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.

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