The Earliest Romans: A Character Sketch

The Earliest Romans: A Character Sketch

by Ramsay MacMullen

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"A vibrant account that puts flesh on the bare bones of early Roman history."
---Celia Schultz, University of Michigan
The ancient Romans' story down to 264 B.C. can be made credible by stripping away their later myths and inventions to show how their national character shaped their destiny.

After many generations of scholarly study, consensus is


"A vibrant account that puts flesh on the bare bones of early Roman history."
---Celia Schultz, University of Michigan
The ancient Romans' story down to 264 B.C. can be made credible by stripping away their later myths and inventions to show how their national character shaped their destiny.

After many generations of scholarly study, consensus is clear: the account in writers like Livy is not to be trusted because their aims were different from ours in history-writing. They wanted their work to be both improving and diverting. It should grow out of the real past, yes, but if that reality couldn't be recovered, or was uncertain, their art did not forbid invention. It more than tolerated dramatic incidents, passions, heroes, heroines, and villains. If, however, all this resulting ancient fiction and adornment are pruned away, a national character can be seen in the remaining bits and pieces of credible information, to explain the familiar story at least in its outlines.

To doubt the written sources has long been acceptable, but this or that detail or narrative section must always be left for salvage by special pleading. To press home the logic of doubt is new. To reach beyond the written sources for a better support in excavated evidence is no novelty; but it is a novelty, to find in archeology the principal substance of the narrative---which is the choice in this book. To use this in turn for the discovery of an ethnic personality, a Roman national character, is key and also novel.

What is repeatedly illustrated and emphasized here is the distance traveled by the art or craft of understanding the past---"history" in that sense---over the course of the last couple of centuries. The art cannot be learned, because it cannot be found, through studying Livy and Company. Readers who care about either of the two disciplines contrasted, Classics and History, may find this argument of interest.

"Like Thucydides of the hyperactive Athenians and de Tocqueville of the nation-building Americans, MacMullen here draws a character sketch of the early Romans---the men who built Rome, conquered Italy, and created an empire. Based on profound familiarity with history, evidence, and their better-known descendants, attention to what they did and failed to do, remarkable insight, empathy, constructive imagination, and not without humor, he reconstructs the homo Romanus and thus helps us imagine what he was like, and understand why he achieved what he did. This little book is informative, full of important ideas, and delightful to read."
---Kurt Raaflaub, Brown University

Jacket image: Marcus Fabius and Quintus Tannius. Fresco. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. Courtesy of Scala / Art Resource, NY..

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University of Michigan Press
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A Character Sketch
By Ramsay MacMullen

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2011 Ramsay MacMullen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11798-7

Chapter One


The Romans were a people distrustful of novelties, slow to adopt a change, grudging in their surrender to it. They liked the old ways. This trait appears, for example, in the fact of their being only twenty miles from the sea and yet never for a half-millennium bothering with it: building no fishing fleet that's ever mentioned, no port, no navy, or even a watchtower. For their own countrified purposes they had a cattle and a produce market but no interest in market tolls. Their riverine location invited them to look beyond their immediate horizons, but there is no sign of their attempting this, themselves; at most they allowed others from elsewhere to conduct business among them in an assigned, convenient spot: notably the traders in salt from the flats at the mouth of the Tiber, coming upriver on the right bank, who found at Rome the first fording place and could so continue up the so-called Salt Road on the left bank to their inland markets. They passed through leaving no trace. To judge from the problems of interest to the Romans' earliest laws, down to the mid-fifth century, it was lands and family property that they were concerned with, not commerce or banking.

We have in view, here, not just two or three generations but several hundred years of opportunities neglected. Another people would have behaved differently, with different historical consequences. Surely there would have been some such effect as Plato imagined, had the Romans chosen to engage themselves in the scenes beyond their own home at the invitation of the nearby waterways. We would have, or it would have produced, a different people; for "the sea", as Plato said, "is pleasant enough as a daily companion, but has indeed also a bitter and brackish quality, filling the streets with merchants and shopkeepers, and begetting in the souls of men uncertain and unfaithful ways" (Laws 705, trans. Jowett). The philosopher had in mind and detested the very Athenians whom Pericles described in his funeral oration, loving them: always ready for something new, always the active agents of it at the cost of everything fixed and trustworthy. Indeed the early Romans would have suited Plato much better than Pericles.

Something can thus be inferred about the earliest Romans from what they chose to do or not do on a grand scale. Nature unfolds in behavior; "actions are proof of character" (Aristotle, Rhet. 1367b). If inferences are indeed fair, then we should be able to identify and similarly learn from further illustrations drawing on our familiar sources. We don't lack for a good base of information. On the shelf, inviting our inquiry, the ancient writers seem ample enough. Their appearance, however, is itself a problem that I need to explain before I go any further.

Among those that tell us about early Rome, one of the best known was Marcus Terentius Varro (born in 116). Though his work survives only in bits and pieces, he counts as first in a long line of scholars called antiquarians. He served as a prime source for most historians who came after him. For this authority and for his successors, whatever was very old and very odd was of interest. He collected absolutely everything, generally in lists, in volume after volume, some devoted to religious rites, others to city monuments and their origins, and so forth across a variety of subjects. A gigantically learned if often ridiculous hobbyist, he and his writings earned immense respect. In proof, it is enough to quote Cicero: "You unlocked for us the secrets of our country's age, the divisions of time, sacral and priestly law, the learning of war and peace", etc.

Antiquarian method may be illustrated through the use made of etymologies: for example, in the tale of the Sabine chief Curtius. Though Rome's enemy, he was generously remembered and his gallantry confirmed in the so-called Curtian Lake, a swampy section of the city. Varro indicates no less than three explanations for the name. One is as good as the other, all involve the invention of history. Or, for a second illustration, we have a certain Olus inserted into the historical record, a little-known king of Rome, whose remains were dug up by chance atop the city's citadel with the inscription in Etruscan writing, "Head of Olus", Caput Oli, to be interpreted as one Aulus in Latin spelling. Thus he explained what Romans called the citadel itself: the Capitolium. Since our sources had no reason to place this figure in any particular period, half of them put him in the 740s, the other half, two hundred years later.

A second tradition or category of historical literature, and by far the more familiar, was the narrative of action. As its representative I name Livy (Titus Livius, born in 59, the year of Caesar's consulship). He was equally comprehensive with Varro but in quite other ways, and equally laborious in research. His account From the Founding gives us as rich a resource as we could ask. We exclaim, rightly, at how readable his work is; for here are dramatic episodes, passions at their most heated, outsized personalities, beauty and bravery. We exclaim at the work's prodigious bulk, too; for, were it all in our hands along with Anna Karenina, both in an English translation, the two would weigh in at about the same 350,000 words. True, we have a little less than a quarter of the whole in our hands today; yet this portion is not only a wonderfully generous gift of words, by the standards of surviving Classical literature, but it happens also to contain a long run of his opening chapters devoted to just the centuries in which to look for the origin and development of the Romans' adolescence—my subject.

With such a resource ready to hand, it might seem easy enough to learn about early Rome, and in some detail; but we are deceived, not in the richness or proportions of Livy's work but in its quality. Like other ancient authors, he no doubt deserves a special veneration for his very antiquity, at least from a philological viewpoint, as literature; but Livy as a historian ... His level of analytical sophistication—his sense of all that needs to be looked at and indeed that sense among other ancient historical authors earlier and later, with the rarest exceptions—could be matched today by any clever fifteen-year-old, surely. It can hardly satisfy readers older or further along in their education. No need to flinch from the fact: for, after all, we are glad to point to mankind's progress in other disciplines, let us say psychology or linguistics. The world has changed, as we think, for the better.

The casual reader might conclude after a first glance into Livy that nothing at all could be better. The flow of action he offers is not only satisfactory as literature but secured by specific names and dates. It's even called historia. Livian "history", however, isn't what one might think of under that term today. For a test, put Livy with Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the two together providing us with a good 95 percent of the surviving written data for the seven kings (down to 509). Scattered here and there in the total will be found a hundred pages and more of word-for-word conversation among the principal actors as well as countless insights into their innermost feelings. "Fine speech is found where the facts are all unclear" (Livy 3.56.3). We have really to confront the conclusion that the art of these two writers is not what we thought it to be but a sort of fiction. It is fiction not improved by the writers' criticisms of their predecessors for untrustworthy method, and by occasional displays of a preferable accuracy, for example, through exact numbers. Some of these latter are patently ridiculous, like those for the population as a whole and for its wealth-divisions in a quite imaginary money economy; and, alas, broader areas of agreement among the ancient writers in which modern scholars can find anchorage are too few to yield a clear picture.

Writers like Livy in the first century might, however, be excused for any failures in their treatment of the most remote past because of a simple lack of factual material. To fill their page they had to invent or elaborate on somewhat earlier inventions that they found in their libraries. Indeed that was their difficulty; for, in their search among predecessors to draw on, they could get no further back than 200. It was around this date that Fabius Pictor, a senator, put together the first Roman history of Rome, choosing to write in Greek. He was "the oldest of writers", scriptorum antiquissimus. For this if for no other reason his Latin successors evidently felt the greatest respect for his work and are generally believed to have built on it and thus to show some degree of agreement among them.

But as regards the period of the kings, just where we would expect the thinnest sketch of events or where we would expect nothing at all, hidden as they were behind so many intervening centuries, Fabius and others after him provide a surprisingly full story. So great was the value set on the most hallowed ancestors—on the most ancient times and their nearness to the very gods, to Romulus and to others of beloved legend—Roman writers felt not only the freedom but a patriotic obligation to amplify, to fabricate, to dramatize, and to draw lessons for their own times. The result, of course, could only be bad history as we understand that discipline today. Modern scholars in fact generally agree on such a judgment. The ancients (to repeat) were not historians at all, on our terms, but storytellers; and we all know what telling stories amounts to.

"A liar in one thing, a liar in all"—such is courtroom wisdom. In other fields than Antiquity, historians generally have so many witnesses to choose from, they don't have to depend on the doubtful. The doubtful can be omitted or ignored, they needn't be laboriously confronted. But in ancient history there is no such large supply. It is tempting, then, to make do with the dubious and to shape or accept such testimony as probable. "Probabilities" can then be made to serve not only as the mortar but as the very brick of historical reconstruction. Indeed they absolutely must serve in this fashion; for how could one deny all reality to such figures as the pious old Numa Pompilius? Or events like the Rape of the Sabines or institutions like the Luperci, known down to Caesar's day and Shakespeare's? These all are too precious a heritage to discard; nor could they be satisfactorily replaced by the yield of excavation, if that bleak proposition were to be actually considered. Relief is thus to be sought in an effort of salvage—salvage to connect the dots, the few things known beyond question; to fill in the gaps by resorting to conjecture and by so doing save the past in its familiar literary form, that is, in Livy and Varro and the rest. Where ingenuity and learning in the attempt are tolerated or even rewarded for themselves, interpretation need never end.

In illustration, a problem and an answer offered by a prominent specialist, T. J. Cornell, who has given a good forty years to the study of the centuries in question and who is, for any English speaker interested in the period, an obvious point of repair.

To determine the site among the seven hills that became the city center (not the very first settlement anywhere on the seven hills), Cornell looks to the ritual running of a certain group of priests, those Luperci just mentioned, who cleansed and sanctified what their course marked out. He cites Varro to argue that they ran round the Palatine, and did so from some most ancient time; therefore it was here that the city's historic beginnings lay. But the idea would involve a two-kilometer circuit, and the only encircling that Varro describes is done not by the priests' course but by "flocks of people"; and this too is physically impossible. So the interpretation of all other ancient sources except Varro must be right, as A. K. Michels (1953) argued. With their help she places the course up and down the Holy Road, the Via Sacra off the Forum, a quite natural site which Varro actually indicates.

How then can Michels be rejected? In answer: by appeal to Cornell's admired mentor, Arnaldo Momigliano (1966), who cited Kurt Latte (1960); and Latte agreed with Michels but only as applying to Varro's own times, without Latte's explaining his disagreement further. Nevertheless, "the tradition" (Cornell indicates Varro, meaning not all the other writers) "is perfectly sound.... The archaeological evidence is therefore consistent with tradition, but not adequate on its own to confirm it. Once again it is tradition that helps us to interpret the archaeological evidence, rather than the other way round". The same scholar goes on to say elsewhere, "the archaeological evidence cannot tell an independent story of its own; only by interpreting it in the light of written sources can it be made to speak at all".

Though Cornell's aim is to show the superiority of antiquarianism and philology over archaeology, the matter of the Luperci seems actually to prove the opposite. Written evidence, so exiguous, so long tortured, settles nothing. In contrast, the results of excavation, showing the Palatine settlement as the center of the later city, are perfectly well known and happily established—thus, no need of Varro at all! Nor is it the case that archaeology can afford no narratives without written sources, whether of events in the style called "political" or narratives of trends, de longue durée. Many of both sorts are in fact quite familiar. For my own interest, then, in the picking out and describing of trends rather than events, the data recovered from the earth certainly seem to likely to help the most, and it is to these that I now return.

To throw light on the Romans' conservative nature, after what was said at the outset of this chapter regarding their disregard of trade and exploration, I instance religion, next. It is an area where particularly useful evidence can be found, under both headings: private and public.

Private and domestic worship was of course dominant, little as that fact would appear in modern accounts. To bring to mind an image and belief in some superhuman being, and to address and if possible conciliate that being with associated feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, or rites—all this that constitutes religion was a daily matter with the Romans as with other peoples. So much is clear from Cato the Censor in his personal handbook, turned into a published form On Agriculture, where he prescribes how a good estate-owner should begin his rounds of supervision: "The head of the household, the paterfamilias", he says—meaning the oldest male in charge of the core family, of the extended family, and of slaves and dependents—" when he comes to the manager's home, and has paid his respects to the household deity, its Lar", should then get into the business of his visit. He should remind the manager to observe holy days and remind the man's wife to be equally observant in rites thrice monthly at the hearth and such other days as she prays to the household's Lar; and in estate work, "according to Roman rites, offer a pig in sacrifice" to the spirits of a grove, using the following form of prayer: "whether thou be a god or goddess to whom this is sacred, as it is right to be offered a sacrifice of a pig for the thinning of this holy space", may this pig be acceptable. On Agriculture passes on, then, to other similar rules of estate management, specifying what observances are right for the working of the animals, every day or on holy days, and for the overall purification of the lands and the familia collectively assigned to the keeping of the Manes, the deceased. Manes are to be conciliated by a larger offering (pig, lamb, and calf ), with specified prayers also to Janus, Jupiter, and Mars for the good fortune of the land, its crops, and its flocks and shepherds.

Cato is writing up his management notes for the benefit of other big farm owners like himself, looking beyond their homes to the duties of their workforce. It is no part of his purpose to talk about religion in his own home. His contemporary, however, the playwright Plautus, presents the Lar of a family as an actor in one of his comedies, telling the audience how the daughter of the house prays to him constantly every day with incense, wine, or some other offering. Such routines of worship find mention in later literature, at least in poetry, and appear in archeological evidence, too, from as early as Plautus' day. Earlier still, the Romans may perhaps have had all the beliefs and rites that Cato and Plautus tell us about—the guardian spirits, the Lares, to protect each family's food stores, while the particularly chosen deities, Venus or Mars or other, were invoked collectively as the Penates.


Excerpted from THE EARLIEST ROMANS by Ramsay MacMullen Copyright © 2011 by Ramsay MacMullen . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ramsay MacMullen is Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University.

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