Thursday, November 19, 2015


Jaclyn Neel, Legendary Rivals: Collegiality and Ambition in the Tales of Early Rome. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 372. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. x, 274. ISBN 9789004272699. $148.00.

Reviewed by Jeremy Armstrong, University of Auckland (

Version at BMCR home site


Legendary Rivals argues for a new way of understanding how the authors of our surviving literary sources for early Rome may have understood, transmitted, and manipulated myths relating to the early city. It has long been accepted that the received mythic tradition in late republican Rome was multifaceted, as the sources themselves suggest that a number of different (and often contradictory) versions of various stories/myths relating to the early city were in existence during this period. However, it is still unclear how the versions of each myth interacted with each other within the Roman mind and why various authors chose to utilize or include some versions and not others—although a range of different explanations have been put forward over the years. In this study, Neel offers a new explanation for the evident variety in the tradition which emphasizes the wider socio-political context for each author and/or work. Neel suggests that many core aspects of Rome's early mythic tradition were fundamentally shaped and altered by the social and political realities of the late Republic, and particularly the Civil Wars, and that the changing socio-political atmosphere amongst the elite in Rome led to certain interpretations of myths becoming more or less popular during the second and first centuries BC. In particular, she argues that Rome's founders, and to a lesser extent other 'legendary rivals' (she explicitly eschews what she considers to be 'historical' examples), were used by elite Roman authors as mechanisms to examine and explore the complexities of contemporary aristocratic rivalry and its implications for the state, and that the variations in these myths may relate to their use in this context. In short, that Roman authors, writing in similar situations, tended to portray these legendary rivals in similar ways.

The primary argument is outlined and various terms defined in Chapter 1—most notably 'dyadic rivalry,' which is presented as "a term borrowed from political science…[which] refers to external relations, in particular military conflicts, between two usually equal powers" (p. 14). Neel suggests that "dyadic rivalry offered Roman writers a way to think through the antagonistic politics of the current day, as well as a means of tracing the problem back to the earliest days of the city. Linking the structure of dyadic rivalry with the discourses of elite competition and individual power helps to explain why the Romulus story continued to be promoted, despite its potentially negative undertones." (p. 23). For Neel, Rome's mythic rivalries represented useful tools for later Roman authors who wanted a 'safe' way to discuss the political rivalries of their own age. They offered a known cast of characters which their audience would immediately identify with and associate with elite behavior, but also a flexibility in the received tradition which gave the authors scope to 'tweak' the narrative to get their message across.

It is immediately clear from the opening chapter that, although the volume nominally examines a number of different rivalries, the relationship between Romulus and Remus represents the core of the work—and indeed the analysis of this myth takes up more than half of the volume. In chapters 2 through 6, Neel breaks down various aspects of the Romulus and Remus myth and explores how the relationship and rivalry between the two brothers may have been perceived, or at least described, in different ways over the final two centuries of the Republic based on the changing socio-political context of Rome's elite. In chapter 2 Neel lays out the starting point for her analysis of the myth (and elite competition) in the late third and early second centuries BC with an analysis of the 'omen of the birds' from the accounts of Ennius and Cassius Hemina. Although these texts are obviously fragmentary, Neel argues that in them the rivalry between the brothers is presented in a largely positive light. While the rivalry is clearly apparent, Romulus and Remus are depicted as equals engaged in healthy competition—a situation which Neel suggests is indicative of the contemporary political climate. The conclusion is that, in this period, Roman aristocratic rivalry was generally seen as normal and natural by the elite, and that Romulus and Remus were being utilized by contemporary authors as exempla of appropriate behaviour in this regard.

The following chapters then offer a roughly chronological, although still thematic, structure demonstrating how the interpretation of the brothers prevalent amongst Rome's elite may have evolved as the implications of aristocratic rivalry changed within the city, most notably with the advent of the Civil Wars. For instance, chapter 3 focuses on the use of Romulus in various forms of invective. Here Neel moves very quickly into the middle of the first century BC and argues that the brothers, and particularly Romulus, were regularly reinterpreted in a negative light by authors such as Catullus, Horace, Sallust, and Cicero. Neel suggests that although there are some aspects of continuity from the more positive interpretation of the second century, most notably with regards to fraternal equality, in these texts Romulus is often presented as a 'murderer' and can be linked to the "bloodshed of the triumviral proscriptions" (p. 88). Chapter 4 continues the focus on the reception of Romulus and Remus in the mid-first century BC and examines various religious rites and festivals associated with the twins, most notably the Lupercalia and the Parilia, and how they may have been manipulated to change the perception of aristocratic rivalry within the city, particularly by Caesar. Chapter 5 explores depictions of the twins in art and illustrates how the brothers remained an important aspect of elite culture throughout the period, although, as Neel admits, "artistic and numismatic evidence ... show little evidence of the essential features of dyadic rivalry as it appears in literature" (p. 138). Chapter 6, the last to focus on the twins, looks at the myth of Rome's walls, the death of Remus, and the ultimate 'primacy' of Romulus. In this section Neel focuses on later writers (Virgil, Livy, Ovid, etc.) in an attempt to show how the death of Remus was possibly reinterpreted in a more positive light following the battle of Actium and the rise of Augustus. The developmental arc of the myth drawn by Neel therefore sees the myth evolve from a story of equals engaged in healthy competition in the second century BC, to a much more complex and largely negative narrative in the middle of the first century BC epitomized by the murderous nature of Romulus, to the final primacy of a neutral (if not positively viewed) Romulus coinciding with the rise of Augustus. Each change in the myth is associated with the changing nature and context of aristocratic competition amongst Rome's elite, as part of a wider cultural movement.

Chapters 7 and 8 are the only sections of the volume where aristocratic rivalry in early Roman myth is explored outside of the relationship between Romulus and Remus. Chapter 7 investigates other possible 'legendary dyadic rivals', including Romulus and Titus Tatius and Amulius and Numitor. In these examples Neel highlights similar themes of rivalry, although it is evident that they do not fit as neatly within the 'dyadic' paradigm espoused for the twins in the rest of the study. Chapter 8 looks at 'tyrants' (although the term is broadly applied) and offers more context for the figure of Romulus as the sole ruler by looking at figures, including Brutus and Camillus, who may have also been used as comparanda for late Republican figures and Augustus himself. Both chapters 7 and 8, however, seem somewhat problematic for the study as they hint that 'rivalry' was a widespread and highly varied phenomenon in early Roman myth which seems to defy any attempt to fit it into a single paradigm for understanding how aristocratic competition was seen by later writers. The short and succinct Conclusion (pp. 236-237) then reiterates the core argument. As Neel notes, the "dyadic rivalry [of legendary figures] offered a way to think about competition that was at the same time free from competition itself" and, although it was not a "static picture", she suggests that contemporary change in "both social and political spheres, is the best argument for the changing nature of dyadic rivalry" and the various interpretations of the myth which are presented in the sources.

Legendary Rivals is a thought-provoking study, although one whose effectiveness is handicapped somewhat by its methodology and approach. Neel's premise, that contemporary events played a significant role in how elite Roman authors received and shaped the myths of early Rome, is clearly correct. However, the study's focus on contemporary context as the primary, and perhaps only, driver when considering variations in the presentation of the myths results in a somewhat unsatisfactory argument. For instance, the importance of genre (particularly with regards to invective in chapter 3) is never fully considered, and intertextuality (along with other relationships between the traditions) is never explored. The treatment of the myths themselves also leaves the reader wanting a bit more. Given the many problems with the transmission of material from early Rome, an attempt to avoid dealing with the origins of the myths (which would have required a rather lengthy chapter in its own right) is perhaps understandable—although regrettable. As the study is arguing for a new interpretation of 'how' these myths were received by late Republican authors, it is surprising that so little time is spent on 'what' was being received from the early and middle Republic. Indeed, the general avoidance of the early development of the myths (apart from a brief discussion of the arguments of Wiseman and ver Eecke, see particularly pp. 9-11) means that the wider social and historical context of the myths, which would have presumably informed their later use, was largely missed. In a connected point, the focus on elite authors writing for elite audiences also ignores the evidently wide appeal which these myths may have had as dramatic performances or fabulae—core aspects of transmission which have generally featured quite heavily in scholarship on the subject. Neel's argument also puts tremendous importance on the date and immediate context of each retelling of the myths—which is problematic given the uncertainty which exists in this area. Ultimately then, Legendary Rivals is a new and interesting account with a focus on contemporary elite contexts driving the selection and manipulation of myths in Rome, but the author neglects the myriad other factors which played a role.

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