BMCR 2005.08.40

A Critical History of Early Rome. From Prehistory to the First Punic War

, A critical history of early Rome : from prehistory to the first Punic War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xvi, 400 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780520940291 $45.00.

This book is a critical survey of the first five centuries of Roman history: it is divided into ten sections, the first seven of which focus on definite themes, while the three final chapters have a more pronounced chronological frame, narrating the periods 444-367 BC, 366-300 BC and 299-264 BC respectively. It is dedicated to the author’s late wife, Dorothy Alice, who died at the age of 75, after having assisted him, younger and affected by blindness, for 31 years.

The volume, which was originally intended to fill a gap in the “English-speaking book trade” (p. 4), has become a sort of response to T.J. Cornell’s The Beginnings of Rome (London 1995), a study which had been judged by qualified reviewers as “too trusting and overly optimistic”.

In the first chapter, Italy in Prehistory, Forsythe (henceforth F.) provides an useful survey of linguistic and archaeological data, including the recent find of a frozen man from the Alps. Chapter II, Archaic Italy, c. 800-500 BC, deals with the most ancient cultures of the Italian peninsula and the islands: the Phoenicians’ early presence in Sardinia is remarkably attested by an inscription, the Nora stone, mentioning the mythical king Pygmalion. There follows a paragraph on the Greek colonization of Southern Italy and Sicily, and one on the formation of the Etruscan civilization: the interaction of these cultures is also strikingly exemplified through findings such as an anchor from Graviscae bearing the name of Sostratos (a merchant from Aegina also mentioned by Herodotus), or the bilingual gold plaques from Pyrgi (Phoenician and Etruscan). After a digression on the importation into Italy of the Greek alphabet and its spreading through Etruscan mediation, the chapter closes with a survey of the archaeological cultures of Latium.

Chapter III is a description of the ancient sources available for early Roman history, including the annalistic and the antiquarian tradition, the inscriptions (either reported by ancient authors or actually found) and the existence of an oral tradition. In the opening of the fourth chapter, dedicated to the regal period, F. compares the literary tradition concerning the early kings to a Hollywood movie, which combines facts and fiction to an uncertain degree: more reliable data are provided by archaeological finds, like the famous paintings of the Fran├žois Tomb, representing the commander Caelius Vibenna and his gang. Chapter V is a treatment of Roman religion and the religious calendar: there is also a survey of Roman priesthoods and a digression on the nature of the Iguvine Tablets. In chapter VI F. deals with the beginnings of the Roman republic, challenging the established tradition on a number of issues, like the institution of consulship (formerly called praetorship), the general reliability of consular fasti, and the origin of the contention between patricians and plebeians. As for the plebeian tribunate F. is inclined to see it not as a revolutionary institution of the plebs but as an original complement to consulship (p. 176 and p. 367). After a paragraph on Rome’s assemblies the authors draws a sketch of Rome’s relations with the Latins, examining also the traditions concerning prominent figures such as C. Marcius Coriolanus and Spurius Cassius. Chapter VII focuses rather on the internal politics of the city of Rome, the unrest caused by the activities of popolar demagogues like Appius Herdonius, and the origin of the Twelve Tables, codified by two annual boards of decemvirs. In this case F. is willing to reject data offered from the literary tradition, like the sending of a Roman embassy to Athens to consult the laws of Solon, or the slaughter of Virginia. In chapter VIII F. provides a problematic account of events like the institution of the military tribunate (a subterfuge to open to plebeians the highest rank of magistracy), the murder of the demagogue Sp. Maelius, the war against King Lars Tolumnius (which ultimately led to the capture of Fidenae) and the decennial siege of Veii. Eventually, however, the splendid triumph of Camillus was followed by the Gallic sack of Rome, which in turn led to a time of unrest, sedition and anarchy. The subject of Chapter IX is Rome’s rise to dominance in the peninsula: this end was achieved through an alliance with the Carthaginians, the definitive submission of the Latini, and the opening of warfare with the Samnites. The final chapter is devoted to sketching Rome’s final victory against the Samnites and other Italian nations in the battle of Sentinum, as well as the Pyrrhic war.

The book is marked by a noticeable mistrust of ancient accounts of Roman history, like those of Livy and Dionysius, since the author believes (p. 3) that “the ancient Romans did not begin to write their own history until c. 200 B.C.” and (in agreement with a statement by M.I. Finley) that their “ability to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated”. It is only from the middle of the fourth century, according to F., that the historical tradition gradually becomes more reliable. Out of many examples of this attitude, found throughout the book, I would like to pick up the following:

On pp. 66-67 statements that “Livy did not engage in any official research into official documents” and that he “believed that the value of history lay in providing people with good and bad models of conduct” appear surprisingly reductive, especially in the light of modern literature on Livy.

On several instances there is an arbitrary dismissal of Roman original material as inspired by episodes of Greek history. According to F. the rape of Lucretia was a Roman adaptation of Hipparchus’ love for Harmodius (p. 77); the story of Menenius Agrippa is matched with an obscure tale concerning the Greek tyrant Gelon (p. 174); the battle of Lake Regillus “was patterned after the battle of the Siagra River, fought between the Locrians and Crotoneates” (p. 186); the exile of Marcius Coriolanus is rather curiously compared to the sending of the Athenian poet Tyrtaeus to Sparta (p.191); the death of the 306 Fabii at the Cremera River is matched by that of the three hundred Spartiates at the Thermopylae (p. 196); the tyranny of the second board of decemvirs is patterned after that of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens (p. 223, cf. 230); also, according to F., the Romans “patterned their accounts of the beginning of the First Samnite War after that of the great war fought between Athens and Sparta … since the part of Epidamnus is played by the Sidicini of Teanum, Capua corresponds to Corcyra, Rome has the role of Athens, and the Samnites represent both Corinth and the Peloponnesian alliance” (pp. 284-285). F. omits to note, however, that, unlike the Athenians, the Romans eventually won their war.

Less fantastic but equally arbitrary is the dismissal of historical episodes on the ground of their resemblance to later events: one may accept, to a certain degree, “that Volero Publilius’s reelection as tribune is modeled after the second tribunate of C. Gracchus in 122 B.C.” (p. 178), and that “Cassius’s proposal to distribute money to the plebs is patterned after C. Gracchus’s grain law” (p. 194), but much less convincing to me is the claim that the military prowess of the plebeian hero L. Siccius Dentatus in 455-454 B.C. was patterned after the exploits of the obscure Q. Occius, a Roman soldier in Spain during the 140s B.C. (p. 208). Also, it does not seem immediately evident that Ap. Claudius’ enrollment of freedmen into the senate “is redolent of the Sullan period” (p. 318). In one instance a later event, the summoning of Quinctius Claudus from retirement in 342 BC, is supposed to be patterned after that of L. Quinctius Cincinnatus in 458 BC (p. 273). On the other hand, sometimes F. professes incredulity about reported events just because they are unparalleled in later Roman history, like the seven consecutive Fabian consuls (p. 195), or the six years of anarchy (p. 263).

F. is overconfident of his ability to discern what is “historical” from what is not. So “Romulus was an unhistorical figure” (p. 96); “Numa Pompilius’ religiosity is probably unhistorical” (p. 97); “attribution to the Tarquins of the Cloaca Maxima is certainly unhistorical” (p. 108); “the first and the second secessions of the plebs dating to 494 and 449 B.C. are unhistorical (p. 345)”; “the tradition that the first boards of ten men drew up ten tables and the second added two more tables appears to be unhistorical” (p. 224); “the ban of intermarriage is probably not historical at all” (p. 230); “the Valerian Horatian Laws are to be considered unhistorical” (p. 233); the devotio of P. Decius Mus in the Latin War “is an unhistorical doublet” (p. 289), equally that of his nephew in the battle of Ausculum (p. 355); “very little of the story of Brutulus Papius can be accepted as historical” (p. 297), since it “is probably an invention patterned after C. Papius Mutilus” (p. 298). Also, “the story about repudiation of the Caudine peace is unhistorical … and formulated after the humiliating agreement made by the consul C. Hostilius Mancinus in 137 BC”; but F. does not explain how this could happen, since Livy’s ultimate source, C. Acilius, had published his work before the later event, in 142 B.C. (p. 299).

F.’s rejection of historical tradition is too often speculative or arbitrary. So, for example, the lengths of the kings’ reigns recorded in the ancient literary tradition are dismissed on the basis of abstruse calculations (pp. 98-99). On p. 170 F. says that “we do not have secure evidence about the tribunate until the third century B.C.” but he himself on p. 177 destroys one piece of evidence by alleging that the death of Cn. Genucius, a tribune of 473 B.C. was “patterned after the sudden death of Scipio Aemilianus in 129 B.C.”, forgetting to say that the last was not a tribune. Also I can not share F.’s reductive views about the struggle between the patrician and plebeian orders: F.’s favorite theory is that there had been a closing of the patriciate (la “serrata del patriziato”) in the course of the fifth century B.C. (pp. 157-170 and p. 367), therefore he holds that “there was no legal ban against non-patrician holding the consulship” (p. 237).

The frequent allegation of “chauvinism” against Roman literary tradition (p. 191, 284, 288, 326, 356) is not justified: Rome had indeed overcome all her enemies, and it was not only likely but also a fact that she won any war she did undertake. Like a Wimbledon champion, she might have lost some games and sets, but had eventually won every match she played in the tournament. Therefore the allegation that “an actual Roman defeat or major setback is immediately followed by a ficticious victory” (p. 206) is not acceptable: it indeed adds to the general credibility of the Roman historical tradition that actual defeats were not omitted. If the Romans ever had a chauvinist intent, we should rather question why unfortunate events like the defeats of Cremera and Allia, not to mention the sack of Rome, were recorded at all.

Also, if we were to admit that Rome’s historical tradition had been forged, we should postulate the existence of an extraordinarily creative genius (however anonymous), able to compose a complex saga to an amazing degree of cohesiveness.

To sum up: this is very informative study, combining personal expertise on the literary sources with widespread knowledge of data from archaeological discoveries.1 An example of F.’s ability is indeed the intuition that the physical remains found beneath the temple of Victory are those of the consul P. Decius Mus, who had sacrificed himself during the battle of Sentinum (p. 333). Nonetheless F.’s book seems to be overly prejudiced against the credibility of Rome’s historical tradition, in which literacy seems to have played a part from the beginning.2


1. The book is very well edited and I found no other misprints than on p. 106, Etore Pais and on p. 301, where {en masse} is printed twice; on the last line of p. 365, {below} should be replaced by [above]. Contributions in multi-authored volumes (as that of Mitchell quoted on footnote 12 p. 167, and that of Ungern-Sternberg quoted on p. 173) are not fully described in the bibliography at the end of the volume.

2. Most remarkable is the recent find from Osteria dell’Osa of a globular flask bearing a Greek inscription (also F. on p. 56). This text is indeed a strong hint that the Romans learned their alphabet directly from the Greeks, although the most common reading of this inscription, EYLIN, has no meaning in this language: therefore in Le Relazioni Diplomatiche di Roma (cf. BMCR 2005.04.28) I suggested an alternative reading.