Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.02


Alexandre Grandazzi, The Foundation of Rome. Myth and History. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. 236. $19.95. ISBN 0-8014-8247-X.


Reviewed by Siri Walt, Gutenbergstr. 37, CH-3011 Berne.

Grandazzi's book was originally published in French in 1991. The fact that is has now been translated into English clearly shows the interest the scholarly world has taken in it. It is obviously deemed to be an important contribution to the topic of early Roman history. As the reactions to the book have shown, it had indeed a thought-provoking and challenging effect. The reviews by Charles Guittard (Annales 47 [1992] 395-397), Jean-Claude Richard (REL 71 [1993] 313-316), Jacques Poucet (Latomus 52 [1993] 936) and David Ridgway (CR 42 [1992] 464) as well as the discussions of Grandazzi's thesis in the works and articles by Jacques Poucet (La fondation de Rome: croyants et agnostiques, Latomus 53 [1994] 95-104), Tim Cornell (The Beginnings of Rome, London/New York 1995) and Carmine Ampolo (Roma ed i Sabina nel V secolo A.C., Firenze 1996) offer a lively debate, both critical and affirmative.

The foundation of Rome is indeed a favourite subject in the history of ancient and modern historiography. It is therefore not surprising that Grandazzi is dealing above all with methodological questions (this is also demonstrated by the subtitle of the French original, Réflexions sur l'histoire). How are we to handle a historical period, of which we have a rich, but very mythical memory? Grandazzi's answer is both circumspect and stimulating. As Pierre Grimal puts it in his preface to the book, the author demonstrates on the one hand that history is a category of the mind. The history of early Rome was shaped through centuries by the need to recreate it. On the other hand Grandazzi sees one firm landmark in the vast field of myths and legends: the recent testimonies of archaeology, in particular the excavations at the Palatine led by Andrea Carandini between 1985 and 1988. The oldest strata found there, which date from 730-720 B.C. and consist of a wall, a palisade and an empty space in between, remind us obviously of the famous pomerium of Romulus. Grandazzi is very impressed by these excavations and calls them "a breach in the wall between myth and reality". This statement -- made right at the beginning of the book -- shows that Grandazzi's methodological discourse basically serves as an evaluation of Carandini's discoveries. His aim is to reconcile the literary tradition on early Rome with this archaeological evidence.

Although Grandazzi leads the reader with great skill to his conclusions, this is probably the weak point of his book: Although he makes clear that literary tradition and archaeology offer two distinct sets of data, he also assumes that they can at some point enlighten each other. But it does not become completely clear in Grandazzi's discussion where we are to find the criteria necessary to reconcile literature and archaeology.

The book is divided into three parts. The first one seeks to offer "Prolegomena for any future history of the origins of Rome claiming to be a science". Grandazzi summarizes the history of modern research on early Rome, whereby he identifies philology, archaeology and the work of Georges Dumezil as the three dominant factors. Starting with the determining role of Louis de Beaufort as the founder of modern historical criticism he moves on to Vico, in whose philosophical attitude he sees a counterpart to Beaufort. Niebuhr and Mommsen are discussed within the context of their respective times. Special emphasis is given to Ettore Pais. Pais tried systematically to debunk every single legend. Therefore, Grandazzi calls him the height of hypercriticism. But at the same time Pais demonstrated that the mythical accounts were symbolic discourses about the present, something which is rated by Grandazzi as the productive aspect of Pais' work. Nevertheless it has to be said that this working method is already present in the many essays of Mommsen, whom Grandazzi tends to underestimate, in which he tries to show how the legends of Acca Larentia, Remus and many others were shaped by later generations according to their needs and interests.

The archaeological excavations carried out in the Forum Romanum in the beginning of the 20th century first led to a fresh evaluation of the literary tradition, because discoveries like the lapis niger seemed to corroborate some transmitted features. But in a process of emancipation, archaeology began to develop its own methods and became increasingly independent of the other branches of traditional Altertumswissenschaft. In Grandazzi's eyes, archaeology has slowly invalidated the hypercritical school of historians. He concedes, however, that the interpretation of archaeological data is not always easy, because "stones always say what is expected of them". As an example he cites the redating of the foundation of Rome to 575 B.C. by Einar Gjerstad.

Grandazzi next describes Dumezil's exegesis of the ancient Roman legends. He calls his approach hermeneutic in contrast to the fideist and hypercritical attitudes. Although Grandazzi disagrees on principle with Dumezil's "mythologie comparative", he attaches much importance to his work. Dumezil's reading of the historical tradition as an epic transposition of the Indo-Germanic scheme of functional tripartition deprives this tradition of any historical value. Grandazzi convincingly argues that it is very improbable that the memory of this most ancient Indo-European thought could have survived while every historical memory disappeared completely. In modifying Dumezil's definition of the narrative of origins as "mythology lost as mythology and recuperated by history" Grandazzi on his part postulates "a history lost as history and recuperated by mythology" (45).

Summing up his survey of prior research, Grandazzi sees the solution of the existing problems in interpreting the traditional narrative neither in philology, nor in archaeology nor in Dumezil's comparative mythology . According to him, the hypercritical school has yielded the field completely to archaeology, whereas the fideists assume that the tradition is getting more and more confirmed by archaeology. Grandazzi himself wants to overcome the dichotomy of "truth" and "falsehood" and to make historiography itself a matter of study. He calls this reflexive approach "historiologie" and separates it from the traditional history of historiography. Following Foucault's concept of an "archaeology of knowledge", he tries to situate historiography as precisely as possible in its historical context. But Grandazzi's historiology does at the same time not give up cognitive aims. He still believes in the progress of historical research. Therefore for him the study of former research can help to avoid future faults. So although "truth" has ceased to be a valid point of reference which could serve to evaluate a historical discourse, it is still possible to determine the strata of earlier tradition in a given field of research. What Grandazzi proposes is a relativist approach, which sees historical research as an idealistic product of its time, but nevertheless enables one to get closer to the chosen subject, i.e. in his case the foundation of Rome.

The second part of the book is more practical and can be seen as an application of the methodological chapters. Grandazzi places the origins of Rome in a context as broad as possible. He uses geographical and economic arguments to explain why Rome is situated where it is, i.e. why people came to live on these hills at the Tiber. The advantages of the environment are described as well as the importance of the salt deposits in Ostia and the trade with it. The Latial background of Rome is evaluated, whereby Grandazzi seeks to clarify the vague notion of a Latial civilization.

He also follows the traces of archaeology itself, from its unsystematical beginnings to the sophisticated methods of today. The archaeological investigation of archaic Rome suffers particularly from the "unattractiveness" of its findings and the lack of systematic excavation reports. An "archaeology of archaeology" is needed. But even modern methods cannot enable archaeology to explain the origins of Rome, i.e. the beginning of an organized community. According to Grandazzi we still have to rely on the literary tradition to ask the right questions and to come to convincing interpretations.

In the third part we come closer to the actual core of the book, the foundation of Rome. It is here that Grandazzi tries to test his own methodology. First reviewing the scheme of the three successive cities of Lavinium, Alba Longa and Rome, he comes to the conclusion that in the time before the middle of the eighth century these settlements had never been cities, but groups of dispersed huts. These preurban settlements had been simultaneous in all three sites. But in the place of the future Rome a different development took place, an important change or rupture. This is -- at least according to Grandazzi -- getting more and more probable due to the excavations of Carandini. Grandazzi is prepared to believe that the wall and the palisade confirm at least partially the foundation story. For him the construction of a wall shows that there has been an act of foundation, as a wall defines the boundaries of an urban space and is a sign of consolidation and reorganization. The wall around the Palatine demonstrates that this hill had gradually reached a primacy among the other hills, which found its expression in the concentration of the scattered settlements into a fortified unity.

In his last chapter Grandazzi returns to the literary tradition of early Rome. He asks where the roots for the sceptical attitude towards the traditional narrative and the idea of an actual foundation were laid. As Livy remarked (6,1), no contemporary documents from the period before 390 B.C. had survived, and, as long as there were only literary sources to rely on, scepticism regarding these sources was justified. But, as De Sanctis has demonstrated, the assumed destruction of all documents in the Gallic sack is an aetiological myth, elaborated by the Romans to explain the scarcity of written sources, and Grandazzi adds that things have changed further due to archaeology, which provides authentic archaic material. Archaeology is therefore seen as a valuable instrument with which the traditional narrative can be verified.

With these final remarks we can also sum up Grandazzi's book. Concerning the literary tradition on the origins of Rome he is confident that it can be elucidated by archaeology: "As a result of the exceptional Archimedean lever that archaeology brings to the knowledge of the primordia Romana, the literary tradition concerning Rome's origins, in losing its so-called unity and deceptive simplicity, acquires a documentary value that, needless to say, must be evaluated case by case, apart from any systematic conception" (192). Nevertheless, this tradition is in itself a product and a reflection of history, which makes its analysis extremely difficult.

If we try to place this book itself within a historical context, it appears very much to be a reaction to the sceptical work of Jacques Poucet (Les origines de Rome. Tradition et histoire, Bruxelles 1985), which Grandazzi calls "the modern version of hypercriticism" (27). Grandazzi seeks to save the foundation of Rome for history, basing his work above all on Carandini's excavations. Obviously these excavations are his starting point, the determining breach in the wall of hypercriticism. But it seems doubtful whether the wall found by Carandini can really provide the conclusive evidence Grandazzi attributes to it.

We can ask, furthermore, if Grandazzi's approach, which he calls historiology, is really new and innovative. Without denying the stimulating effect of his work, it seems that the careful integration of archaeological data and the history of historiography into the historiography on early Rome was practiced already before, most prominently by the famous Arnaldo Momigliano.