BMCR 2009.06.11

Unwritten Rome

, Unwritten Rome. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008. ix, 366. ISBN 9780859898232. $37.95 (pb).

This work is in some ways the culmination of Wiseman’s thoughts over the past twenty years or so about early Roman history. As is well known, he is something of a leader of the “skeptical” school of thought about early Rome. Indeed, in this book, Wiseman articulates arguments that most of our surviving material is so compromised by anachronistic material, having been recorded centuries after the fact, that only pieces of early Roman society and history can be gleaned from it. This is a position for which I admit I have a great deal of sympathy. The book is a collection of 18 essays. Most have appeared in other places since 1995, but four and a half are entirely new (see chapter list below). Wiseman has done some editing to those published previously, mostly reflecting new positions put forward in response to his articles, and these additions appear in the footnotes. The book is well illustrated (54 illustrations and drawings) and well edited.1 And, though the work relies heavily on evidence from our textual tradition, by necessity Wiseman also draws on a variety of material evidence.

Chapter 1, one of the new chapters, begins with a survey of the first samples of writing from early Rome. Wiseman then asks how much of early Roman history, potentially going back to the Bronze Age, was accurately remembered (p. 8). He shows that ancient writers could be wrong in their interpretation of early written documents with their older scripts and unfamiliar dialects. He also points out that no real evidence exists to show that there was a sack of Rome by Gauls in the early fourth century BC, which was an explanation for the “loss” of early documents put forward by the ancients themselves and which is often used by modern scholars for the same purpose. He then summarizes the situation as he sees it: there was little documentary evidence from Rome before the 300s BC; what there was could be understood only with difficulty; and writers in the late Republic felt free to ignore it when they were interested in telling a “great moral story of triumph and tragedy” (p. 15). He starts here an attack upon Andrea Carandini—continued in Chapter 16 on Carandini’s “discovery” of the “House of Tarquin”— whom Wiseman sees as typifying a credulous school of thought that would accept even the historicity of Romulus and Remus and other elements of what must have been part of an oral tradition. Wiseman also disputes the idea that Roman religious ritual, usually seen as highly conservative, must impart factual information about early Rome in a reliable manner. As a counterexample, he analyzes the cult of Anna Perenna, which seems to have changed entirely between the times of Ovid and Martial, noting that even archaeology would seem to confirm this change (pp. 18-22, continued on 77-78).

The remaining chapters revolve around three basic arguments telegraphed in Chapter 1. First, that one can gather information about Rome from its religious cults and festivals, without relying on them to be unchanging from earlier periods, by close examination of the (material and textual) sources. Second, it was through native and imported theatrical performance (indeed, Wiseman sees all Roman dramatic performance as a hybrid of these) that Rome passed on its cultural memory, and that this was drawn upon by our written sources at a later time when information about early Rome was needed to fill gaps of knowledge. And, finally, Roman historical writers drew as much upon Rome’s own poetic tradition (dramatic and otherwise) as upon Greek history and historiography.

Chapters 4, 6, 8, and 10 (all previously published) are representatives of the first group, attempting to recover information about early (or later) Rome from sources on religion and festivals. In Chapter 4, on the Lupercalia. Wiseman suggests that, like the cult of Anna Perenna, the festival changed over time, a fact that would go some way toward explaining the contradictory nature of our sources. To him it was a originally a fertility cult (with attendant sexually-charged scenes reenacted as part of the yearly festival) that transformed itself partly into a war cult in the late fourth century BC with the rise of the importance of the Roman cavalry. It was also influenced by knowledge of the Athenian cult of Pan, whose cave was near the Temple of Nike on the approach to the Acropolis—just as the Lupercal was near the Temple of Victory on the Clivus Victoriae on the way up the Palatine. In Chapter 6 Wiseman speculates on the origin of a ritual on the Kalends of April whereby women bared themselves to men to encourage reproduction. He believes the cult might be influenced by Greece once again, possibly as early as the sixth century BC. In fact, he champions Zevi’s suggestion that Tarquinius Priscus, as the son of Demaratus of Corinth, may have brought Greek cultic ideas and festivals with him.2 Wiseman goes so far as to suggest that the Romans even installed “sacred prostitutes” as part of a cult of Venus in imitation of the supposed one of Aphrodite at Corinth. Here, it is disappointing that he does not note recent (and for his purposes relevant) discussion about ancient ritual prostitution that casts doubt upon its very existence.3 In Chapter 10, Wiseman tries to discern what games were given to Hercules, as seems to be indicated on the coins of M. Volteius (Crawford #385) and two late Republican inscriptions. The latter suggest that they were local games ( pagani) rather than ones celebrated by the whole people ( ludi). Wiseman suggests that they were originally ludi set up by Sulla to honor the god he believed his protector. The games were demoted, Wiseman argues, perhaps around 70-67 BC when Sulla was more or less repudiated, to local games. Finally, in this group, I would include Chapter 8, where Wiseman tackles the problem of the foundation dates of various other Roman ludi, showing (rightly, I think) that our sources are more contradictory than has sometimes been admitted, since all are compromised by legends, pseudo-history, and competing family traditions.

Wiseman’s chapters on the Romans’ getting their traditions about early Rome from drama (mainly chapters 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, and 13) are the most interesting part of this book. He explores this idea from a number of angles. In Chapter 5, he proposes that festivals like the Liberalia contained many varied dramatic performances. Most interesting here is his use of the “Praenestine” cistae —with their images of satyrs, silenuses, Marsyas, nymphs, and actors and actresses—arguing that they represent a wide variety of dramatic performances from both Italic and Greek traditions (and certainly not to be narrowly circumscribed in set generic bounds, as he argues convincingly in Chapters 11 and 13). Indeed, it is in a Greek tradition that Wiseman sees the origin of the Liberalia, a festival of free speech in some ways modeled on the Athenian festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus, which he believes was established after the explusion of the Peisistratids. In Chapter 9, in a discussion of the Floralia, he argues that this festival regularly involved performances that contained aetiological legends for places and monuments of Rome and that were filled with moral exempla. He points out that the single legend of the siege of Rome by Lars Porsenna offered three such stories, those of Cocles, Scaevola, and Cloelia; Wiseman proceeds to describe how these legends could have been “staged” originally. In Chapter 7 (a new chapter), he argues that the story of Numa’s summoning Jupiter contains elements suggesting that it was a staged comedy: Numa consulted Picus and Faunus,, who helped him bring Jupiter literally down to Earth; Jupiter was at first angry but then amused at the ingenuity of Numa; and so the talismanic shield of the Salii fell to earth to reward Rome. In Chapter 12, in addition to titles of some “historical” plays, Wiseman discusses and example that might have presented fairly recent events in the form of a dramatic performance. He argues that the “Octavia” was one such play, asserting that it was not a part of a “phantom genre” of “recitation plays,” as long proposed, but rather a play intended for a public audience. He even likes the suggestion that the work dates to just after Nero’s death, to the short reign of Galba (June 68 to January 69), in which it could now be put forward as were perhaps other dramatic works about the Julio-Claudians.4

The remaining chapters place Roman historiography within the context of the pervasive influence of dramatic performance, other kinds of poetry, and Greek history and historiography. Chapter 2 (a new chapter) discusses Livy’s fascination with verses sung by soldiers and others on various occasions (esp. triumphs). Wiseman thinks they are elements taken directly by Livy (or his sources) from historical plays (pp. 34ff.). In Chapter 3, he talks about the possibility that Ennius and even earlier poets ( vates) had an impact on popular knowledge of early Rome (and so on later histories of the period; pp. 237ff. have more on this). He likes the idea that poetry like Ennius’ was meant to be read at festivals. Fauni and vates were prophetic poets, too, and Ennius’ title, “Annales,” perhaps is connected to the idea that these early prophet-poets often predicted the end of Roman power among other significant events (in Chapter 15, Wiseman also suggests that the title of the “Annales Pontificum” comes from Ennius’ work). In Chapter 15, Wiseman also discusses how historians determined what was appropriate for history vs. what was fit for poetry. For example, for Varro it seems to have been when the events took place, but Livy avoided any material that involved divine intervention/interaction. In this, Livy seems to have been exceptional and fighting against accepted practice. In Chapter 14, in my opinion one of the best in the book, Wiseman discusses evidence of Rome’s familiarity with the Greek world from the earliest periods on. He argues against older ideas that Rome only “discovered” Greek culture at later periods (à la Horace) or through the agency of Etruscans. He looks at the earliest physical artifacts, literary evidence, and inscriptions. He points out that the Greeks considered Rome a Greek city from very early on: in the fourth century BC this is claimed by Heracleides of Pontus, and then also by Aristotle, who claimed that Rome was founded by Achaeans from Troy. Wiseman also emphasizes the obvious, long noted parallels that exist between early Roman history and Greek (esp. Athenian) history of the same periods (pp. 234ff.). E.g., the attack of Porsenna to restore Tarquin is reflected in that of the Spartans to restore Hippias, the exile of Collatinus parallels the ostracism of Hipparchus, the exile of Coriolanus is similar to that of Themistocles, and, of course, the events surrounding the explusion of the Tarquins are reflected in those concerning the Peisistratids. One could note many, many others, and Wiseman goes into more in Chapter 17, particularly those concerning L. Brutus. Wiseman believes that some Romans had read Atthidographers quite early on (perhaps Cleidemus), and that this influenced the main outlines of “Roman history,” which were coming into focus ca. 300 BC. I would also suggest that many of these parallels with Greek history could have come from the kinds of stage performances that Wiseman believes influenced Roman historical traditions: it seems possible that some of those involved in the dramas were Greeks or knew Greek history, and so they “adapted” the events of Greek history to a Roman context—not unlike the ways in which Plautus and Terence were adapting Menander’s plots for their plays. Chapter 18 closes the book with a discussion of the first year of the Republic, which has five consuls listed in the records. Wiseman believes that the canonical tradition harmonized what were separate stories about how the Republic began in its first year, and when combined with the three stories about Roman heroism from Year Two that led to Porsenna breaking off his siege of Rome, they glorify six families. He argues that the stories all date from periods when those families were most prominent, and he does something similar for those families connected with the seven kings of Rome. As noted, I believe that Wiseman’s ideas are compelling, and make the most sense of the origin of our sources’ rather large amount of information for early Rome. Dramatic performance recreating “historical” events and personalities on a regular basis, Greek historical traditions, and competing family sources and propaganda—all had their role to play in inventing early Roman history. Otherwise, we have to accept that this information was preserved almost solely in a highly unreliable oral tradition and perhaps through some written records that aren’t extant for the most part and may never have existed to begin with. For those who would doubt the capacity of a society to create (or, rather, regularly to recreate) a tradition for itself, I would suggest reading Michael Flower’s important article about the “invention of tradition” in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta, an invention that employs techniques and ideas developed by historians of later periods.5 I see no reason why one can’t apply the “invention of tradition” theory to early Rome. As both Wiseman and Flower point out, we may lose some of what we thought we knew about these societies, but at least we’ll be gaining vital information about how the ancients themselves conceived of their past and present. More importantly, we won’t be kidding ourselves anymore about what we “know” about their history. This said, there are some flaws in this book and in Wiseman’s methods. Given the book’s nature, visible “seams” result from stitching together previously published articles with some new material under common theses. For example, there is a large amount of repetition of elements of the arguments presented (e.g., the Senate’s refusal to recognize the Floralia is noted several times). Also, his main thesis, that the evidence is flimsy and so has to be “teased out,” can lead him into building his arguments with some suppositions that are rather hard to accept. This is particularly so given the inadequacy of our sources of early Rome—which is, of course, one of the primary theses of the book. For example, on p. 72, Wiseman accepts Polybius’ account (6.25.3-4) of how the early Roman cavalry was armed (covered only in loin-cloths!), when this suits his purposes. And, on p. 76, he implies that Ovid ( Met. 15.627) has accurately recorded one of the symptoms of a disease from 290s BC, again when this fits his argument. One can’t help thinking that this kind of inconsistency would have been weeded out if the book were not in the main an assembly of previously published material.

These observations, however, do not seriously challenge the fact that this is an important book, and that scholars dealing with early Rome will have to grapple with its basic arguments, even if they don’t agree with them. As far as I’m concerned, the proverbial ball is now in the court of those who believe in the basic truth about the tradition of early Rome.

Chapter List: those with an asterisk (*) are new or partially new chapters *1. Unwritten Rome
*2. What Can Livy Tell Us?
3. Fauns, Prophets and Ennius’ Annales
4. The God of the Lupercal
5. Liber: Myth, Drama and Ideology in Republican Rome
6. The Kalends of April
*7. Summoning Jupiter: Magic in the Roman Republic
8. Origines ludorum
9. The Games of Flora
10. The Games of Hercules
11. Praetextae, Togatae and Other Unhelpful Categories
12. Octavia and the Phantom Genre
13. Ovid and the Stage
14. The Prehistory of Roman Historiography
15. History, Poetry and the Annales
*16. The House of Tarquin
17. The Legend of Lucius Brutus
*18. Roman Republic, Year One


1. I found only two typos: on p. 75, the Battle of Sentinum was in 295, not 205 BC; and on p. 159, Valerius Antias wrote in the middle of the first century BC, not AD.

2. F. Zevi, “Demarato e I re ‘corinzi’ di Roma,” in A. Storchi Marino (ed.), L’incidenza dell’antico: Studi in memoria di Ettore Lepore, I (Naples 1995) 291-314.

3. See, e.g., articles in C. Faraone and L. McClure (edd.), Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (Madison, WI 2006), and now S. Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge 2008).

4. As proposed by P. Kragelund, Prophecy, Populism, and Propaganda in the “Octavia” (Copenhagen 1982) 38-54, and T. Barnes, “The Date of the Octavia” MH 39 (1982) 215-17.

5. M. Flower, ” The Invention of Tradition in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta” in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (edd.), Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (Oakville CT 2002) 191-218.