Between Troy and Rome

Denis Feeney

  • Virgil’s Ascanius: Imagining the Future in the ‘Aeneid’ by Anne Rogerson
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £75.00, January 2017, ISBN 978 1 107 11539 2

Virgil’s Aeneid became the canonical myth of Rome’s origins as soon as it was published, following the poet’s death, in 19 BCE. When Troy fell to the Greeks, the story goes, Aeneas, the son of Venus and Anchises, survived and escaped from the burning city with his father and young son Ascanius (also called Iulus). After years of wandering, the Trojans reached Italy and settled in Latium, where Aeneas married the Latin princess Lavinia and founded a city named Lavinium after her. Following the death of Aeneas, Ascanius established a new city, Alba Longa, and a long line of Alban kings eventually resulted in the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome, hundreds of years after the Trojans’ arrival in Italy.

This elaborate story – multi-generational and international – was not Virgil’s invention. It had existed in something like this form for two centuries before he started writing, and the germ of the myth – the basic idea that Aeneas escaped from Troy and headed west – is older still. It is impossible to say exactly when the wandering Aeneas first became associated with Rome. In the late fifth century BCE, the mythographer and historian Hellanicus of Lesbos recorded that it was Aeneas who founded Rome and named the city after a Trojan woman called Rhome, but this story is a long way from the canonical version that emerged around 200 BCE: there is no appreciable gap in time between Troy and Rome, no intervening line of Alban kings and no twins. Hellanicus’ story is only one of many incompatible Greek narratives that linked the Trojans with Latium and Rome.

The details of their stories vary greatly, but the Greek authors all wanted to make sense of the Latins and Romans in terms of their own mythic past. As Elias Bickerman showed in a brilliant article 65 years ago, the Greek travellers and colonists who fanned out across the Mediterranean from around 750 BCE used their mythology as a framework for understanding the various peoples they encountered. Instead of recording what they heard from local ‘informants’, they applied a series of formulae for placing people they met on a cultural map. The ‘Trojan’ label positioned the Romans neatly on the sliding scale of civilisation: ‘more civilised than you’d expect even though not actually quite up there with us’. Once that had been established, the story was built up, eventually involving Etruscans, Latins, and Greeks from Sicily and Italy as well as the mainland. At a certain point the idea of a Trojan origin was embraced by the Romans themselves. Quite when that happened is disputed, but it was probably by the beginning of the first war with Carthage (264 BCE). The people of Segesta in north-western Sicily sent an embassy to Rome to appeal for an alliance on the basis of their shared Trojan ancestry: the entreaty must have made some kind of sense to the assembled senators.

For a long time, the link between Troy and Rome was much more immediate than in the version found in Virgil. In the early stories, Rome was founded soon after the fall of Troy, in the same generation or no more than two generations afterwards. Some time in the third century BCE the Greeks realised that the dates for the fall of Troy and the foundation of Rome could not be so close together and were probably separated by hundreds of years. This is where the intermediate city of Alba Longa came in: the kings of Alba Longa were plugged into the gap, and new kings added to the line whenever the dates needed to be revised.

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