Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.26

T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 B.C.). London: Routledge, Routledge History of the Ancient World, 1995. Pp. xx, 507. $25.00. ISBN 0-415-01596-0.

Reviewed by Gary Forsythe, Chesterton, Indiana,

The casual observer is likely to regard modern historical research as a vicious circle, as each new generation of scholars rehashes the conundrums of their predecessors; but a more accurate analogy would be a slowly ascending spiral, which gradually moves upward with each completed circuit. Modern study of early Roman history offers an excellent illustration of this metaphor. Although contemporary scholars continue to disagree on many fundamental questions discussed by Niebuhr, Mommsen, and other scholars in the nineteenth century, one need only compare the first and second editions of The Cambridge Ancient History on early Rome, separated from one another by half of a century, to realize how much progress has been made in this field during the past two generations alone. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to apply the adjective 'revolutionary' to the ways in which our knowledge and understanding of the economic and social development of central Italy during the early Iron Age have advanced over the past 30 years. This progress has largely been achieved from the archaeological excavations at Osteria Dell'Osa, Castel Di Decima, Ischia, Pyrgi, Gravisca, and from the diligent spade work (both literal and figurative) of Italian scholars such as Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri, Mario Torelli, and Carmine Ampolo. Although much of this work has been published in Italian, the study of early central Italy and Rome is currently experiencing a flurry of activity in the English-speaking world as witnessed by the publication of seven major monographs (including the volume under review) during the five-year period 1992-96.1

Given the highly problematic nature of early Roman history, it is inevitable that other scholars of the subject will disagree with numerous statements encountered in this book. Nevertheless, the volume represents a thorough historical survey of Rome's regal period and early republic. The book is well written, well organized, and should prove to be extremely informative for the intelligent non-specialist and college student. Since 1974 T. J. Cornell (hereafter, C.) has been publishing learned articles on various aspects of early Roman history. One striking feature of this work is C.'s intimate familiarity with the most recent archaeological discoveries being made in Latium and Etruria relating to the early Iron Age and the Orientalizing Period. Thus, the book's greatest strength is its careful and judicious synthesis of historical and archaeological data for the period preceding the republic; and it is likewise excellent concerning Roman external affairs and conquest of Italy. Its single greatest weakness, however, is its insufficiently critical treatment of the ancient literary sources concerning the struggle of the orders during the fifth century B.C., for which archaeology is of little use.

The narrative text comprises 15 chapters (pp.1-398), which in turn are subdivided neatly into numbered sections with headings, and whose content is further enhanced by appropriate figures, maps, and tables of information. These chapters are followed by an appendix on early Roman chronology (pp.399-402). The notes to the narrative text occupy pages 403-71 and are followed by a bibliography (pp.472-91) and an index (pp.492-507). Chapter 1 (pp.1-30) is a detailed treatment of the surviving ancient sources for early Roman history and what other literary, documentary, and oral types of information might lie behind them, as well as a discussion of archaeological evidence and its usefulness and limitations. In Chapter 2 (pp.31-47), a brief overview of human culture in Italy from the Bronze Age to the early Iron Age, C. rightly cautions us against ascribing too much cultural significance to cremation vs. inhumation. He is correct in thinking that the presence of Mycenaean pottery at sites throughout the Western Mediterranean should not be regarded as confirming in any way Greek myths of Hercules, Odysseus, or the Argonauts; and he follows contemporary scholarly opinion in regarding Etruscan civilization as an autochthonous phenomenon, resulting from the same Orientalizing influences that transformed archaic Greek society. C. begins Chapter 3 (48-80) with a brief archaeological survey of the material culture of Latium during the early Iron Age, after which he examines different elements in Rome's foundation story (Aeneas, Evander and Hercules, Alba Longa, Romulus and Remus, the Sabines) and assesses their value as history, finally concluding that contrary to this well established ancient literary tradition human habitation began on the site of Rome before the eighth century, and Rome did not come together as a unified state until the seventh century B.C. In Chapter 4 (pp.81-118) C. traces the rise of the city-state in central Italy during the Orientalizing Period and discusses different modern approaches to this subject (Childe, Gjerstad, Mueller-Karpe, Drews, Guidi). The rich grave goods of high ranking persons of the seventh century B.C. give clear evidence of an aristocratic sympotic culture of Homeric type. C. argues that clans (gentes) did not precede the state but came into being along with it, and that the three archaic tribes and 30 curiae of Rome were artificial creations. The so-called Calendar of Numa is viewed as an expression of community and of a centralized political authority. The rise of organized states in Latium accounts for a major change in funerary practices ca. 580 B.C. in which surplus wealth ceased to be lavished upon the dead but began to be consumed in part in monumental architecture in the form of religious sanctuaries.

The next four chapters are concerned with Roman internal and external affairs during the sixth century B.C. Chapter 7 (pp.173-97) treats the nature and historical significance of the Servian census and the centuriate organization; and Chapter 8 (pp.198-214) discusses the size of Rome's territory and population and the extent of Roman influence in Latium during the sixth century B.C. Chapter 5 (pp.119-50) is a critical historical survey of the standard ancient tradition concerning Rome's kings, a significant portion of which is devoted to Servius Tullius and the Etruscan tradition concerning Mastarna. C. argues that it is a modern fallacy to distinguish the first four kings from the last three and to regard the latter as Etruscan monarchs who were responsible for transforming Rome into a city, a contention which is further developed in Chapter 6. According to C. the ancient notion that Rome's last two kings were usurpers is not to be dismissed as merely later literary embellishment. Furthermore, C. takes seriously the ancient tradition that Servius Tullius was of servile origin; and he discounts the modern view that this tale is simply a naive ancient aetiology inspired by the praenomen 'Servius'. C. interprets Servius' miraculous conception and his association with the goddess Fortuna as stories designed to bestow political legitimacy upon a charismatic usurper. Thus, C. views Rome's last two kings in terms of the contemporary Greek phenomenon of tyranny. This thesis is further contextualized by cataloguing other possible instances of adventurers in central Italy during the sixth or early fifth centuries B.C.: Caelius Vibenna; Lars Porsenna of Clusium; Attus Clausus and his numerous followers from the Sabine Territory; Poplios Valesios and his suodales recorded in the Lapis Satricanus; and Thefarie Velianas, the ruler of Caere, known from the gold leaves of Pyrgi, who in C.'s view may have resembled Servius Tullius in having seized power and sought legitimation through the divine favor of Uni-Astarte.

Attractive as this thesis is, this reviewer must disagree with C. concerning how Servius Tullius' praenomen has influenced the genesis of the ancient historical tradition. Rome's seven kings are to a very large degree stereotypical figures to whom ancient writers ascribed archaic institutions and practices on the basis of simplistic reasoning. Accordingly, Numa, whose name appears to be akin to numen, was characterized as having done nothing during his reign except to establish virtually all aspects of the state religion. Tullus Hostilius' nomen suggested belligerence to the ancients, who therefore regarded him as a very warlike monarch; and the nomen of the Tarquins was interpreted to mean that Tarquinius Priscus had immigrated to Rome from the Etruscan city of Tarquinii. Thus, we should not be surprised by the ancient stories of Servius Tullius' supposed servile origin, or by the belief that he was responsible for establishing the rights and duties of freed slaves in Roman law.

In Chapter 6 (pp.151-72), "The Myth of Etruscan Rome," C. vigorously and systematically attacks the prevalent modern view of "la grande Roma dei Tarquinii," the notion that Rome's development during the sixth century B.C. was effected by Etruscan overlords who imported many features of a superior Etruscan civilization into Roman society. C. rightly points out the difficulty in identifying distinctly Etruscan cultural traits, and he prefers to explain Rome's development during the sixth century B.C. in terms of both Romans and Etruscans interacting and developing their societies by drawing upon a cultural koine. In the final analysis C. regards sixth-century Rome as having its own sophisticated Latin culture, possessing a cosmopolitan population, and having adopted only a few superficial aspects of Etruscan culture such as the dress and insignia of magistrates.

This chapter is the most revisionist one in the book, and this reviewer is generally in agreement with it (especially the concept of a cultural koine), but he feels that C. has gone too far in minimizing the impact that Etruscan culture had upon archaic Rome. The following four items are therefore offered as examples suggesting that Etruscan civilization (e.g., in the area of religion) influenced the Romans more profoundly than C. is willing to concede. First of all, Latin sacer and sanctus have linguistic cognates only in other Italic languages: cf. Umbrian sakre, sahatam, and Oscan sakrim. Since no parallel forms are attested in other Indo-European languages, it is reasonable to conjecture that all the Italic forms have an Etruscan etymology: cf. sacni = 'sanctuary'. Secondly, the Roman Mundus was a subterranean pit which was opened three times a year (Aug. 24, Oct. 5, and Nov. 8). W. Warde Fowler long ago demonstrated that these rites were originally connected with the end of the summer harvest and the fall planting of wheat and barley, but at some time the Mundus lost its agricultural meaning and was associated with the Underworld.2 This latter interpretation probably resulted from the fact that the term Mundus actually derived from or was equated with Etruscan mun, muni = 'underground chamber', 'tomb'. Thirdly, the suffix '-al' found in Latin religious toponyms (e.g., Lupercal, puteal, Volcanal, and Bacchanal) may be nothing more than the Etruscan genitive singular ending, indicating possession. Fourthly, the complex interplay between Etruscan and Latin thought may help to explain the chthonic character of the Lupercalia. Although this religious ceremony was originally designed to protect flocks of animals from the depredations of wolves as seen from the fact that the term lupercus derives from lupus and arcere (cf. the Greek personal name Lykourgos), at some early time the Roman pontiffs assigned the performance of the rites of the Lupercalia to Feb. 15, which occurred during the Dies Parentales of Feb. 13-21, devoted to the worship of the dead, and in the last month of the old Roman year that had clearly chthonic associations. The early Roman connection between wolves and spirits of the dead was certainly based in part upon primitive folklore of werewolves, but it also could have been encouraged by a curious linguistic coincidence: namely, Latin lupus (= 'wolf') resembles Etruscan lupuce (= 'he died'), a word frequently encountered in Etruscan epitaphs. This linguistic and conceptual connection is further suggested by the fact that in the Tomb of Orcus at Tarquinii the Lord of the Underworld is depicted wearing a wolf's head.

Chapter 9 (pp.215-41) concerns the foundation of the republic, in which C. critically reviews different modern interpretations concerning the date and nature of this political transition (Hanell, Gjerstad, Werner, De Martino, Rosenberg). C. rightly opposes the notion that there was a wholesale expulsion of Etruscan families together with the Tarquins, and he observes that Rome's apparent economic down-turn of the fifth century B.C. was shared by other states of Italy. More controversial is C.'s acceptance of the historicity of the Lex Valeria de provocatione of 509 B.C., which he justifies by noting that the right of appeal was acknowledged in the Law of the Twelve Tables. The latter datum, however, can also be explained by presuming that the right of appeal was customary long before it was ever enshrined in a statute. In this reviewer's opinion a landmark law on appeal in the very first year of the Roman free state is in fact too good to be true. The most controversial item in this chapter is C.'s contention that the office of rex sacrorum was created before the termination of the monarchy. In keeping with his view that Rome's last two kings were usurpers, the author argues that under these kings there was a separation of the king's political and religious powers. The chapter ends with a brief appendix concerning archaeological evidence for the Regia during the sixth century B.C.

Three chapters are devoted to the struggle of the orders and related issues: Chapter 10, "Patricians and Plebeians" (pp.242-71); Chapter 11, "The Twelve Tables" (pp.272-92); and Chapter 13, "The Emancipation of the Plebs" (pp.327-44). After critiquing various modern attempts to explain the nature and genesis of the patriciate (e.g., outmoded ethnic and racial theories of the nineteenth-century, hereditary membership in the senate, and membership in the archaic cavalry), C. uses the work of Magdelain and Momigliano to argue that the control of the auspices as embodied in the office of interrex was the touchstone of patrician status. Although he never explicitly opines when the patriciate became a closed order, he believes that it was already embryonic under the kings, and his acceptance of the historicity of the prohibition of intermarriage between the orders in the Twelve Tables and its repeal by the Lex Canuleia reveals C.'s belief that the patriciate existed as an exclusive body at some time before the middle of the fifth century B.C. C. likewise follows Momigliano in viewing the plebs as a body that evolved over time and was not simply the all-encompassing antithesis to the patriciate as it was in later times. Yet, despite these efforts to modify and revise the ancient literary tradition, C.'s overall approach to many key events in the struggle of the orders is conservative and strikes this reviewer as even being rather uncritical. For example, he accepts as historical the ancient traditions of the first secession of the plebs, a second board of decemviral legislators, the second secession, and the Valerian Horatian Laws of 449 B.C., as well as the prevalent modern notions of an extra-legal plebeian state within the state and the existence of a concilium plebis, all of which the reviewer regards as fictitious.3 On p.265 C. significantly observes: "The plebeian movement was a remarkable phenomenon, as far as we know without parallel in the history of the ancient city-state." The mere fact that according to the modern orthodox interpretation the struggle of the orders was otherwise unparalleled in the ancient world should immediately set off alarm bells and arouse grave doubts as to its historical validity.

These chapters also discuss food shortages, indebtedness, and controversies over public land. C. correctly judges that the institution of nexum was important to a labor-starved Roman economy of the fifth century but became increasingly obsolete with the rapid rise of slavery during the fourth century B.C. The author follows De Martino in thinking that annalistic reports of agrarian agitation which did not result in a law being passed are likely to derive ultimately from pontifical records. In this connection C. cites a notorious fragment of Cassius Hemina, a single clause quoted verbatim by Solinus: "quicumque propter plebitatem agro publico eiecti sunt." It must, however, be emphasized that this fragment contains no book citation, thus rendering its relevance to the struggle of the orders entirely uncertain. It is noteworthy in this regard that another fragment of Hemina, containing the word 'plebs' and which has similarly been associated with the struggle of the orders, has now been convincingly assigned to the interregnum between the reigns of Romulus and Numa.4 Finally, in discussing the phenomenon of military tribunes with consular power C. justifiably rejects the idea that the increase in their number resulted solely from the growing military demands of the state, but he fails to consider seriously a slight modification of this thesis: namely, the creation of the office and its augmentation were due to growing administrative needs as a whole and if any political controversy surrounded this office it was purely secondary.

Chapters 12 and 14 (pp.293-326 and 345-68) are an excellent narration of Rome's foreign affairs and conquest of Italy from the beginning of the republic down to the eve of the First Punic War. Rome's wars with the Aequians and Volscians during the fifth century B.C. are placed in the larger context of the expansion of Sabellic peoples throughout Italy. C. postulates that due to these movements both Tibur and Praeneste were overrun and thus were not members of the Latin League, but he fails to acknowledge a modern revisionist view of the tale of Coriolanus, according to which he was actually a native Volscian leader, not a Roman renegade.5 Like many other modern scholars, the author accepts as historical the tradition of the Fabian clan's disastrous defeat at the Cremera in 477 B.C., a story so laden with aetiologies that this reviewer must regard it as highly problematic. C., however, rightly sees the conquest of Veii as ending Rome's first great war and representing its first substantial territorial acquisition. On p.317 he aptly characterizes Camillus as "lifeless ... the most artificially contrived of all Rome's heroes." Colonization, the creation of new voting tribes, and kindred tools of Roman expansion are carefully chronicled and evaluated. The settlement of 338 B.C. is rightly singled out as a major turning point in Rome's later imperial success, and the battle of Sentinum in 295 B.C. is given its deserved place among the great military engagements in world history. The author correctly observes that Livy's ninth and tenth books contain more authentic detailed information than his earlier books due to the chronological proximity of these events to Rome's first native historians.

In the book's final chapter, "Rome in the Age of the Italian Wars" (pp.369-98), C. employs exiguous but reliable data (coinage, aqueducts, surmised major demographic shifts, and signs of Hellenizing influence) in conjuring up the image of a vibrant and burgeoning Rome ca.300 B.C. To this convincing portrait C. adds a very intriguing interpretation of the Roman senate based upon an entry in Festus (p.290L s.v. praeteriti senatores), which can be translated as follows: At one time passed-over senators were not held in disgrace, because just as the kings used to choose and replace those whom they had in their public advisory counsel, so after their expulsion the consuls and the military tribunes with consular power also chose those of the patricians and then of the plebeians most closely associated with themselves until the tribunician Ovinian Law intervened, by which it was ordained that the censors should enroll into the senate by curia each best man from every rank. Thus, it came about that those who were passed over and removed from their place were held in disgrace.

The author suggests that the Ovinian Law was passed sometime during the years 339-18 B.C., and he maintains that before this time the senate was an adhoc body dependent upon the whim of the magistrates who happened to be in office. He views the Roman political system before the Ovinian Law as "plebiscitary," in which all major business was conducted by magistrates with direct consultation of the people. According to C. the senate did not emerge as a permanent and independent body preeminent in state affairs until the latter part of the fourth century B.C. when the Ovinian Law established strict criteria for membership, and the growth and complexity of the Roman state favored its leadership. C. is certainly justified in questioning whether the senate had the same preeminence during the early republic that it obviously enjoyed during the middle and late republic. In fact, too many modern scholars make the mistake of adopting an overly legalistic view of Roman institutions and thereby assume that they must have remained relatively unchanged since the early republic. This approach is clearly unhistorical and continues to plague and distort modern views of the consulship and plebeian tribunate. Nevertheless, reducing the senate to a shadowy non-entity for the period of the early republic strikes this reviewer as too extreme.

The Appendix, "A Note on Early Roman Chronology" (pp.399-402), is a good discussion of the dictator years, the years of anarchy, and the standard Varronian chronology, and explains why Roman dates before the year 300 B.C. are not absolutely accurate, but it contains what this reviewer regards as a misunderstanding that should not be passed over without comment. The same misunderstanding is to be found in a similar appendix written by the same author in The Cambridge Ancient History, Second Edition, VII. 2 (1989) p.348. Citing Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights V.4 for a fragment of Fabius Pictor that records the election of the first plebeian consul in the twenty-second year after the Gauls captured Rome, C. asserts that Fabius Pictor's history must have included a period of anarchy at the time of the re-institution of the consulship since the Fasti record only 19 years of curule magistrates for the period 390-367 B.C. The author's assertion is, however, misleading in two respects. First of all, the passage of Gellius contains a verbatim quotation from a history written in Latin, thus making its author not the famous Q. Fabius Pictor, Rome's first native historian who wrote in Greek, but a later homonymous kinsman who bore the praenomen Numerius and wrote a history of Rome in Latin at some time during the late second century B.C. Secondly, Gellius indicates that the reading duovicesimo anno (= 'twenty-second year') is incorrect and should be duodevicesimo anno (= 'eighteenth year'). The latter reading is perfectly consistent with the Fasti in having 18 years of curule magistrates following the year 390 and extending down to 367 B.C., thereby eliminating any period of anarchy from the account of this historian. The point is a very important one methodologically, because modern historians all too often ignore the obvious fact that the ancient historical tradition possessed its own complex history of almost 200 years, and scholars are frequently too eager to force odd bits of information such as this into the familiar annalistic tradition of the Augustan Age. Thus, this fragment of the Younger Fabius Pictor may suggest that the anarchy was a rather late annalistic creation.

In conclusion, the book demonstrates that by the beginning of the early third century B.C. Rome had acquired the various characteristics and institutions upon which its later imperial greatness and success were ultimately based. This fact alone should serve as a strong stimulus for modern students of later Roman history to familiarize themselves more intimately with the complex and problematic history of early Rome, and this volume can serve as a handy mystagogue to this fascinating subject.


1. The other six studies are: A. M. Bietti Sestieri, The Iron-Age Community of Osteria Dell'Osa, Cambridge 1992; R. E. Mitchell, Patricians and Plebeians, The Origin of the Roman State, Ithaca, 1992; D. Ridgway, The First Western Greeks, Cambridge 1992; G. Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition, Lanham MD 1994; R. Ross Holloway, The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium, London 1994; C. J. Smith, Early Rome and Latium: Economy and Society C. 1000 to 500 B.C., Oxford 1996.

2. W. Warde Fowler, "Mundus Patet 24th August, 5th October, 8th November," JRS 2 (1912) 25-33.

3. For an in-depth discussion of the struggle of the orders, the early history of the plebeian tribunate, and the seditions of Sp. Cassius and Sp. Maelius see G. Forsythe (above, n.1) 264-310.

4. On this point see G. Forsythe, Phoenix 44 (1990) 334-5.

5. See, for example, E. T. Salmon, "Historical Elements in the Story of Coriolanus," CQ 24 (1930) 96-101.