Mythological Event Horizons Part 1: Rome before 27BC

(This is the first in an occasional series of posts dealing with the use of mythology to revise history)

The emergence of powerful new cultures is often accompanied by the rise of powerful new religious narratives, with which leaders seek unify their domain under a spiritual foundation sympathetic and congruent to their regime. In times of crisis, this narrative may further evolve and gain accretions.

Establishing a mythological basis for a culture is an ancient technique designed to place that culture’s origins back in a place called ‘mythic time’ – in an unassailable period of timeless ‘fact’ lying somewhere beyond the horizon of verifiable history. This  mythology provides a justificatory provenance which supports the new order, but the phenomena is one which – after great periods of time – continually confounds enquirers seeking to untangle the truth behind the history of cultures and their mythological aspects.

In the case of the ancient city state of Rome, its different phases of cultural development (economic, military and religious) demanded establishment of and refinement of a popular founding myth. In so doing, its leaders were calling upon the traditions borrowed from the oldest and most glorious city states, of which Babylon (established circa 2800BCE) is a particular example. Largely following in the footsteps of Greek and Phoenician examples, Rome required a founder who existed in a time when men and gods walked the earth together – the mythical ‘bridging age’ of demigods, around which most legends evolved. Mere historical truths could be easily revised by fact, but in the popular imagination the divine was more unassailable.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine 'mother'.

Romulus and Remus and their Lupine ‘mother’.

The Roman Kingdom and Republic:

With cultural change and revolution, comes a re-mythologizing of the past in the image of the present. As most of the histories of Rome’s past come to us from the late Republican era at the earliest, we are at a loss to determine fact from mythology and invention.

The Roman Republic was said by later histories to have commenced with the overthrow of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BCE. It is hard to say for sure if this founding event (albeit later trumpeted as such) actually occurred or if that king was indeed real. It may have been an historical invention by a culture struggling to trace its faltering early steps from ‘barbarity’ into the era’s idealised Hellenic models of power and polity.

Tribalism, chieftains and tyrants were a typical Greco-Roman shibboleth for the majority of Europeans whom they considered Barabarians – Celts, Thracians and those living north of the Danube and the Rhine who had not assumed the trappings of Hellenic and Middle Eastern cultures. We might add the class of ‘Romans’ to those whom Greeks considered also considered ‘barbarian’.

The distinction between social classes during the era of the Roman Republic was a typical dialectic split between the aristocratic dynasties of landed gentry (the ‘Patrician’ class) who typically traced their family pedigrees back into the city’s supposed and actual Regal Era, and the more ordinary ‘Plebians’ – families (gens) without historic aristocratic pedigree, but keen on building their own modern dynasties. It can be considered a typical Old Money/New Money dialectic – absolute power was held by neither, yet strived for by both. As such both groups had different needs in using mythology to bolster or establish their claims to rights and power.

Since the Roman Republic (which cam to an end in 27BCE) is the first era from which we have definite supporting history and archaeology, Rome’s Regal Age (Romulus, Numa, the Tarquinians etc) must therefore constitute its first mythological ‘event horizon’.

It was from this age that was generated the archetypal image of a ‘good king’, Numa Pompilius (said to have ruled 715 – 673 BC), who was so lauded by Rome’s first Patrician Emperors. Numa was said to have instituted peace, wealth, economic growth and the structure of Roman religion and its calendar of observances. By the Augustan era (after 27BCE) Numa therefore served as an idealised ‘historic’ founding father for Rome’s new aristocratic Imperium. The city’s ultimate supposed founder, the fratricidal Romulus, was more of a ‘mythic’ founder. This was the narrative later employed by Livy and his literary compatriots of that New Order.

The Second Punic War and further re-mythologizing:

Rome’s earliest autocthonus history that we know of is that of Quintus Fabius Pictor a soldier-statesman of the ancient patrician Gens Fabii who participated both militarily and diplomatically in the Roman Republic’s greatest crisis before the 1stC BCE: the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). This war was an attempted conquest of Rome by a combined force of Celts, Numidians and even some Italians, led by the Carthaginian Gens Barca dynasts Hasdrubal and his brother Hannibal.

Fabius’ lost history of Rome was later cited by Livy (Ab Urbe Condita Librii) as the source for its founding myth of Romulus and Remus, as heirs of Aeneas of Troy, and the line of pre-Republic kings who ruled after them. It was written in Greek and would have served as a brilliant piece of contemporary propaganda designed to garner support for Rome from among the Greek world (itself no lover of the Celts) in the wake of the Punic crisis, through citing a common Greco-Roman origin.

This supposed ethno-cultural connection with the Greeks was very popular in the more deeply Hellenised patrician classes, many of whom spoke Greek and studied Greek culture as a high cultural ideal. The stories of Aeneas, the kings of Alba Longa, Romulus and Numa, were however, not necessarily a Roman idea: the Grecophile Fabius had borrowed the story of Rome’s earliest kings from an earlier Greek historian: Diocles of Peparethus, whose lost works included histories of the Persian Empire, the significance of which becomes more important as we delve further into the myth of Romulus. It stands as a good example of how mythology, posing as history, can respond to a state of crisis.

In stark opposition to the Grecophile attitudes of patricians such as Fabius was the brooding, brilliant, energetic and deeply conservative Marcus Porcius Cato (‘Cato the Elder’). Cato was from a well-established plebeian gens of wealthy agriculturalists, who was outspoken against the ingress of Greek, Phoenician or more oriental cultures. To him has been credited the first Latin history of Rome (perhaps written in opposition to Fabius’ patrician-oriented Greek language history of Rome), which survives only in fragments quoted by later writers. Cato rose to the highest public offices and strove throughout his life to act as a ballast of traditional Roman values, and felt no shame in wearing the Greek label of ‘barbarian’. You can imagine his horror with the perceived degeneracy of the recently imported festivities of the Bacchanalia at Rome, especially in light of threat from Carthage. His apoplexy must have been acute when the patricians of the senate took the advice of the (Greek) Cumaean Sibyl and the Delphic Oracle and decided to bring a foreign god into Rome’s official pantheon in response to the Hannibalic War:

Magna Mater – and the introduction of Greek mystery cults:

A more overt consequence of the second Punic War upon Roman state religion was its importation of the worship of Magna Mater/Cybele from Phrygia in Magna Graecia, which was not just the donation of a goddess and her cult, but actually involved the translocation of its principle idol and priesthood from Mount Ida in the Troad (the district in which ancient Troy was supposedly located). The Greeks equated Cybele with Rhea (associated with the similarly-named Mount Ida in Crete), and the name of the legendary mother of Romulus and Remus from the Roman histories – Rhea Silvia – seems simply to be a Romanised metathesis of ‘Rhea Cyvele‘. This suggests the possibility that the history of Fabius and the introduction of Magna Mater were possibly part of a concerted conscious effort of state cultural and religious propaganda.

As it happened, Cato’s political rival Scipio, was victorious over Hannibal and occupied Carthage after a series of decisive and stunning military engagements in Hispania and in North Africa, making these into Roman provinces. Soon after, Rome was to conquer the Achaean league and take Greece itself – its religious and social makeup would be forever changed, much to Cato’s dismay.

Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire:

The late Roman Republican era culminated in the city’s stunning territorial expansion, driven by the twin threats of incursion of the Celts from the north and the sequelae of the opportunity caused by the fractious instability of the eastern military Empire founded by Alexander the Great. This opportunity culminated in both stunning conquests (Caesar’s taking of Gaul and Pompey’s campaigns in Africa and the Middle East) and Rome’s next great period of crisis in which militarised internal factionalism and power struggles threatened the root and stability Rome’s establishment. It was a period of chaos, civil war and a controversial de facto regicide in the case of Julius Caesar.

The man who eventually established peace and a new era of stability was Octavian, who became Rome’s first Emperor – Caesar Augustus – in 27BCE, founding a dynastic line of subsequent emperors.

   The ‘Augustan Period’ (27BCE-14CE) marked another important milestone in Rome’s deliberate efforts at significant cultural re-invention and re-mythologizing. There was an explosion in the expression of ideas about Rome’s past in literature, almost certainly engineered by Augustus himself. Of these, the works of Livy with his new history of Rome: Ab Urbe Condita Librii, and the epic poetic equivalent represented by Vergil’s Aeneid served to concrete the past in the image of Octavian’s new order. Both borrowed from newly translated Latin versions of Fabius’ History. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses provided the Greek world with ample evidence of Rome’s superior abilities in the poetic and mythological arts.

Vergil, Ovid and Livy’s works spanned a dialectic between popular culture (the mythology and poetics of the Aeneid) and serious historical scholarship (Livy) and were runaway hits that succeeded in promoting the new Empire’s ideals. As usual a certain amount of licence was taken with facts in order to portray a seemingly cogent, continuous and ordered rise from Rome’s noble but humble origins in the 8thC BCE to the greatness of Augustan Rome, which in the era cited for its founding myth was probably no more than a small and insignificant village on the Tiber. The reality of Rome’s growth was probably very different and more chaotic than historians of the Empire would have us believe.

In his preface to the history of the age of the Roman kings, Livy sums up the spirit of his Imperial benefactor’s ambition:

” … the fates, I suppose, demanded the founding of this great city, and the first establishment of an empire, which is now, in power, next to the immortal gods … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii – Book 1)

The earliest part of the book is probably entirely mythological, and is thought to be based on Fabius (3rdC BCE) who based his work on Diocles (4th/3rdC BCE). Both of these works are lost. Livy’s account places the founding of Rome as part of the dynastic succession struggles of the Kings of Alba Longa – said to be heirs and successors of Aeneas of Troy, who settled with his people in Italy, after that Homeric idealised prototype city-state‘s fall.

Livy was using a legendary motif common to the founding of many great city dynasties – birth (rebirth) from water: This is also seen in the legends of Sargon of Akkad (originating in Bronze Age Babylonia), which would have been known to Diocles of Peperethus, who studied the Persian Empire which inherited Babylon until it was taken by Alexander in 331BCE. A founding myth of Babylon includes the following details, taken from a Babylonian inscription:

” … Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I. My mother was a <virgin priestess>, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains. In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates, my mother, the <virgin priestess>, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth. She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener. In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king, and for forty-five years I held kingly sway… ” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, 1914 – translation of an inscription supposedly dated to the period of the founding of Babylon c.2800. Rank uses the term ‘Vestal’ for my insertion: <virgin priestess>)

This theme of the aquatic rebirth of a city-empire’s founder-hero appears to have been copied into the myth of Moses, which seems likely to have originated among the Judaean immigrants of Persian-ruled Babylonia during the Iron Age. These were to return and rule their own great city-state or kingdom with their new monotheist religion as vassals of Persians and then the Macedonian Empire of Alexander. It was then probably borrowed (‘probatum est’) into Livy’s 1stC BCE Roman history in his myth of Romulus and Remus, which goes as follows:

” … The Vestal (AR: Rhea Silvia) being deflowered by force, brought forth twins, and declared that the father of her doubtful offspring was Mars; either because she really thought so, or in hopes of extenuating the guilt of her transgression by imputing it to the act of a deity. But neither gods nor men screened her or her children from the King’s cruelty: the priestess was loaded with chains, and cast into prison, and the children were ordered to be thrown into the stream of the river. It happened providentially that the Tiber, overflowing its banks, formed itself into stagnant pools in such a manner, as that the regular channel was every where inaccessible, and those who carried the infants supposed that they would be drowned in any water, however still. Wherefore, as if thereby fulfilling the King’s order, they exposed the boys in the nearest pool, where now stands the Ruminal fig-tree, which, it is said, was formerly called Romular. Those places were at that time wild deserts. A story prevails that the retiring flood having left on dry ground the trough, hitherto floating, in which they had been exposed, a thirsty she-wolf from the neighbouring mountains, directed her course to the cries of the children, and, stooping, presented her dugs to the infants, showing so much gentleness, that the keeper of the King’s herds found her licking the boys with her tongue; and that this shepherd, whose name was Faustulus, carried them home to his wife Laurentia to be nursed. Some there are who think that this Laurentia, from her having been a prostitute, was, by the shepherds, called Lupa; and to this circumstance they ascribe the origin of this fabulous tale. Thus born, and thus educated, as soon as years supplied them with strength, they led not an inactive life at the stables, or among the cattle, but traversed the neighbouring forests in hunting. Hence acquiring vigour, both of body and mind, they soon began not only to withstand the wild beasts, but to attack robbers loaded with booty. The spoil thus acquired they divided with the shepherds; and, in company with these, the number of their young associates continually increasing, they carried on both their business, and their sports … ” (Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Librii. trans. George Baker)

Livy’s famous account seems very close to the myth of Sargon, used in the founding myths of the city-state of Babylon and its later clutch of Persian-Judaean whelps and their story of Moses. The twins seem very similar to the mythical Greek twins, Kastor and Polydeukes (Interpretatio Romanum: Castor and Pollux), one of whom was mortal, the other divine. The story is also echoed in the Hebrew story of Cain and Abel.

In his narrative on Romulus and Remus Livy is reflecting the importance of Kastor and Polydeukes in the myths of the Hellenic world. These were mythical sportsmen, and the games that marked the Roman festival of Lupercalia (linked to the wolf mythology of Romulus and Remus) were perhaps a reflection of an Arcadian and Attic Greek tradition attached to myths of Kastor and his brother, and involving a unifying festival of competitive sports: the Olympic games. The appropriation of Greek culture was of particular importance to Romans after the Battle of Corinth in 146BCE, which marked Rome’s effective conquest of Hellas (some might say it was more the other way around, culturally). Rome filled the footsteps of Magna Graecia and her Empire. This was no surprise: after all – Roman culture was in fact Greco-Roman culture…

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