BMCR 2005.09.02

The Myths of Rome

, The myths of Rome. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2004. xxii, 390 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0859897036 £50.00.

Ever since his ‘Legendary Genealogies in Late-Republican Rome’, Timothy Peter Wiseman (hereafter, W.) has contributed to the ongoing reconsideration of the Roman historical tradition.1 That myth and history may still be regarded as mutually exclusive is a view that W. has systematically and vividly sought to complicate, most recently in the provocative monograph Remus: A Roman Myth.2 What W. has undertaken in The Myths of Rome is nothing less than a reconstruction of how the Romans envisaged, fabricated and communicated interdependent, multiform and inclusive stories of what it meant to be Roman. He is, in his own words, adamant in disabusing the persistent understanding of Rome as ‘a world without myths’; and, to do so, he attempts to ‘re-interpret the Roman story-world’ in light of the knowledge that myth and history do not exclude each other.3 In the process of excavating, recording and interpreting the neglected iconographical and literary fabric of Rome’s cultural habitus, W. provides a study of considerable interest to the non-professional reader and a provocative and stimulating conspectus of his abiding historical concerns to all students of myth.

W. introduces his project (Chapter 1, ‘The Triumph of Flora’, pp.1-12) by showing us what artists like Botticelli, Titian and Tiepolo knew about the world of Roman stories. It is W.’s contention that these stories have been consigned to a misleading modern paradigm wherein everything Greek is somehow more original and authentic and all things mythological and Roman is the product of an unspeculative and unimaginative people. He proceeds to deconstruct this nineteenth- and twentieth-century misconception (exemplified here by Wissowa and Latte) of a Rome bereft of myths by re-imagining the subjects and sources of artists from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In light of Ovid’s Fasti, W. tests the schematic polarity arising from what he sees as a Romantic and essentially racist concept of a creative, intellectual Greece and a militaristic, imperial Rome. Instead, he suggests that it is possible to recover something of the circumstances, conditions and contexts producing the materials by which Roman re-imagined itself — a process that stretches from the archaic world of the eighth century BCE to the reign of Nerva in the first century CE. Setting the parameters of his thesis, W. neatly sidesteps the extensive terminological debate about how ‘myth’ should be understood by defining it as ‘a story that matters to a community, one that it told and retold because it has a significance from one generation to another’.4

W.’s re-imagining leads him (in Chapter 2, ‘Latins and Greeks’, pp. 13-36) to interrogate an interconnected assemblage of archaic sources — a graffito in Greek on a pot from ninth or eighth century BCE Latium, literary traces of legendary events featuring well-known mythical figures (Kirke, Odysseus, Herakles, and others), a Latin inscription on a sixth century BCE bronze plaque, the remains of a terracotta statue-group and an antefix from temples of the same period. From this initially bewildering range of archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources, W. identifies some of the fragmentary antecedents of the complex of stories, known from much later authors, linking Latium and Rome with Troy, Sparta, Argos, Arkadia, and the great cycles of heroic legend. He theorizes about the evolution of this legendary mesh of mythography as part of the first contact between Latins and Greek eight hundred years before Virgil’s story of Aeneas’ voyage to Latium and his war with ‘Daunian’ Turnus.

Stories of peripatetic deities and heroes may have been woven from the historical context of Mediterranean trade and colonization during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. But W. is also interested in exploring the resonances of this age of merchant exchange and of other material from Etruria and Latium on the elaboration of the dramatic tale of Tarquinian rule at Rome (Chapter 3, ‘Kings (and after)’, pp. 37-62). An Etruscan mirror of the late fourth century BCE and wall paintings in the ‘François Tomb’ at Vulci, filtered through the antiquarian interests of the emperor Claudius, alert W. to the origin of traditions about the Roman kings. He extracts how a pre-Republican, Pythagorean community saw itself and interpreted its history from conjectural ‘early’ elements of the Tarquin dynasty’s developed narrative in Livy and Dionysios, and from the genealogical formulations of important Republican founders like the Aemilii, Claudii, Cornelii, Fabii, and especially the Horatii. W. sees the exemplarity of these legendary histories as a bridge between the village communities of Latin and Etruscan societies in the sixth century BCE and the organized norms of the later Roman city-state. From wealthy Corinth and its colonies Corcyra and Syracuse, W. traces the influences of Etruscan sources, Pythagorean concepts of divination, and territorial aetiologies on later versions of the story about the rule of the house of Tarquin.

To carry the story-world of ancient Rome forward into the late sixth and fifth centuries BCE, W. now addresses a sequence of items on the Praenestine precursor to Ovid’s calendar-poem: the fragmentary Fasti Antiates maiores. What this sequence of named days tells W. is best left to his elegant prose. Suffice it to say that his recent interest in the relationship between religious and historical drama5 affords W. the opportunity to investigate the fundamental importance of Liber to the life of the formative Roman community (Chapter 4, ‘The God of Liberty and Licence’, pp. 63-96). He envisages the articulation of early constitutional ideas about citizenship and the rule of law — that is, the assimilation of a quasi-feudal aristocracy and a citizen body into a single polity — through the lens of archaic festival records associated with the god of freedom and the ubiquitous presence of Marsyas as a symbol of libertas in the fora of Roman cities. Significant, too, are the real and imaginary parallels between the stories of the early Republic and what had happened in Athens: their synchronicity in achieving a free state by expelling a tyrant and his family; the formalization of community rules in a written law code; the echoes of the Eleusinian triad Iacchos (Dionysos)-Demeter-Kore in Aventine Liber-Ceres-Libera; not to mention the adjacent contexts of festival drama and political liberation. In a conceptual tour de force, W. travels by way of temple, grove and cult place through the valley of the Circus Maximus, revealing the interconnectedness of mimetic performance, ludic ritual, and the creation of collective stories later to be preserved in the literary tradition.

Chapter 5 (‘What Novius knew’, pp. 87-118) extends W.’s conjectures to include the sophisticated story-world of fourth century BCE Rome and Latium as found in the incised scenes on Etruscan bronze mirrors and caskets ( cistae). Product of an essentially oral society, the repertoire of stories into which W. delves not only retells narratives familiar to students of Greek mythology. These scenes also illustrate the interpenetration of localized Latin compositions known not from texts but from non-canonical oral stories deriving from a Dionysiac performative tradition. While many of the scenes represented on these cistae and mirrors show familiar Greek mythological topoi like the judgement of Paris, Herakles and the Amazons, the battles of the gods and Giants, and so on, there are some portraying unrecognizable subjects, including quite possibly figures from contemporary Latium.

For W., the visual evidence of Etruscan cistae and mirrors presupposes a vital culture of mythological performance in Rome and Latium. What he contends in Chapter 6 (‘History and Myth’, pp. 119-148) is that the significant quasi-historical Roman myths of foundation, liberation and Gallic capture that literature would render canonical were probably created for public display, commissioned by popular elected representatives for performance at the public games of Rome’s developing festival-year. W. sees the period of the late fourth and early third centuries BCE as a formative time in the gradual complication and elaboration of Rome’s founding stories. He uses the narratives of Camillus, Brutus and the twins to illustrate how archaic heroes could represent contemporary families and begin to acquire the exemplary nature of later Roman historiographic consciousness. That W. is here able to make a persuasive case for the major ludi as opportunities for presenting contested patrician and plebeian versions of a coalescing national myth is testimony to the cohesiveness of his historical imagination and his sophisticated control of disparate and fragmentary evidence.

In Chapter 7 (‘Facing Both Ways’, pp. 149-178), W. leaves behind the rivalries of patricians and plebeians to consider how what we may now call the Roman ‘virtues’ replace the ‘old’ historical tensions. For W., the lives of statesmen and commanders like Gaius Fabricius, Manius Curius, Atilius ‘Serranus’, Quinctius Cincinnatus and Marcus Atilius Regulus embody what it meant to be Roman: frugality and self-denial, duty to the community for no personal gain, and honesty. So, too, the Romans’ choice of which deities to honour in this historical period — and we know over a dozen gods and goddesses for whom new temples were founded in the mid-third century BCE — tells W. about their view of the (divine) world. Here, W. consolidates his argument that the Romans of the Republic articulated their moral values in narrative stories performed in theatrical, religious, and civic contexts. Sober and erotic, exegetic and licentious, patriotic and ludic — ‘all the Romans needed to know about how to behave in the world of men and what to expect from the world of gods’ could be found in the telling of their myths.5 W. imaginatively reconstructs the festival on the Nonae Caprotinae and the installation of the Great Idaean Mother of the Gods to exemplify the polysemous nature of becoming Roman in the third century BCE.

Chapter 8 (‘Power and the People’, pp. 179-226) engages with the world of texts, of story-telling as literature, whether epic poetry or historical prose. From Scipio Africanus’ victory over Carthage at Zama to Augustus’ acceptance of the title pater patriae, W. seeks to demonstrate just how interconnected myth and history could be in the story-world of Rome. He contemplates the manner in which real protagonists of real events — Titus Flamininus and the defeat of Philip V at Kunoskephalai; the killing of the Gracchi; the Catilinarian conspiracy; the Sullan proscriptions; Pompey, Caesar, and the civil wars; the Augustan ‘re-foundation’ — become mythic figures. By way of the epic poetry of Ennius’ Annales, the populist and polarizing historical fragments of Licinius Macer, the testimony of coins, lists of festival-days, triumphs and consuls, and Augustus’ reconfiguration of monumental urban space, W. disinters something of how the people saw themselves in the creation of a mythic historical panorama, inserted into the poetry, statues and memorials, civic spectacles, and even the public festival calendar of Rome.

Chapter 9 (‘Caesars’, pp. 227-277) completes W.’s survey of the new mythic history of power and tyranny, as Republican rule collapses and autocracy returns. Four generations of the house of Caesar may be the subject of his exposition, but W.’s focus continues to be the creation and dissemination of stories told and retold about the major and supernumerary protagonists of the first imperial Roman dynasty: the crises of internal politics, the inter-relational strife, the personal and collective tragedies, and the popular themes adhering to and arising from the lives of the Caesars and their families. In this regard, W. is (finally) able to demonstrate at length how the medium of dramatic performance — specifically, a recontextualized staging of the Octavia — could be even more important than the histories and epic poems of the literary tradition in instantiating contemporary reality as myth. In the same way that Cornelius Tacitus and Suetonius Tranquillus chronicle the murderous strife of the Julio-Claudian autocracy or the high-relief sculptured panels of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias combine the gods and heroes of traditional mythology and the newly mythic characters of the Caesars, so W. rehearses the ‘grand opera’ of [Seneca]’s Octavia and its depiction of a founder’s achievement squandered.

W.’s final chapter (Chapter 10, ‘The Dream that was Rome’, pp. 279-308) sketches the process whereby the story-world of Rome continued to resonate in Western culture from late antiquity to the present day and shows that, even in the twenty-first century, the myths of Rome still have power and significance. He compares the Christianizing world-views of Orosius and Augustine; while both are polemical and offer a pejorative history of Rome, Augustine may be seen to recognize men like Lucius Brutus, Marcus Curtius and Publius Decius as heroes of the Roman mythic tradition and is willing to praise their achievements and their exemplary virtues. W. locates the foundation myth of the twins and the she-wolf, albeit in different forms, on a sixth-century whale-bone casket, a ninth-century ivory diptych, and a seventeenth-century tapestry. Dante, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Dryden, Addison, de Chenier, and Macaulay all betray the living presence of the Romans and their Republican stories. With the imperialisms of Napoleon, Victoria, and Hitler, W. sees the Roman paradigm in the modern world shift from Republic to Empire. Only after almost a century of appeals to this imperial model in novels, plays and films do the virtues of honesty and decency once more contest rival ambition and irresponsible power, at least in W.’s view of Graves’ Claudius novels and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

There are many things to like about this book. W.’s powerful combination of directed historical imagination and overarching control of evidence is consistent and cohesive. His eminently readable contextualizations of complex strands of historical information allow even the general reader an entry-point into the rich story-world of ancient Rome. For the specialist and the advanced student of Rome, the meticulous, succinct, and wide-ranging critical apparatus (pp. 309-358: keyed by page number and a brief phrase to identify the relevant idea) is a treasure-trove of source material, historical method and scholarly insight. Of particular benefit to anyone interested in the portrayal of myth and history is the well-judged and judiciously-used portfolio of representational art (Colour Plates 1-16; located between pages 10 and 11). In conjunction with the extensive variety of epigraphic, archival, pictorial, narrative and poetic material drawn from ancient and post-Renaissance sources (over a hundred figures as well as a democratic selection of sources in translation), the artistic re-interpretations of Roman mythography helpfully reinforce W.’s main thesis. A time-chart (pp. xvi-xviii) listing the main literary and visual sources and the important historical and legendary events and commissioned topographical and geographical figures (pp. xix-xxii) provides useful points of reference and clarification. Particularly welcome are the brief, illuminating excursuses inserted throughout the text on shaded pages (thirty-one in all), which treat such diverse topics as werewolves, Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, Lucretia from Augustine to Benjamin Britten, George Washington as the Cincinnatus of the West, public spectacles, and Sporus, slave-boy of Nero, Otho and Vitellius.

I recommend The Myths of Ancient Rome to students and teachers of Roman history, art and myth at undergraduate and graduate level, specialists in these fields, and anyone interested in a potent and provocative re-interpretation of the Roman historical tradition.


1. T. P. Wiseman. ‘Legendary Genealogies in Late-Republican Rome’, Greece and Rome 21 (1974): 153-64.

2. T. P. Wiseman. Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Cf. idem, ‘The Wife and Children of Romulus’, Classical Quarterly 33 (1983): 445-52; ‘Democracy and Myth: the Life and Death of Remus’, Liverpool Classical Monthly 16.8 (1991): 115-24; ‘The She-Wolf Mirror: an Interpretation’, Papers of the British School at Rome 61 (1993): 1-6.

3. T. P. Wiseman. The Myths of Rome, pp. 11, 12.

4. Ibid., pp.10-11.

5. Best seen in the trio of articles: ‘The God of the Lupercal’, Journal of Roman Studies 85 (1995): 1-22; ‘The Poet, the Plebs, and the Chorus Girls’ in Roman Drama and Roman History. University of Exeter Press, 1998. pp.64-74; and ‘Liber: Myth, Drama and Ideology in Republican Rome’ in The Roman Middle Republic: Politics, Religion and Historiography c.400-133 BC, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 23 (2000), pp. 265-99.