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Chronicles of Old Rome
Exploring Italy's Eternal City
By Tamara Thiessen
Museyon, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Tamara Thiessen
All rights reserved.
TALES OF ROME'S BEGINNING: AENEAS, ROMULUS, THE SHE-WOLF AND SEVEN HILLS 753 B.C.
At the center of the Sala della Lupa, the Wolf Room in Rome's Musei Capitolini, is a bronze statue of Rome's iconic she-wolf suckling the city's mythical founders, Romulus and Remus. The two bare-bottomed boys crouch beneath her teats, their palms upturned in cherubic rapture as providence flows down upon them. The Lupa Capitolina, donated to the people of Rome in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV, was long thought to date to the early 5th century B.C., but carbon dating suggests she could be 1,000 years younger. Not possible, say critics, biting back on the hallowed wolf's behalf — Rome's symbol in the Middle Ages was a lion. Such speculation only adds to the mystique of Rome's beginnings.
Rome's history is a mesh of fantastic fable and fact. Tales of the city's beginning flow from the pen of Titus Livius, who began his monumental 142-book History of Rome in 27 B.C., under Rome's first emperor, Augustus. Written over four decades, the opus — of which thirty-five tomes survive — is widely acknowledged to blend truth and legend. Responding to critics with great foresight, Livy, as he is known, said embellishing history was a question of style, sparing the reader from "heavy and tedious" narrative. To accuse him of "violations of truth" would be absurd, he wrote — after all, he was simply retelling some of Rome's greatest legends, handed down through the ages from various sources.
The most popular of these legends is that of the twin brothers who battled each other for supremacy over the new city in 753 B.C., about two decades after being thrown into the Tiber River and suckled by a she-wolf. The wolf is Rome's most famous mascot — the surrogate mother of a city whose birth indisputably lies with the Tiber and the sweep of hills encircling it on the volcanic Latium plain.
The legend of the twins also links to that of the fabled exiled Trojan leader Aeneas, who fled the sack of Troy in the 11th century B.C. Borrowing from Homer's 8th-century B.C. Greek epic, The Iliad, ancient Romans adopted Aeneas as their own mythical ancestral hero.
After years of wandering, Aeneas is said to have built a town in the Roman countryside, calling it Lavinium, after his wife. "The region was called Latium, and the people there were termed Latins," wrote ancient historian Cassius Dio in his 80-book Historia Romana.
It was Aeneas's son, Ascanius, who would go on to found the ancient Latium city of Alba Longa, southeast of Rome. From his lineage sprung the legendary Romulus and Remus, and the Roman race.
The main thread of truth running through all the colorful stories of Rome's origins is the Tiber — as Livy exclaimed, the city's founding was all about location: "Not without reason did gods and men choose this spot ... destined to grow great."
The history of the Eternal City has flowed down the Tiber, between its seven hills, separating Etruscan lands to the north and Latin Campania to the south.
Archeological evidence suggests rudimentary settlements existed on Rome's hills as far back as the 10th century B.C. — long before Romulus supposedly founded the city. Strategically located on the east side of the Tiber, between the Palatine and Esquiline hills, these small Latin camps, run by village chiefs, fell to the powerful Etruscans around 625 B.C.
This still leaves room for a shred of truth in the legend of Romulus and Remus. According to Livy, the twins were the sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia, who was raped by the god Mars as she slept. Rhea was the daughter of Numitor, King of Alba Longa.
Numitor's brother, Amulius, had seized the throne, disposed of Numitor's son and forced Rhea to become a celibate priestess of the goddess Vesta, to prevent her producing a heir for Numitor.
When Amulius, the twins' great-uncle, learned of their birth, he was enraged, and buried Rhea alive for having broken her vow of chastity. Next he ordered his servant to throw Romulus and Remus in the Tiber. Instead, the slave set them afloat in a cradle — when it washed ashore, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills came to their aid. Wandering along the riverbank, Faustulus, a king's shepherd, found the wolf licking the boys and took the children home to his wife Acca Larentia, who raised them.
There is a twist in the wolf's tale. The "marvelous story" of the lupa, wrote Livy, may rest entirely with Larentia. An alternative version of the legend paints her as a prostitute, who was nicknamed the she-wolf for being "free with her favors" amongst Latium's shepherds. According to 2nd-century B.C. historian Cato the Elder, Larentia became wealthy plying her trade.
For her pivotal role in raising Romulus and Remus, she was made a Roman goddess — during the Larentalia festival on December 23, offerings were made to the dead at her shrine.
Yet another account claims Larentia was a mistress of Roman demigod and he-man Hercules, who advised her to marry the first man she met in the street, a wealthy Etruscan called Tarutius. Her husband died shortly after and left Larentia his vast estate, which she in turn bequeathed to Romulus and Roman citizens.
Fickle Roman fable has produced two famous foster moms — the she-wolf and Larentia — both of them deified for their nourishing, life-giving force in the city.
When Rome's riverbank twins grew up, wrote Livy, they helped restore their grandfather Numitor to his rightful throne in Alba by killing Amulius.
Determined to found their own city on the site they had been rescued and raised, their ambitions and "lust for royal power" sparked an "ugly struggle" between the brothers. Leaving it to the gods to choose the rightful ruler by way of omens, Romulus took up position on the Palatine and Remus on the neighboring Aventine. The appearance of vultures, circling in the sky above the neighboring hills, indicated the gods' decision.
Latin poet Ovid described the legend in his Fasti:
"No need for a fight to decide the issue," said Romulus:
"Much faith is put in the birds: Let us then try the birds."
All approved, and one to the cliff of the wooded Palatine went at dawn to watch for birds, and the other climbed to the Aventine.
The first sign came to Remus, Livy wrote. "Six vultures — but they had no sooner announced the result than twice that number appeared to Romulus. Each of the camps claimed kingship for their leader, one side by virtue of priority and the other side by virtue of number."
With Romulus convinced that the gods' omen had been given to him, he began digging a trench around his new city. A fight broke out, and Remus was struck down and killed. Another common account of Rome's legendary fratricide says Remus mockingly jumped over his brother's new walls, which he had put in place to protect his city.
So it was Romulus who became the sovereign founder of Rome, and gave his name to the city. Ruling from 753 B.C. to 717 B.C., he was the first of seven kings on the Palatine, and may well have played a hand in federating the primitive Latin hilltop settlements into the "Septimontium," the forerunner of the famous seven-hilled city of Rome.
Rome's most cherished myths became major bricks and mortar in nation, or Empire, building — and for as long as Rome stands, to borrow the famous maxim about the Colosseum, so will the imprint of the she-wolf.CHAPTER 2
THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA: THE DAWN OF THE ROME REPUBLIC
Around 508 B.C., so the legend goes, Lucretia, the benevolent, beautiful and virtuous wife of an aristocrat, was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the Roman king. Her subsequent suicide spurred the Roman public to revolt, leading to the end of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus's tyrannical 25-year reign. The king and his family were banished from Rome, ending the long rule by a succession of Etruscan kings, who sprung from the region of Etruria, north of the city.
On the throne from 534–509 B.C., Tarquinius's reign began when he ordered the murder of his predecessor, Servius Tullius, and many of his supporters. This act paved the way, with blood, for his absolute power.
Early admiration for the king was quickly nullified by his "brutality and licentiousness," and his "wickedness and violence," wrote the ancient Rome-chronicler Titus Livy. He sapped public funds, forced indebted citizens into slavery and kept plebeians toiling "underground clearing out ditches and sewers."
Like many Roman rulers before and after him, the last thing Superbus had in mind was equality for his subjects, and his name beautifully captured his puffed up self-image — Superbus, the haughty one.
Extreme disregard for others ran in the family. According to the legend of Lucretia, the royal army was in the midst of besieging the neighboring Latin town of Ardea, to help bring some money back into Tarquinius's coffers, which had been impoverished by his grandiose public works.
Having failed in their assault, the Latins were thrown into a drawn-out war with the Rutilians of Ardea. During a furlough, a group of nobles gathered to feast and drink in the quarters of Sextus Tarquinius. Lucretia's husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, was one of those attending the party, at which the men began to brag about the relative merits of their wives.
"Heated with wine," wrote Livy, the group then decided to return to Rome and check in on their spouses by surprise, to test Collatinus's claims that his wife's virtuosity was matchless.
The king's daughters-in-law were all found feasting and partying with friends, while Lucretia was industriously spinning away at her loom.
Awarding her a palm of victory, as a model of wifely virtuosity, the Tarquin princes then spent the evening being entertained at the couple's home. "After their youthful frolic," wrote Livy, "inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia," Sextus departed, determined to sully her purity and honor.
Several days later, knowing her husband was absent, Sextus returned to Lucretia's home on the pretext of a friendly visit. After supper, he was shown to the guest room, all the while plotting to carry out his dark plans of violating Lucretia's honor. When everybody was fast asleep, "he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia," wrote Livy, "and placing his left hand on her breast, said, Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquinius, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die."
Crazed with brutal lust, he then subjected Lucretia at sword's point to a manipulative jumble of declarations of love and threats of death, in order to have his way with her.
Despite the tirade, Lucretia steadfastly rejected the prince's advances.
Humiliated and infuriated at his failure to vanquish her unflinching morality and fearless loyalty, Sextus threatened to disgrace Lucretia by slaying her servant then laying his naked body alongside hers, leading people to believe she had been killed for her adulterous actions.
He then proceeded to rape her, and left the house gloating victoriously about the "successful attack on her honor."
Crushed by a sense of shame, Lucretia sent for her father and husband, asking each of them to bring a witness to hear about the terrible incident. The group arrived to find a devastated Lucretia sitting in her room.
After listening to her tearful account, Collatinus tried to reassure his wife that it was "the mind that sins, not the body", but she remained inconsolable. Imploring the men to ensure that justice was served, she decided to set an example for all other women.
"Although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty," were the last words Lucretia spoke, according to Livy, before taking a knife concealed in her dress and plunging it into her broken heart.
Clutching the bloody knife, one of the witnesses, Lucius Junius Brutus — nephew of the king — swore to overturn the Etruscan monarchy.
Together they carried Lucretia's body to the Forum, where Brutus, the widely acknowledged founder of the Roman Republic, goaded "the incensed multitude" to revolt against Tarquinius, by invoking his uncle's countless atrocities and injustices.
After a decree was passed to strip the king of his sovereignty, Tarquinius Superbus and his family were shut out of the gates of Rome. The king, his wife and two of his sons fled to their Etruscan homeland.
Sextus Tarquinius, on the other hand, headed to Gabii, a Latin town that had refused to enter the Tarquin's confederation, where he mustered support by bad-mouthing his father. Initially, the people were tricked into appointing him as their leader, but when they realized that he planned to use the same tyrannical methods as his father, Sextus was murdered.
Back in Rome, Brutus was upheld as the liberator of the city, and 244 years of monarchic rule came to an end. With the overthrow of the tyrannical power of the Etruscan kings, came the dawn of the Roman Republic. Brutus and Collatinus became its first elected consuls, presiding over the sapling Senate.
For the next 500 years, the Senatus governed Rome, yet far from fullblown democracy, the council was dominated by the elite classes, who administered with a mix of dogmatism, consensus and oligarchy. It too, would falter in time, and the autocracy of the kings was outstripped by the long line-up of Roman emperors.CHAPTER 3
THE IDES OF MARCH: CAESAR'S DEMISE AT THE CURIA POMPEY
On March 15, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar — the most famous Roman at home and abroad — was assassinated by a group of mutineer consuls in the Senate house, the Curia Pompeii. In a startling quirk of fate, his body slumped against a statue of Pompey the Great, his former political ally turned archrival, who fought the failed bid to stop Caesar becoming a dictator. Already renowned for his brilliantly masterminded conquests in Gaul and Britain, his resounding victory against Pompey's legions in 48 B.C. had put an end to civil war, and to the 500-year-old Republic — but within four years, the most talked about political murder in history brought his despotism to a halt.
Caesar had come ever so close to not attending the Senate on that fateful day, due to ill health and a flood of sinister premonitions. A soothsayer had warned Caesar the Ides of March spelled trouble. On March 14, a field martin had flown into the Curia with a laurel leaf and been ripped apart by a pack of predator birds. That evening, wrote historian Cassius Dio, Caesar dreamt he was flying "above the clouds," holding hands with Jupiter, while his wife, Calpurnia, envisioned him "stabbed in her arms."
Excerpted from Chronicles of Old Rome by Tamara Thiessen. Copyright © 2012 Tamara Thiessen. Excerpted by permission of Museyon, Inc..
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