Monday, 1 March 2021

The Fall (Roman Republic) 1.The Early Republic

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The area that Rome controlled was said to reach a peak in 117 AD, but it was during the Republic (510 BC till 27 BC) that Rome had its greatest growth, starting from a small fortified town surrounded by powerful neighbours, to become the foremost Western power.

It was also during the Republic that Rome overcome some of its greatest external challenges. While it lost a few spectacular battles, it always returned quickly to become stronger than ever.

Death of Mus, Rubens (sacrificial charge 3rd Samnite war)

By the end of the middle Republican period (133 BC), Rome was continuing to grow in wealth and power. Its arts and building programmes were the envy of the world. It faced no credible external threat and yet something deep in the beating heart of the Republic was dying. 

It would cause the Republic to fall (even while Rome was already the greatest city of its time and was continuing to till growing).

The Republics fall can be seen from different aspects, but most agree. 

The Republic was ruined by its own success.

To understand how this could have happened, we need to start with Roman society and culture in the early Roman Republic from its beginning in 509 BC and then trace it through the middle and late Republican periods. 

I will attempt to be brief, but no discussion of Rome's history would be complete without at least some mention of her wars.


The culture, Early Republic (509 BC -264 BC)


An austere society based on an agrarian lifestyle

Romans, in common with most early people,  mostly lived on small, self-sufficient farms that surrounded their town. It was the Roman farmers tilling their rich volcanic soil that formed the core of their citizen’s militia and Romans were inordinately proud of their agrarian roots.

In the late republic, Cicero declared "of all the occupations … none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man." Cato the Elder, writing slightly later stated that the highest praise for an early Roman was being a “good husband (and a) good farmer”. He went on to say that “It is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come.”

To the patricians, running a farm was the most worthy occupation and the success of the farm was a great source of pride. 

Farming was the only activity that a senator could engage in, and there were several early legends of great heroes leaving their ploughs (sometimes reluctantly) to lead Rome.

Cincinnatus leaves his plough (Juan Antonio Ribera)

The early Roman character was also one of austerity. 

Even in the midst of a military triumph, a victorious general must conduct himself with dignified humility at all times. The Roman moral code abhorred extravagance, and (during wartimes) laws were enacted to prevent Roman wives from wearing too much fine clothes and jewellery.

A militaristic society

From the very first, Rome was a militaristic society. Serving in the army was both a duty and a privilege. At first it was unpaid. 

Poorer men might be drafted in  extreme circumstance, and less well armed. This became less over time. Usually soldiers had to have a minimal level of wealth before they could join the army . This allowed them to provide their own equipment and pay for some of their expenses. Not only this, they had to pay an extra tax to fund the war they were fighting in.

The militia was central to civic life. Any patrician wanting a a career in administration had to serve ten years in the army. The people’s assembly (the comitia centuriata) was organised to parallel the civilian army, with most votes going to those who would be senior in the army.

The greatest achievement any Roman leader could aspire to was a ‘Roman Triumph’ decked out in a special toga and riding on a chariot in front of his army, captives, and the spoils of war (the ceremony followed by prayers to Jupiter, celebrations and games). 

A Roman triumph

As was said, he had to conduct himself with dignified humility and it was traditional for the troops to call friendly insults to their general (to prevent overweening pride). The triumph was not just an individual's but the republic’s, dedicated to the gods and ancestors, 

Cursus honorum (the ‘road to honours’) 

Embarking on the path to senior public service started with ten years of military service (at least as an equestrian, if not a more senior officer) and then gaining election as a quaestor (treasurer to supervise financial accounts) and then on to more senior positions. At first one had to reach a certain age before being eligible to advance to the next step.

 ‘Just wars’, the Roman ideal. 

While wars and military glory were an essential part of the Roman aristocratic ethos, their religion mandated that they only fight ‘just’ wars.

This was overseen by special priests of Jupiter called fetiales.

‘Ius fetiale’ were the ancient rules for declaring a ‘just’ war and included self-defence, a broken treaty  or being called to assist others.

Wars motivated by greed or wrongful treatment of allies could result in divine displeasure which would be disastrous.

‘Ius fetiale’ lead to the concept of ‘jus ad bellum’, or ‘justice in making war’.

The accounts of Rome’s early expansion were written hundreds of years later and always cast Rome’s opponents in the role of aggressor so Cicero, writing in the late republic, claimed “our people, through repeatedly defending their allies, have ended up as master of the world.”

The Roman historian Livy wrote: “there was one nation in the world which would fight for the liberties of others at its own cost, with its own labour, and at its own danger. It was even ready to cross the sea to make sure there was no unjust rule anywhere and that everywhere justice, right, and law would prevail.”

Rome, an expansionist society. 

There is more than a hint of Roman jingoism in the above views. 

Some Romans even suggested their civilization and their political system was so superior that they were doing subject nations a favour by invading them, other Romans claimed they were so successful because their cause was always 'just' and favoured by the Gods .

The truth was that Rome was always looking for an excuse to conquer. In the world they lived in, it was not hard to find someone ready to attack them , or a border dispute. 

If that didn't work, they were happy to be invited in to help in someone else's dispute. 

Those on a losing side soon knew to appeal  that they could appeal for Roman help. Of course, there was a cost. An ally  (or even a distant city) in need would soon find both itself and it enemies under Roman domination (usually subject to an expertly designed treaty rather than directly ruled at first).

Some, amongst Roman leaders, became adept at bending their own self-imposed rules. Treaties were sometimes cleverly manipulated to put unfriendly neighbours at a disadvantage.

And, once Romans marched to war, resistance to their military was usually punished by sacking, a payment of gold,  taking some citizens as slaves and a harsher treaty. If a subject nation rose in rebellion ( broke a treaty) it was punished particularly cruelly.

Having said all this, at least for a time, the Roman ideal of honourable war (enforced by the senate) put a limit on the worst of any manifest greed, abuse of power or desire for war.

Those cities that surrendered early ‘in good faith’ (trusting Roman fairness) or ‘before the ram reached the city gate’ were treated much more lightly. The Roman yolk on them was usually light with self-governance, reasonable taxes and providing troops to booster the Roman war machine. 

Allies were treated honourably, especially at first.

Honour, the glue that held the early Republic together

For the early Romans, service was both a duty and an honour. Their leaders were expected to live up to the Roman ideal in both their private and public life.

'Auctoritas' and the two types of power

In the Early Republic, wealth alone did not bring prestige. Power alone did not bring prestige. 

What early Roman politicians especially strived for was called 'auctoritas', a sort of moral authority, resulting in the people’s trust. In legends, the auctoritas their heroes projected had an almost mystic quality.  

Protestas, was the legal power of a Roman magistrate (or the pater familias within a family) but protestas could not be exerted without auctoritas.

Much of the power of the senate came from its prestige as a body of elders. This authority was called auctoritas patrum, ‘father’s authority’.

 Mos maiorum, ‘the way of the ancestors’.

The ideal of how a Roman man should behave was founded in ancestor worship, acting in line with what they believed were ancestral ideals. 

Romans had shrines in their house for ancestors, special feast days and prayed to their ancestors for approval and advice.  Upsetting the ancestors would usually result in serious misfortune (like a failed harvest, or a disaster in battle).

The Mos Maiorum, 'the way of the ancestors', was the ideals of discipline, dignity and self control , respect for the Gods, trustworthiness, virtue and honour.

It lead to Regimen Morum, the ‘mores’ of the Republic.

Romans took living up to these ideals so seriously that enforcing the Regimen Morum amongst the leaders and upper classes became an important part of the work of what was called the Roman 'Censors'.

These two ‘magistrates’ (coming from the Roman word for ‘master’) were tasked with running the ‘census’ to determine the wealth of individuals. Along with social class, citizens needed minimum wealth to serve in certain groups within the army, (officer, knight, or infantry). It determined how much equipment they must supply, how much tax they paid, how much their vote counted in the people’s assembly and whether they were eligible for certain positions like the Senate.

The censors not only appointed senators, they were able to sanction (‘censure’) or even remove those from the senate, patrician or equestrian class who (in their opinion) did not live up to the Regimen Morum, the mores of the Republic.

The blind Cieco, famous Roman Censor

These unacceptable behaviours might not always be illegal or may have been already been punished by Roman courts but they included many things that we would recognise today as likely to offend public opinion.

They also included things like celibacy, neglect of one’s fields (or one’s horse for an ‘equestrian’), extravagant living, cruelty (towards slaves, dependents or clients) or excessive indulgence of children.

Carrying out a disreputable occupation like acting in theatres was unacceptable for nobles, and hence would result in punishment.

The censors were both judge and jury. The only limit to their power was that they had to both agree. For a time the office became very prestigious, usually awarded to former consuls. 

Roman morality was inherently conservative, backward looking, and a major pre-occupation of the early ruling class.

A Patriarchal Society

Rome’s social organisation was based on tribe/extended family with a strong, patriarchal, head (usually the oldest living male of a clan) called the ‘pater familias’.

The main limit on patriarchal power over family members money and personal lives was not a legal one, especially not at first. It was the social and internal pressure for leaders to behave in accordance with the Roman concept of honour.

The almost absolute power over social inferiors (and the loyalty expected to these senior figures) carried through to the military, the civil ‘magistrates’, the senate and the aristocracy.

Social class

Patricians were members of the noble families.

It is no accident that the term patres means ‘father’ and refers to the many descendants of the legendary 100 founders of the Roman senate. ('Senate' comes from 'senex', the Latin word for ‘old man’).  According to Rome’s founding legend, they were prominent elders, selected to advise the king.

There were three main patrician tribes divided into a total of thirty subdivisions with other prominent families added later.

Positions in the administration, senate, priesthood, senior positions in the military forces were (at first) reserved for patricians. In a way their families were seen as the fathers of Rome. They were the only ones who could vote in the comittia  curiata, the (patrician) people’s assembly which was divided along clan lines.

They dressed to reflect their position. 

Formal dress was the stola for women and the toga (impractical for military and other physical pursuits) for refined men. Senators, senior military figures and ‘magistrates’ had additional prestige as signalled by added purple cloth and wearing special rings.

Roman Toga

‘Equites’ (Equestrians or Roman knights) were a lesser aristocratic and military class. Originally it was (often) a hereditary position (with a horse supplied) but during a crisis it was opened to wealthy plebes and others who had to supply their own horse.

‘Equites’ had certain advantages over ‘plebs’, though not as much as Patricians.

One advantage they had over senators was that they were allowed to engage in non agrarian commercial activities which gave them an advantage in gaining public and army contracts.

Plebians (commoners) were largest group of Roman citizens. A large number had small rural holdings and formed most of the infantry. At first, only patricians could be senior officers.

By 287 BC, after a struggle called the ‘conflict of orders’ , plebians (in theory) gained the same legal rights as patricians. It still remained difficult for someone from an unknown family to acquire high office or a senior position in the army.

Not only that, over time elections became expensive. Senators were not paid. ‘Magistrates’ were often not paid directly or not properly compensated for expenses. As a result, high offices were only accessible to wealthy plebians, who now joined the patricians (initially in small numbers) to form a new ruling class. The plight of the poor had not been solved.   

Freed slaves liberti’ became Roman citizens (plebians) but suffered social stigma. They carried a taint that might take several generations to overcome

The Patronage System

This was an extension of the patriarchal Roman model (with revered and powerful ‘godfathers’) into the relations between the upper and lower classes.

Plebians had less opportunities and were at a significant disadvantage socially, in business or if they were in a dispute with a magistrate or a powerful patrician.

Many aspiring plebs (and some patricians of lower standing) sought the protection and opportunities provided by a 'patron'. Having many visible clients became a mark of prestige and power.

At the closest, ‘cliens’ would give their patrons familial loyalty, including following them to war. The more dependent clientela would meet at a daily morning reception at the home of the patron known as the ‘salutatio’ where they were given their duties, after which they might escort their patron to the forum.

As the Roman ‘magistrates’ began to directly govern conquered provinces, they brought this ‘patronage’ system with them. Local kings and other officials becoming dependent clients of the governor and his legions.

The number of Non-Roman citizens increased markedly as Rome gained success.

This included (Other) Latins who had limited rights but were not full Roman citizens and Peregrini , free-born foreign subjects.

Of course, there was a growing number of Slaves. They were mostly well treated at first, often being taken into the home, but they had few formal rights.

Governance of the republic, citizens assemblies.

The comitia centuriata

The main citizens assembly was called the comitia centuriata and was organised to reflect the initial organisation of the citizens army. It took over a lot of the functions of the patrician’s comittia  curiata which continued in a less important form.

 The comitia centuriata elected the senior roman ‘magistrates’. It passed some laws, and tried some serious cases. Only it could declare war.

The patrician seniors and the ‘equites’ voted first and their votes counted more than the votes of all other citizens. Poor people got no effective vote.

There were less powerful assemblies for communication, debating and campaigning for office and concilium (assemblies of specific group of citizens). 

One such council, the Plebian council (Concilium Plebis) became much more powerful over time as plebian power grew.

Consuls, Praetors and censors

An elected public official was called a ‘magistratus’, ‘magister’ meaning master.

A single dictator could be appointed for brief periods In a military emergency. He needed to be nominated by the consuls on advice by the senate and confirmed by the comitia centuriata. He was given Imperium which was absolute or kingly legal power (it was also used to describe the power of a general in the military) .

The post of dictator became inactive after the second Punic war  218–201 BC after which the Republic no longer faced any credible external threats.

Sulla, the first Roman in the Republic to seize power by force, was elected dictator after his second march on Rome (82 BC). (This was during a time when the rule of law in Roman courts and politics was already falling apart).

 Two consuls were the more usual senior ‘magistrates’, with powers like a king, but (at first) had yearly terms and an inability to be re-elected for another ten years. Each consul could veto the actions of the other so they had to rule by consensus, to further limit their powers. A consul was legally untouchable while in office as they were superior to all other magistrates.

This was still the model of a powerful patriarch (governed by honour and duty) but the Republic (after the experience with Rome’s last king) introduced ways to limit the power that a single man in Rome could get.

By law, consuls could only be patricians. During the conflict of orders when the plebians, for a period, insisted on the right to appoint the two ‘consuls’, they were called ‘consular tribunes’.

As governing Rome began more complex, other lesser magistrates were appointed: ‘praetors’ (literally meaning 'leaders'), propraeters and finally quaestors (treasurers) the most junior rank.

Proconsuls were retiring consuls who were nominated to continue some of their duties perhaps managing a war (but they were answerable to the consuls).

Plebian Tribunes  Part of the initial offer to resolve conflict at the very start of the Republic was the appointment of Plebian tribunes (by 449 BC there was a college of ten).

The body of a tribune was declared ‘sacrosanct’ which meant an offense against their person was an offence against the Gods. Not only that, the plebes also vowed to defend the person of each tribune ‘until death’.

At first plebes could not pass laws that applied to patricians but as they were declared sacrosanct, they could interpose their person (and then their will) to stop abuse of patrician power in the courts or the senate.

This was called the power of ‘veto’ (Latin ‘I forbid’).

They had to be physically present to do this, and their power ceased if they travelled more than one mile from the city.

Military expansion during the Early Republic

The last three kings of Rome were Etruscans and according to the founding legend, Etruscans were part of Rome from the beginning.

In the last quarter of the 6th century BC, the northern Etruscans were at their height, dominating the Latins and reaching as far as the Greek colony of Cumae in the south. By the time of the Republic, Etruscan power was waning and Rome had emerged as the strongest of the local Latins.

The Republic’s first two major wars were against Fidenae  (435 BC), a town near Rome originally held by the Etruscans but sometimes held by Rome , and then Veii (396 BC) , an important local Etruscan town that had once held hegemony over Rome.

Then the Gauls sacked Rome (390BC) and it took Rome s few decades to regain her former strength. 

The Latin league (in 340–338 BC) fought an unsuccessful war to establish their independence from a resurgent Rome.

 Cumae (once the greatest Greek colony in Italy) had been already been sacked (by the Oscans and Samnites in 421 BC) and the conclusion of the Latin wars gave Rome dominance over the central part of the west coast as far as Cumae.

Following on this, Rome grew quickly with colonisation and conquest, pushing further south (along the coast) and north against the Etruscans.

Rome’s reasons for first going to war with the Samnites are highly suspect. Even Livy admits that they were an ally (and a rival) of Rome at the time. They were besieging the wealthy city of Capua (not an ally) and seemingly were close to taking possession of it.

According to Livy the city, asked for Roman help and was rebuffed. They then offered their city unconditionally to the Romans. 

It was a very doubtful decision on moral grounds, but the Romans found it an offer too good to refuse. While the Romans sent emissaries (fetiales) to the Samnites, inviting them to withdraw, the Samnites were not pleased.

What followed were three hard fought wars (343 BC-290 BC), over half a century, where Rome with some lesser allies faced Samnites, Etruscans, Greeks, Sabines and others, even a few Gauls. The result gave Rome control of all central Italy from east to west. She was now the most powerful force in Italy.

 The Pyrrhic wars (280–275 BC) then gave her all the remaining former Greek colonies and Southern Italy.

She had already began to move against the last major Etruscan power (Volsinii) in 310 BC and the next eight years saw her mopping up residual Etruscan  resistance.

Now, mainland Italy (apart from a few Gauls (celts) on the Italic side of the alps) was all hers. 

It was 264 BC and Rome was on the brink of launching the first war against the Carthaginians. 

Next month’s blog will discuss the middle Republican period, beginning with an unjust war against Carthage. At the end, Rome had occupied Carthage, Macedonia and Greece. It had forced the large Seleucid Empire out of Greece and what is now the western coast of Turkey, forcing it to pay costly war reparations.

Despite this external success, Roman society was showing the signs of moral decay that would later spell the end of the Republic. 

The Middle Republican Period ends in 133 BC. It doesn't end with another great war or battle, but with the murder of a single man, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. 

He was the older of two brothers, a Plebian Tribune and a champion of the poor. He was trying to battle the corruption, selfishness and obstructionism of the Senate so he could help the poor and army veterans.

The last of this series deals with some of the events of the late republic. The last hundred years (133–31 BC) as Rome became consumed with the political use of force and murder, leading to military coups, dictators and civil wars.


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Sunday, 1 November 2020

The Last King of Rome

 The last King of Rome and the dawn of the Republic.

Lucius Tarquinus Superbus (Superbus meaning ‘the proud’) was the seventh and last king of Rome (reigned 335 BC-309 BC). It is not clear whether he is the son or grandson of the fifth king, also called Lucius Tarquinus, but with the epithet Priscus (‘the elder’).  After six ‘good’ kings, Superbus was said to be unmitigated villain (by his enemies).

Background, Roman Government

The power in ancient Rome was always concentrated in a powerful executive with broad powers. During the ‘Monarchy’ this was the king. They were mainly appointed, and it was for life.

In Republican times consuls and magistrates were appointed by the Senate and there were various curbs on their power.

During the Roman Empire, the Emperor was proclaimed by the army (and sometimes by ‘the mob in the street’) and this was then ratified by the Senate, sometimes with a degree of coercion. Some of the Emperors managed to successfully nominate their own successor, but succession could be and often was a bloody affair.

The Senate was the second most powerful institution in Rome and reached the height of its power about mid-way through the Republic.

The Senate was a council of ‘patriarchs’(leaders) of the prominent tribes or main family groups. 'Senate’ comes from 'senex’ old man, or elder so the original term meant a council of Elders to advise the King, though it had its own customary powers and functions

Later it included appointed magistrates (and war time leaders) still drawn (usually exclusively) from the Patrician class. During the time of the second last king, Servius, he expanded it to include less prominent families /tribes and he created a tribe for the commoners (the Plebeians).

As a result, the Senate was almost exclusively Patrician until late in the Republican with the rising power of the Plebs.

From the first, there were various people’s assemblies, presided over by a magistrate (mostly a Patrician), and at first they were limited to tribes (families/ clans) and hence they were dominated by the Patrician class.

 In general, the people’s assemblies had fairly limited power until late in the Republican era when the Plebeian assembly became a focus of power and anger at the ruling class and ‘the plebs’ began demanding the right to elect their own tribunes and magistrates, judge cases and pass laws (plebiscites). 

In the army, that same anger fostered the rise of military strong-men which eventually saw the end of the Republic (as discussed above).

 Emperors, Kings in everything but name

The first few Roman Emperors had many titles, but were at pains to portray themselves as 'Princeps Senatus', the leader of the Senate rather than the ‘king’(Latin, rex). For a long time they maintained an illusion that the Republic remained both alive and well.

Their absolute powers over government and the military meant they were kings in everything but name, and they were informally referred to as 'Basileus' (the Greek word for King). Basileus as a name for the Emperor didn't creep into official use until well into the time of the Greek -speaking Byzantine Empire.

A Tale of two women

The story of the rise of the last three (‘Etruscan’) kings of Rome begins with two clever but very different women.


The first is Tanaquil, the daughter of a powerful Etruscan family who was wife to Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. 

Her Etruscan name meant ‘Gift of Grace’ and on arriving in Rome, she took the name Gaia Caecilia (both from the Etruscan word for ‘happy’ and probably referring to her marriage to Priscus).

She was regarded as the model of womanly virtue, skilled in the domestic arts, particularly spinning and weaving, and credited with the origin of various Roman wedding customs. After her death, she was deified as a Goddess of healing and womanly virtue. 

Early Romans, like many others, venerated their ancestors who were considered immortal, so maybe deification might not have been such a  big step as it sounds. Maybe it resembled the veneration of a saint in some respects. (After all , Vesta was the main Goddess of the hearth).

Anyway, in addition to the above qualities, Tanaquil was educated in healing and the Etruscan arts of augury and prophecy. Because her husband had a Greek father, he couldn’t gain office amongst the Etruscans, and she convinced him to move to Rome. 

Legend has it that on his arrival, an eagle took his cap, flew away and then returned it back upon his head which Tanaquil interpreted as an omen of his future greatness.

The king himself noticed her husband and appointed him as the guardian of his own sons. After the King’s death, Tarquin addressed the people’s assembly and convinced them to elect him as king.

When he was assassinated (by the sons of the previous King during a staged riot), Tanaquil pretended he was still alive and appointed Servius Tullius, (another Etruscan) from her household, as regent. This allowed Servius Tullius to become king.

Tanaquil backed this up with tales of previous omens that she had ‘kept secret’, and she later allowed him to marry her daughter.

Tullia (Minor)

Now fast forward to a very different woman.

It was not uncommon in early Roman times for women to take a feminised version of their father’s (or 
husband’s) name. As a result, two of Servius Tullius’s daughters are only known as ‘Tullia major’ (the eldest, married to Lucius Tarquinius Superbus) and ‘Tullia Minor’ (married to his brother Arruns).

Tulia driving over her father, by Chairi

The younger sister was fierce and ambitious and was said to have conspired with Tarquin to murder Tullia Major and Arruns, so they could marry each other instead. She then encouraged her new husband to usurp Servius’s (her father’s) throne. When he had enough support, Superbus surrounded himself with armed men and sat on the throne, summoning the senators.

Servius hurried to confront him but the younger man flung him down the steps into the street and then had him set upon. As Tullia minor was driving home, she saw her father dying in the street and seized the reins from her chariot driver and spurred her horse and chariot over her father's corpse, spattering her dress with his blood.

Tarquin refused to bury the Servius, and then put to death a number of leading senators, whom he suspected of remaining loyal to the dead king. He continued to rule without the senate, judging capital crimes himself which lead men to fear opposing him.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus as king

Superbus’s rule allegedly became known for arrogance and treachery, sacking various neighbouring towns to fund the building of temples while demolishing ancient Sabine shrines. 

Some of his (other) more infamous deeds include: 

1.      hiding swords in the house of one of his opponents and then accusing him at a meeting of Latin leaders of a plot to kill him. The swords were found and the accused man was executed by placing him in a deep well and putting a wooden frame on his head and throwing stones on top of the frame until he drowned.

2.      When he couldn’t conquer a Latin town,  Gabii, he got his son, Sextus to submit to flogging and then go there complaining of mistreatment by his father. Sextus was soon a leading citizen with command of the army. He sent a messenger to his father to inquire how he should deliver the city into his hands. The king, who was walking in his garden made no reply, but kept striking off the heads of the tallest poppies with his stick. Sextus took the hint, and put to death, or banished on false charges, all the leading men of Gabii, after which he had no difficulty in compelling the city to submit.

Talk about the tall poppy syndrome!

Superbus sacked several cities , bringing the wealth back to Rome to fund various building projects. It is said that when the populace became disenchanted with the cost, he again turned to conquest, this time Ardea, 35 kilometres to the south of Rome.

During the siege, it is said, that the bored young noblemen began drinking and comparing their wives.

Rape of Lucretia, Vecelli

Secret visits found that it was  Sextus’s cousin's wife, Lucretia, who was the most beautiful and the most dutiful. Struck by her beauty, Sextus returned to rape her with threats.

She later confessed what happened to her husband and then suicided. The (patrician) people’s assembly was called, and for this and other excesses, Tarquin’s ‘imperium’ was revoked. He was to be exiled and twin consuls appointed to rule Rome (with an election each year to limit their power).

When word of the uprising reached the king, he abandoned Ardea, and sought support from his Etruscan and Latin allies to march on Rome. Several attempts by him to regain his throne resulted in desperate battles. The most famous one was the assault by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena which led to the heroic deeds of Publius Horatius Cocles defending the bridge across the Tiber, allowing the Romans to retreat and the bridge be destroyed behind him.

Sextus was murdered by fellow Latins, and Superbus eventually went into exile in the Greek colony, Cumae, south of Rome.

But is this really what happened ?

The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused”.

an oft repeated adage, paraphrased by  Hermann Göring at his Nuremburg trial

As mentioned in the last blog, we have no written record of this time. For hundreds of years the only versions available were colourful tales often told by professional story tellers.

Adding to this, the victorious senators would have been keen to besmirch the reputation of the last king, as far as they could. All those who later gained power in the new Republic would hardly be interested in rehabilitating his reputation. Despite all this, Superbus hardly seems pure and innocent.

At the very least, he suppressed  the Senate. He likely murdered opponents. Of course this was the sharper edge of politics at the time. In a similar way, as soon as he was displaced, the rebels began killing his supporters for 'treason'.

Were the previous kings so much better?

Priscus was assassinated, partly by a mob led by the sons of the previous king.

And if Servius was such a great and popular king, how could he be so easily displaced, to die in the streets, alone and friendless, abandoned even by his own servants, and then driven over by his own daughter?

Some Patricians were involved in the plots to unseat the last three kings. Ambition had to play a part in this. Perhaps Superbus bypassing the Senate challenged powerful Patrician factions.

Furthermore, while I am not an expert,  I don't think it would be easy for Tulia to get her horses to trample a corpse lying in the streets. And if Lucius Tarquinus Superbus secretly hid swords in the house of an opponent to frame him, how do we find this out (if it was a secret)?

Lastly,  Lucius Tarquinus Superbus didn’t seem to lack friends in his attempts to retake his throne, maybe he wasn’t as unpopular as we have been led to believe.

Horatius (by Hendrick Golltzius)
As much as we all love the legend of Horatius holding the bridge (with two others and then alone when they were injured) it was very unlikely. The Etruscans knew about bows and arrows and it was said that he swam back to safety in full armour while arrows were falling all around him. 

There is also doubt as to whether the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena was acting for Superbus in his attack on Rome and maybe he wasn't beaten back. In one version he briefly occupied Rome.

Whatever really happened , this was a fight between the king and the senate and in this case the senate won. It was the end of the Roman kings and affected politics in Rome for many hundreds of years to come.

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Friday, 18 September 2020

The Kings of Rome, Fact or fiction?

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Romulus and Remus, Capitoline Museum, Rome

 There are no 
written records from the time the kings of Rome were said to rule, and the accounts of this time are so obscured by myth that it is impossible to say definitely whether they existed at all. 

Italy in the Early Iron Age.

Italy, in the Bronze Age, did not reach the level of sophistication of other Mediterranean regions. The closest it came was the Nuragic civilisation on the island of Sardinia (the Med’s second largest island) but on the mainland, the largest settlements were little more than large villages. Even these latter slightly more advanced local cultures were completely lost in the Bronze Age collapse.

The turmoil, power vacuum and people movements of the Bronze Age collapse (1200-1250 BC), and its aftermath, resulted in a large influx of various new people to Italy both by land and sea. Meanwhile, Greece was plunged into 'the Greek Dark Ages', which lasted through to about 800 BC. 

Early Iron Age settlements in Italy were typically small and decentralised. The biggest were on fortified hill tops or coastal regions. Most were not more than a thousand souls each. They relied primarily on agriculture, with some metallurgy, cottage industries and various trading.

 One of the (Indo-European) newcomers was a small tribe called the Latini and by about one thousand BC they occupied a relatively modest triangle of relatively flat land that was later called ‘Latium vetus’ (Old Latium). .

‘Latium’ most likely meant ‘broad, plains’ (relative to the surrounds) and ‘Latini’ meant ‘people of the plains’.

Latium in the 5th Century BC, Wiki

‘Old Latium’ was on the west coast, just at the southernmost tip of the growing Etruscan region. It stretched between the river Tiber and the promontory of  Mount Cicero which is  100 km (62 mi) southeast of modern day Rome.

Things began to change around 960 BC as the region emerged from the BA collapse. The large  island of Euboea, just off the Greek mainland, had survived better than the other parts of Greece and in the 8th century BC (south of Rome) it established  Cumae, the first and greatest of what would become many Greek colonies in Sicily and Southern Italy (that would remain independent through till Roman conquest).

Latium Vetus sat on the southern edge of the (non Indo-European) ‘Etruscan’ region (now called Tuscany) which, for a time, become the most sophisticated local culture. This placed the Latini on an important land and sea trading route between the Greeks and the Etruscans (and above the Etruscans were the industrious Celts who had moved into Northern Italy). 

Rome started as an easily defensible hill-fort, with the control of an important ford across the Tiber River (for trade both along the coast and inland). It was surrounded by a wide fertile plain of rich volcanic soil, and so the early town thrived.

The arrival of the new Greeks brought one of the early Greek  alphabets ('Euboean'). All the early Italic alphabets (including early Latin script, 700 BC) have been derived from an Etruscan adaptation which occurred quite early, about 800 BC.

The Roman Kingdom is traditionally dated from 753 BC–509 BC (I’ll discuss this later).  Unfortunately, despite the re-discovery of writing, no records survive from this period, and very few inscriptions.

The supreme priest of Rome was called ‘Pontifex maximus’. This title literally meant he was the ‘greatest bridge builder’ (to the Gods). He was in charge of augury, festivals and religious dogma and his office also kept the main records of the time (called, not too surprisingly, the Annales maximi ).

Most of these records were destroyed when the city (under Republican rule) was sacked by the ‘Gauls’ (a confederation of continental Celtic tribes) in 387 BC. The rest were lost to theft and time. 

One of the earliest writers to attempt to document Rome’s early days (Cato the Elder, 234 BC-149 BC) complained that the only records he could obtain were obsessed with recording harvests. Sadly, only fragments of his historical thesis, ‘the Origines’, remain. 

Later Roman writers had to rely on oral traditions derived from story tellers, people who, over the centuries, made a living telling (improbable but) highly entertaining tales.

This is fortunate for those who prefer their myth and fantasy (with Gods and omens, tragic and inspiring tales) unencumbered by historical fact, but it is not helpful for those who wanted to know what really happened.

Romulus (first King of Rome) and his twin brother (Remus) were said to be born of the God Mars and a vestal virgin. They were abandoned to die in the wilderness on orders of the King of Alba Longa (who had displaced their grandfather as king). One version was that the God raped their mother, and the Goddess Vesta was more than a little miffed at her for getting pregnant. 

Of course, maybe the new king didn’t want two sons of a war god to later challenge his throne.

frieze, Certosa di Pavia monastery

The twins were suckled by a she-wolf (sent by the River God, Tiberius) and then were found and raised by a shepherd with no knowledge of their regal and divine heritage. 

They later regained their grandfather’s throne for him and then journeyed with a small group of warriors from Alba Longa to establish the new city of Rome on a virgin hilltop (the Palatine hill, which would later become the central of Rome's seven hills).

Romulus used a plough to mark out the boundary of his new city but before (or soon after) this happened, he argued with and killed his greatest rival, his twin brother, Remus.

Romulus was not the only Roman king that was claimed to have divine connections. 

The second king, Numa Pompilius created an immense opus of religious laws and customs, established temples and created various other institutions. He was said to be very wise, received many portents and spoke directly to various Godsbut his main source was ‘Egeria’, a nymph or minor Goddess, who dictated most of the laws of Rome. 

All Numa had to do was write them down each night.

Egeria dictating the laws of Rome, Ulpiano Checa

Servius Tullius, the second last king of Rome, in one version, was conceived when his mother (also a vestal virgin) was penetrated by a disembodied phallus that rose from a sacred hearth she was tending.

According to its founding legend, Rome was established as a sort of colony of Alba Longa, the previous foremost city of the Latini but it certainly didn’t behave as if it was a recent colony. 

Under her third king, Rome not only defeated its mother city but destroyed it so thoroughly that we don't know for sure where it ever was.

Alba Longa, in turn, was founded in myth (about 1200 BC) by ‘Aeneas’, a Trojan prince, and his son. Aeneas’s mother was Aphrodite (Venus), another divine connection.  

Aneas fleeing burning Troy, Fredrico Barocci

 He was a minor character in Homer’s epic, notable for his piety and the fact that that he (carrying his lame father), and his small band, was one of the few said to have escaped from the sack of Troy. His first wife was killed in the attempt.
His story is taken up in Virgil’s (‎29–19 BC) Epic Poem ‘the Aeneid’

My favourite tale from King Romulus’s time is ‘the Rape of the Sabine women’

Not for the actions of the early Latin men, though, but for the heroism of the women.

The Sabines were another Italic (Indo-European) tribe with settlements near the Latini as well as in the Apennine mountains. The story goes that Rome was mostly established by men, and none of the local settlements wanted to ‘supply them’ with women. Romulus held a festival at Rome, but it was a ruse. At a signal from him, his men grabbed any eligible women, most of which were Sabines.

A few apologists suggest that this was not rape, that the Latin term ‘raptio’ means large-scale abduction of women. They also argued Romulus treated the women well, and they were not slaves.

From a twenty first century point of view’ such distinctions seem a little disingenuous, but the new women of Rome certainly proved themselves both brave and loyal. Led by Hersilia (Romulus’s wife) they threw themselves between the Romans and an army of Sabines in the heat of battle.

Hersilia (excerpt), Jacques-Luoise David 

Livy (writing sometime between 27 and 9 BC) takes up the story.

... from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other.”

It couldn’t have happened like this. The delay in the Sabine’s coming to claim what was ‘theirs’ was, by some accounts, so long that it allowed the women to have children. 

Anyway, when Romulus eventually disappeared into a whirlwind to become the God Quirinus (or was murdered by senators), Hersilia fell into such a state of deep mourning that she, too, was taken into the heavens to become the Goddess Hora (Ovid, ‘Metamorphoses’, 8 AD).

The tales of the early Roman kings are as rich enough to rival the Arthurian Tales of England and other great Epics. They are sufficiently detailed that the ancient historians calculated a detailed time line, with the founding of Rome estimated to occur on April 21, 753 B.C. 

At first these myths were by and large accepted as authoritative accounts. Even now, discuss the foundation of Rome and the old myths are quickly trotted out, sometimes with a footnote suggesting the Roman kings may have been completely mythical. 

This doesn't give a sense of just how fanciful the earliest accounts are.

Rome was already there

Rome could not have been established in 753 BC on a virgin site. The Palatine Hill was occupied throughout pre-history, and there is clear evidence of occupation in the 10th century BC. Archaeologists have found pottery and a wall to divert spring water, which have been dated to the ninth century BC, indicating there was already a substantial town there at that time.

But Rome was a village, not a city in the early times

If Rome already existed, the other problem applies.

Romulus was said to be able to defeat sequential armies firstly from several nearby Latin towns, the Etruscan town of Fidenae and then an army of Sabines. Most of the early ‘Romans’ would live on surrounding farms rather than within the town/hill-fort itself, but even so this seems to be quite a challenge for the town Rome would have been at that time. 

It would be completely impossible if we apply the foundation myth (new town on virgin site) at face value.

Some of the institutions and buildings referred to in the foundation myth, from Romulus’s time and onwards, would require a significant, urbanised settlement. Archaeological records suggests Rome didn’t reach urbanisation until 625 BC.

The British historian specialising in Rome, Tim Cornell, suggested the time-line laboriously worked out by the ancients, and seen by them as definitive work, was completely wrong. He estimated the regal period was only from 625-509 BC, half the period claimed (753–509 BC). He suggested that the estimated time each monarch ruled was too long compared if one compared it with kings we do know about.

Further to all of this, Rome was likely not named after Romulus at all. It was probably the reverse. There are a few possibilities, but ‘Rumon’ was an ancient name for the Tiber, related to the Latin verb ruō 'to hurry, rush'.


Unless evidence emerges to the contrary, the only reasonable conclusion is that Romulus was a completely fictitious character.

How about Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome?

Numa Pompilius's name comes from Greek  nómos meaning 'law or custom', and pompilius meaning 'the fifth' (in one Italic dialect). To cut a rather long story short, 'his' accumulated work seems to be very much the work of more than one man.

 If there ever was a single man called 'Numa Pompilius', he was unlikely to have been a king. He never led the small settlement in battle and 'his' work more resembles the accumulated records of several chief priests/magistrates. 

His reported actions were establishing endless temples and religious observances, the office of  Pontifex Maximus and some civil institutions. The supposedly massive body of laws (and customs) were especially religious. 

The Chief Priest (Pontifex Maximus) obtained advice from, and interpreted the will of, the Gods. They were obviously powerful (and somewhat educated) figures in Rome’s pre-history. Any assembly of leaders was called within the temple. It may have been the chief Priest who settled disputes and sometimes governed the people, before Rome had kings.

Numa was described as an aesthetic man, a Sabine, and in legend Sabines were related to the Spartans. He was said to have ordered his written works buried with him, suggesting it was better to rely on the living memory of priests. 

There is another legend (according to Livy) that four or five hundred years later and by accident, his works were found. After examination by several bodies, the books were ordered burnt by the Senate as too  'dangerous to religion' (Wiki). 

Fanatics (and this can include religious fanatics) can give rise to some of the most dangerous dictatorships known to mankind. Fourteen books, a massive collection of law, custom and philosophy dictated by a Goddess were seen as far, far, too dangerous and powerful for humble humans to possess, let alone read.   

The ‘third’ King of Rome

Tullus Hostilius  is more likely to have been an historical figure, in that 'he' gave his name to the ‘Curia Hostilia’. This building was a meeting place for the senators and was converted from an Etruscan temple. It stood at the edge of the forum (which itself was an open-air meeting place and market at that time).

The Etruscans and Sabines contributed to the population of early Rome, and if the Etruscans do represent (as is suspected) the original Neolithic people of Europe, they might have predated the arrival of the Latini to the region.  

Tullus couldn’t have done what he was credited with unless he lived much later than the 673–642 BC allotted to him by early Roman writers. The remains of the Curia Hostilia has been archaeologically dated to 600BC. Tullus (Rex) was also said to destroy Alba Longa (along with many other military triumphs) and this also happened later than traditionally suggested.

And his family name really was Hostilia but it certainly suited his aggressive military stance. If the

Tullus, from fresco, Capitoline Museum 
accounts of his wars with his neighbours is correct, he set  Rome on the path of aggressive expansion.

So, were the Roman Kings fictitious or not?

There were said to be seven Roman kings.

Romulus seems to be completely mythical, Numa Pompilius was more likely to be a priest. While a lot of his work is lost, if he wasn’t entirely mythical, the reports suggest that he was credited with the accumulated work of several generations of priests (and /or magistrates).

As we move closer to the time of the republic, most historians accept the kings become more likely to be historical figures, though accounts of them remain so stepped in myth it is hard to be absolutely sure.

Adding to this is confusion over which king did what. 

Romulus and Tullus Hostillus were both brought up among shepherds, both carried out a war with Fidenae and Veii, both doubled the number of citizens by bringing in other groups, and both organised the army.

There is a similar confusion over Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (the fifth king) and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (the seventh and last king) but there is a particular reason in their case. The kings were appointed, the office wasn’t hereditary, and yet ‘Superbus’ was the son (or maybe the grandson) of Priscus .

Tarquinius is the Latin version of an Etruscan family name of unknown origin. 

Lucius’ is a common Latin name that some think is related to the Latin verb lucere "to shine". 

In this case, however, the last three kings of Rome were Etruscan and Priscus was often called ‘Lucumo’ which may have been confused with ‘Lucius’, or may even have been the origin of the name. Lucumo is a Latin transliteration of Etruscan Lauchum (or Lauchme) and simply means ‘king’.

Which ever is the case, Priscus ( meaning ‘the Elder’) and Superbus (meaning ‘the Proud’) are epithets, and may have been added later, so there were two (related) kings with the same name.

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In next month’s blog I will discuss Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last, the most hated ( and the most interesting) of the Roman Kings.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Out of Africa 2, Evolution of Homo Sapiens

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Are Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans the same species?

Before talking about the origin of Homo Sapiens, we need to consider (just concentrating on the major groups) whether to include include Neanderthals and their close cousins, the Denisovans.

Neanderthal woman, Bacon Cph 

Neanderthals evolved in Europe and ranged across southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia as far as the mountains at the western edge of Mongolia. They survived until about 40,000 YA. 

The closely related Denisovans (from ‘the cave of Dennis’ in Siberia) were a little more elusive. They ranged mainly across Asia, surviving in New Guinea perhaps as late as 11,500 YA.

 In Western Africa, there were pockets of archaic humans that survived through till at least 13,000 years ago.  

Modern Human DNA across Eurasia and New Guinea contains DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans, indicating ‘AMHs’ (Anatomically Modern Humans) bred with them. Modern African DNA indicates interbreeding with an, as yet unidentified, archaic human.

They have found bone fragments of hybrids: an AMH/ Neanderthal hybrid (in Italy) and a Denisovan/ Neanderthal hybrid (in the above mentioned Siberian cave), both with Neanderthal mothers.  There is a more complete specimen from Romania of a 15-16 year old male with mixed modern and archaic anatomical features dated as recently as 30,000 YA ago.

If AMHs, Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred (and the consensus is that they did) perhaps they  should be part of the same species, they should all be called 'Homo Sapiens', Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis. 

I have considerable sympathy for this view, so I have stuck to the somewhat clumsy term ‘Anatomically modern Humans’ (‘AMHs’) for the African version (rather than Homo Sapiens Sapiens). 

I have to emphasise however, that this is not the consensus. Most see them as separate species and the situation with inter-breeding is not so simple.  

For convenience I will only concentrate on Neanderthals, though Denisovans genes were more successful than the Neanderthal ones. 

Some gene studies have suggested successful interbreeding with Neanderthals might have been uncommon. If this were true, and even if it was just from lack of physical attraction, the further we get from successful interbreeding, the closer we get to them being separate species. 

The Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA

There is no Neanderthal DNA in modern human mitochondria and not a lot in Y chromosomes. This has led some anthropologists to variously suggest that Neanderthal/AMH hybrids were infertile, aborted, or sickly. Again, if this is true, the further away from viable, fertile offspring we get, the closer we are to species separation (‘speciation’).

The mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome stories point in different directions.

Mitochondria are small factories in cells that produce energy and protect the cell from oxidative enzymes. They have their own DNA, which mutates more rapidly than nuclear DNA, and all mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA comes from the mother.

Neanderthal m-DNA is very distinctive. If there is  none in modern humans, it suggests that a hybrid with a Neanderthal mother is less viable or might be infertile, and not the cause of our Neanderthal genes.

Moving back to the DNA found in cell nuclei : women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y.  It is men , through their sperm, that determine the sex of the child.

While there is a mechanism for a pair of chromosomes to sometimes swap matching parts of themselves, sexual reproduction is the main way advanced forms of life have of mixing genes. (Swapping genes can happen between X and Y but not in the sex-linked portion).

So if there is less Neanderthal DNA in the Y chromosome, maybe it is the boys with a Neanderthal father that could have been infertile or have low survival.  

Other reasons for these findings

All these possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive and there are also are other possible factors that might have contributed to these genetic findings.

The above may be due to sampling errors. Gene technology is very new (initial draft for Neanderthal genome May 2010). We have few Neanderthals to test and even fewer hybrids and it is the hybrids which will contain the answer. 

Now we can identify hybrids even from bone fragments, and investigate them, perhaps we can see what really happened.

As mentioned, Neanderthals had fewer numbers than European AMHs (Cro-Magnons). They many have left a smaller genetic footprint from simple dilution.

And yet, there is a darker possibility for our poor Neanderthals and unfortunately it seems to be at least part of the story.  

Neanderthals were a physically robust group and physically well adapted to hostile, changeable climate in the Glacial period. Still, they mostly only lived till 35 whereas Cro-Magnon adults often lived till 50. 

Several studies of Eurasian fossils suggest initial levels of Neanderthal DNA were about 3 times what is seen today and a lot of the surviving Neanderthal DNA is 'non-coding' (so called 'junk' DNA). 

It seems natural selection was particularly brutal towards Neanderthal DNA, and it acted over a relatively short period of time.

Some paleo-geneticists suggest that Neanderthal populations were more in-bred, with harmful or weak genes. Whether this was true or not, there is no doubt Neanderthals were seriously outmatched by AMHs.

They had simpler tools with little adaptation over time and simpler social organisation and clothes whereas AMHs literally specialised in innovation. AMHs made throwing spears 279,000 YA and 130,000 Y.A.. Even before leaving Africa they developed art, pigments, glue, decorations, beads, and multiple tools and traded (obsidian) over 300 KM distances while Neanderthal trade networks were much shorter

By 60-70,000 YA. AMHs had developed hafted tools and bone and stone arrowheads ( 60-70,000 YA).

When AMHs finally left Africa, they were in small numbers (see below) and yet the Neanderthal phenotype lost really badly and fairly quickly, only overlapping Cro-Magnon man by 5,400-12,000 years. 

I won't document all the theories for extinction of Neanderthals, but some suspicion has to fall on the arrival of AMHs, whether they simply 'out competed them' and brought new diseases. There is less support for early theories that they hunted them.  


Another factor that might explain the apparent interbreeding of two 'species' would be the concept of 'chrono-species'. All (or most) of the species of Homo are ‘chrono-species’ (as discussed in last month's blog). 

Take the Chihuahua and the Great Dane. They are sufficiently different that they cannot breed (even if they wanted to). They would be separate species, except that there is a chain of dogs in the middle that allow them to share the same gene pool.

In ‘chrono-species’ there is increasing separation over time and the intermediate links die out, leaving two or more  separate species. When this separation occurs is difficult to say, and if we go back in time to when the species have not fully separated, (for example to advanced versions of H. Erectus and early H. Sapiens), we might very well get interbreeding, though we would consider them different species from the point of view of a latter point in time.

(On the same vein and while we don’t think this is what happened, if AMHs and Neanderthals both bred with an archaic link and not each other, this would allow an exchange of genes while they are separate species).

Back to the question, where did H. Sapiens evolve?

H. Erectus, coming from Africa, colonised a large part of Eurasia starting about 2 million years ago, though in nothing like the numbers of AMHs. 

Where did AMHs evolve?

The earliest specimen of AMHs were found in North Africa  (Jebel Irhoud, Morocco about 300,000 years ago).

At first there was a mix of ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’ features. The modern skull features are a straight high forehead with a box-like head , smaller teeth and a prominent chin. The more ‘archaic features’ involve a thicker skull, the low, receding forehead, a somewhat oval skull, distinct brow-ridges and prognathism.

Over time, AMHs approached something more modern ( e.g. ‘Herto man’, Ethiopia 160,000 years ago progressing to another specimen from Tanzania 120,000 years ago).

They also developed a new (middle) Stone Age tool technology called ‘Aterian’.

AMHs spread to Israel/ Palestine and the Arabian peninsula fairly early. 

These regions had much less desert at the time and shared a number of animals with Northern Africa, the habitats being virtually connected.

The first specimen outside of Africa was a jaw bone fragment found near Mount Carmel in Israel,  dating back to about 190,000 YA. The characteristic Aterian tools have been found in Israel and the Arabian Peninsula also dating to about this time.

There is equivocal evidence (damaged fragments) of a surprisingly advanced form of AMHs in Greece 200,000 YA. 

Characteristic teeth and tools have also been found in China dated to 100,000 YA and modelling suggests AMH genes entering the Neanderthal gene pool around 100,000 YA.

While AMHs probably started in Africa, they would continue to evolve (and swap advantageous genetic adaptations) over the whole of whatever territory they had spread to.  

If it is confirmed that a truly advanced form made it to Greece so long ago, this might challenge the current narrative, but for the moment it seems that AMH first evolved in Northern Africa and spread out (with a mix of archaic and modern features) at least to the adjacent parts of the Middle East.

And then disaster struck (more on this in a minute).

3 models of H. Sapiens evolution

There are three main theories of how Homo Sapiens evolved from H. Erectus.

The multiregional hypothesis, as first described, suggests that so called ‘major racial groups’ arose because H. Sapiens emerged in multiple sites.

 Modern Australasians evolved from an Australasian H. Erectus, and so on. While there are dotted lines at each level allowing genetic mixing, this theory could be used to infer that the separation of modern man into so called ‘racial groups’ is much more ancient and fundamental than it actually is.

The ‘out of Africa’ theory suggests H. Sapiens evolved in Africa and then spread to Eurasia and might have been involved in pushing the other ‘archaic humans’ into extinction. 

Neither of these theories fully match the facts.

The Assimilation model looks a little closer to me: AMHs evolved in Northern Africa and they partly assimilated the archaic humans they came into contact with.

A time of Disaster   

Around 200,000 YA. was a good time for AMHs.

The world had been cooling for tens of millions of years but for that moment was going through a wetter, warmer phase and the Sahara was green. .

Still, from around 350,000 YA (the period when the AMHs, Neanderthals and Denisovans were evolving) the climate was becoming increasingly unstable. It was beginning to alternate between warmer , wetter periods and cold, very dry, periods. 

It would have been a challenging time, and maybe helped spur faster evolution.

Then, around 115,000 YA, the climate turned murderous.

A Glacial Period began in Northern Eurasia (and North America) resulting in shrinking habitats and it lasted through till 11,700 YA.

It was worse than that, the cold diverted rains away from Northern Africa and the Middle East triggering mega-droughts that went on and on and on, with massive desert expansion .

But something worse, far worse, was just about to happen, a great cataclysm.

Around 75,000 YA  Mount Toba in Sumatra  erupted. 

The eruption was 12 times more explosive than the largest volcanic eruption in recent history (the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which caused the 1816 ‘Year without Summer’ in Europe).

Some say it had little impact on the environment, others say it caused a ‘nuclear winter’ (if one can still use a somewhat debated concept). Whether this was the cause or not, this time saw a massive depopulation event, involving several mammalian species.

The groups of AMHs outside of Africa are thought to have died out, any in Europe were later replaced by Neanderthals and back in Africa, they were pushed to the brink of extinction.

Genetic models point to a serious ‘population bottle neck’ in those AMHs that survived in Africa (a sudden reduction in genetic diversity).

It was almost the end for our Anatomically Modern Humans.

Today's humans are said to be descended from a very small population,  between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs (70,000 YA) and the common female ancestor of all living humans on earth (mitochondrial Eve) may have lived as recently as 150,000 YA.

Recent ‘out of Africa’

We now believe that a very small group of AMHs left Africa (this time successfully) 70,000–50,000 years ago and mainly followed the Southern Route to the Arabian Peninsula (sea levels were lower then but water transport was also available to them). 

They continued relatively rapidly along the coast of Asia to reach Australia around 65,000–50,000 years ago.

An early offshoot followed a northern route via the Levant to West Asia, finally reaching Europe around 48,000 YA..

Behavioural Modernity

There are subtle physical differences between Cro-Magnon and the humans of today, showing we have been continuing to evolve, even over recent times, but the intellectual difference between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man (40,000- 10,000 YA) was stunning.

Cro-Magnon, Charles Robert Knight,1920
While Neanderthal was still an advanced form of homo, Cro-Magnon had a rich culture with sophisticated stone working, advanced symbolism and cave paintings that stood in stark contrast to our poorer cousins.

It is described as 'behavioural modernity'. Some saw it
as an adaptation to the harsh environment in Europe at the  time but, as mentioned, it was already present in 
considerable measure and gaining momentum before AMHs left Africa. 
It is an area in which (we) AMHs really excelled, 
especially innovation, and it led to our success.

It goes without saying that Homo continues to evolve slowly and subtly, with improved adaptation to the environment in which we find ourselves and sharing these genetic adaptations across a gene pool now in the billions. 

Lately this has been greatly overshadowed by social evolution (technological and social revolutions), where we are literally creating these new environments. The amount of change has been extraordinary and the pace is getting faster all the time, even in living memory.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog, to see my novels, check out my Amazon Authors page here or at your favourite e-book store.

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