BMCR 1997.02.03

Roman Historical Myths

, Roman historical myths: the regal period in Augustan literature. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 269 pages. ISBN 9780198150206 $65.00.

Once upon a time, we all know, the wicked Amulius usurped the throne of Alba Longa from his good brother Numitor; to maintain his power he had the unexpected twin grandsons of Numitor exposed next to the Tiber. They were miraculously saved, and one of them grew up to overthrow Numitor, murder his brother, and found a city that was to become the center of the world. The surviving brother, of course, was Romulus, and he founded Rome on 21 April, 753 B.C., going on to become the god Quirinus, and on earth to be succeeded by six other kings until the last was overthrown because of his and his family’s wickedness, resulting in the establishment of the Roman republic.

That, of course, is a fairy tale, and even the cursory version given here has details that would not have been accepted even by those who endorsed the general outline. The date of foundation varied wildly over several centuries; the precise cause of Remus’ unfortunate demise was hotly debated; and the history of the Roman monarchy, in antiquity, always provided room for considerable variation within the framework of the seven kings, whose basic character (for the most part) and some of whose deeds remained fixed in virtually every version. If most of the Romans seem to have accepted these figures and their actions as historical, however, few modern historians do; and among the Romans themselves there seem to have been many different degrees of belief and many changes in emphasis and detail. The recent stimulating discussion of the legend of Remus by T.P. Wiseman ( Remus [Cambridge, 1995]) can serve as an illustration of just how much actually changed in the history of the foundation over the subsequent centuries.

The approach to the legendary history of early Rome taken by Matthew Fox in Roman Historical Myths is diametrically opposed to Wiseman’s brilliant (if not altogether convincing) unravelling of the development of the figure of Remus within the political and social context of republican Rome. Instead, Fox concentrates on texts and on the representations of the regal period by the authors of the Augustan Age. Put perhaps too simply, his interest lies in discovering what makes a given version of early Roman history “true” within its context: the author’s aims in writing about the kings; the moral and social judgments explicitly or implicitly avowed; the reasons why ancient authors could treat as historical material that almost all modern historians reject as myth and fable. He deliberately and consistently excludes any discussion of sources or of the development of regal history: it is individual texts—their rationale and ideological implications—that interest him. The approach itself is promising and the subject is important: as F. realizes, the end of the first century BCE was a time when Romans looked back at their distant past as a tool for understanding the political and social crises of their own day. F. rightly avoids crude analogical interpretations of the accounts of the monarchy; his intention is to apply literary methods to texts representing a period that lies on the border between myth and history—a difficult task, but one well worth the effort. His book falls into two unequal parts: in the first two chapters, F. first (Chapter 1) examines Cicero’s account of the regal period in Book 2 of De re publica and then (Chapter 2) looks at Cicero’s methods in the context of modern theories of historiography, making particular use of Hayden White and H.-G. Gadamer. The following four chapters are applications of the ideas of historical truth and irony to two historians and two poets of the Augustan age: Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Livy in Chapters 3 and 4, Propertius’ Book 4 and Ovid’s Fasti in Chapters 5 and 6. A brief conclusion is followed by an extended appendix on Varro’s views of the regal period.

What F. has to say about particular texts is often worth reading. In the first place, his choice of Cicero as a starting point is a welcome (and relatively rare) recognition of the importance of De re publica for the Augustans and also of the extraordinary complexity of Cicero’s work. He rightly recognizes the problems of truth and irony raised by the interchange between Scipio and Laelius at 2.21-22, in which it is made clear that Scipio/Cicero both believes and does not believe in the portrait of Romulus as the ideal statesman. It is in fact in emphasizing the potential for irony in all accounts of the regal period that F. is at his best: he rightly draws attention to Livy’s inconsistent presentation of Romulus as both founder of a new (and crude) nation and as the inheritor of a tradition of Alban kingship; he gives clear expositions of some instances of the eroticization of history in Propertius and Ovid. His most thorough and (to me, at least) informative chapter is that on Dionysius, where he makes good use of Dionysius’ other writings to elucidate the moralizing and idealizing goals of the Roman Antiquities, and he has very interesting things to say about the thematic importance of Dionysius’ allusions to Thucydides in the account of the reign of Tullus Hostilius.

Unfortunately, however, F.’s book is as a whole profoundly unsatisfying. He makes a great deal of his use of modern theory in Chapter 2, giving lengthy summaries of the views of White and Gadamer—but aside from his repeated claims that the accounts of all the authors he discusses are “true” (a term he never defines), one would scarcely know that anything was missing if the printer had omitted that chapter. He is rightly aware of the ironical stance towards the historicity of the regal period in most of the texts he discusses; and yet, aside from making the valid observation that the presence of irony need not draw us to a fully deconstructive reading, he never comes to grips with the complex relationship between truth, irony, and history that pervades all accounts of Rome’s obscure origins. Nor, one might add, does he ever offer any coherent analysis of the problems in any Roman account of early history: the fact that the standard teleological approaches entail seeing Romulus and his successors as somehow less than modern Rome (there must be room for Rome to rise), while at the same time the dignity of Rome present also entailed the glorification of Roman origins. And if both Romulus and the present are admirable, how is one to construct a story of what happened in between? Are the Roman kings culturally inferior but morally superior? If so, then how did they manage to found the social and political institutions which, it was claimed, were the basis of Roman greatness? The emphasis on the “truth” of these accounts of early Rome is in any case misplaced: in the first place, as F. knows, the ancients link historiography with rhetoric and with poetry (both the realm of lies and fiction) and were well aware of the problematic status of both past events and representations of them; and secondly, because for early Roman history in particular it was common knowledge (e.g. in Cicero and Livy) that there was virtually no evidence at all for the “real” history of the Seven Kings. It does not need any deep theoretical underpinnings to know that accounts of the regal period were never expected to attain historical veracity, only a kind of verisimilitude. What varies, and varies significantly among different accounts, is whether that verisimilitude is supposed to be political, cultural, ethical, or something else. One need only compare F.’s account of historical “truth” with the analyses of Livy’s narrative of early Rome in Gary Miles’ recent Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Cornell 1995) to see the gap between what F. has done and what a complex and intelligent use of modern theories of narrative and truth can achieve.

Because F. has rejected source-criticism, moreover, he approaches the difficult and learned texts he discusses in a historical vacuum. I do not mean by this to suggest that he should have compared Cicero’s or Livy’s versions to Cato or Fabius Pictor; I do mean that Cicero and Livy certainly, and the other authors almost certainly, were aware of the complicated traditions of cultural anthropology found, for instance, in Lucretius Book 5 or Polybius Book 6. If Cicero combines Romulus as innovative statesman with Romulus as ferox, that owes a great deal to his somewhat uneasy combination of Plato and Polybius, not to mention the model of cultural history used by Dicaearchus and Varro. The primitive pastoralism (to give a crude description) of Propertius 4.1 has to be seen not only in connection with the Aeneid—and writing a book on this subject without discussing the Aeneid is itself very peculiar—but with the Georgics and Lucretius. The irony of many of the representations of the regal past discussed by F. is genuine; but it not only involves an internal questioning of the “truth” of such representations but is also part of an extended dialogue with earlier representations both of Rome’s past and of the early history of humanity in general. To leave out such problems is to eliminate much of the richness of the texts.

Just as F. avoids the history of historical and anthropological thinking at Rome, moreover, so too, in discussing the poets, he avoids literary history. The name of Callimachus, to be sure, does appear with some frequency in Chapters 5 and 6; but for the most part he is there in connection with aetiology or the traditional polarity of elegy and epic. Nowhere in the discussion of Propertius’ Tarpeia poem does F. notice that Propertius has Tarpeia refer to Scylla of Megara—on whose myth his narrative of her love for Titus Tatius is modelled. Nowhere in discussing Ovid’s elegiac remodelling of the rape of Lucretia in the Fasti—his recognition of which is perfectly valid—does he acknowledge that this is only a more extreme example of Alexandrian and alexandrianizing technique from Callimachus to his Roman admirers. That Ovid and Propertius applied this technique to Roman history is indeed original—but it is also fairly obvious and long recognized. To see it purely in the context of regal narratives distorts its significance just as much as it would be to forget that the novelty of the Roman subject is itself very significant. In general, moreover, it seems to me that the large-scale historical narratives of Livy and Dionysius require very different approaches from the episodic and isolated moments that appear in Propertius and Ovid. Just as F. gives short shrift to the place of early Roman history in the historiography of primitive antiquity in Rome, so too he gives equally little attention to the context in Alexandrian poetics of the representations of the past in the elegists.

F.’s narrow vision applies to his book in general. Because he concentrates on accounts of the regal period, he seems to assume that it was as central to the texts he discusses as it is to his own argument; but for the most part (except for Dionysius) it was not. That failing is particularly evident in F.’s chapter on Propertius Book 4. He attempts to offer a reading of the book as a set of responses to and modifications of the idea of “Roman Aetiology” which he finds proposed and rejected in 4.1. In part, that is true: 4.1 (a poem which I happily confess I do not fully understand) clearly presents and simultaneously undercuts a poetic program for the book as a whole. But F. chooses his texts selectively; he reads most of the poems as focussing on the regal period (even Arethusa’s letter to Lycotas and Cynthia’s revenge in 4.8) even though that is often a serious distortion of Propertius’ emphasis. What is more, a reading of Book 4 which gives only a few words to the Cornelia elegy and not one word to Sunt aliquid Manes leaves a great deal to be desired. The same circularity of approach affects the accounts of the Fasti and of De re publica; it is less troubling in his discussion of Livy—but there, his readings are far less subtle or satisfying than those of Miles.

To show exactly what is wrong with F.’s work would require a review considerably longer than the book itself: suffice it to say that he is far too narrow and dogmatic in his approach; that his dogmatism is combined with an often patronizing dismissal of other scholars does not incline one to treat his own lapses with generosity. Throughout the book, what F. says needs to be read and modified in the light of larger readings of the texts he discusses, and with some broader sense of Roman literary and cultural history. I should add that I would be more inclined to accept some of F.’s interpretations if I had greater faith in his accuracy or his capacity to understand at the most elementary level the texts he discusses; but this is a book with far too many errors (not just typographical, although there are quite a few of those too) to be believed. What is one to make of a book on representations of Roman history that refers to the great republican family of the Aemilii Scipiones (26)? or a discussion of De re publica that finds the doctrine of transmigration of souls in the Somnium (27)? F. states (wrongly) that memorant in reporting a story implies a greater degree of belief than ferunt or fertur (101); he says that such phrases as lucus erat (Prop. 4.4.3) are “characteristic of the introduction of topographical aetiology” (167), when in fact they are characteristic of ecphrasis, not aetiology. Some of the errors in the form of proper names may be typographical, but it is disconcerting to find Lars Tolumnius named Tolumnus (176), Servius Tullius as Tullus (218), Dicaearchus twice named Dicaearcus, and Varro’s name twice given as Terrentius. Furthermore F.’s translations—which are supplied for virtually every word of Latin or Greek, even when they are scarcely necessary (and, curiously, for German quotations but not French)—reveal some quite amazing ideas of Latin. Thus one encounters Livy 1.49.4 (119) “Eo accedebat ut in caritate ciuium nihil spei reponenti metu regnum tutandum esset” rendered as “Thus it happened that in the affection of the citizens there was no prospect of maintaining rule other than by fear” (A man who placed no hope in the affection of the citizens had to defend his rule by fear); Livy 1.48.5 (134) “Creditur, quia non abhorret a cetero scelere…” as “It is believed, as she did not shrink from that other crime” (It is believed, because it is consistent with the rest of her criminal behavior); and, most remarkable, Livy 1.9.6 (108) “Cui tempus locumque aptum ut daret Romulus aegritudinem animi dissimulans ludos … parat” as “To provide the right time and place, Romulus pretended a mental disturbance and prepared public games” (To provide a suitable time and place, Romulus concealed his mental distress and prepared public games). These instances are unfortunately not isolated. 1

As stated at the outset of this review, F.’s subject is one that deserves careful study, and his attempt to apply modern theoretical discussions of historiography and ideology to ancient accounts of early Rome is welcome; it is certainly true that in the context of the numerous recent discussions of Augustan literary and political culture a new approach to these important texts is much to be desired. What is more, F. has made some good decisions (notably in starting from Cicero) and has some good and careful things to say about particular passages and texts. As a whole, however, his book is seriously deficient both in his application of theory, which is far too sketchy and haphazard, and in the coherence of his readings; and the virtues that F. does display are unfortunately shadowed by the frequent errors of Latinity and fact. All of us make mistakes, from both ignorance and carelessness, and we rely on the kindness and knowledge of friends and teachers to catch them before they see print. The Faculty Board of Literae Humaniores (responsible for the series in which this volume appears) includes many distinguished Latinists and ancient historians. Did none of them read the manuscript of this book?

1. Further translation errors (I do not intend completeness, and my own versions are not elegant): p.6 “multa quaeruntur in Mario…” “in the case of Marius, many things are questioned…” (there are questions about many statements in your Marius); p. 10 “sin id nomen moribus dandum est, non linguis” “but if that name is granted by customs rather than language” (but if that name should be given to customs rather than language); p.14 “in agresti cultu laboreque aluissent” “they brought them to country life and labour” (they brought them up in country life and labor); p.17 “ne insignibus quidem regiis Tullus … est ausus uti” “even Tullus did not dare to use the royal insignia” (Tullus did not dare to use even the insignia of royalty); 67n.37 “novum quoddam imperitorum et inauditum genus” “it’s a certain new class of unskilled and unheard orators” (a new and unfamiliar type of unskilled orator); p.89 andrapodismou translated as “destroyed by siege” rather than “enslavement”; p.112 “nemo magno opere eminebat” “no one of great skill shone out” (no one was particularly outstanding); p.134 “carpento certe … in forum inuecta” “she was certainly driven into the forum in a carriage” (she certainly drove into the forum…); p.146 “scandentis quisquis cernit de uallibus arces” “whoever climbs from the valleys to see the citadels” (whoever sees the citadels rising from the valleys); p.157 “qui me tam docilis potuisti fundere in usus” “who could so gently cast me for use” (who could cast me for uses so easily taught); p.166 “Lanuuium annosi uetus est tutela draconis” “Old Lanuvium is in the charge of a water serpent” (Old Lanuvium is under the protection of an ancient serpent); p.174 “hunc, quoniam manibus purgatum sanxerat orbem” “this man, who had travelled the world and sanctified it with his hands” (this man, because he had sanctified the world that had been cleansed by his hands); p.210 “principibus caesis ex urbe Gabina traduntur ducibus moenia nuda suis” “the leaders of the city of Gabinium were slaughtered and the bare walls handed over to their commanders” (after the leaders of Gabinium were slaughtered the walls were surrendered, denuded of their commanders); p.216 “conscia mens recti famae mendacia risit” “her mind knew of her correct reputation and laughed at untruths” (her mind was sure of what was right and laughed at the lies of rumor); p.219 “deficit ingenium, maioraque uiribus urgent” “my genius fails, and greater matters demand strength” (my talent falters, and things greater than my strength press on me). Some of these are perhaps errors of English rather than Latin.