Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.22
Marie Ver Eecke, La République et le roi: le mythe de Romulus à la fin de la République romaine. De l'archéologie à l'histoire. Paris: De Boccard, 2008. Pp. 588. ISBN 9782701802473. €65.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Aglaia McClintock, Università degli Studi del Sannio (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Marie Ver Eecke’s work addresses the reception of the myth of Romulus during the last century of the Roman Republic. The stated aim is to understand how this myth was adapted and used through the transition to the Principate. The chosen perspective is extremely interesting, if somewhat ambitious, for the time span covered but also for the number of complex political events investigated. The work is divided into 12 chapters arranged in four sections, each with its own introduction and conclusions. The inevitable repetitions of this kind of structure pay a token to agility. The sources are neatly presented and a translation of all relevant Latin and Greek passages is given in the footnotes.
The first section deals with the treatment of Romulus’ myth during the Social War as a means of questioning Roman identity, from the inside by the Italic socii and on the outside by foreign enemies such as Mithridates (Première Partie. "Romulus le Romain: l’affirmation polémique de l’identité Romaine au Ier siècle av. J.-C.", pp. 15-100). The attacks, centered on Romulus and the she-wolf that nurtured him, aimed to unveil the Romans’ low origins. The founder of Rome, a king of plunderers, who unjustly deprived his neighbors of their women, land, and property, would be lacking the legitimacy to rule Italy and the world. According to Ver Eecke, as a response the Romans asserted their identity by exalting Romulus and by constructing versions of the Roman-Sabine conflict as a theoretical backing for bellum iustum.
The historical focus of the second section is on the competition between Marius and Catulus, and Sulla’s dictatorship (Deuxième Partie. "Romulus Fondateur et tyran; La politisation de la légende des origines au début du Ier siècle av. J.-C.", pp. 101-192). In the author’s view the political conflicts of the last century BC weighed heavily on the imitatio Romuli enacted by political opponents, producing new images of Romulus: augur, founder, king, and finally pater and tyrant. Sulla tried with ambiguous and eclectic propaganda to give new strength to the Republic, choosing for himself the title of Felix. Ver Eecke alleges that after Sulla’s death the conflict between optimates and populares leveled the ideological discourse on a concept of “royalty” opposing a Romulus-pater to that of tyrant, thus opening the way “aux dérives autocratiques qui ont conduit à la naissance de l’Empire”.
The third section is devoted to analyzing the appropriation of Romulus’s legend by Cicero in the defense of the Republic (Troisième partie. "Romulus, rector de la République Cicéronienne", pp. 245-354). In Cicero’s De re publica the first king is an optimus rex but also an optimus civis. The great orator would be the father of Romulean propaganda in his radicalization of the opposition between Tarquinius Superbus and Romulus, between tyranny and royalty.
Finally we arrive at the fourth section dedicated to Caesar and briefly to Octavian (Quatrième partie. "Romulus, fondateur assassiné. La dictature césarienne", pp. 357-486). Ver Eecke argues that Caesar used the Romulean legend to transform his dictatorship into a kingdom substituting the “republican king” invented by Cicero with a “divinized king” both god and priest (such as Aeneas, or Romulus-Quirinus), a persona more suitable to exercise an autocratic power. In very interesting passages Ver Eecke explains how Caesar manipulated the calendar to evoke founding events of Rome’s history, interlocking past and present. Caesar’s assassination would be the climax of anti-Romulisme born during the political conflict that opposed optimates and populares. Octavian is pictured as the heir of the contrasting propagandas of both Caesar and his assassins. The author’s conclusion is that “déchirée ou unie, républicaine ou monarchique, Rome est restée romuléenne”.
Despite the insights and number of texts discussed, the work would have gained from clarifying a key concept such as “royauté”, which has different meanings and nuances according to the time-frame and society in which it is used. The scholarly reader instead may detect some ambiguity and perhaps some impositions of modern conceptions on the ancient world. Great questions surface while resting unanswered. Must we really consider Romulus’ myth a treasure box in which any political party or actor can find legitimacy? Or rather are there aspects of the legend which result always victorious? Ver Eecke draws an ideal line of continuity in using the myth politically from Sulla to Augustus. In my opinion there is a stronger and more ancient line of continuity in Romulus’ story: the legendary beginning of an era ruled by law. Law and institutions are conceived by the Romans as preexisting the legislator who can only innovate specific aspects. Perhaps Caesar in his manipulation of the founding myth seemed to put himself above the legal system while Augustus ideologically played on continuity. These questions, however, must not be considered criticism but material to prompt further discussion on an extremely engaging topic.