Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.5.18


T.P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xv, 243. ISBN 0-521-41981-6.


Reviewed by Nicholas Purcell, Oxford.

"I went to Rome with a young friend, educated on the latest lines, and who had taken historical honours at Cambridge. The first morning the pats of butter came up stamped with the Twins. 'Good old Romulus and Remus', said I. 'Good old who?' said she. She had never heard of the Twins and was much bored when I told her the story; they had no place in 'constitutional history', and for her the old wolf of the Capitol howled in vain: 'Great God! I'd rather be...'" -- Jane Harrison, Reminiscences of a Student's Life (London 1925), 24.

How wrong she was!

In this exciting and persuasive monograph, Peter Wiseman argues that the singular figure of Remus in the foundation saga of Rome derives from representations in festival drama associated with the intense ideological debates of the enormously important generations which immediately followed the Licinio-Sextian revolution: Remus as we know him is what is left of the founding father of the plebeian cause. Through him, therefore, we can perceive just a little more of the otherwise shadowy epoch of Ap. Claudius the Blind. His central thesis is so original and so arresting that I have been tempted to examine it in some detail in this review: if I remain uncertain about the pinpoint accuracy with which he feels able to home in on the genesis of the Remus story, that scarcely at all detracts from the pleasure and interest of the experience of exploring the formation of history in Rome before Roman history began with Wiseman as cicerone.

About three corollary arguments there can be no dissent. The Rome of this age was a place in which any argument from familiar practice in the late Republic is inapplicable, or at least unreliable, and we must not be startled by strangeness. And the foundation myth is indeed very strange: above all in its uncompromising accumulation of negative images about the foundation and the early history of the city. It is clearly very likely that it bears the imprint of the late fourth and early third century, which certainly was one of the pivotal ages in any version of Roman history -- as Wiseman memorably suggests (31-5), from the viewpoint we expect a true historian of this city to adopt, the equivalent of the Augustan or Constantinian periods, or the creation of Roma Capitale in the years that followed 1871. That this is uncontroversial -- even if it is not yet as widely known as it should be -- is to a large extent the consequence of Filippo Coarelli's brilliant reasoning (Il Foro Romano II: periodo repubblicano ed Augusteo, Rome 1985) about the Comitium and Forum Romanum of the middle Republic (if we should continue to use that label). Central to Coarelli's reconstruction (87-91) were the monuments of the Comitium, including the dedication (296 B.C.) by the Ogulnius brothers of the Wolf and Twins (Livy 10, 23, 11-12), which, it transpires, is the first completely unambiguous attestation of the developed saga which we all know so well -- too well, as Wiseman plausibly proposes.

Coarelli dismissed the old explanations of the Twins as evocations of the consular imperium or the Sabine-Roman split: 'si tratta sempre di spiegazioni troppo generiche, e comunque lontane da preoccupazioni piu attuali che, sia pur attraverso il velo della metafora, personalità come quelle degli Ogulnii, così direttamente impegnati nella lotta politica del loro tempo, avranno pur nutrito'. 'Each text is first of all a historical document for its own time', as Momigliano put it (Contributo III [1966], 677-87, originally JRS 35 [1945], 99-104, at 103). And Wiseman embarks on the stratigraphy of the foundation-legend. But the historical contexts for which he searches are quite specialised, compared with Momigliano's prescription: 'I assume for the sake of argument that each of the stories that has come down to us was created with some sort of contemporary situation in mind' (45). For Wiseman, Remus the slow (an aspect of the remus-tale which is brilliantly explored here) is a new joint founder for the newly double city of the Licinio-Sextian reforms; his death was originally a heroic sacrifice, perverted by patrician counter-propaganda into a punishment for hubris instead of a Mus-style devotio fitting in the generation of the Battle of Sentinum.

Investigating the horizons, preoccupations and ideologies with which each age processes and adds to its literary and historical inheritance is certainly more congenial than taking mythological material as random, and more productive than studying its structural resemblances to parallel tales from completely extraneous cultures. But I find Wiseman's claim too strong. Stories processed at a place and time have varying degrees and qualities of connexion with that time, and we gauge them through a fog in which the tralatician and the mimetic prowl and prowl around. To make his argument plain, Wiseman has intensified the chiaroscuro by turning up the contrast, and made crisp outlines and disjunctions appear through the haze.

I remain somewhat uneasy, therefore, about the brisk clarity of the three questions on which (89) he insists: 'Why a twin?' Why call him Remus?' 'Once you have got him, why kill him off?' All three imply a very high degree of correspondence between the mood of the age and the content of the tale. They also fragment the concept at the heart of the tale unnecessarily. In mythopoeia, for instance, there is no need to postulate -- even metaphorically -- chronological layering. The twin-slaying founder can quite easily be a free-standing concept, drawing on and instantiating two rich traditions -- the mythical resonances of the intimacies and peculiarities of twinship, and the persistent paradox of the foundation of the new city despite or through strife, sacrifice or violence. I am also more impressed than he is by the geminal backdrop: the Dioscuri, the Penates, the Lares, Herakles and Iphikles (pretty assymetrical, even if it didn't come to violence), Idas and Lynceus. These narratives and associations can exert influence in a less literal way than Wiseman demands. Hippias and Hipparchus didn't have to be twins to be represented as the Dioscuri in Pisistratid Athens and Delos (see recently Ph. Jockey, 'Les Dioscures, Pisistrate et les Pisistratides: à propos de deux cavaliers montés archaiques du Musée de Délos', REA 95 [1993], 45-59). Other siblings don't obstruct the story either. At Sparta, moreover, on which many of these themes focus, it is hard to deny an association between the wider phenomenon of the mythical twin and the dual monarchy, even though in detail Castor and Pollux are not in direct correspondence with the strictly exegetical myth-pair Eurysthenes and Procles. In the light, we may add, of the arguments in Carol Dougherty's recent work on the Ktisissagen (e.g. 'It's murder to found a colony', in Cultural poetics in ancient Greece, edd. C. Dougherty and L. Kurke, Cambridge 1993, 178-200, cf. The Poetics of Colonization (New York 1993), even fratricide may no longer look so outre in the already striking list of uncomplimentary associations which the Romans accumulated about the various stages of their foundation. So I am tempted to answer two of Wiseman's questions by saying that the twin-slaying suits admirably the super-tough apoikia-to-end-all-apoikiai whose battle-hardened heroes were more Laconian than the Spartans and needed no cosy apologetics in their Ktisissaga. But can we date that unattractive locality?

Wiseman's technique is essentially similar to that of Jacques Perret, who argued 50 years ago that the Aeneas story was invented by Pyrrhus the New Achilles (cf. Pausanias 1, 11, 7) to package his Italian enemies. Such an argument means that apparent earlier allusions must be disposed of systematically. Perret's task was hard (see Momigliano, supra, for a review) and ultimately fruitless: Wiseman seems to be on to something better, precisely because, while there are early accounts that refute Perret because they mention Aeneas, they don't mention any male eponym for Rome (on the theme, see now G. Vanotti, L'altro Enea [Rome 1995]). The silence is eloquent for Wiseman. Leaving the epic tradition, Stesichorus' Geryoneis and Hecataeus' interests in Trojan foundations in Italy aside, there is the evidence of Hellanicus and his pupil Damastes, both of whom certainly addressed the question of the foundation, and certainly did not mention Romulus and Remus: one Rhome, in the age of Aeneas, is their eponym. Agathocles of Samos, the local historian of Cyzicus, who was murdered by the Alexandrian mob at the end of the third century, still preferred the Rhome version, though he knew several authors who spoke of a male eponym, Rhomos. For us, Rhomos first surfaces in writings of the age of Aristotle, Alcimus (whose teacher Stilpon of Megara died in 309), and Callias of Syracuse, the Agathocles-historian, fourth century authors who all wrote on the Aeneas episode: the last two are the only approximately datable exemplars of a widespread tradition adding to that account the activities of one or both of two eponyms called Rhomos and Rhomylos. It is notable that among the authorities adjoining these figures to Aeneas were some of the Roman writers after Fabius Pictor. We should add that the mysterious Xenagoras who named a trio of brothers as eponyms for Rome, Ardea and Antium is, as Wiseman argues, quite likely to be early because of the history of the latter two communities. Another of Wiseman's (more tentative: 57-60) 'dogs that didn't bark' 'Promathion' does not seem to me likely to be early. I share the opinion recently expressed by G. Capdeville (Volcanus. Récherches comparatistes sur les origines du culte de Vulcain [Rome 1995], 62-3, n. 4) about this author: although his 'récit très composite' may include early material from whatever source, it is impossible to imagine a fifth century Pythagorean compiling an Italike historia (note that that is indeed the title at Plutarch Romulus 2: Wiseman's "Italika" [57] is misleading). But this is in my view a help for Wiseman, since 'Promathion' appears to have mentioned twins explicitly, alone of the earlier accounts.

The early authors, therefore, support the explicit testimony of Plutarch that no account of the Romulus and Remus story existed in Greek before Diocles of Peparethus, the source of Fabius Pictor in the late third century and in all probability his near contemporary (P.M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria 769 and 1076 n.373, very likely correct: Wiseman 61 is too cautious). Now for Wiseman the silence about the precise story of Romulus and Remus as we know it is most significant. He uses it to support his view that when the Ogulnii dedicated their monument in the Comitium, the story was relatively new. A mirror-back scene of the late fourth century, from Bolsena, which he interprets very acutely and interestingly also pretty clearly shows the scene.

I am not wholly persuaded by the argument. There are two more silent hounds, whose negative witness is oddly played down here: Hieronymus of Cardia and Timaeus of Tauromenion, both writing in the immediate aftermath of the Pyrrhic War. Hieronymus was the first person to write a 'Roman archaeology' (cf. J. Hornblower, Hieronymus of Cardia [Oxford 1981], 139); Timaeus (who argued against Callias the historian of Agathocles) composed a quite detailed account of Rome in which he made fun of the alleged link between the October horse-sacrifice to Mars and the Trojan Horse, and gave a date for the foundation of the city. It is very striking indeed that -- unless the later authors are wrong -- neither of these accounts can have had much -- or more probably anything -- to say about Romulus and/or Remus. So Greeks could have a great deal to say about Rome in the generation when the monument of the Ogulnii was new, and omit the tale which it reflected entirely.

It is essential to make allowance for the intentions of these authors, their genre and their rhetorical aims. If the early Greek writers were interested mainly in nostos stories in the West, they would not count as narrators of the foundation of Rome, any more than did Epicharmus or Antiochus of Syracuse because of their casual allusions to the city. If the fourth-century writers are interested in the comparative customs of barbarians, as seems to be true in the peripatetic tradition, that does not count as Roman history or antiquities. If the third century authors are interested, as they still seem to be, in Opponents of the Hellene (even misguided Hellenes like Pyrrhus), then they may give data like Timaeus' synchronism of the foundations of Carthage and Rome, but still not qualify as 'expounding the foundation of Rome to the Greeks'. And the conclusion seems inevitable: whether or not they tell the Romulus and Remus story, in whole or in part, straight or garbled, must be wholly unconnected with the question of whether it was told at Rome or in Italy at the time that each author wrote.

And I would also say for good measure that I don't feel that, when Alcimus or Callias mentions Rhomylos and Rhomos, that we can be so sure that this does not in some sense relate to the story as we know it, just because there are other brothers, or because the story is set in the age of the Trojan War. It is after all only on the view that these authors are only very tangentially concerned with Rome, and then very choosy about what they related, that we can deal with the fact that their silences are as awkward for the history of the Alban Kings, the other parts of the Romulus legend, and the reigns of Numa and the other kings of Rome, as they are for the tale of Romulus and Remus. Or the puzzling variants which make Rhomos the founder of Capua (Dionysius 1, 17).

The fact is that Greek writers and Italian cities mixed from the sixth century on, but that that did not in the slightest generate an enthusiasm for accurate reportage of the barbarian folkways or a hesitation to attribute to these strange places history or belief that was entirely invented to suit Hellenic purposes. As we shall see, that remained possible throughout Antiquity. Hecataeus had had a view on the foundation of Capua too, and also mentioned Nola. I suppose it is a more plausible argument from silence than usual to say that it is unlikely that he even named Rome; but his awareness of what were then Etruscan cities in the hinterland of the Greek apoikiai of the coast reminds us that non-Hellenic Italy was in the closest touch with the Hellenic continuum -- if we needed such a reminder after the Pyrgi tablets and the new Etruscan dedication on Aegina. Fausto Zevi has recently argued that the whole saga of the Tarquins as we know it is a unified narrative from Demaratus to the final exile after the expulsion, and that its purpose is to chart the family's wealth, with a view to establishing the claim to it of the city in which their line came to an end -- Cumae, to whose fifth century local history Zevi attributes the story (F. Zevi, 'Demarato e i re "Corinzi" di Roma', in A. Storchi Marino, ed. L'incidenza dell'antico. Studi in memore di Ettore Lepore (Naples 1995).

Whether this nice idea is true or not, discussions of events and allegiances in sixth and fifth century Italy will have been no less complex than elsewhere in the contemporary Mediterranean, and if Hecataeus' informants or the author of the Cumaean chronicle did not think that Rome had been founded by Romulus, what did they think its origin had been? My point is that the genesis of aetiological and legitimating myths out of the exchange of views between communities had been going on for at least two centuries before Wiseman's Remus moment. At this period, moreover, as at so many others, the extent to which Romans themselves wanted a closer or a more distant relationship with the traditions of Hellenism will have been very variable (on the urge to consider Rome a Greek city, Coelius Antipater at Strabo 5, 3, 3). The question is related to the problem of the Silvian line. When did which Romans or other Italians first come to notice that there was such a big gap between the age of the nostoi and the epoch of the foundation of the city? Was it really only after the work of Eratosthenes? See O. De Cazenove 'La détermination chronographique de la durée de la période royale à Rome. Critque des hypothèses des modernes' in la Rome des premiers siècles: légende et histoire (Florence 1992), 69-98. Coarelli's work has shown how complex the cultural relationship between Rome and Magna Graecia was in the age when the Comitium resembled an ekklesiasterion and the Romans made Hellenic techniques of land- division their own.

How impossible is it that Epicharmus made a joke about Rome as a Pythagorean city? Plutarch says in his life of Numa that Pythagoras had been made a Roman citizen, hos historeken Epicharmos ho komikos en tini logoi pros Antenora gegrammenoi, palaios aner kai tes Pythagorikes diatribes meteschekos (Numa 8, 9). Long regarded with contempt, this assertion has looked a little different since 1966: POxy 2659, a list of Epicharmus' titles, confirms that there was a play called Antenor. The editors have no difficulty in interpreting Plutarch's words as an allusion to a speech in the play. At what date did the idea of Antenor's journey to the west and the migration of the Enetoi take shape? Pindar has Antenor at Cyrene, but the Adriatic world was developing apace in the generation that followed. At what date might a joke like this have first been possible, either in a play of the real Epicharmus or one spuriously inserted into his corpus? Did the Romans really dedicate statues of Pythagoras and Alcibiades in the Comitium bello Samniti? It is striking that Antiochus of Syracuse had told a story in which a Roman exile featured. How old were the Spartan and Tarentine traditions in Roman aetiological mythology (recently, M. Bonnefond-Coudry, 'Mythe de Sparte et politique romaine: les relations entre Rome et Sparte au début du IIe siècle av. J.-C.', Ktema 12 (1987), 83-110, with 84 on the alleged Spartan origin of the Sabines)? If Coarelli is right to link the statues with the years before the Battle of Sentinum, and to see them as part of the exploration of new cultural milieux in the dazzlingly successful new Rome of the late fourth century, then we have come back to the Wiseman Remus moment, but by a different route, and one which may provide an alternative to the plebeian explanation and the dramatic context. Twin founders and the idea of an eventually Spartan past for Rome might appeal to many in that period. The old view that the twins have an explanatory value for the consulship may have something in it; that too fits the mood of the late fourth century well. In the post-Licinio-Sextian age something of Wiseman's plebeian Remus could be fitted into that picture too.

In other words, the shifting representations of Rome's foundation story in Greek literature do not chart Greek scholarly awareness of a changing Roman reality, but the changing imperatives of power in the Mediterranean and its implications for the literary world. So the Diocles-moment is that preserved in the famous Chios inscription (SEG 26, 1123), when the aspirants to friendship with the new power on the Mediterranean stage announced their intention of illustrating their new monument with a selection of muthoi pros doxan Rhomaion. It is at this time that we can see clearly how very delicate your choice of material had become, compared with the days when Timaeus could chortle at the Trojan pretentions of the pushy city on the Tiber. Take Hegesianax of Alexandria Troas. He is a typical figure of the last age of Rome's Mediterranean conquests: a go-between for Antiochus III to the Romans, but not (if we follow Gruen, Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome 541 n. 51 and 631 n. 91), a King's Man, he started as an impoverished tragic actor but improved his performance and voice with a régime which included the complete abstinence from the fig, and won over the King by declining to join him in a post-prandial dance -- better to read well from his histories than dance badly, he persuasively argued. In this age histrionic ability and a sense of history, when combined with a certain opportunism in deploying the past of your native territory, equipped you for great things. Hegesianax, for all his date, after Diocles, after Fabius, is one of the authors who does not know, or who does not choose to propagate, the developed legend of the Twins. Aeneas, on his view, never got to Italy. It was his children, Ascanius, Rhomos, Rhomylos and Euryleon (an interestingly Spartan name) who went, and Rhomylos who founded Rome. By this date, when the Chians were dedicating the visual evidence of their loyalty to the full detail of the newly distributed story, this smacks of ideologically motivated revisionism. And it is striking -- to say the least -- that Hegesianax chose not to compromise his position as an international arbitrator by too publicly espousing such views. His History was published under the pseudonym of Cephalon of Gergis.

When we hear that the rejection of Aeneas' Italian destiny was also the view of the Arcadian elegist Agathyllus it is not unreasonable to reflect on the divergent but strongly-held attitudes to Rome held in parts of the Peloponnese in the years before 146 (for Metrodorus of Scepsis and another manifestation of anti-Roman literature, see now D. Briquel, REL 73 [1995]). My point in piling on this detail is to suggest, following Wiseman's own encouragement, that these stories may indeed often have complex contemporary resonances: but to observe that that is the case for the non-Twin types as much as for the Twin-variants. In the second century we are able to see the context; but there may have been just as much reason for the Italian informants of Greek writers of earlier centuries to pass over elements of the Romans' own nascent ktisis-myth. It was not only in the aftermath of Rome's unquestioned authority that things of this moment become available for manipulation by the likes of Zenodotus of Troezen, who creatively gave Romulus a new son to flatter the pretentions of a domi nobilis from Lanuvium, as Wiseman brilliantly showed in his article 'The wife and children of Romulus', his first foray into this style of enquiry (1983; reprinted in Roman Papers [1987], 285-92).

In summary, then, I have no difficulty at all with the pursuit of the ramifications of the Remus element in the Roman portfolio foundation-stories, or with the idea that this is likely to be enormously helpful for understanding Rome of the fourth century B.C. Wiseman has made a huge contribution to this. But I am not so convinced by his attempt to use the nightmarishly fragmented evidence to prove so specific and exclusive a case: I am prepared to believe in his Remus but not always for his reasons.