HUI216.01 -- ITALIAN CIVILIZATION (Winter session 2007)

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Foundational myths of the Romans, recounted by Roman historian Livy

This page contains a required reading discussed in class on Jan. 5. If you find it too difficult to follow, you can consult this summary.

This page was last updated on Jan. 5, 2007, at 11:17 AM.

Livius, Titus. The History of Rome, Vol. 1: The Earliest Legends

To begin with, it is generally admitted that after the capture of Troy, whilst the rest of the Trojans were massacred, against two of them-Aeneas and Antenor -the Achivi refused to exercise the rights of war, partly owing to old ties of hospitality, and partly because these men had always been in favour of making peace and surrendering Helen. Their subsequent fortunes were different. Antenor sailed into the furthest part of the Adriatic, accompanied by a number of Enetians who had been driven from Paphlagonia by a revolution, and after losing their king Pylaemenes before Troy were looking for a settlement and a leader. The combined force of Enetians and Trojans defeated the Euganei, who dwelt between the sea and the Alps and occupied their land. The place where they disembarked was called Troy, and the name was extended to the surrounding district; the whole nation were called Veneti. Similar misfortunes led to Aeneas becoming a wanderer, but the Fates were preparing a higher destiny for him. He first visited Macedonia, then was carried down to Sicily in quest of a settlement; from Sicily he directed his course to the Laurentian territory. Here, too, the name of Troy is found, and here the Trojans disembarked, and as their almost infinite wanderings had left them nothing but their arms and their ships, they began to plunder the neighbourhood. The Aborigines, who occupied the country, with their king Latinus at their head, came hastily together from the city and the country districts to repel the inroads of the strangers by force of arms.

From this point there is a twofold tradition. According to the one, Latinus was defeated in battle, and made peace with Aeneas, and subsequently a family alliance. According to the other, whilst the two armies were standing ready to engage and waiting for the signal, Latinus advanced in front of his lines and invited the leader of the strangers to a conference. He inquired of him what manner of men they were, whence they came, what had happened to make them leave their homes, what were they in quest of when they landed in Latinus' territory. When he heard that the men were Trojans, that their leader was Aeneas, the son of Anchises and Venus, that their city had been burnt, and that the homeless exiles were now looking for a place to settle in and build a city, he was so struck with the noble bearing of the men and their leader, and their readiness to accept alike either peace or war, that he gave his right hand as a solemn pledge of friendship for the future. A formal treaty was made between the leaders and mutual greetings exchanged between the armies. Latinus received Aeneas as a guest in his house, and there, in the presence of his tutelary deities, completed the political alliance by a domestic one, and gave his daughter in marriage to Aeneas. This incident confirmed the Trojans in the hope that they had reached the term of their wanderings and won a permanent home. They built a town, which Aeneas called Lavinium after his wife. In a short time a boy was born of the new marriage, to whom his parents gave the name of Ascanius.

In a short time the Aborigines and Trojans became involved in war with Turnus, the king of the Rutulians. Lavinia had been betrothed to him before the arrival of Aeneas, and, furious at finding a stranger preferred to him, he declared war against both Latinus and Aeneas. Neither side could congratulate themselves on the result of the battle; the Rutulians were defeated, but the victorious Aborigines and Trojans lost their leader Latinus. Feeling their need of allies, Turnus and the Rutulians had recourse to the celebrated power of the Etruscans and Mezentius, their king, who was reigning at Caere, a wealthy city in those days. From the first he had felt anything but pleasure at the rise of the new city, and now he regarded the growth of the Trojan state as much too rapid to be safe to its neighbours, so he welcomed the proposal to join forces with the Rutulians. To keep the Aborigines from abandoning him in the face of this strong coalition and to secure their being not only under the same laws, but also the same designation, Aeneas called both nations by the common name of Latins. From that time the Aborigines were not behind the Trojans in their loyal devotion to Aeneas. So great was the power of Etruria that the renown of her people had filled not only the inland parts of Italy but also the coastal districts along the whole length of the land from the Alps to the Straits of Messina. Aeneas, however, trusting to the loyalty of the two nations who were day by day growing into one, led his forces into the field, instead of awaiting the enemy behind his walls. The battle resulted in favour of the Latins, but it was the last mortal act of Aeneas. His tomb-whatever it is lawful and right to call him-is situated on the bank of the Numicius. He is addressed as "Jupiter Indiges."

His son, Ascanius, was not old enough to assume the government; but his throne remained secure throughout his minority. During that interval-such was Lavinia's force of character- though a woman was regent, the Latin State, and the kingdom of his father and grandfather, were preserved unimpaired for her son. I will not discuss the question-for who could speak decisively about a matter of such extreme antiquity?-whether the man whom the Julian house claim, under the name of Iulus, as the founder of their name, was this Ascanius or an older one than he, born of Creusa, whilst Ilium was still intact, and after its fall a sharer in his father's fortunes. This Ascanius, where ever born, or of whatever mother-it is generally agreed in any case that he was the son of Aeneas-left to his mother (or his stepmother) the city of Lavinium, which was for those days a prosperous and wealthy city, with a superabundant population, and built a new city at the foot of the Alban hills, which from its position, stretching along the side of the hill, was called "Alba Longa." An interval of thirty years elapsed between the foundation of Lavinium and the colonisation of Alba Longa. Such had been the growth of the Latin power, mainly through the defeat of the Etruscans, that neither at the death of Aeneas, nor during the regency of Lavinia, nor during the immature years of the reign of Ascanius, did either Mezentius and the Etruscans or any other of their neighbours venture to attack them. When terms of peace were being arranged, the river Albula, now called the Tiber, had been fixed as the boundary between the Etruscans and the Latins.

Ascanius was succeeded by his son Silvius, who by some chance had been born in the forest. He became the father of Aeneas Silvius, who in his turn had a son, Latinus Silvius. He planted a number of colonies: the colonists were called Prisci Latini. The cognomen of Silvius was common to all the remaining kings of Alba, each of whom succeeded his father. Their names are Alba, Atys, Capys, Capetus, Tiberinus, who was drowned in crossing the Albula, and his name transferred to the river, which became henceforth the famous Tiber. Then came his son Agrippa, after him his son Romulus Silvius. He was struck by lightning and left the crown to his son Aventinus, whose shrine was on the hill which bears his name and is now a part of the city of Rome. He was succeeded by Proca, who had two sons, Numitor and Amulius. To Numitor, the elder, he bequeathed the ancient throne of the Silvian house. Violence, however, proved stronger than either the father's will or the respect due to the brother's seniority; for Amulius expelled his brother and seized the crown. Adding crime to crime, he murdered his brother's sons and made the daughter, Rea Silvia, a Vestal virgin; thus, under the presence of honouring her, depriving her of all hopes of issue.

But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven. The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king's cruelty; the priestess was thrown into prison, the boys were ordered to be thrown into the river. By a heaven-sent chance it happened that the Tiber was then overflowing its banks, and stretches of standing water prevented any approach to the main channel. Those who were carrying the children expected that this stagnant water would be sufficient to drown them, so under the impression that they were carrying out the king's orders they exposed the boys at the nearest point of the overflow, where the Ficus Ruminalis (said to have been formerly called Romularis) now stands. The locality was then a wild solitude. The tradition goes on to say that after the floating cradle in which the boys had been exposed had been left by the retreating water on dry land, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to them, gave them her teats to suck and was so gentle towards them that the king's flock-master found her licking the boys with her tongue. According to the story, his name was Faustulus. He took the children to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to bring up. Some writers think that Larentia, from her unchaste life, had got the nickname of "She-wolf" amongst the shepherds, and that this was the origin of the marvellous story. As soon as the boys, thus born and thus brought up, grew to be young men they did not neglect their pastoral duties, but their special delight was roaming through the woods on hunting expeditions. As their strength and courage were thus developed, they used not only to lie in wait for fierce beasts of prey, but they even attacked brigands when loaded with plunder. They distributed what they took amongst the shepherds, with whom, surrounded by a continually increasing body of young men, they associated themselves in their serious undertakings and in their sports and pastimes.

It is said that the festival of the Lupercalia, which is still observed, was even in those days celebrated on the Palatine hill. This hill was originally called Pallantium from a city of the same name in Arcadia; the name was afterwards changed to Palatium. Evander, an Arcadian, had held that territory many ages before, and had introduced an annual festival from Arcadia in which young men ran about naked for sport and wantonness, in honour of the Lycaean Pan, whom the Romans afterwards called Inuus. The existence of this festival was widely recognised, and it was while the two brothers were engaged in it that the brigands, enraged at losing their plunder, ambushed them. Romulus successfully defended himself, but Remus was taken prisoner and brought before Amulius, his captors impudently accusing him of their own crimes. The principal charge brought against them was that of invading Numitor's lands with a body of young men whom they had got together, and carrying off plunder as though in regular warfare. Remus accordingly was handed over to Numitor for punishment. Faustulus had from the beginning suspected that it was royal offspring that he was bringing up, for he was aware that the boys had been exposed at the king's command and the time at which he had taken them away exactly corresponded with that of their exposure. He had, however, refused to divulge the matter prematurely, until either a fitting opportunity occurred or necessity demanded its disclosure. The necessity came first. Alarmed for the safety of Remus he revealed the state of the case to Romulus. It so happened that Numitor also, who had Remus in his custody, on hearing that he and his brother were twins and comparing their ages and the character and bearing so unlike that of one in a servile condition, began to recall the memory of his grandchildren, and further inquiries brought him to the same conclusion as Faustulus; nothing was wanting to the recognition of Remus. So the king Amulius was being enmeshed on all sides by hostile purposes. Romulus shrunk from a direct attack with his body of shepherds, for he was no match for the king in open fight. They were instructed to approach the palace by different routes and meet there at a given time, whilst from Numitor's house Remus lent his assistance with a second band he had collected. The attack succeeded and the king was killed.

At the beginning of the fray, Numitor gave out that an enemy had entered the City and was attacking the palace, in order to draw off the Alban soldiery to the citadel, to defend it. When he saw the young men coming to congratulate him after the assassination, he at once called a council of his people and explained his brother's infamous conduct towards him, the story of his grandsons, their parentage and bringing up, and how he recognised them. Then he proceeded to inform them of the tyrant's death and his responsibility for it. The young men marched in order through the midst of the assembly and saluted their grandfather as king; their action was approved by the whole population, who with one voice ratified the title and sovereignty of the king. After the government of Alba was thus transferred to Numitor, Romulus and Remus were seized with the desire of building a city in the locality where they had been exposed. There was the superfluous population of the Alban and Latin towns, to these were added the shepherds: it was natural to hope that with all these Alba would be small and Lavinium small in comparison with the city which was to be founded. These pleasant anticipations were disturbed by the ancestral curse -ambition-which led to a deplorable quarrel over what was at first a trivial matter. As they were twins and no claim to precedence could be based on seniority, they decided to consult the tutelary deities of the place by means of augury as to who was to give his name to the new city, and who was to rule it after it had been founded. Romulus accordingly selected the Palatine as his station for observation, Remus the Aventine.

Remus is said to have been the first to receive an omen: six vultures appeared to him. The augury had just been announced to Romulus when double the number appeared to him. Each was saluted as king by his own party. The one side based their claim on the priority of the appearance, the other on the number of the birds. Then followed an angry altercation; heated passions led to bloodshed; in the tumult Remus was killed. The more common report is that Remus contemptuously jumped over the newly raised walls and was forthwith killed by the enraged Romulus, who exclaimed, "So shall it be henceforth with every one who leaps over my walls." Romulus thus became sole ruler, and the city was called after him, its founder. His first work was to fortify the Palatine hill where he had been brought up...

...After the claims of religion had been duly acknowledged, Romulus called his people to a council. As nothing could unite them into one political body but the observance of common laws and customs, he gave them a body of laws, which he thought would only be respected by a rude and uncivilised race of men if he inspired them with awe by assuming the outward symbols of power. He surrounded himself with greater state, and in particular he called into his service twelve lictors. Some think that he fixed upon this number from the number of the birds who foretold his sovereignty; but I am inclined to agree with those who think that as this class of public officers was borrowed from the same people from whom the "sella curulis" and the "toga praetexta" were adopted- their neighbours, the Etruscans-so the number itself also was taken from them. Its use amongst the Etruscans is traced to the custom of the twelve sovereign cities of Etruria, when jointly electing a king, furnishing him each with one lictor. Meantime the City was growing by the extension of its walls in various directions; an increase due rather to the anticipation of its future population than to any present overcrowding. His next care was to secure an addition to the population that the size of the City might not be a source of weakness. It had been the ancient policy of the founders of cities to get together a multitude of people of obscure and low origin and then to spread the fiction that they were the children of the soil. In accordance with this policy, Romulus opened a place of refuge on the spot where, as you go down from the Capitol, you find an enclosed space between two groves. A promiscuous crowd of freemen and slaves, eager for change, fled thither from the neighbouring states. This was the first accession of strength to the nascent greatness of the city. When he was satisfied as to its strength, his next step was to provide for that strength being wisely directed. He created a hundred senators; either because that number was adequate, or because there were only a hundred heads of houses who could be created. In any case they were called the "Patres" in virtue of their rank, and their descendants were called "Patricians."

The Roman State had now become so strong that it was a match for any of its neighbours in war, but its greatness threatened to last for only one generation, since through the absence of women there was no hope of offspring, and there was no right of intermarriage with their neighbours. Acting on the advice of the senate, Romulus sent envoys amongst the surrounding nations to ask for alliance and the right of intermarriage on behalf of his new community. It was represented that cities, like everything else, sprung from the humblest beginnings, and those who were helped on by their own courage and the favour of heaven won for themselves great power and great renown. As to the origin of Rome, it was well known that whilst it had received divine assistance, courage and self-reliance were not wanting. There should, therefore, be no reluctance for men to mingle their blood with their fellow-men. Nowhere did the envoys meet with a favourable reception. Whilst their proposals were treated with contumely, there was at the same time a general feeling of alarm at the power so rapidly growing in their midst. Usually they were dismissed with the question, "whether they had opened an asylum for women, for nothing short of that would secure for them intermarriage on equal terms." The Roman youth could ill brook such insults, and matters began to look like an appeal to force. To secure a favourable place and time for such an attempt, Romulus, disguising his resentment, made elaborate preparations for the celebration of games in honour of "Equestrian Neptune," which he called "the Consualia." He ordered public notice of the spectacle to be given amongst the adjoining cities, and his people supported him in making the celebration as magnificent as their knowledge and resources allowed, so that expectations were raised to the highest pitch. There was a great gathering; people were eager to see the new City, all their nearest neighbours-the people of Caenina, Antemnae, and Crustumerium-were there, and the whole Sabine population came, with their wives and families. They were invited to accept hospitality at the different houses, and after examining the situation of the City, its walls and the large number of dwelling-houses it included, they were astonished at the rapidity with which the Roman State had grown.

When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, "For Talassius." Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy. The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and- dearest of all to human nature-would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands, who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion-a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman's nature.

The feelings of the abducted maidens were now pretty completely appeased, but not so those of their parents. They went about in mourning garb, and tried by their tearful complaints to rouse their countrymen to action. Nor did they confine their remonstrances to their own cities; they flocked from all sides to Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines, and sent formal deputations to him, for his was the most influential name in those parts. The people of Caenina, Crustumerium, and Antemnae were the greatest sufferers; they thought Tatius and his Sabines were too slow in moving, so these three cities prepared to make war conjointly. Such, however, were the impatience and anger of the Caeninensians that even the Crustuminians and Antemnates did not display enough energy for them, so the men of Caenina made an attack upon Roman territory on their own account. Whilst they were scattered far and wide, pillaging and destroying, Romulus came upon them with an army, and after a brief encounter taught them that anger is futile without strength. He put them to a hasty flight, and following them up, killed their king and despoiled his body; then after slaying their leader took their city at the first assault. He was no less anxious to display his achievements than he had been great in performing them, so, after leading his victorious army home, he mounted to the Capitol with the spoils of his dead foe borne before him on a frame constructed for the purpose. He hung them there on an oak, which the shepherds looked upon as a sacred tree, and at the same time marked out the site for the temple of Jupiter, and addressing the god by a new title, uttered the following invocation: "Jupiter Feretrius! these arms taken from a king, I, Romulus a king and conqueror, bring to thee, and on this domain, whose bounds I have in will and purpose traced, I dedicate a temple to receive the 'spolia opima' which posterity following my example shall bear hither, taken from the kings and generals of our foes slain in battle." Such was the origin of the first temple dedicated in Rome. And the gods decreed that though its founder did not utter idle words in declaring that posterity would thither bear their spoils, still the splendour of that offering should not be dimmed by the number of those who have rivalled his achievement. For after so many years have elapsed and so many wars been waged, only twice have the "spolia opima" been offered. So seldom has Fortune granted that glory to men.

Whilst the Romans were thus occupied, the army of the Antemnates seized the opportunity of their territory being unoccupied and made a raid into it. Romulus hastily led his legion against this fresh foe and surprised them as they were scattered over the fields. At the very first battle-shout and charge the enemy were routed and their city captured. Whilst Romulus was exulting over this double victory, his wife, Hersilia, moved by the entreaties of the abducted maidens, implored him to pardon their parents and receive them into citizenship, for so the State would increase in unity and strength. He readily granted her request. He then advanced against the Crustuminians, who had commenced war, but their eagerness had been damped by the successive defeats of their neighbours, and they offered but slight resistance. Colonies were planted in both places; owing to the fertility of the soil of the Crustumine district, the majority gave their names for that colony. On the other hand there were numerous migrations to Rome mostly of the parents and relatives of the abducted maidens. The last of these wars was commenced by the Sabines and proved the most serious of all, for nothing was done in passion or impatience; they masked their designs till war had actually commenced. Strategy was aided by craft and deceit, as the following incident shows. Spurius Tarpeius was in command of the Roman citadel. Whilst his daughter had gone outside the fortifications to fetch water for some religious ceremonies, Tatius bribed her to admit his troops within the citadel. Once admitted, they crushed her to death beneath their shields, either that the citadel might appear to have been taken by assault, or that her example might be left as a warning that no faith should be kept with traitors. A further story runs that the Sabines were in the habit of wearing heavy gold armlets on their left arms and richly jewelled rings, and that the girl made them promise to give her "what they had on their left arms," accordingly they piled their shields upon her instead of golden gifts. Some say that in bargaining for what they had in their left hands, she expressly asked for their shields, and being suspected of wishing to betray them, fell a victim to her own bargain.

However this may be, the Sabines were in possession of the citadel. And they would not come down from it the next day, though the Roman army was drawn up in battle array over the whole of the ground between the Palatine and the Capitoline hill, until, exasperated at the loss of their citadel and determined to recover it, the Romans mounted to the attack. Advancing before the rest, Mettius Curtius, on the side of the Sabines, and Hostius Hostilius, on the side of the Romans, engaged in single combat. Hostius, fighting on disadvantageous ground, upheld the fortunes of Rome by his intrepid bravery, but at last he fell; the Roman line broke and fled to what was then the gate of the Palatine. Even Romulus was being swept away by the crowd of fugitives, and lifting up his hands to heaven he exclaimed: "Jupiter, it was thy omen that I obeyed when I laid here on the Palatine the earliest foundations of the City. Now the Sabines hold its citadel, having bought it by a bribe, and coming thence have seized the valley and are pressing hitherwards in battle. Do thou, Father of gods and men, drive hence our foes, banish terror from Roman hearts, and stay our shameful flight! Here do I vow a temple to thee, 'Jove the Stayer,' as a memorial for the generations to come that it is through thy present help that the City has been saved." Then, as though he had become aware that his prayer had been heard, he cried, "Back, Romans! Jupiter Optimus Maximus bids you stand and renew the battle." They stopped as though commanded by a voice from heaven-Romulus dashed up to the foremost line, just as Mettius Curtius had run down from the citadel in front of the Sabines and driven the Romans in headlong flight over the whole of the ground now occupied by the Forum. He was now not far from the gate of the Palatine, and was shouting: "We have conquered our faithless hosts, our cowardly foes; now they know that to carry off maidens is a very different thing from fighting with men." In the midst of these vaunts Romulus, with a compact body of valiant troops, charged down on him. Mettius happened to be on horseback, so he was the more easily driven back, the Romans followed in pursuit, and, inspired by the courage of their king, the rest of the Roman army routed the Sabines. Mettius, unable to control his horse, maddened by the noise of his pursuers, plunged into a morass. The danger of their general drew off the attention of the Sabines for a moment from the battle; they called out and made signals to encourage him, so, animated to fresh efforts, he succeeded in extricating himself. Thereupon the Romans and Sabines renewed the fighting in the middle of the valley, but the fortune of Rome was in the ascendant.

Then it was that the Sabine women, whose wrongs had led to the war, throwing off all womanish fears in their distress, went boldly into the midst of the flying missiles with dishevelled hair and rent garments. Running across the space between the two armies they tried to stop any further fighting and calm the excited passions by appealing to their fathers in the one army and their husbands in the other not to bring upon themselves a curse by staining their hands with the blood of a father-in-law or a son-in-law, nor upon their posterity the taint of parricide. "If," they cried, "you are weary of these ties of kindred, these marriage-bonds, then turn your anger upon us; it is we who are the cause of the war, it is we who have wounded and slain our husbands and fathers. Better for us to perish rather than live without one or the other of you, as widows or as orphans." The armies and their leaders were alike moved by this appeal. There was a sudden hush and silence. Then the generals advanced to arrange the terms of a treaty. It was not only peace that was made, the two nations were united into one State, the royal power was shared between them, and the seat of government for both nations was Rome. After thus doubling the City, a concession was made to the Sabines in the new appellation of Quirites, from their old capital of Cures. As a memorial of the battle, the place where Curtius got his horse out of the deep marsh on to safer ground was called the Curtian lake. The joyful peace, which put an abrupt close to such a deplorable war, made the Sabine women still dearer to their husbands and fathers, and most of all to Romulus himself...

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