Murder Most Mythic

W.V. Harris

  • Remus: A Roman Myth by T.P. Wiseman
    Cambridge, 243 pp, £35.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 521 41981 6
  • The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c.1000-246 BC) by T.J. Cornell
    Routledge, 507 pp, £50.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 415 01595 2

How do myths evolve? The question has received less attention than one might think, there being a tendency among myth-scholars to treat the stories they deal with as given and fixed, even though everyone knows in theory that stories told in pre-literate and semi-literate societies are, to say the least, liable to change. What one needs are cases in which successive stages of a myth can be documented, and that – if T.P. Wiseman’s enthralling new book is right – is exactly what the foundation myth of Rome has to offer.

The myth of the founding twins Romulus and Remus, as it was written down by Rome’s first historian Fabius Pictor about 200 BC (when Rome was already becoming a Mediterranean power), was quite elaborate. It told how Amulius, brother of King Numitor of Alba Longa, usurped the throne and made Numitor’s daughter Ilia (known in most later versions as Rhea Silvia) become a virgin priestess of Vesta to prevent her from having children. But Ilia was raped by Mars and subsequently gave birth to twin sons. Amulius attempted to eliminate the infants by committing them to the flood waters of the Tiber, but the box which was carrying them ran aground, and the twins were then suckled by the famous she-wolf. Faustulus, the king’s swineherd who witnessed this scene, rescued Romulus and Remus and, together with his wife Larentia, brought them up to be herdsmen too. In the next part of the tale the twins, now young men, are reconciled with their grandfather Numitor, whom they succeed in restoring to his rightful position as King of Alba Longa. In the climactic scene the twins found the city of Rome on the site of their miraculous rescue, but Remus is killed by Romulus or one of his supporters. Exactly how Fabius Pictor narrated this final episode we do not know, and there was never a canonical version of the whole story. Wiseman in fact catalogues no fewer than 61 Greek and Roman versions of the foundation of the city, though many of them are only minor variants.

Much of this story conforms to a pattern of foundation stories well-known from other cultures (and not only Indo-European ones), but twins as the central figures seem to be unique. Remus: A Roman Myth argues, as some have suggested before, that the twin element of the story is no older than the mid-fourth century BC, when the co-founder Remus was invented by the Romans for political reasons, only to be almost written out of the story (by being turned into a murder victim) a generation or two later, again for political reasons.

Wiseman casts himself as an exponent of ‘old-fashioned classical scholarship’, and after heartily smiting comparative religion, in the shape of the American philologist Jaan Puhvel, he steers clear of all Modernist, not to mention Post-Modernist, approaches. There is not a shadow of psychoanalysis to be found. Some may think that this is all to the good, but whether a political approach can do justice to such a complex and powerful story – in particular to its first segment, with its emotive abandonment and salvation of the infant twins – seems dubious.

This is a persuasive book: it leads one to entertain possibilities which only a very skilled writer could make acceptable. One of Wiseman’s main contributions to ancient history has been to show how deeply coloured the work of Roman historical writers was by the rhetorical practices in which they were educated; and Remus: A Roman Myth is itself a rhetorical tour de force. One thing it makes clear is how easy it is to lull objections by admitting that one’s theory is ‘provisional’ (a most welcome change from the dogmatism common in myth-studying circles), and the book is so artfully organised and carefully paced that by the time we are presented with its central assertions we have been most effectively softened up.

The argument is sequential. There is obviously no point in arguing about the possible political reasons why twins first entered the foundation myth, or why Remus was believed to have been killed, unless we can see with at least reasonable clarity when these stories took shape. In other words, Wiseman needs to discover a time when the twins were not a feature of Rome’s foundation myth. Here, he is compelled to grasp at very flimsy evidence. Take the case of the bronze mirror from nearby Praeneste (Palestrina) – if that is its real origin – which depicts two small boys being suckled by a wolf. Wiseman dates it to about 340 BC. The authenticity of the object was finally established in the Eighties, and everyone who has accepted the mirror as genuine has seen it as a vital piece of evidence about the myth of Romulus and Remus, though there has been plenty of disagreement about how to identify the four other human figures, two birds and one lion which surround the central scene. In Wiseman’s view, the mirror twins are not Romulus and Remus at all but the infant Lares (protective gods of the state), the children, according to Ovid, of the god Mercury and the nymph Lara. Thus, for Wiseman, the mirror paradoxically indicates that the Romulus and Remus myth did not yet exist, for if it had already been known, the Praenestine craftsman who designed the mirror could not expect that his twins would be easily recognised as the Lares. This interpretation is not altogether impossible, but it is definitely fragile, all the more so because one of the most careful authorities on the art of Hellenistic Italy, F.H. Pairault-Massa, has dated the mirror a little later, to the years around 300 BC. This would conflict with Wiseman’s reading, for it suggests that the story of Romulus and Remus was still unfamiliar several decades after it had been publicly propagated as a political parable.

The main reason to think that the fourth-century Romans invented the twin brother Remus is that the contemporary Sicilian historian Alcimus – the earliest writer known to have mentioned Romulus – gave the latter a brief genealogy that shows no knowledge of any such twin. He included in his Sikelika a section about Italy (in which he probably paid most attention to the Etruscans and the Greek colonists), but nothing suggests that Alcimus was such an expert on Rome that this particular argument from silence should be regarded as decisive. The genealogy he offered is transparently Greek, since it gives Aeneas a wife with the Greek name-form ‘Tyrrhenia’, and it is not to be taken as a reliable guide to what the fourth-century Romans thought about the family of their founder.

Like a number of others before him, Wiseman thinks that Romulus and Remus are to be explained by some analogous double characteristic of the Roman state. He duly seeks a feature that became important between about 340 BC and 296. We know that by 296 the twin story was widely accepted at Rome, because it was in that year that two public officials had statues of the infant twins erected, with a statue of the she-wolf, at the Ficus Ruminalis, the fig tree, under which the miracle was supposed to have taken place. Wiseman finds this doubleness in Rome in the growth of the combined patrician-plebeian system of government: 342 BC was the first year in which a plebeian (in the technical sense – that is to say, a person not descended from the patrician élite) held the consulship, a vitally important victory over the patricians’ prior monopoly of the highest offices of the state. For many generations thereafter one consul in each year was patrician and one plebeian. The functioning of this partnership was indispensable to the stability of the state. Thus the figure of Remus, the co-founder of the city, was intended to validate the participation of the plebeians in its government.

This makes the killing of Remus a startlingly divisive element in the foundation story, for it would seem to symbolise the violent removal of the plebeians from their share of political power, and we urgently want to know what can have caused the murder to be invented and accepted as a true story. Here Wiseman loses some of his usual clarity. He guesses – and it can be no more than a guess – that the story was invented in 296 when the Romans were anxious about the novel collaboration of the most dangerous of their enemies (the Etruscans, Gauls and Samnites), a collaboration which ended the following year with a crucial defeat by the Romans at the Battle of Sentinum in northern Umbria. The weakest section in the book argues that Remus was re-imagined at this time as a sacrificial victim whose death secured the defences of the city. The killing of Remus after he had leapt provocatively over Romulus’ new city wall was supposed to show that ‘for the security of the city wall, even a brother must be sacrificed.’

It is not easy to believe that fratricide was introduced into the foundation myth of Rome in this fashion. We know, admittedly, that the Romans liked to propagate stories which showed that a public man must be prepared to put members of his family to death if the interests of the state demanded it; and that may well be the reason the killing of Remus was a story so often told. But Remus’ death was not a sacrifice, and it remains wholly unclear why the Romans of 296 would have wanted to recast the story by making one of the co-founders of their state a transgressor.

After Wiseman’s strained explanation of the mythical fratricide, the reader is rewarded with ten brilliant pages in which he explains the methods – the stage representations at annual festivals such as the Liberalia and the Roman and Plebeian Games – by which the mid-Republican Romans transmitted myths to one another. This passage could only have been written by someone with a fine sense of Roman social institutions. Wiseman’s book is discursive – at times garrulous – and it offers many intriguing ideas, but the very best part is the section in which he imaginatively re-creates the opinion-forming function of theatrical performances.

The story of the twins was perhaps more deeply embedded in Roman tradition than Wiseman believes. He does his best to disentangle Remus from the archaic wolf-festival, the Lupercalia. But the notion that the twins were devised in the fourth century BC remains a very tenuous hypothesis, reminiscent of the time when it was thought that the Romans had no myths of their own. By Greek standards, their mythology was quite jejune, but that could be said about most other mythologies too. In any case, the ‘exposure’ of twins practised on Romulus and Remus looks much more like a folk motif than a calculated political invention, especially since there are reasons to suspect that the early Romans, in common with many other traditional populations, regarded twins with a certain awe or horror and often exposed them.

It is also striking that ancient writers always associate the two brothers with different Roman hills – usually Romulus is to be found on the Palatine while Remus is on the Aventine – thereby suggesting that the twins symbolised some double geographical aspect of the city, if not the union between the Palatine and the Aventine. Which would make the story of the twins a little older, if not necessarily much older, than Wiseman proposes.

Myths can, of course, be manipulated for political reasons; and that is what happened to the story of Romulus and Remus under the rule of Augustus after 31 BC. The fratricide was now suppressed, for a political motive which is reasonably easy to detect: it was in the interest of the new regime, after its victory in the civil war, to exclude murderous strife from the foundation myth of Rome, all the more so because Augustus himself had gone part of the way towards assuming the identity of a new Romulus. Sure enough, the loyal poets Vergil and Propertius depict not the murdered Remus who was familiar to the previous generation but a Remus who ruled harmoniously with his brother.

But in the fourth and third centuries BC Rome was very much a republic, with nothing like the relatively centralised cultural control Augustus was to possess. Those who wanted to impose the allegedly new figure of Remus or the alleged novelty of his murder would have had no means by which to do so. And the diehard patricians who opposed sharing power with the plebeians would certainly have resisted the first of these innovations, if Wiseman’s interpretation of it is correct. Let us not forget that this was a world in which Rome’s foundation story was passed on by word of mouth, aided by visual representations in the city. What, one wonders, did Alcimus know of such matters?

The central problem of archaic Roman history (down to, say, the late fourth century BC) is that a large proportion of what ancient writers have to offer on the subject is inevitably a tissue of inventions and distortions. Dependent on oral tradition, which in its various forms was the only Roman means of passing on stories about the past until Naevius started writing ‘historical’ plays in the late third century and Fabius Pictor produced his history, they tell a highly unreliable tale. The matter becomes vastly more complicated and challenging because of the survival in later times of innumerable institutions and places and customs which hint at or reveal (but which?) the way things were in the archaic age.

T.J. Cornell’s synthesis of early Roman history has some great virtues: it is learned, up-to-date (which is much to be commended, given the relative swiftness of recent archaeological developments in Rome and Lazio) and readable. It is also shot through with a rather endearing desire to bring the truth from Italy to the benighted Anglophones. But Cornell is a Jekyll and Hyde historian. While he is usually alert to the difficulties of obtaining solid information about early Rome, he makes strained efforts to establish the accuracy of almost everything classical writers wrote about archaic Roman history four hundred years or more after the event.

His account of Iron Age Central Italy and of the monarchical period at Rome (conventionally, 754 to 509 BC) is quite admirable. One may not agree with everything, but the approach is usually reasonable. Most of the evidence here is either archaeological or consists of stories that are obviously mythical or legendary, and Cornell handles it all expertly. He can be highly informative, for instance, about mythical children who, like Romulus and Remus, were reared by animals. For him, the Capitoline Wolf, the famous bronze statue of about 500 BC still to be seen on the Campidoglio, is evidence that the twin myth already existed at that time, even though she is shown in a standing position and was, therefore, presumably not suckling the twins.

However, the most distinctive argument is his polemic against the widespread scholarly belief that the reigns of the last kings of Rome, the two Tarquins and Servius Tullius – roughly speaking the sixth century BC – marked a period when the city was dominated by Etruscans. Cornell makes insufficient allowance for the natural reluctance of later Romans to admit that their city had ever been ruled by foreigners, but his argument requires a considered response from anyone who describes Tarquinian Rome as an Etruscan monarchy.

In the better of his two guises Cornell is sceptical of claims that an item of archaeological evidence ‘confirms’ a Roman historical story, realising that most of the time archaeology does nothing of the sort. But the literary sources are a fatal temptation to him. The fact that Fabius Pictor wrote in Greek shows, he says, that ‘he was consciously applying the canons and methods of Greek historiography to the past of Rome,’ implying to the innocent that Fabius was – most improbably – some sort of Roman Thucydides (not that the image of Thucydides is quite what it used to be). It is far from accurate, if words have their normal meanings, to say that ‘the historical sources provide us with ... a well-established chronology’ of archaic Rome. Words also seem to have lost their meanings when it is said that the period of Roman history from the 330s to the 260s ‘was extensively documented by written records, by accounts of Greek historians, and perhaps most importantly, by first-hand oral tradition’. It seems surprising that a classicist who has spent much of his career with historians should give such a peculiar meaning to the words ‘extensively documented’.

Cornell gives the appearance of recognising the oral basis of the surviving narratives about archaic Rome, but in practice fails to take proper account of it. Instead we are typically told that ‘tradition records’ this or that, though Cornell well knows that tradition does nothing as definitive or as detached as ‘recording’. Another dangerous rhetorical habit is the spurious dichotomy: either you agree with me or you accept the absurd alternative view. Cornell implies that those who take a more critical view of the sources than he does (and in the English-speaking world that means nearly all other scholars) reject most or all of the literary evidence for the early Roman Republic. It simply is not so.

In practice, Cornell is more of a sceptic than he lets on, and at important junctures he recognises that the literary ‘sources’ (the very word can create confusion) are wrong or profoundly misleading. He admits, for example, that they fail one of their great archaeological tests over the ‘Servian’ wall around the city, supposedly built under Servius Tullius, but actually built at least 150 years later than any king of that name. Similarly, he recognises that the census figures which the sources supply for the early Republic are absurdly exaggerated (this is ‘extremely puzzling’, he says; but it isn’t, not in the least). When in this critical mode, what he has to say about a number of controversial matters, such as the fall of the monarchy and the creation of the Laws of the Twelve Tables, is balanced and reasonable.

What sort of archaic Rome emerges from this long cogitated work? Its most unexpected characteristic, apart from the improbably high level of literacy Cornell attributes to its inhabitants, is a curious one: it is the implicit unimportance of religion. In this book no one carries the bloody tail (or was it the penis?) of the October Horse to the Regia (the chief pontiff’s residence), no fetial priests cast magical spears into enemy territory, no triumphing generals are arrayed as Jupiter. In one sense, therefore, this is a book largely free of superstition.