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.

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