiliarise themselves with past and present trends and problems in the study of early Rome. It is a shame that at £40 OUP has put this paperback volume beyond the reach of some of its intended audience.


1.   E.g. E. H. Bispham, 'Coloniam deducere: how Roman was Roman colonization' and G. Bradley, 'Colonization and identity in Republican Italy', both in G. Bradley (ed.) Greek and Roman Colonization: Origins, Ideologies and Interactions (Swansea, 2006); E. Fentress, 'Frank Brown, Cosa and the idea of a Roman city', in E. Fentress (ed.) Romanization and the City: Creation, Transformation and Failures, JRA Supplement 38 (2000), along with much additional work on excavations at Cosa; and J. Pelgrom, Colonial Landscapes. Demography, Settlement Organization and Impact of Colonies Founded by Rome (Leiden, 2011).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.