When Demigods Walked the Earth

T.P. Wiseman

  • Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History by Denis Feeney
    California, 372 pp, £18.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 520 25119 9

How old is Rome? Sporadic pottery fragments from the Bronze Age have long been known about, but have only recently been found in a stratified context, in excavations on the Capitoline Hill. It is now for the first time possible to say with confidence that the continuous occupation of the site goes back to at least 1300 BC. Recent excavations have also revealed an Iron Age cemetery below the Capitoline (in what was later the Forum of Caesar), analogous to the one discovered a century ago beside the Sacra Via below the Palatine (next to the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina). The natural inference is that there were two communities, each with its own burial ground; there may well have been others nearby, in places where the conditions of the modern city make systematic exploration impossible – on the Quirinal, for instance.

The Sacra Via cemetery was closed in the archaeological phase known as Cultura laziale IIA1, in either 970 or 870 BC, depending on which dating convention you use; at the same time, a new burial ground was opened a mile away on the plateau of the Esquiline, which remained in use for eight or nine centuries, until Augustus’ friend Maecenas redeveloped it as his suburban park. That may imply a coming together of the neighbouring communities into a single much larger unit, what modern prehistorians call ‘proto-urban’ Rome. But the original nuclei were still in some sense separate; walls surrounding the Palatine and dated to about 730 BC were discovered in 1988. By then, the inhabitants and their Latin and Etruscan neighbours must have been long familiar with traders from the eastern Mediterranean, in particular Euboeans and Ionians from the Aegean islands and Corinthians from the Hellenic mainland. The name of the combined community on the Tiber was the Latinised form of a Greek word, rhome, ‘strength’.

By about 650 BC there were more than a dozen Greek colonial settlements round the coasts of Sicily and southern Italy, as far north as the Bay of Naples. The traditional heroic stories of what we call Greek mythology were developed to incorporate this new ‘greater Greece’. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas and the defeated Trojans fled to the west. Wandering Odysseus sailed the same waters; Circe’s island was firmly fixed off the coast of Latium, about fifty miles south of the Tiber outflow. The tenth Labour of Herakles (Hercules in Latin) now saw him driving the cattle of Geryon down through Italy and Sicily, defeating the Giants while still in the west, and being rewarded with immediate deification. The story of the cattle was told by a poet (Stesichorus) from the Greek colony of Himera on the north coast of Sicily, perhaps about 600 BC; two generations later, the deification of Herakles was celebrated in a statue-group on a temple next to the river harbour in Rome. The ruler of Rome at that time may well have been Tarquinius, who claimed descent from a wealthy Corinthian trader.

The revolution that drove Tarquinius and his family out of Rome, probably in 507 BC, is the first credibly reported event in Roman political history – and it is credible only because it was within the purview of Greek authors who were interested in the ruler of Cumae, a Euboean colony near Naples, with whom the exiled Tarquinius took refuge. The Romans had no literature of their own until three centuries later. By the time of the epic poet and dramatist Gnaeus Naevius and the historian Fabius Pictor, who were both writing at the time of Rome’s war with Hannibal at the end of the third century BC, the Roman foundation legend of Romulus and Remus had come into being. According to Naevius, the twins were the sons of Aeneas’ daughter Ilia, ‘the Trojan woman’; of course, a poet wouldn’t use dates, but since Greek historiography had by that time achieved a chronology into which to fit Homer’s tale of Troy, Naevius’ story implies that Romulus founded Rome some time around what we would call 1130 BC. Fabius, who as a historian had to provide dates, put the foundation in the first year of the eighth Olympiad, 747 BC, with Romulus the offspring of a long dynasty of Latin kings descended from Aeneas.

That huge discrepancy illustrates the unhistorical nature of the Romans’ idea of their distant past. Both dates are inconsistent with the modern archaeological record, as indeed is the very idea of a single act of foundation, as if Rome were a colonial settlement. But that is what we should expect. Societies that do not commit narrative events to writing cannot have reliable information about anything that happened more than two generations ago; before that, there are only uncheckable stories of what supposedly happened ‘in the time of our ancestors’.

Such societies can believe simultaneously in stories which by strict historical criteria are incompatible with each other. When Herakles came down the Tiber valley with the cattle of Geryon, he was welcomed at the Palatine by King Evander, a Greek from Arcadian Pallantion who had settled his people there. When his mother, a prophetess, foretold the hero’s forthcoming apotheosis, Evander set up the Great Altar (ara maxima) that was the centre of the cult of Hercules throughout the history of Rome. It was quite close to the Lupercal, where the infants Romulus and Remus were abandoned and then found and suckled by the she-wolf. But that happened in the wild, not in an Arcadian colony, and when the twins grew up and chose that place to found their city, there wasn’t one there already.

The Romans founded their own colonial settlements in Italy from the fourth century BC onwards, and they laid them out where possible in rectangular form, ritually marking the line of the walls with a furrow cut by an ox-drawn plough. Naturally, they thought their own city had been created in the same way: according to the traditions reported by Dionysius, Plutarch and Appian, Romulus – or Romulus and Remus together – marked out ‘square Rome’ with each side four stadia in length (about 740m), big enough to enclose the Palatine.

Even if we make an arbitrary choice and use Fabius Pictor’s date rather than Naevius’, the chronological interval between the ‘foundation’ and the earliest author to record it is more than five centuries, comparable to the interval between the supposed date of the fall of Troy and the composition of the Homeric epics, or between the supposed post-Roman context of King Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. In each of these three cases, serious scholars still try to make the legend fit the archaeology and turn it into history. See, for instance, Joachim Latacz’s Troia und Homer (2001), Christopher Gidlow’s The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend (2004), or Andrea Carandini’s Archeologia del mito (2002) and Remo e Romolo (2006). Carandini is the leading archaeologist of early Rome; it was he who excavated the Palatine walls in 1988, and announced to the world that his discovery proved the historicity of the foundation story as we have it in Ovid and Plutarch. ‘Who is it,’ he demanded, ‘who interprets the walls in terms of foundation by a first king (whether or not we call him Romulus): Andrea Carandini? Or more than twenty generations of Romans with no gap in the continuity of their memory?’ Carandini relies on the unexamined concept of ‘cultural memory’: the idea that the walls themselves, bits of which may still have been visible in the time of Augustus, were a lieu de mémoire which somehow transmitted the knowledge of who built them and why.

What is needed to structure this epistemological free-for-all is a thorough, properly nuanced account of the Romans’ concept of time – and in Denis Feeney’s excellent new book, that is very nearly what we have. Caesar’s Calendar consists of three pairs of chapters: ‘Synchronising Times’, ‘Transitions from Myth into History’ and ‘Years, Months, and Days’. The first is a superb exploration of what it was like to live in a world that had no agreed way of numbering years, and how, by the development of synchronisms between events – or supposed events – in different parts of their world, Greek and Roman scholars evolved a composite overall chronology which culminated in Eusebius’ Chronici Canones, with their base list of years dated from the birth of Abraham. Feeney rightly insists on the key contribution of Sicilian Greek writers in the Hellenistic period – particularly Timaeus of Tauromenium, the first author to show any serious interest in Rome – and on the effect of Roman imperial expansion, which made it necessary to ‘graft the Romans into the deep past of the Mediterranean’s time webs’. (It is hard to think about this subject without resorting to metaphor; but Feeney is a subtle writer, and doesn’t often test his readers’ patience.)

The third pair of chapters deals with the various time systems used by the Romans. For instance, though they sometimes placed events in years ‘from the foundation of the city’ (ab urbe condita), such dates were relative, not absolute, since the time of the ‘foundation’ was itself disputed; and the same applied to the other starting points that were sometimes used, such as ‘from the expulsion of the kings’ or ‘from the capture of the city by the Gauls’. Feeney observes:

All of these schemes – eras, millennial and centennial anniversaries, epochs and saecula – are attempts to impose meaningful shape on the flux of past time, and to create a sensation of monitored progress through time. They are of particular importance in a setting where there was no one common grid of chronology, but a medley of diverse tools for orientation in time. Patterns were not picked out of a pre-existing frame of decades and centuries grounded on an unshakeable foundation, as may so readily be done now, but manufactured anew on many occasions.

The closest the Romans came to an agreed chronological system was in the list of annual magistracies, as when Horace refers to a bottle of vintage wine ‘born with me in the consulship of Manlius’. Augustus transcribed the whole list from the beginning of the Republic onto his triumphal arch in the Roman Forum; many fragments of it survive, and Feeney brilliantly illustrates the visual impact of the change when each year begins to carry the name of Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus, not as consul but by virtue of the ‘tribunician power’ granted him by the Roman people and annually renewed. Augustus also controlled the days and months, thanks to the calendar created by his father, Julius Caesar, which for the first time represented the real length of the year without significant slippage.

In all of this, the book’s stated aim of ‘bringing to light the power and significance of the dating mentality that was surrendered in the transition to the universal numerical grid’ of BC/AD dating is realised with elegance and erudition. The second pair of chapters, however, the significance of which is underlined by the book’s subtitle as well as by its central position, seems to me much less compelling.

All three components of the title ‘Transitions from Myth into History’ demand much more careful definition than they get. The first two paragraphs refer repeatedly to this ‘transition’, ‘the contentious horizon between myth and history’, the ‘passage from myth to history’, as if it were self-evident that this was a concept familiar to the Greeks and Romans, and the only question were where in time it should be placed. Feeney knows that ‘more and more scholars nowadays are inclined to deny that there is much value in the language of “mythical time” and “historical time”, holding that these distinctions are not current in the ancient world,’ but wants to ‘push back on the pendulum before it gathers too much momentum’. I think his effort is in vain.

Herodotus created the discipline of history (as opposed to telling stories about the past) when he began his ‘inquiries’ into the origin of the Persian Wars with Croesus, ‘the man who I myself know was the first to act unjustly against the Greeks’. Croesus was king in Lydia a little longer than a century before Herodotus was carrying out his inquiries; that far back, he could get reliable information which enabled him to take responsibility for the essential accuracy of his narrative. Feeney rightly sees this as Herodotus ‘marking what he will vouch for and what he will not’, but then goes on to describe the distinction as ‘Herodotus’ tension between myth and history’, ‘as he grapples with demarcating his material from the material of myth’. It is true that mythos in Greek, like fabula in Latin and ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ in English, can be used to mean any kind of story that is not susceptible to verification; but that is not how Feeney wants to use it here.

It is a pity that, among the multifarious aspects of time, Feeney deliberately chose to exclude ‘individual memory, transience and mortality’. The sort of history practised by Herodotus and Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus, requires the exploitation of the memory of living people to achieve a reliable narrative. Those historians knew that beyond the memory of man, the past could only be reconstructed by rational conjecture, or inference from any records that happened to survive. But other writers were quite prepared to use those methods and to narrate the distant past as history. Mythos and fabula were usually defined not chronologically but by the nature of particular stories; and though most historians were unwilling to include miracle stories or direct divine interventions, regarding them as the province of poets, there were some who protested against even that limitation as implicitly denying the power and goodwill of the gods.

Feeney’s argument, however, assumes that myth refers to a different sort of past, softening ‘the potentially destabilising discrepancy between the nature of experience now and then, when demigods are said to have walked the earth’. The second chapter of the middle pair is about ‘the ages of gold and iron’, an ahistorical myth which does indeed presuppose such a distinction, but Feeney slides from one conception to the other by giving disproportionate significance to the tale of Troy:

The fall of Troy was . . . a mark in time. On the other side of that demarcation live the heroes, who converse with gods and lift rocks it would take twelve men now to lift; on this side of the demarcation begins the movement into current human history.

The Trojan War, then, is a key marker of a transition from a period of myth to a period of history, as the first beginning of a scientific historical chronology, and as the moment of passage from a more blessed time of heroes and gods to the continuous time of history.

Certainly, the combined prestige of Homer and the Athenian tragic dramatists gave the Trojan stories a particular prominence, but they were not different in kind from those of Herakles, Theseus and the war against Thebes, which were agreed to be chronologically earlier. Historians did not feel obliged to start from Troy: Ephorus began with the ‘return of the Herakleidai’, Pompeius Trogus with Ninus the king of Assyria, Diodorus with the creation of the world. The search for ‘a gigantic hinge between myth and history’ is doomed from the start.

The Romans would not have understood Feeney’s claim that Aeneas came to Italy in ‘heroic time’, but Romulus founded Rome in ‘historical time’. When Livy says in his preface that narratives about the period before the foundation were ‘closer to the fabulae of poets than to uncorrupted history’, he is not distinguishing categories of time but justifying his own choice of starting point. It was always open to historians to begin earlier – and to include poetic fabulae as well. Valerius Antias reported King Numa’s conversation with Jupiter; Dionysius of Halicarnassus described the manifestation of Hercules at Rome in 312 BC. Varro began his Genealogy of the Roman People with Ogyges of Thebes, the first king of the first city, 2100 years before his own time, in whose reign the great flood took place which gave rise to the Roman festival of the Lupercalia. The chronological scheme of Velleius Paterculus’ history of Rome took as its starting point the deification of Hercules, which he placed forty years before the fall of Troy.

How old was Rome? There was no single answer. In 44 BC an Etruscan prophet announced the conclusion of the ninth saeculum (and immediately died, having revealed a divine secret); in AD 19 panic was caused by an oracle threatening the end of Rome after ‘thrice three hundred years’. Learned writers had their own chronological systems, but there was no agreement. So it is just as fallacious for Andrea Carandini to favour one view as ‘the tradition’, and to try to square it with the archaeology, as it is for Denis Feeney to propose that Greek and Roman scholars deliberately sought to bring the foundation date out of ‘mythic time’ and into ‘history’. Romulus was always history (in their terms), and always myth (in ours).