The Origins of Rome - Guest Blog by Saran Wolf
My understanding of the archaeology of early Rome is that there were two early villages, one on the Quirinal and one on the Capitoline (I think) and that they merged and created a ditch/pallisade around both of them, thus creating a unified settlement.
The story of Romulus and Remus could thus be seen as an analogy, or as a garbled history, of this event. No doubt the two villages intended to lead jointly, but at some event the 'Roma' village would have come to dominate, perhaps bloodily, its federated neighbour. Maybe there even was a Remus jumping over the Roma side's ditch and saying it was not as good as their ditch, or maybe it is an anology for an attempt by the Remus side to take control of the joint project that went wrong. But there can be no doubt that the Roma village won, and gave its name to the whole site.
Personal names in ancient times were more fluid than they were today - in later Roman times agnomens were popular, an additional name tagged onto the end of your formal name to celebrate an achievement: Africanus onto the end of the member of the Scipio dynasty who defeated Carthage is one of the best known examples. Thus, Romulus whilst literally meaning "Man of Rome" might not just be an apocryphal figure of myth, but a named individual who took Romulus as his agnomen after creating the unified township.
Early Roman history is sometimes sighted through Etruscan lenses, or glimpsed at by Roman historians such as Livy, or the Emperor Claudius himself, who was a renowned scholar of the Etruscans. Much of the histories that were written from original sources have been lost, and these include whatever Claudius himself penned, and only fragments survive. Livy's great work best resembles that of the Medieval British monk Gerald of Wales who tried to create a cohesive history of Britain from decaying old manuscripts, and in the process whilst preserving lots of information, created a somewhat garbled and confused origin tale, because he himself did not know the facts. Later historians would have much preferred the exact replication of all of the original documents, just as later historians of Ancient Rome would have preferred Livy to have transcribed exactly everything that he was reading from. But that was not their purpose - both men intended to tell a cohesive story of their land, weaving into it a narrative tale that would be read for generations. And both men succeeded, but at what cost to history?
In the names of early kings of Rome, and in the identification Claudius would later make between some of them and other information he had, we can glimpse a history of internal power struggles, mixed with incomers, Etruscan exiles, and war with local Latin and Etruscan townships. Some of the names are no doubt true, and some of the tales put to these names, but until someone either digs up inscriptions which state unequivocally what happened (such as one might find on stone in Ancient Egypt) or someone strikes lucky, perhaps in Herculaneum, and comes across an original papyrus of one of the lost histories, any reconstruction of events into a coherent history must be fractional. We can go with Livy, or other ancient Romans, most of whose writings are in the main lost, or we can create our own from what we can see. But either way we are peering through shadows at something we can just make out the form of.
Whilst Rome's origins in pre-existing villages is proven by the archaeology, there is no reason to rule out that Rome became a magnet for dispossessed men who wanted a chance to make a new life for themselves. Indeed, if local Latin or Etruscan towns resented the newly combined villages-as-town, the leaders of Rome may well have encouraged as many of these exiles, wanderers and chancers as possible so as to provide for themselves a warband sufficient to see off any local threat. Thus, the idea that Rome was both a haven to criminals, exiles and so on and that these men came to greatly outnumber any available women can be seen to have a possible logical origin.
And so would the Rape of the Sabine women. If we assume that in fighting to secure Rome's continued existence as a unified town of pre-existing villages, Rome had alienated its neighbours, and that its neighbours forbade their women to marry into the greatly-enhanced male population of Rome, then a ruse like that with the Sabines would make sense from a practical perspective. And to kidnap enemy womenfolk it would be more logical to have them come to you, than to raid and try to steal them from a fortified enemy settlement, which action may also draw in other towns in the area.
It would certainly provide wives for the mass of menfolk who had come to fight for and live in the newly unified township, and thus provide a momentum for the growth and consolidation of the town of Rome. Later, very early, history of Rome would thus have it as one of a number of sustainable towns vying in the region for local political hegemony.
And all of this has been written without reference to Aeneas. What are we to make of Roman attempts to shoehorn the Trojan War into their origin myths? Even Roman scholars were perplexed by the issue, as they actually had a pretty good understanding of the relative chronology of the Trojan War in relation to the Foundation of Rome, and could see that there were several hundred years in between.
The complication in simply saying it was a myth created by educated Romans once they were educated in ancient Greek history, is that some sense of the myth of Aeneas and Rome also appears in Greek writings of the 4th century BC, and is certainly well established in Roman mythology by the 1st century BC, well before Virgil put together his great work, the Aeneid. Later Romans squared the circle by having Aeneas not founding Rome, as such, but nearby settlements, including the one that Romulus and Remus, in the long story, are supposed to have been scions of, left to drown by the Tiber by servants of their uncle, the king of this Alba Longa.
This squaring of the circle might have a certain potential, albeit one would currently be impossible to trace. The question that arises are: who were the Etruscans, and when did they settle in Tuscany?