Collections: The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans? Part I: Beginnings and Legends

Who were the Romans? How did they understand themselves as a people and ‘Roman’ as an identity? And what were the implications of that understanding – and perhaps more importantly the underlying reality – for Roman society and the success of the Roman Empire? This is the first part of a series (I, II, III, IV, V) looking at these questions, focusing on how identity functioned in the Roman world, beginning with the Republic and moving into the empire. We’re going to look at both Roman myths and writings (along with the writings of a few contemporary Greeks) and what they can tell us about where the Romans thought they came from, what it was to be a member of the Roman community and what that meant for Rome’s self-conception. But we are also going to pair that approach with a look at a mix of non-literary evidence (representational, epigraphic, and archaeological) and see how well the Roman self-evaluation stacks up against the evidence for the actual composition of Roman society. Moreover, we’re going to look at how the identity-structure of that actual Roman society contributed to exceptional Roman success.

Note that this means we are going to be getting into a lot of primary source material here in the ‘raw’ (though translated). That means this series may end up being a bit less family friendly then normal in a few places – we are going to touch on accounts of violence, including sexual violence, this week as well as some very salty Roman writing which I will not bowdlerize in the slightest a little later in the series. History is best learned unvarnished, but given that I normally try to keep the foul language here to a minimum, I should warn that some of our primary sources do not share my discretion and I will not force it on them. Caveat lector.

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The Queen’s Latin

For most of the English-speaking world, the sound of the Romans is very particular. Thanks to shows like I, Claudius (1976) and HBO’s Rome (2005-7)(co-produced with the BBC) and films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), to Anglophone ears, ‘Latin’ has a British accent. It goes back further than this of course, look at the cast for Ben-Hur (1959) or Spartacus (1960) and you can see even in American films a real tendency – albeit not a universal one – to cast British actors as Romans – especially Roman aristocrats.

(The recent Gaumont/Netflix Barbarians (2020) – originally Barbaren – is one of the few examples where this is actually avoided, perhaps because it is a German-language production. The key Cherusci characters there are played by German actors and the Romans mostly by Italians, though the decision to have the Cherusci speak modern German while the Romans speak ancient Latin betrays some of the nationalism of the presentation; the nationalistic form of the Fremen Mirage runs deep in the show’s first season.)

This is what I have come to jokingly term – though I certainly didn’t invent the phrase ‘the Queen’s Latin,’ the tendency to signify ‘these people are speaking Latin’ in film or TV with British (or more particularly often upper-class English) accents. Given the tendency to treat Roman Latin as this sort of high language, delivered with posh-sounding (particularly to Americans) accents, many students are more than a little surprised to find that the actual contents of Latin literature are often rather less elevated than they might have expected (we will actually be seeing some of that rather less elevated Latin in this series).

But importantly, the Romans are presented as more or less uniform in this regard. Many pop-cultural products presenting the Romans present class divisions in Rome (HBO’s Rome especially has an ‘upstairs-downstairs vibe with the main characters). Often in American productions focused on Rome, accent is used to express this, with ‘working-class’ Romans played by white Americans and the aristocratic Romans played by white British actors. And certainly we often see clear distinctions made between the Romans and distant, recently conquered peoples in Rome’s empire. But rarely do we see any hint of heritage or ethnic distinctions within the populus Romanus or even Italy more broadly. The aristocrats might sound a bit different from the commoners, but no one speaks with a marked regional accent, or having marked regional customs, or so on (or perhaps more accurately in some of these, the actor’s marked British regional accents are treated as entirely incidental – one may contrast how regional accents are used in Game of Thrones, particularly of Northerners, to signal regional ethnicity in Westeros).

They all speak the Queen’s Latin.

The ‘newsreader’ from HBO’s Rome, played by English actor Ian McNeice. The Romans would have called him a praeco; it was an occupation which was looked down upon. On this (and disreputable occupations in Rome generally), see S. Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (2016).

And of course the sound of the Queen’s Latin also comes with the appearance of the Queen’s Romans, as it were. Put bluntly, visual media featuring Rome (and Greece) tends to be dominated by actors of European extraction; even ‘Club Med’ countries (that is Southern European countries) appear fairly infrequently. HBO’s Rome‘s core cast is wholly from the British Isles (though one may note Indira Varma, who played Niobe, is of Indian heritage); going by Wikipedia, of the core cast, actors identified as ‘English’ (all of them white) outnumber every other background added together. Now of course we might expect a British production to be stocked with British actors (although the average London street has a rather wider range of skin tones than HBO’s Rome) just as we might expect the same series, produced in Egypt to be full of Egyptian actors. And Rome was a co-production between HBO and BBC Two (though it was filmed mostly in Italy), so the abundance of British actors is little surprise. I have no particular problem with a production in a given country employing actors from that country. What I want to focus on is the homogeneityit is not what the actors look like but that they all look the same, they all sound the same (except, of course, the true cultural outsiders like Nicholas Woodeson’s Posca, the only character with a very pronounced, consistent accent in the main cast and also by far the best character in the show but not because of that – but of course Posca is Greek and not Roman so even with this character we are back to homogeneous, white-British Romans speaking the Queen’s Latin and the one Greek fellow with an accent), even in productions put on in countries with no great shortage of actors with different backgrounds.

And of course, when you add something like Rome together with all of the other cultural products which portray the Romans in precisely the same way, it can give a very particular impression to the public about who the Romans were, what they looked like and how diverse (or not) they were.

The Senate from HBO’s Rome. We’ll come back to this point but I want to note here that we do not see here the full range of skin-color shades we see in Roman artwork (like frescoes) which show high status Romans from Italy with a fairly wide range of skin colors – as one might well expect having spent any time at all in Italy itself.

(And yes I know someone is going to jump in and note that Lucius Vorenus in HBO’s Rome is from Mutina and is said to have a ‘Gaulish look about him,’ but first he denies having any Gallic heritage – whatever the truth may be – and second he is shown in manners, customs, speaking and even honestly his physical appearance in the actual show to be little different from anyone else around him. If that is the best objection then I think that rather proves the point.)

In short, the visual language of the depiction of Rome in western media, in its language, its accents, and its casting choices, shows the Romans as an ethnically homogeneous group. They look the same, dress the same, sound the same and are easily contrasted with outsider groups that look, dress and sound differently. Roman citizenship and ethnic identity map almost perfectly. Moreover, especially in American media, we can take this a step further – the Romans aren’t merely presented as homogeneous, but as a specific homogeneous group: the Romans consist mainly (sometimes entirely) of homogeneous white-British actors speaking the Queen’s Latin. And this leaks into the popular conception of the Romans, which imagines them more or less exactly this way (try this experiment: do a google images search for ‘Romans‘ and see how many Spartans you see misidentified as Romans before you hit the first modern depiction of a Roman with so much as a deep tan; my count was three).

So we are going to ask the question, ‘was Rome really uniform like that, at any point in its history?‘ We’re going to move chronologically, comparing and sometimes contrasting the stories the Romans told about themselves with the evidence we have for the reality of life in Rome and in the broader Roman Empire. We’re going to talk about how the Romans understood identity, the degree to which that connected to language, skin-tone, culture and origin, and the degree to which we should understand the Romans as a homogeneous people or as a heterogeneous people.

Which means we need to start at the very beginning, with Rome’s foundation myths.

Chose Your Own Legend

Legends are a tricky historical source to use. The key is to remember that the value of these legends for us is often not in their truth about the past (which may be minimal) but in what they say about the people telling the legends. The stories that cultures tell about their legendary past are often as much – if not more – exercises in creative self-definition (declarations of “this is what we are“) than they are declarations about the past (“this is what we were“). Of course we still do this all of the time, couching arguments about what we should be in terms of what we supposedly were. This isn’t to say the Romans were unserious about their legends – indeed, they invested them with sacred force and some of the major characters were worshiped as gods. But that itself is part of what made such legends so powerful, since those legends, invested with importance and deep meaning, in turn shape the culture moving forward.

So what do Rome’s legends say about who the Romans thought they were?

We have traces and hints of quite a number of different variations on Rome’s foundation legends, which may come as a surprise for students used to getting the ‘standard version.’ This is not unusual when it comes to ancient myths and legends; there are often many versions, some more popular, others less so. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek writing about the Romans in the last decades of the first century B.C.E. records a surprising variety of potential legendary origins for the Roman people, deriving from native Italic peoples (1.10.1) or a collection of robbers and brigands from many places (1.10.2) to being colonists from Liguria or perhaps Umbrians (1.10.3) to his own preferred legend which had them as Greeks and was supposedly preferred by Cato the Elder (1.11ff). We’ll talk in a moment about what is true of that and what we can actually know about the earliest Romans (because, if it needs saying, Roman legends were at best only thinly connected to their own deep, pre-literate past). But it is important to note at the outset that there was a lot of variety in legends the Romans had about their origins.

That said, at roughly the same time Dionysius was writing, we see the emergence of a sort of ‘canon’ tradition of Rome’s origins, flowing out of the reign of the first emperor Augustus (r. 31 BC – 14 AD) and the literary culture he sponsored (through his associate, Maecenas). Two monumental works shaped this ‘official’ version: Vergil’s Aeneid and Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. It is clear that the version of the origin story both works present – with Aeneas and Romulus and Remus and so on – was not new to them; Livy seems to be learning on Fabius Pictor (c. 200 BC) for parts of his account. Ennius (writing in the early second century) already treats Romulus as a divine figure and the Romans were putting up statues of Romulus and Remus (and the wolf) as early as 293 BC. So these legends, collected by Livy into an ‘official’ history and embellished by Vergil into a grand state epic, long predate both and seem to reflect some of the most common legends the Romans had of their past (and I should note, Dionysius is aware of all of these). In essence there is good reason to suppose that Vergil and especially Livy were presenting the basic outlines of a set of legends the Romans had held about themselves for some time – probably at least as far back as the third century, if not earlier.

In the interest of keeping things manageable, we are going to focus on those ‘canon’ versions, because – as probably the most common versions – they offer some of the best insight into Roman thinking about their past.

(Spelling note: Publius Vergilius Maro’s name, in English is sometimes spelled Vergil and sometimes spelled Virgil, the latter a corrupted spelling that emerged very late in antiquity. ‘Vergilius’ however is Vergil’s correct nomen, so I prefer ‘Vergil’ to ‘Virgil’ when referring to him. In case anyone was confused by the spelling difference.)

Via Wikipedia, a black-figure oinochoe (520-510 BCE), now in the Louvre, Paris, showing Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises; the female figure gesturing behind may be Aeneas’ first wife Creusa, in the process of being accidentally left behind in the flight from Troy. While Aeneas is an older figure in Greek mythology, the Romans clearly take some liberties with him; while Vergil represents Aeneas as fighting his way out of Troy, both Livy and Pseudo-Apollodorus (in the Bibliotheca) present traditions where Aeneas is consciously spared by the victorious Achaeans on account of his conspicuous piety. Given that his epithet in the Aeneid is pius Aeneas, Vergil is clearly aware of this alternate tradition.

Founding Rome: All Without Distinction

Both Vergil and Livy begin by putting down Homeric roots and anchoring their stories in the Trojan War. That makes a good deal of sense from a mythic perspective: the Iliad and the Odyssey were the most illustrious legends of the Hellenic world and so it made sense for the Romans, looking to claim a place in the Mediterranean, to make that claim through connection to this most illustrious of tales (and of course later, when Rome was a colossus astride the Mediterranean, which the Romans by then called mare nostrum, ‘our sea,’ it made sense they would prefer a heroic origin with grandeur to match their power at the time). And so both Vergil and Livy begin their story with Aeneas and his plucky band of Trojan refugees, fleeing the fall of Troy (though interesting, while Vergil tells the tale as a harrowing escape, Livy politely suggests that perhaps Homer’s Achaeans let Aeneas go, Liv. 1.1).

Aeneas (son of Aphrodite/Venus and a mortal man, Anchises) does appear, by the by, in the Iliad, though he isn’t a particularly notable or impressive hero (naturally Vergil will embroider Aeneas until he is presented as the equal of an Achilles or Odysseus because…well, wouldn’t you?). The Aeneid follows (with the aid of a major flashback) Aeneas as he shepherds his surviving Trojans from Troy to their prophesied new homeland in Italy (with a minor stopover in Carthage) and then covers also the war that breaks out between Aeneas’ Trojans and the local inhabitants (the Latins) when he arrives. Vergil cuts off at the climactic moment of the war (which in turn presents Aeneas as rather morally grey, a feature that is also present, as we’ll see, in Livy’s retelling of Rome’s legends), but Livy provides the denouement. After a period of conflict (Livy presents two different versions of the exact sequence), Aeneas ends up married to Lavinia, the daughter of Latinus, king of the Latins (Livy calls them the Aborigines – lit, ‘the native inhabitants,’ Vergil the Latins; in both cases Latinus is their king) and the Trojan exiles and Latinus’ people form a single community at Lavinium, which in turn founds a colony at Alba Longa, both in Latium (the region of Italy in which Rome is, although note we haven’t founded Rome yet).

We then fast forward a few generations. Rhea Silvia, a priestess of Vesta at Alba Longa gives birth to twins, Romulus and Remus by (Livy expresses some doubt) the god Mars. The twins are exposed (for complicated royal-family-drama reasons we needn’t get into) and rescued by either a she-wolf or a woman of ill-repute (Livy isn’t sure which on account of Latin lupa having both meanings and clearly both legends existed, Liv. 1.4) and raised among shepherds in the hills of northern Latium. More politics ensues, Romulus and Remus, having grown to adulthood, right some wrongs in their home city of Alba Longa and set out to found their own city.

At which point Romulus promptly gets into a fight with and murders Remus over who is going to be in charge (this sort of intense moral ambiguity where the venerated legendary founder figures are also quick to violence and deeply flawed is also a feature of the Aeneid and can be read either as a commentary on Augustus or as some lingering Roman discomfort with their own recent history of civil wars running from 88 to 31 BC; we are not the first people in history to have very mixed feelings about how well people in our country’s past lived up to our ideals). Crucially, Romulus forms his new settlement (prior to the fratricide) out of – as Livy has it – “the excess multitudes of the Albans and Latins, to which were added the shepherds” (Liv. 1.6.3). After this, desiring to increase the population of the city, Romulus sets a place of refuge in the city so that “a crowd of people from neighboring places, altogether without distinction, free and slave, fled there eager for new things” (Liv. 1.8.6) and were incorporated into Romulus’ growing city. Livy approves of this, by the by, declaring it the first step towards rising greatness.

Romulus quickly has another problem because all of these new settlers were men, so he concocts a plot to carry off all of the unmarried women of the neighboring people, the Sabines – an Umbrian people (we’ll come back to this, for now we’ll note they are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Latins) – who lived in the hills north of Rome under the guise of a religious ceremony (Liv. 1.9-13). At a festival where the Sabines had been lured to under false pretenses, the Romans abduct and forcibly marry the Sabine women, while using hidden weapons to chase away their families (I should note Livy goes to some length to assure the reader that the captured maidens were subsequently persuaded to marry their Roman captors, rather than forced (Liv. 1.9.14-16), though what choice he imagines the unarmed, captive women to have had is left for the reader to wonder at in vain; in any event, we need not share Livy’s judgement or his effort at patriotic euphemism and may simply note that bride-capture is a form of rape). The Sabines naturally go to war over this but (according to Livy) a peace is mediated by the captured women (according to Livy, unwilling to see their new husbands and old fathers kill each other) and the two communities instead merge on equal terms. In the midst of all of this, Livy does have Romulus set down a set of common customs for his people, which he thinks to have been mostly Etruscan (Liv. 1.8.3), the Etruscans being the people inhabiting Etruria (modern Tuscany) the region directly north of Rome (Rome sits, in essence, on the dividing line between Latium to the South and Etruria to the North).

Via Wikipedia, a Roman denarius minted in 89 BC. The obverse (left) portrays the legendary Sabine king Titus Tatius while the reverse (right) shows the abduction of the Sabine women by Roman soldiers. The timing of this coin – in 89 – can hardly be an accident as the coin visually stresses Rome’s connection to the Umbrian Sabines at a point where many of Rome’s allies were rebelling as part of the Social War. Part of the reason I keep gesturing here at older evidence and not taking Livy at his word (see the archaeology section below) is that Roman attitudes towards the other Italians may have been substantially reshaped by the Social War and its aftermath and so it is difficult to generalize those later views earlier. Fortunately, with a mix of archaeology and older Latin and Greek sources (like Polybius, who predates the Social War by 70 years), we don’t have to accept Livy on his own.

Now we want to note two things here from this high-speed trip through the first few chapters of Livy. First is the deep ambivalence towards Roman violence here. Livy presents Rome as a city founded on fratricide, conquest, rape and sacrilege. Livy occasionally attempts to soften the impact of these legends (particular with the Sabines), but only so far. This isn’t really the place to unpack of all of that but suffice to say that I think that Livy’s willingness to open his history of Rome – practically an official history of Rome – so darkly speaks to a literary project still attempting to come to grips with the stunning civil violence which had gripped Rome for Livy’s entire adult life and had, as he wrote, only recently ended. And one day we also ought to come back and do a deeper look at how women function in Livy’s legends and histories (Livy’s account becomes much more properly historical as he gets closer to his own time); women, mostly Roman women, suffering (often sexual) violence so that in their sacrifice the Roman state might be enhanced is a repeated motif in Livy (e.g. Lucretia, Verginia).

But more directly to our topic today, I want to note at this point exactly the sort of society Livy is imagining the earliest Rome, under its first king Romulus, in particular that it consists of a lot of different peoples and heritages. We’ll come back to exactly who all of these peoples are (historically speaking) in a moment. But Livy and Vergil first create a Trojan-Latin fusion community, which produces both Romulus and Remus and their initial core of settlers (mixed in with other, apparently purely Latin communities), who then gather up shepherds from all around, and then invite literally anyone from nearby communities to join them (which must include Etruscan communities to the north as well as Umbrians and Falisci of various sorts from the hills) and then finally fuses that community with the Sabines (an Umbrian people).

So we have our very first Romans, as the first Senate is being set up (1.8.7) and the very first spolia opima – the prize for when one commander defeats his opposite number in single combat – being won (1.10.7) and the very first temple being founded in the city (1.10.7). And those very first Romans, as Livy imagines them, are not autochthonous (that is, the original inhabitants of the place they live), nor ethnically homogeneous, but rather a Trojan-Aborigines-Latin-Faliscian-Umbrian-Etruscan-Sabine fusion community. For Livy, diversity – ethnic, linguistic, religious – defines Rome, from its very first days.

But of course this is all legends – important for understanding how the Romans viewed themselves, but necessarily less valuable for understanding the actual conditions in Rome at its earliest. Unfortunately, we lack reliable written sources for this part of the world so early (most of the ‘regal’ period, when Rome was ruled by kings, notionally from 753 – the legendary founding date for the city – to 509, is beyond historical reconstruction). Fortunately, where the historians fail, the archaeologists have our backs.

Archaeology Strikes Back

The first thing we need to talk about is the physical location of Rome and the peoples directly around it. I am going to save a fuller discussion of all of the people’s of pre-Roman Italy for next time, but we need still to set the board, as it were. Rome in its earliest history was, essentially, a frontier city, placed at the very northern end of Latium, the region of Italy that was populated by Latin-speakers. Rome’s position on the Tiber River put it at the cultural meeting place of the Etruscan (and Faliscian) cultural zone to the North, Latium to the South and Umbrian-speaking peoples in the Apennine uplands to the North-East. To the West, of course, lay the Sea, which by Rome’s legendary founding date was already beginning to fill with seaborne merchants, particularly Phoenician and Greek ones (we’ll talk more about Greek colonies in Italy next time). These patterns of settlements and cultural zones are both attested in our literary sources but also show up fairly clearly in the archaeology of the region.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the hills of Rome. The forum Romanum is located in the depression between the Capitoline, Palatine and Esquiline hills.

Rome itself, a cluster of hills situated at an important ford over the Tiber (and thus a natural trade and migration route running north-south along Italy’s Western side), was already inhabited by the close of the Neolithic, with small settlement clusters on several of its hills. As you might well imagine, excavating pre-historic Rome is difficult, due to the centuries of development piled on top of it and the fact that in many cases pre-historic evidence must exist directly below subsequent ruins which are now cultural heritage sites. Nevertheless, archaeology sheds quite a lot of light. That archaeological evidence allows us to reject the sort of ’empty fields’ city foundation that Livy implies. Rather than being ‘founded,’ the city of Rome as we know it formed out of the political merger of these communities (the technical term is synoecism from Greek συνοικισμóς, literally “[putting] the houses together”). There is, importantly, no clear evidence of any archaeological discontinuity between the old settlements on the hills and the newly forming city; these seem to have been the same people. The Palatine hill, which is ‘chosen’ by Romulus in the legend and would be the site of the houses of Rome’s most important and affluent citizens during the historical period, seems to have been the most prominent of these settlements even at this early stage.

A key event in this merging comes in the mid-600s, when these hill-communities begin draining the small valley that lay between the Capitoline and Palatine hills; this valley would naturally have been marshy and quite useless but once drained, it formed a vital meeting place at the center of these hill communities – what would become the Forum Romanum. That public works project – credited by the Romans to the semi-legendary king Tarquinius Priscus (Plin. NH 36.104ff) – is remarkably telling, both because it signals that there was enough of a political authority in Rome to marshal the resources to see it done (suggesting somewhat more centralized government, perhaps early kings) and because the new forum formed the meeting place and political center for these communities, quite literally binding them together into a single polity. It is at this point that we can really begin speaking of Rome and Romans with confidence.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the forum, the Capitoline and the Palatine hills showing the Cloaca Maxima, which drained the forum, in red. It is worth noting this (modern) map depicts the forum as it would have existed in the mid-fourth century AD: about a thousand years, give or take, after the the forum was originally drained.

What does our archaeology tell us about this early community at this point and for the next several centuries?

The clearest element of this early polity is the Latin influence. Linguistically, Rome was of Latium, spoke (and wrote their earliest inscriptions) in Latin and it falls quite easily to reason that the majority of the people in these early hilltop communities around the Tiber ford were culturally and linguistically Latins. But there are also strong signs of Etruscan and Greek influence in the temples. For instance, in the Forum Boarium (between the Tiber and the Palatine), we see evidence for a cult location dating to the seventh century, with a temple constructed there in the early sixth century (and reconstructed again towards the end of that century); votive offerings recovered from the site include Attic ware pottery and a votive ivory figurine of a lion bearing an inscription in Etruscan.

Archaeological evidence for the Sabines is less evident. Distinctive Sabine material culture hasn’t been recovered from Rome as of yet. There are some clear examples of linguistic influence from Sabine to Latin, although the Romans often misidentify them; the name of the Quirinal hill, for instance (thought by the Romans to be where the Sabines settled after joining the city) doesn’t seem to be Sabine in origin. That said, religious institutions associated with the hill in the historical period (particularly the priests known as the Salii Collini) may have some Sabine connections. More notably, a number of key Roman families (gentes in Latin; we might translate this word as ‘clans’) claimed Sabine descent. Of particular note, several of these are Patrician gentes, meaning that they traced their lineage to families prominent under the kings or very early in the Republic. Among these were the Claudii (a key family in Roman politics from the founding of the Republic to the early Empire; Liv. 2.16), the Tarpeii (recorded as holding a number of consulships in the fifth century), and the Valerii (prominent from the early days of the Republic and well into the empire; Dionysius 2.46.3). There seems little reason to doubt the ethnic origins of these families.

So on the one hand we cannot say with certainty that there were Sabines in Rome in the eighth century as Livy would have it (though nothing rules it out), but there very clearly were by the foundation of the Republic in 509. The Sabine communities outside of Rome (because it is clear they didn’t all move into Rome) were absorbed in 290 and granted citizenship sine suffrago (citizenship without the vote) almost immediately; voting rights came fairly quickly thereafter in 268 BC (Vel. Pat. 1.14.6-7). The speed with which these Sabine communities outside of Rome were admitted to full citizenship speaks, I suspect, to the degree to which the Sabines were already by that point seen as a kindred people (despite the fact that they spoke a language quite different from Latin; Sabine Osco-Umbrian was its own language, albeit in the same language family).

The only group we can say quite clearly that there is no evidence for in early Rome from Livy’s fusion society are the Trojans; there is no trace of Anatolian influence this early (and we might expect the sudden intrusion of meaningful amounts of Anatolian material culture to be really obvious). Which is to say that Aeneas is made up; no great surprise there.

But Livy’s conception of an early Roman community – perhaps at the end of the sixth century rather than in the middle of the eighth – that was already a conglomeration of peoples with different linguistic, ethnic and religious backgrounds is largely confirmed by the evidence. Moreover, layered on top of this are influences that speak to this early Rome’s connectedness to the broader Mediterranean milieu – I’ve mentioned already the presence of Greek cultural products both in Rome and in the area surrounding it. Greek and eastern artistic motifs (the latter likely brought by Phoenician traders) appear with the ‘Orientalizing’ style in the material culture of the area as early as 730 B.C. – no great surprise there either as the Greeks had begun planting colonies in Italy and Sicily by that point and Phoenician traders are clearly active in the region as well. Evidently Carthaginian cultural contacts also existed at an early point; the Romans made a treaty with Carthage in the very first year of the Republic, which almost certainly seems like it must have replaced some older understanding between the Roman king and Carthage (Polybius 3.22.1). Given the trade contacts, it seems likely that there would have been Phoenician merchants in permanent residence in Rome; evidence for such permanently resident Greeks is even stronger.

In short, our evidence suggests that were one to walk the forum of Rome at the dawn of the Republic – the beginning of what we might properly call the historical period for Rome – you might well hear not only Latin, but also Sabine Umbrian, Etruscan and Greek and even Phoenician spoken (to be clear, those are three completely different language families; Umbrian, Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, Phoenician was a Semitic language and Etruscan is a non-Indo-European language which may be a language isolate – perhaps the modern equivalent might be a street in which English, French, Italian, Chinese and Arabic are all spoken). The objects on sale in the markets might be similarly diverse.

I keep coming back to the languages, by the by, because I want to stress that these really were different people. There is a tendency – we will come back to it next time – for a lot of modern folks to assume that, “Oh well, these are all Italians, right?” But the idea of ‘Italians’ as such didn’t exist yet (and Italy even today isn’t quite so homogeneous as many people outside of it often assume!). And we know that the different languages were mirrored by different religious and cultural practices (although material culture – the ‘stuff’ of daily life, was often shared through trade contacts). Languages thus make a fairly clear and easy marker for a whole range of cultural differences, though – and we will come back to this as well – it is important to remember that people’s identities are often complex; identity is generally a layered, ‘yes, but also…’ affair. I have only glanced over this, but we also see traces of Latin, Etruscan, Greek and Umbrian religious practice in early Roman sanctuaries and our later literary sources; Phoenician influence has also been posited – we know at least that there was a temple to Uni/Astarte in Pyrgi within 30 miles of Rome so Phoenician religious influence could never have been that far away.

We thus have to conclude that Livy is correct on at least one thing: Rome seems to have been a multi-ethnic, diverse place from the beginning with a range of languages, religious practices. Rome was a frontier town at the beginning and it had the wide mix of peoples that one would expect of such a frontier town. It sat at the juncture of the Etruria (inhabited by Etruscans) to the north, of Latium (inhabited by Latins) to the South, and of the Apennine Mountains (inhabited by Umbrians like the Sabines). At the same time, Rome’s position on the Tiber ford made it the logical place for land-based trade (especially from Greek settlements in Campania, like Cumae, Capua and Neapolis – that is, Naples) to cross the Tiber moving either north or south. Finally, the Tiber River is navigable up to the ford (and the Romans were conscious of the value of this, e.g. Liv 5.54), so Rome was also a natural destination point for seafaring Greek and Phoenician traders looking for a destination to sell their wares. Rome was, in short, far from a homogeneous culture; it was a place where many different peoples meet, even in its very earliest days. Indeed, as we will see, that fact is probably part of what positioned Rome to become the leading city of Italy.

(For those looking to track down some of these archaeological references or get a sense of the source material, though it is now a touch dated, The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol 7.2: The Rise of Rome to 220 B.C., edited by F.W. Walbank, A.E. Astin, M.W. Frederiksen, and R.M. Ogilvie (1990) offers a fairly good overview, particularly the early chapters by Ogilvie, Torelli and Momigliano. For something more suited to regular folks, when I teach this I use M.T. Boatwright, D.J. Gargola, N. Lenski and R.J.A. Talbert, The Romans: From Village To Empire (2012) and it has a decent textbook summary, p. 22-42, covering early Rome with particularly good reference to the archaeology)

A Word on the Etruscans

I want to pause our march for a second to make a point. One problem when discussing peoples and cultures in the ancient world is the modern tendency to consider peoples based on the borders of modern nation-states and so to conclude, for instance, that all of the people in Italy were, well, ‘Italians.’ For quite a lot of folks with only a passing interest in history, this goes further as the Greeks and Romans, known perhaps only through high school world history or a college survey, blend together into ‘Greco-Romans’ who are essentially similar (to the point that I regularly have students somewhat surprised that the Greeks and the Romans didn’t fight in the same way or have the same political institutions; even more assume they had the same religion, which they did not).

So I want to take a moment to stress just how different the Etruscans were from the Romans – or indeed, any other Italic peoples.

Via Wikipedia, a fifth century Etruscan fresco showing dancers from the Tomb of the Leopards, in Tarquinia, Italy. The art style is distinctively Etruscan, although there is clear Greek influence as well.

Perhaps the most arresting thing about the Etruscans was their language. Etruscan is a language isolate – it doesn’t appear to be related to any other known language (there is occasionally some very technical debate on this point, but not any that will affect what I am going to say here). All of the other languages of pre-Roman Italy (not counting any Phoenicians who had large settlements in Sicily; Sicily was not considered part of ‘Italy’ by the Romans) are members of the Indo-European language family, which spread out (probably through a series of migrations) from the eastern Pontic Steppe perhaps around 3000 BC or so, reaching Italy around 1000 BC. The Etruscan language – and we may assume the ancestors of the Etruscans themselves – were probably already there when Indo-European arrived; for whatever reasons the Etruscans kept their language and evidently control of their homeland. Consequently, the Romans, linguistically speaking, were more closely related to (Old) Persian and Hindi speakers – both Indo-European languages – than they were to the Etruscans.

Etruscan religion was also distinct. A lot of Indo-European-speaking cultures share some basic mythological elements (linguistically reconstructed backwards to a lost proto-Indo-European religion), but Etruscan religion was a blend of indigenous non-Indo-European religious elements with syncretically adapted Greek and Italic elements (as we’ve discussed, polytheistic religions are very good at this kind of adaption. According to Varro, the supreme god of the pantheon was Voltumna (also called Veltha), an underworld deity which the Romans adopted as Vertumnus (Var. De Ling. Lat. 5.46), but which is quite different from the standard set of Indo-European gods. The Etruscan practice of haruspicy – reading the will of the gods from the entrails of animals – was also clearly distinct and the Romans adopted this too. Even into the first century BC, haruspicy seems to have been a distinctively Etruscan art in Rome and non-Etruscan haruspices were less preferred (though Roman priests practiced augury, divining the will of the gods from birds). Though the extensive later Roman borrowing of elements of Etruscan religion can disguise this, Etruscan religion was quite distinct from Latin and Roman religious practices.

We could go on, limited really only by the limitations in the evidence for the Etruscans (alas that the history of the Etruscans, written by the emperor Claudius, does not survive!). The Etruscans had their own alliance system (Liv. 7.21.9), their own very distinctive art-styles and so on. But the upshot here is that the Etruscans were very much culturally distinct from the Romans or indeed all of the other peoples of Italy.

Misreading the Romans

It may seem odd that I am opting to start this discussion so early. After all, very little of the popular perception of Rome is anchored in this period. Most of the ‘Roman stories’ we tell concern either the late Republic or the Empire.

But I wanted to start here, at the very beginning because there is this persistent myth that Rome was, at some point in its history, effectively homogeneous and that Rome’s subsequent downfall was a product of it becoming heterogeneous, either culturally or racially. It is, in fact, an old theory, going back at least as far as Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882; we have met him before) who argued that the Roman empire collapsed because of ‘race mixing’ resulting in the “vitality” and “aptitude for conquest” of the Romans being diminished. I will stress here that Gobineau’s theories fail even a basic test of the historical evidence – they were quite bad history even for 1853 (when he published his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines – ‘Essay on the Inequality of Human Races.’ It turns out sometimes a title does tell you all you need to know about a book) given that even a passing familiarity with Dionysius or Livy would have been enough to raise insurmountable objections (as we have just done) even before addressing the pseudo-scientific bunk that was 19th century ‘scientific’ racism (which, again, we have already discussed). Unsurprisingly, Gobineau’s theories were quite popular among the Nazis, something discussed in both C.B. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (2012) and in greater depth by J. Hell, The Conquest of Ruins: The Third Reich and the Fall of Rome (2019).

The more modern version of this argument often focuses on culture rather than race, but apart from the substitution of ‘cultural compatibility’ for ‘race mixing’ hysteria, is fundamentally unchanged in its arguments; the same car with new paint. The folk history theory goes that the Romans were strong at some vague point in the past (this argument does not generally come with a firm grasp of chronology for reasons which will become obvious. If this sounds like the same chronology problems the Fremen Mirage had, they are. These two bad folk theories tend to come together) but then the empire became ‘multicultural’ and was thus weakened and so collapsed. That assertion is then offered as a brick in an argument to suggest that cultural pluralism is necessarily a weakening force for a state – that cultural homogeneity is necessary for a well-functioning society. As you may well have guessed, that is a thesis which is unlikely to survive our trip through Rome’s cultural history.

But I wanted to begin by drilling out the bottom layer of that argument: Rome was always multicultural, it was never homogeneous; Rome was born of an ethnic and cultural fusion, at a meeting place of different peoples, from the very beginning, long before Rome was anything more than an unremarkable collection of villages on a few relatively unimportant hills overlooking the Tiber. To a degree, that fact is disguised by the modern tendency to simply call a lot of people Romans (who may well have called themselves other things) and to lump together groups (Etruscans, Latins, Sabines – we’re going to have even more Italic peoples next time!) who were in fact quite distinct and considered quite different then. Distinctions that really mattered – like differences between Greek, Roman and Etruscan religion – are elided away in introductory history courses (because they had to be when you have hundreds or thousands of years to cover in a single semester) but were very important to people at the time (we’ll talk about Roman queasiness about adopted foreign religion – including Greek religion! – next time).

As we are going to see, it was probably not an accident that the polity which would come to dominate the rest of Italy was located not in the center of one of pre-Roman Italy’s various cultural zones (that is, it was not an Etruscan city in the core of Etruria, nor an Oscan community well inside Samnite territory, or a Latin community in the center of Latium, etc.), but rather a hybrid community that existed at the meeting points of several cultural zones (in this case, at the juncture of areas of Etruscan, Latin and Umbrian settlement and at the same time at a nexus of trade between them and overseas Greek and Phoenician traders). This was certainly not the only factor in Rome’s rise, but it does seem to have been a factor.

Next week, we are going to advance into the era of the Republic and look at how the Romans handle going from being just one community of many in Italy to the de facto political, economic and cultural center of the peninsula and how they cope with a state that comes to encompass all of ancient Italy’s varied cultural groups.

158 thoughts on “Collections: The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans? Part I: Beginnings and Legends

  1. It is a very common conceit among 20th and 21st century commentators to assume that the homogenous nation-state is natural and the normal state of human affairs, and multi-national states are strange aberrations that will inevitably fail (acknowledging that the modern idea of nationalism didn’t really exist in ancient so nation may be a bit of misnomer already). I know a lot of recent scholarship on Habsburg Austria has pushed back heavily on the post-World War I nationalists narratives about Austria-Hungary and what the many different peoples who lived there thought of their relationship to the Habsburg empire.

    1. Most ancient states were actually homogeneous from point of view of lifestyle (sedentary vs nomadic), economic orientation (landward or seaward), religious (politeist vs monoteist), administrative organization, etc. Only Yuan China managed to keep both steppe and urban environment under its rule and only for a limited period, about 100 years. The Greeks created talasocracies but never settled or controlled teritory far from the coastline. Helenistic states and Rome developed their teritories into networks of polis cities even in areas with previous tribal or semi-feudal structures.

      1. Chronology aside (Yuan china being “ancient”?) that is still not true: Several chinese dynasties extended onto the steppes, as did at times various iranian empires, some steppe empires extended into settled territories. Rome itself included monotheist jews as well as polytheists, and so did thier persian rivals. And administrative systems were often not at all coherent but could vary extensively depending on situation (its abit late, but Qing China had significantly different forms of rulership over the manchurian homeland, Mongolia and China proper, for instance, and they are far from the only ones) Even Rome does this: A patchwork of city-states, provinces, client kingdoms, allies, and so forth.

        1. The Qing dinasty controlled Mongolia and parts of Siberia by use of canon and muskets against the The Western Mongols (Jungars) and Cosacks. It was a rather modern military conquering the steppe, similar to Russia. The steppe people could not produce or buy enough canons to preserve their independence. States which had the same weapons as the steppe people had to make choice: be an agrarian dinasty or a steppe one. They could finance a double administration/ hierarchy only on a limited size (Jurchens) but not on a large scale (Yuan/ Tang).
          The monotheist religions were factors of unrest in large empires as they didn’t recognize the gods of the ruling group and this sapped the legitimacy of the ruling familiy. The Jews were initially allowed religious freedom by the Assirians as they wanted a stable vassal before attacking Egypt. They were repressed by the Babylonians which were concentrated more on the Medians/ Persians. The Persians offered again religious freedom and used the Jews as loyal garrisons in Egypt. The Ptolemys used the Jews again as garrisons against the Egyptian population and buffer area against the Seleucids. The Seleucids were also initially well disposed to Jews but then tried to convert them into a Hellenized population which could identify with the state. The Romans also went to war against the Jews because they refused to accept the sacral images of the Roman state and people.
          So the monotheist problem was always on the table but it could be outweighted by political / military issues. The Jews were allowed religious freedom only as long as they were useful for some military purpose.

          1. The monotheist sassanians had litlte trouble ruling over polytheistic subjects though, including jews. Muslim empires in india lastedfor a milennia, and hindu kingdoms frequently ruled over muslim subjects. There were problems of course, but the point is that these problems were surmountable and part of the general problems of rulership, not neccessarily any more or less significant than the usual problems of keeping the aristocrats in check.

            The thing here is that having different sorts of administration for different groups was normal. Homogenity was the exception. Heck, even the british did this, with their networks of client-states and fetish for “native rule”.

            And the chinese had been extending rule over the steppes since at least the Han, often, but not always, successfully, and continued to do this until the the present day. We also have states that extendedacross multiple areas,like the Kazan Khanate.

            Its simply one of the cases where simplistic statements about homogenity doesent work: History is full of examples of the opposite.

    2. There is also always this weird idea because well… Everything fails, sooner or later. No state is eternal. Multicultural states fail, but so do homogenous ones.

      1. Not to disagree, but I will note that the most homogenous Greek polis is also the one that, in the long run, had the least impact, and the shortest “time of glory”.
        Sparta, of course.

        1. Well ‘homogenous’ in the sense that the smallish ruling group all came from one mould. Not so much if you add in the Messenians.

        2. Eh, you could argue that Athens was far more homogenous. After all, that was where you could be prosecuted for murder for killing a slave.

          1. Because for a city’s law code to treat killing a slave as murder, the law and customs of the city must at least partly acknowledge that slaves are fundamentally people, in the same sense that citizens of the city are people.

            A citizen elite that views the enslaved people around itself as subhuman is, inevitably, going to form a non-homogeneous society formed of two or more separate and incompatible cultures. The slave culture (and slave heritage) will not be allowed anywhere near the elite culture, and any attempt by the slaves to adopt marks of elite culture (e.g. literacy in the antebellum South) will be at best viewed with discomfort and at worst cracked down on as a threat.

            By contrast, a citizen elite that views the enslaved people as being, in essence, temporarily embarassed free men (or, well, permanently embarrassed, but still human) has at least some possibility of being homogeneous within itself.

            One of the reasons I think Dr. Devereaux is right to identify a recurring pattern of subtle (or not-so-subtle) racial thinking in the way we discuss history ties into this. Because often when we think of a “homogeneous people” or “homogeneous culture,” we don’t actually mean ‘homogeneous.’ We mean that all the important people are in some sense, are all the same, while the subdued masses of laborers in the background may or may not be.

            The idea that a “homogeneous people” can conquer and enslave of foreigners and bring them back to work on their estates and mansions in the thousands and still be homogeneous is kind of silly, when you think about it.Obviously the society is not homogeneous anymore if a big chunk of the population is brought in from elsewhere in chains!

            But we don’t think about that when subconsciously identifying only with the elite that owns those slaves and otherwise ignores them except to give them orders.

  2. I’m currently wading through Edward Gibbon’s ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, as one does. Although it’s not his primary thesis for the fall, in various places he notes that the Roman Empire ceased extending citizenship to the peoples of its non-core territories. This had the effect over generations of producing a vitally large, disaffected to disloyal population, and vitiating not the ‘virtue’ of the Romans (as Mr Gibbon would have it), but the empire’s ability to replace citizen-military (and other societal) losses. It reminded me of your critique of the Spartan noble class: over-exclusivity is a hard burden for a culture’s long term viability.

    1. you might already be aware, but Gibbons is not looked upon too kindly with perhaps the greatest virtue being the fact it is in the public domain. Ward-Perkins text on the fall of Rome is quite good and I am sure our dear author has plenty of book recommendations on this period as well.

      1. Yeah, I don’t regard Decline as great history by modern standards, but it is important for understanding the history of history, in the same way that reading Wealth of Nations adds context to economics (and that’s also a good read). I have found Mr Gibbon’s writing surprisingly readable for two reasons: firstly, much of history writing since has emulated his form and style (and even science fiction – Stapleton’s ‘Last and First Men’ is very Decline…), and secondly, when he gets acerbic it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

        1. I love Gibbon too, merely for the sheer snarky humour. It wasn’t just Stapledon. Asimov acknowledged the debt. Virginia Woolf was a fan I believe

          1. I’ve never read Gibbon, but I recall Will Cuppy quoting him as saying of Charlemagne “Of his virtues, chastity was not the most prominent.”

      2. Yes, but it’s noteworthy that even Gibbon is saying:

        “Hey, the thing that weakened Western Rome in the latter years of the Empire wasn’t, or wasn’t only/primarily, that the previously invincible Roman blood or Roman culture became diluted. It’s that the Romans stopped accepting immigrating Germanic tribesmen as new citizens and instead tried keeping them around as a permanent underclass and eventually that did not work out too well!!”

        As noted elsewhere, Gibbon’s work helps to put the history of the field of history into context, and here it does this by being an example of thinking about Rome that predates the Romantics and the 19th century moderns in general. As such, he can talk about Rome in terms of different social constructs (less about Roman blood, more about moral virtue), and is going to be predisposed to ignore different sets of facts.

    2. This seems odd given that a Roman emperor extended citizenship to everyone.

      For the fall of the Republic, my layman’s guess as to cause would be the limited suffrage. Citizenship was broad but you had to be in Rome to vote and even then it was a plutocracy; why should a nominally citizen-soldier of 60 BC care more about the Republic than his own general? Someone inventing representative democracy might have helped.

      1. An American historian, Frank Burr Marsh, wrote a history of the later Roman Republic [1] which I treasure (it was given to my father as a school prize book in 1943). Burr is pretty good on the difficulties with the Roman franchise (citizens having to come in from outlying towns, and so forth). But the Romans did take their Republic pretty seriously. It wasn’t exactly representative, but the ‘tribes’ were supposedly organised to allow for the disparities in numbers on the day,

        Marsh concludes:

        “…what really destroyed the Republic was the loss of all control over the army by the constitutional government…”

        He explains that to re-assert such control, the Senate would have had to offer better rewards than the generals could offer. The weak point, according to Marsh, was the lack of a “strong political machine” that could ensure the “election of magistrates willing to carry out the policy of the governing class and the enactment of the necessary legislation.”

        Actually, if you are wondering, this is definitely not meant as a commentary on present-day politics!

        [1] F.B.Marsh, ‘A History of the Roman World from 146 to 30 B.C.’, London:Methuen 1934, p.276

        1. Yeah, but I think by the late Republic, the army was probably as big as the whole population of Rome itself, let alone the significant electorate, which might be part of why they lost control. (30 legions, 5000 each, 150,000 men, double that to include auxiliaries…)

          1. We might be seeing Rome through modern eyes, as in a separation of civil and military power. I see Rome as a soldier-republic (citizens gather in the forum each year to decide on whom to make war, then march under their consuls). Most magistracies had a military as well as a civil function and, in a real sense, the army was the electorate (or the electorate was the army). As the empire grew, army and state diverged; after the civil wars, power again rested with the populace, as embodied in the army.

        2. I think that the major problem was lack of re-distribution of the war spoils. Normal citizens had to fight years on end far away from home with their own weapons and supplies while their farm/ bussines was taxed at normal rate. Most of them could afford the costs only with loot from succesful campaigns. One or to two campaigns without major loot could send the citizens into debt or bankruptcy and the loss of citizenship. The Grachi brothers tries to solve the problem by offering more land to the soldiers and increasing their revenues. Marius then introduced the provisioning of weapons, supply and wage to decrease soldier expenses.

          It nonetheles boiled down to one point: roman citizens went to war too often and they needed a succesfull general and a large loot to save themselves from bankruptcy and loss of citizenship. This created the undercurrent which sapped the legitimacy and efficieny of the Senate while allowing powerbases for any general which offered loot, either from foriegn or roman lands.

          1. Except that the real loot was land, and the quarrel was about how new land was to be distributed – either as large estates to the senatorial class or to new small farmers. The combination of paid legionary service (Marius, IIRC) and extensive colonia for veterans settled the issue – but transferred power out of Italy to the legions.

          2. It also has the effect of eating your seed corn: it takes decades to build up the level of loot required. Hence, you always need to conquer new lands.

  3. I can’t comment on Roman sources, but violence is often an admired quality in medieval literature. Heroes kill, rob and rape, and are heroic for it. If they have moral qualms it is noted as exceptional (eg Gunnar in Brennu-Njal).

    1. I have to admit, my take on the Romulus and Remus story (which is far less well educated than Dr. Deveraux’s) has always been a celebration and justification sort of myth. That YES, boundaries and protecting what’s yours is important, and if you’re going to fight to protect your turf, you go all the way, win at any cost. And that is certainly a mindset we see during the late Republican and early Imperial periods.

      1. I have seen it explained in such a way: Romulus founded Rome in accordance to the ritual of the Italic peoples. Driving a plow around the intended boundaries of the city was a sacred act separating the “human” part of the world from the “wild”. The circle could not be crossed, so you literally had to remove the plow from the ground in places intended for gates, because otherwise, you couldn’t get in or out without breaking a ritual taboo. Or if you will, committing a major sacrilege. When interpreted in this light, Romulus becomes a seriously pious man, rather than get-off-my-lawn grumpy grandpa with no regard for family relation.

    2. It’s interesting to read Le Morte d’Arthur, where the Grail chapters declare that all those chivalric knights are proud, violent, and lustful and so failures.

      1. And today’s fictional heroes have the same failings. I guess we still have the same tension between what makes a cool action hero and what makes a good Christian.

  4. Roman cognomen being somewhat punnish and humorous if not downright deprecating or even insulting, you’d have to reflect on “niger” and “rufus”

  5. > based on the boarders of modern nation


    “this early Rome’s disconnectedness to the broader Mediterranean milieu”

    From the rest of the text, I don’t get how early Rome is supposed to be disconnected from the broader Mediterranean milieu; I mean Phoenician and Greek influence are noted thourough

    1. My read on the text is that early Rome didn’t include a Phoenician or Greek, or Trojan, population. Greeks and Phoenicians lived nearby and traded with Rome, which is the source of the influence rather than being the influence of fellow citizens.

  6. Hey Bret,

    Great post as usual.

    I would just like to ask how far do you see this series going, where do you see drawing the line between Roman and Byzantine in this series?

    Looking forward to the next post!

  7. I had a question regarding “…though it is now a touch dated, The Cambridge Ancient History,…”. How is it possible that scholarship on such an ancient topic dates so quickly (you suggesting a 2012 book as a more modern alternative)? How could the authors in 1990 not write a book that would still be up to date? Is it new evidence, or is there a change in academic writing style that makes the more modern book more suitable?

    1. Interpretation of existing sources probably plays a big role. It might not be that the scholarship is wrong (though it could be, not an expert) as that there are simply important gaps in it that have since been filled by looking at sources through a different interpretive lens.

      1. This. New evidence almost certainly plays a role, but there have also been big shifts in how we read the evidence we have. For example, I know that gender has become a much bigger point of focus, with more work paying attention to what women were up to and how that fed into the larger picture (rather than men’s activities being treated as 95% of the relevant situation). I don’t know what specific shifts may have happened in this exact field, but I’m not surprised that a book from thirty years ago reads a bit dated now.

        1. Every age has its mores. On that very same point — being eager to pay attention to what women were up to — no doubt many of the books written today will read very dated thirty, fifty, a hundred, years forward. It’s not that these works become wrong, just that it becomes obvious in hindsight they’re paying too much attention to what doesn’t merit it.

          ‘What a fuss over nothing, why couldn’t they do something about what was going on under their noses?’ our kids or great-grandchildren will ask, in the same way we roll our eyes at the uptightness of the Victorians. What does it matter? Not much to one who wasn’t there. Everything to he who is.

          I’ve no idea if that’s what OGH was talking about, though. Just bouncing off the comment above.

          1. (Nods) One of the biggest benefits to reading old history books is being able to see what the fad of the day was. I have a book about the events surrounding Falkirk and Bannockburn written back in the early 1900s, and the author ends up spending a chapter or two talking about whether or not it was those of Norman or Celtic blood (his phrasing) who were the primary instigators of the uprisings. Nowadays, no one would give that issue a first thought, much less an entire chapter.

          2. Oh, definitely. I think around half-way through a grad class on contemporary scholarship in urban history, I actually just straight up asked why historians seemed so obsessed with prostitutes. While some of it is certainly because it offers new avenues of scholarship, I think some of it just faddishness as well.

          3. The real advantage is when it gives you an idea of the fads of your own era.

          4. @60guilders

            Isn’t talking about who started an uprising an interesting issue to consider? Maybe dividing groups by “blood” seems weird, but wouldn’t Normans at the time be more likely to be part of the gentry?

          5. That reflects their greatest leadership abilities. This would increase their revulsion to subordination, and move them to high positions in revolt.

            During WWII, it was actually argued that Poles who resisted being Germanized proved thereby that they were German — it was the nature of Germans to resist, whereas Slavs would fatalistically accept.

          6. @Baud: Yes, nowadays someone would spend some time talking about who started the rising and their position in society (because that is an interesting question) but they wouldn’t go on and on talking about whether or not they were of Norman or Celtic “blood.”

          7. I mean.

            Maybe spending a lot of time thinking about what women or poor people were doing in a historical society will just turn out to be an inconsequential fad.

            Then again, maybe it will turn out that obsessively focusing on what men do in history was the silly fad, and it just took a few thousand years for society to notice.

          8. Personally I think the history of everyday life is an independently interesting subject apart from the histories of major events. Of course one influences the other.

    2. As well as new interpretation, wider availability and new evidence.

      1990 is pre-Internet, unless you were a computer geek. I don’t want to go into a “kids today” rant, but since then so many original documents and photos of archeological finds have been digitised and made available online. An example related in a 2015 book about Charles Babbage and his mechanical computers: the author could do a search for “Babbage” or any other word across *thousands* of 19th C books, newspapers, and magazines. In seconds.

      While we haven’t found many new written texts from ancient and medieval eras (AFAIK), archeology has kept going. New discoveries all the time, thanks to human enthusiasm for digging large holes in the ground for office blocks, railway lines, harbours, etc. Better or cheaper tools for finding stuff, eg ground penetrating radar. Cheaper and thus more widely available techniques for analysing stuff, such as radiocarbon dating.

      For a paleontological example I happen to have found recently, in 1993 there had only been 3 Tyrannosaur skeletons found. As I write this in 2021 there are 32!

  8. > as well as some very salty Roman writing which I will not bowdlerize in the slightest a little later in the series.

    That one catullus poem?

  9. The English-speaking world is not the only one to have noticed. In “Mythologies”, Roland Barthes has an essay on “Romans in Cinema” pointing out all the oddities in Mankiewicz’ Julius Caesar, and I quote “On the other hand Julius Caesar is unbelievable, with his mug of an Anglo-Saxon lawyer well worn by thousands of supporting roles in crime capers or comedies”

    1. It was surreal to me when I saw a trailer for a Japanese film about ancient Rome. I know it isn’t much more absurd to have Romans speaking Japanese than English . . . but wow, the cognitive dissonance. O_O (The language actually threw me more than the actors being Japanese.)

      1. I saw a Japanese cartoon set in fantasy Britain, and it didn’t feel odd at all. I wonder what the difference was.

        1. I live in Manchester in the UK, and watching the Japanese anime Steamboy, which is partly set there is a hoot. When a steam train rolls into the station, and the conductor yells out Man-ches-ter in the thickest Japanese accent, it really feels jarring.

      2. I Googled “Japanese movie about Rome” and found a weird time-travel comedy called Thermae Romae. Is that what you saw?

      3. I actually watched about 2/3 of the second film (Thermae Romae II) on an airplane. Among the curiosities:

        1. The main Roman characters (e.g., the hero Lucius, the emperor, the latter’s scheming son) were played by Japanese actors, while the secondary characters and bit parts and extras were played by Europeans (I think parts of it were filmed in Bulgaria);

        2. The dialog in ancient Rome is indeed all in Japanese;

        3. When the main character is (courtesy time-warping whirlpools) in modern Japan, he speaks Latin, while everyone else speaks Japanese, and they can’t understand each other. (There’s a present-day graphic designer — a cute young woman who’s smitten with the main character, although it didn’t seem to be reciprocated — who studied Latin at university and can provide some translation.);

        4. The main character (a bath architect) brings back inspiration from modern Japan when he returns to the past, so we get so see (for example) a Roman version of a waterslide park and also sumo wrestling introduced to the Colosseum.

        1. 1. I guess it was more important to get stars for the main roles than to get the race right? (Not that I know who Japan’s stars are.)

          4. Boxing wasn’t bloody enough for the Romans, so I don’t think they’d have much interest in sumo. Starting to think this film series isn’t historically accurate.

  10. It’s been a long time since I read Livy, but I’m sure he devotes a few lines to dismissing a notion that the ‘original’ settlers of Rome (as in, the ones led by Romulus and Remus) were sown men a la what Cadmus supposedly did to found Thebes, and says to the effect that this is a way to glamorize rounding up homeless people and other vagabonds to form the new community.

    Is there any other evidence of a sown men myth for Rome? I assume Livy wouldn’t dismiss it if there wasn’t at least some story going around in his day that Rome got started in such an explicitly supernatural way.

  11. Let’s be fair: filmed Romans have posh British accents because, by American film convention, all foreigners we’re supposed to respect have posh British accents. Only chain-smoking terrorists and bumbling comic relief characters have accents appropriate to their actual country of origin. If the Romans had American accents, it would code them as “one of us,” which is probably undesirable from the filmmakers’ perspective.

    I mean, Marvel’s Thor has a Brit accent, and he’s technically a friggin’ space alien …

    1. One fascinating exception: Enemy at the Gates, about the siege of Stalingrad. The heroic Russian characters have British accents; the attacking Germans have American ones.

    2. But note that the villains in the Thor movies also have posh British accents. Indeed, the coding “posh British accent = villain” is sufficiently common to have its own TV Tropes entry (Evil Brit).

      1. More generally, in American fiction, “foreigner, not one of us, but someone you’re supposed to respect” gets coded as some kind of British accent. This applies equally well to villains and heroes.

    3. I always assumed that it was because Latin was a language taught at English private (‘public’) schools, and so most of the people/actors/writers/directors who had any knowledge of Latin were posh and British and thought it should sound like them*. Once a conventional accent was established, everyone else stuck to it, much like the ‘pirate’ accent is bafflingly an English west-country accent just as likely to be associated with farming in the UK.

      I do wonder what overseas visitors think when they visit the west of England, and find it’s essentially ‘talk like a pirate day’ every day. Amused probably. I once had an academic colleague who sounded exactly like Kermit the Frog,

      *Even as a state-educated English person I studied Latin at school. It wasn’t until many years later I even thought spoken Latin might be accented, as for possibly obvious reasons it wasn’t taught as a spoken language but a primarily written one.

      1. West Country = pirate isn’t COMPLETELY out of left field since Atlantic trade had strong links with the west of England. But yeah, having ALL the pirate talks like that doesn’t make sense.

    4. A lot of those “posh British accents” aren’t. A lot of them are Mid-Atlantic accents. A sort of affected, or created accent originating among American elites in the North Eastern US. It was taught as proper and formally correct pronunciation in high end prep and boarding schools with largely European staff. And became a serious class marker by the early 20th century.

      It trickled out a bit, and became a major part of theatrical convention. Especially with classical plays and theatre. Which influenced film convention. It’s still taught in acting programs and is still the convention for those classical and historical plays. And still used for it’s class connotations and “it’s historical!” feel in film.

      The tendency to use British actors speaking in Received Pronunciation rolls out of that. RP is taught in The UK, Irish, and Australian acting industry for similar reasons (among others). It’s a lot more visible these days because actors from these places are typically A LOT cheaper to book.

      There is particular pressure in that direction when shooting in Europe. Where (pre-brexit anyway) UK actors were locally available, and reliably fluent in English. Shooting in Europe has become more and more common, thanks to potential avoidance of union rules, local tax incentives, and government grants.

      To take your example. Marvel’s Thor doesn’t so much have a Brit accent. That’s an Australian actor, doing the Australian stagey spin on RP. He’s surrounded by British actors who actually speak in RP, and Americans doing stage derived Mid Atlantic. Because the combination suitably matches our expectations for the sort of fantasy where a dude riding an electric hammer punches a twenty foot tall wolf.

  12. I seem to recall a story (as recorded by Herodotus perhaps?) that attributed an Anatolian origin to the Etruscans. It’s quite clearly mythical, as many of Herodotus’ tales are (the soon-to-be Etruscans migrated due to no longer being able to stave off hunger by playing board games), but I wonder, might learned Roman literates have known of this tradition when coming up with a Trojan origin story?

    Also, how common as a founding myth is a descent from an union of separate groups? I think the Hungarians had something of that sort, but can’t come up with more examples.

    1. Well it’s the United States’founding myth! I don’t know if anybody else was struck by the parallel but the original thirteen colonies were founded by various dissenters and misfits according to both folklore and history. The early presence of large non-British populations is historically documented, Germans, Acadian French, enslaved Africans of course, and later became part of the Nation of Immigrants mythos.

      1. The people who wrote the constitution sure played up the parallels. I guess it’s important to grasp all the legitimacy you can.

        1. Yes in those days a Republic was a rarity. Naturally our founders leaned hard on the only well known predecessor.

          1. There were some Republics in the Founders’ day – The Netherlands, Switzerland, Venice, and Poland-Lithuania (kind of).

            Due to Poland-Lithuania’s propensity for being used as an object of its foreign-born kings’ dynastic squabbles, I suspect the Founders put the provision in the constitution that a president must not be foreign-born.

          2. Interestingly, Switzerland’s founding myth, the Rütlischwur, is also about three scrappy groups coming together to resist authority!

      2. I suppose the founding myth changes depending on what part of the country you’re from. The one I learned focused on the Founding Fathers, all presented as ethnic Englishmen.

        1. Yes, and on the time too. I would say the founding “founding myth” was that we were a nation of Englishmen, more true to the tradition of free yeoman than those poor urbanites still in England.

          Even as we moved away from that, the focus on assimilation in our mythmaking was heavy. The genius of America was that we could change people to Americans. That was what I learned. Sure, these ethnics brought things that strengthened us (like St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and sausage and tacos) but they weren’t founders.

          IMO the ‘union of peoples’ approach is recent and partial. Things like the 1619 project remind us African Americans were there from the start.

    2. The New Zealand founding myth is of the British Resident, James Busby, as representative of the British Crown, and a number of Maori chiefs in the then-most populous part of New Zealand, the Northlands (Te Tai Tokerau in Te Reo Maori) signing the treaty document and shaking hands, saying, “He iwiw kotahi tatau” – we are now one people.

    3. The Hungarian nation-forming myth is usually not told as a unification of disparate tribes.

      I imagine you refer to the blood oath the seven chieftains made, but in the popular consciousness that is understood as seven already ethnically Magyar leaders swearing an oath to follow up on the conquest of the Carpathian Basin.

      The idea that back when the myth was first written down, a “blood oath” would have probably referred to a fictious creation of brotherhood between tribes that considered themselves unrelated, is an academic obscurity.

      1. One of the founding myths of the duchy of Normandy was of the still-pagan Viking Rollo’s dream of a vast flock of birds of many varieties and colors following Rollo–interpreted by a Christian in his entourage as a prediction of his future as feudal lord and of Normandy as unifying diverse ethnic groups and cultures (see Dudo of St. Quentin). His descendant William the Conqueror led a diverse army of soldiers from all over Northern France to conquer England–hence he customarily addressed his followers who took over England as “French”, not Norman, suggesting similar ideas of cultural unity of diversity.

  13. Medium-time reader, first-time commentator, and I thoroughly enjoyed this article – as I have been enjoying your work as a whole!

    This is the second time you’ve mentioned that Greek and Roman religion were not the same, and if I might most humbly offer up my suggestion for a subject matter, I’d love to hear more about this.

    1. I don’t know that much but basically the versions we tend to hear are a deliberate Greek-Roman syncreticism. I assume the details of how that happened and the controversies around it are something that we’ll see bits about later.
      It does come up sometimes that Greeks and Romans had “different views” of some gods who are identified together by this – most often Ares being seen as a negative god of conflict whilst Mars was a god of martial prowess (probably oversimplifying massively here). Despite being YA I think Rick Riordan’s stories actually got into more detail with this – the particular one I remember coming up was that Athena was more the deity of martial prowess for the Greeks whilst Minerva was more just about crafts and how that affects the Roman charatcters there’s views of the Greek daughter of Athena.
      A particularly big one though (that didn’t come up there because it would kind of wreck the series but I happened to be chatting with a friend about last week) is that Saturn and Kronos have literally nothing in common (pre-syncretisation) beyond being the father of Jupiter/Zeus. Saturn is the god who taught us agriculture but doesn’t really do much anymore except come round at the winter solstice giving children carved wooden toys whilst Kronos was the evil former tyrant of the world who was overthrown by his son and is now locked in Tartarus forever.

      1. Yeah when I hear “Let’s put the Saturn back in Saturnalia!” I always want to say, “Doesn’t that mean eating your children?” But sadly, no, that was a Kronos bit, not a Saturn one.

        1. Redeunt Saturnia regna, let the realms of Saturn return — from Virgil Eclogues 4. The rebel British emperor Carausius (AD 286-293) inscribed his coins thus, RSR, following up on one medallion with INPCDA, iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto, a new generation is sent down from Heaven above. Shelley follows on: “The world’s great age begins anew, The golden years return” (Hellas). Then David Bowie…

    2. In the type of encyclopedia I devoured as a kid, trying to inform myself on these fascinating peoples, the Greek religion and the Roman religion were “amalgamated” one might say, into one, by applying the names of the Greek gods to the Roman gods and vice versa. Thus we were informed, Zeus was the same as Jupiter. A while later, and reading the stories themselves, though in translation I found that Zeus had a rather extensive set of stories involving sex and (not always willing) partners, one amongst them being Ganymede, a young man. Jupiter was a rather more staid individual, with fewer stories recorded about him. The same trap occurs when you read that Odin/Woden was the Germanic counterpart of Zeus/Jupiter. Because in no Greek or Roman story about Zeus or Jupiter do we ever read of Zeus or Jupiter hanging himself as a sacrifice to himself, to gain wisdom. Consequently, neither Zeus or Jupiter include necromancy in their portfolios.

      And it’s the same across the board – Minerva has a similar set of portfolios/duties as Athena, but some rather different ones; I don’t think there’s a Roman equivalent to Diana, huntress, though I could be wrong. (Presumably because the Romans never had time for huntresses, whereas the Greek seem to have encountered a fair few peoples where such was accepted – I think the Amazons are probably a confused remembrance of the Scythians, because it appears from Scythian tombs excavated in Southern Russia, that some high-ranking Scythian women may have taken part in warfare.)

      Likewise the other lesser gods – Hephaistos is of a different character to Vulcan, though both are blacksmiths. Etc.

      1. I think Mars was a war/farm god, much like early Roman soldiers.

        ‘Diana’ *is* a Roman goddess, mapped, perhaps inaccurately, to Artemis.

        In attributes and planets Thor -> Zeus/Jupiter and Odin -> Hermes/Mercury, but there are still a lot of differences.

        1. Thanks for the correction. I was thinking of “Diana of the Ephesians”, most definitely a Greek goddess.

        2. IIRC, the ancients themselves identified Thor with Zeus and Jupiter (because storm gods), and Odin with Hermes and Mercury (because of the planet, and because those gods carried souls to the afterlife). But modern scholars associate Odin with Zeus and Jupiter; that is, they’re all derived from the same god in the extremely ancient common ancestor of Norse and Greek religion.

          1. Not… really, setting aside our severe issues with scandinavian polytheism and the lack of sources (the “Odin Being the Chief God” shows up in Snorri, but its not universal, IIRC Adam of Bremen has Thor as the place of honour) Thor clearly has the attributes of the indo-european sky god, while Odin is, insofar as we can get a handle on him outside of the Eddas, not really like that.

            OTOH the god who is linguistically the same as Zeus and Jupiter is… Tyr (they all derive from the same IE root). (who, to further confuse things, might have been a mostly danish thing, since we have basically no site-names dedicated to him in modern Sweden and Norway)

            Its also incredibly important to note the timeline here: Our sources for scandinavian polytheism such as they are start coming around literally a thousand years after the period we are talking about. Even our earliest pictorial and archeological evidence that can, mabye, kinda, be associated with the scandinavian gods described by Snorri and teh others only start showing up in the centuries CE.

    3. If you haven’t gotten to it already, this series on ancient polytheism indirectly addresses some of your questions:

      Specifically, while it doesn’t exactly have a bulleted list of how Greek and Roman religion are different, it does argue that polytheists care about different stuff than monotheists do, because they use religion to accomplish different things. Two religions that look pretty much the same from a modern monotheist-influenced perspective (because they believe in the same or at least very similar gods) could be totally different to the people who actually practice them (because they employ different schemes of prayer, sacrifice, and ritual.)

  14. The most telling bit about HBO’s Rome casting is that the only Roman actress in the cast played the part of Eirene, a barbarian slave. Vercingetorix, as well, was played by an Italian actor.

  15. >how common as a founding myth is a descent from an union of separate groups?

    There’s some of that in Exodus, where at least two of Jacob’s sons are called out as having married foreign women (Simeon and Judah, both of which were tribes south of Jerusalem) and a whole ‘mixed multitude’ joins the Children of Israel as they escape from Egypt (with subsequent problems of assimilation).

    1. Quick question – in my studies I’ve always come across the antique name for Naples as Neapolis, with an a, rather than Neopolis as stated in your essay. Is this a typographical error on your part, or is Neopolis the more correct/accurate name as translated from the Greek that has been bastardized over time (as you point out happened with Vergil-Virgil from Latin)? Presumably Neopolis would etymologically imply a simple meaning of ‘New Polis’ that would make sense if it was originally a Greek colony (I studied Ancient History for my degree but never ended up taking any ancient language classes so there may be something I’m missing here).

      1. Apologies for the seemingly off-topic reply, Tony, I meant this as a new post, rather than a reply to your comment.

  16. Re. The Sabine Women: I’ve often wondered how different bedding a stranger chosen by your father is from bedding a stranger who captured you at risk of his life? The latter might be rather more exciting. I’m a woman, guys, I can speculate about such things.
    I have no doubts about the former Sabine now Roman Women’s reaction to the army of father’s and brothers attacking their new home. Now they come to rescue us? Now after we’ve settled in and even had children?? The Hell with that!

    1. You’re basically asking what the difference between an arranged marriage and bride kidnapping is. In the former the bride might have input on the suitor (even up to rejecting him), while for the latter the bride by definition has no input (also they’re marrying a rapist).

      1. A Roman could marry off his daughter without even asking her. Heck, he could arrange his wife’s next marriage on his deathbed, and even divorce her and marry her off without her consent.

        The captive Sabines were, indeed, given their choice of which Roman to marry, according to Livy.

        1. Let me put it this way: in an arranged marriage you might be marrying a rapist, but in a bridal kidnapping you’re almost definitely marrying a rapist.

        2. Livy was clearly aware of the problematic aspects of the story. Personally I am as dubious about this story as I am about the trojan connection. Wife stealing was a bit of ancient trope. There’s a similar story in the Bible about the tribe of Benjamin.

          1. I’m dubious about the specifics of the story, but wife stealing was a trope because it happened. (Still happens, in some places.)

  17. She might. Or she might not. And I suspect first nights were always rough for the bride. In fact sparing the child bride on the wedding night is something of a trope. I simply wonder how much difference marriage by capture really was from arranged marriage. Either way you end up in bed with a stranger.

    1. I’m uncertain on statistics, but given that most people would generally have lived in fairly small villages and married people from the same villages, I really don’t think most married people they don’t know.

      But more generally, how traumatic something is appears to be partially culturally dependent. Things that are “supposed” to happen in your culture are generally less traumatic. Cultures which practice arranged marriage are quite common. Though there are bride kidnapping cultures, I don’t believe they generally treat being kidnapped by an enemy group as something that’s “supposed” to happen, or something which isn’t supposed to cause harm.

      1. also iirc, with most cultures with arranged marriages there is usually a ‘getting to know each other’ period where the now engaged couple are brought together to talk and generally do safe activities while under observation by family members from both sides. a sort of chaperoned dating, almost. with’s each respective relatives present to ensure no hanky panky occurs.
        presumably this developed as a way to avoid the issue of marrying someone sight unseen with no idea if they can even tolerate each other’s personalities. presumably if the personal chemistry is just completely hostile the arrangement can be voided and a new one renegotiated .

        1. Yes, I think many modern Westerners get confused between “arranged marriage” and “forced marriage”. “Arranged marriage” is where an intermediary (who may or may not be related to you) helps you find a partner; the final choice is absolutely yours (and may or may not be based on our conception of “romantic love”). “Forced marriage” where you get no choice.

          And I think I remember reading somewhere that in some bride-kidnapping culture or other the whole thing is planned out in advance and they know who’s kidnapping who and have agreed to it? Could be wrong. Could have been a fantasy novel…

          1. Nah there are also arranged marriages where the young man goes to his parents and tells them that he met this girl at the festival, and they struck it off, and they go to discuss arrangements.

            There are definitely voluntary “abductions” which why there is a very high correlation between legal systems where consent is not a defense against rape charges and ones where the victim can forgive and marry the rapist.

    2. I think there is a slight conflation here with “arranged marriage” and “arranged marriage as practiced by noble dynasts” because, by my understanding, arranged marriages for the average peasant usually happened in someone’s 20s between families that knew each other.

      But “arranged marriage as practiced by noble dynasts” often would be between people of wildly disparate ages and cultures, where it wouldn’t be uncommon for the bride and groom to be unable to speak with each other. This is also, in European history, where you see most child marriages.

      I assume your interpretation for the nobility might not be far off the mark, but for the peasantry it was probably the difference between marrying a friendly cousin and being carried off by Viking raiders with the smoke rising from your village behind you.

  18. “the Romans made a treaty with Carthage in the very first year of the Republic”

    Is that something we know, or just another Livyism?

    Watership Down really is a rabbit Aeneid, isn’t? The flight from disaster, the seductive but false layover, the wandering, the founding (with mystic/divine guidance!), the quest for women, the great battle… At least the rabbits invited their does.

      1. Treaties are a very interesting phenomenon. The first mention I have found of a treaty in the ancient world was made by the Indo-European Hittites, settled in Asia Minor before the first appearance of broader regional empires. I believe they were also the first to introduce the concept of diplomatic marriages into the ancient world at about the same time–a custom also first practiced by Europeans in the post-Roman, early Germanic period, and a custom very much followed thereafter. I guess they could be classified as arranged marriages, sometimes between infants or children for diplomatic reasons. But surely never consummated before appropriate ages. One example that comes to mind is the arranged marriage of the daughter of King Henry I of England, Matilda, to the king of Germany, later the Holy Roman Emperor She then went to Germany at the age of 8, and was raised at the German court to prepare her to be queen. But since her husband the emperor/king died before she provided an heir, she then returned to England, entered another arranged marriage with the much younger count of Anjou, for diplomatic reasons again, but was then known as the Empress Matilda. Her father tried to pass his rule of England to her as his successor, but on the king’s death his nephew seized the throne, and civil war ensued, with Matilda in the lead.

  19. “The key Cherusci characters there are played by German actors and the Romans mostly by Italians, though the decision to have the Cherusci speak modern German while the Romans speak ancient Latin betrays some of the nationalism of the presentation”

    I think part of that may be that the only two modern Germanic languages closest to what the Cherusci would’ve actually spoken, were Old Saxon, represented in the modern world by the Low Saxon (Plattdeutsch or Niedersassisch) language still spoken in rural communities in Lower Saxony and some other German states, or Old Frankish, which still exists primarily in the form of the names of the Frankish kings of the former Roman Gaul and the later Holy Roman empire, and is represented in the modern day by the Dutch language as the sole survivor of the Frankish branch of the Germanic languages. Alternatively it could’ve been closer to Frisian, but Old Frisian is not that old (c. 1150–c. 1550 according the Wikipedia), and really old Frisian is probably best represented by some Old English dialects with differences from Old Saxon.

    And I doubt ancient Germanic warriors speaking either Old English or Old Saxon would really go down well in modern Germany, where it seems mittelhoch Deutsch is the preferred language and local languages are discouraged. 🙂

    That said, it would be fascinating to have a TV series made with languages reconstructed as closely to the (likely) originals as possible.

    1. I forget where I saw it but someone remarked that there should be a dub of that Netflix series where they employ a crack scholarly team to reconstruct the language the historical Cherusci would’ve spoken and overdub it onto the Cherusci characters, then overdub the Roman characters with voice actors speaking either (a) modern standard Italian, or (b) American English with over-the-top stereotyped NYC/Jersey Italian-American accents. (“Eyy, we gots-a new governor ovah here, he want-a da tribute!”)

        1. Sure, but what they could have done is use modern German dialects. While not remotely close to original Cherusci, it would have served to signify that these are different tribes, with different politics and attitudes. To native German speakers, at any rate.
          Trust me, people instantly associate different stereotypes with a speaker of Bavarian, than with one who speaks Westphalian or Ruhrpott. Much like Anglophones have different gut reactions to English public school vs. Texan or Alabaman back country dialect.

          1. The problem is that the dialects have their own baggage. Even if you can approximate the ancient peoples, it will be inaccurate.

        2. On the other hand, we do have names of Cherusci notables, and by digging beneath the Latinization of those names, we can determine pretty much where the Cherusci language would’ve fallen in the Germanic language continuum. Plus their location – between the Weser and Elbe rivers – suggests a link to the (future) Saxon confederacy which was such a headache to The Great and Magnificent King Chuck – otherwise known as Charlemagne.

    2. It’s a fairly common approach the situation. It’s desirable to have the main body of dialogue be intelligible to the main audience, and the audience to identify with the protagonists. Dialects and accents may have cultural connotations that don’t match intent, or even film/theatrically specific tropes associated with them. Groupings within the cast also need to be consistent.

      You also need actors who can speak the lines properly given what your running with. And all trained actors will have been trained to do the standard dialect, and specific generalized accents even if that isn’t their natural thing. It’s preferable that they understand the lines that they are saying.

      All of that points at the standard language, and major accents.

      A lot of those concerns go out the window when you depict people who are meant to be foreign and speaking a foreign language. Few people will be listening to it rather than reading subtitles. And in Europe where so many speak multiple languages you might want to force them to to stress that foreignness. In either case it doesn’t necessarily need to be correctly pronounced, delivery issues may go unnoticed. So you just have a lot more leeway.

      Barbarians was a German production for a German audience.

      It might be interested to see attempted period reconstructions. But you’d have about as much problem finding people who could sleek lines, and perform not knowing the language as figuring it out. A lot more expensive dialect coaching. And an audience issue.

      Less extreme versions of that come up. Europe has a good bit of funding for making material in smaller languages and regional dialects. There’s often difficulty finding performers and crew who actually know them, and audiences for the results are often quite small.

  20. This post reminds me that I ought to get back into learning Latin. Stories are so much sweeter in their original language 🙂

  21. Any idea how much I would suffer if I bought the 1st edition of Romans – Village to Empire as opposed to the 2nd? Cost difference is pretty big

    1. Second edition is a legitimate improvement from the first, but buy used if you can! The second edition is about ten years old now so there are plenty of used copies floating around, often half the price (or less) of a new copy and in decent condition.

  22. Excellent look at the founding of Rome, which I don’t think gets enough attention, at least in pop culture. How long did Etruscan religious objects stick around? I recall them having Etruscan haruspexy diagrams up until the late Empire (and it mixing with the mystery cults), but a bunch of the stuff I heard about the mystery cults turned out to be bunk, so idk.

  23. -> ‘…The only group we can say quite clearly that there is no evidence for in early Rome from Livy’s fusion society are the Trojans; there is no trace of Anatolian influence this early (and we might expect the sudden intrusion of meaningful amounts of Anatolian material culture to be really obvious). Which is to say that Aeneas is made up; no great surprise there…’

    Except there is evidence for Trojans (albeit not yet necessarily archaeological) – there are the accounts of Livy and of Virgil which, stripped of all the magic stuff, are: ‘bunch of refugees from the Greek-Trojan war wander the Mediterranean, make an abortive attempt to seek shelter in North Africa, but end up in Italy where after some violence they marry and integrate…’

    And it’s a darn sight easier for Livy and Virgil to write and sell stuff like that if they’re glamorising known (in Italy) pre-existing oral traditions than if they’re making something up from nothing.

    And on a plausibility count, I note that refugees fleeing wars and troubles and tensions arising when they turn up in a different country looking for homes are (tragically) with us today in the 21st century.

    1. There are always wars going on. There are any number of different wars that Rome’s refugee ancestor could have been fleeing from. But it just happens to be the famous war that every Roman aristocrat had read about for unrelated reasons.

      The stopover in Africa is a just-so story explaining why Rome and Carthage didn’t get along.

      1. Parts can be legendary without its all being.

        After all, archeology only backs up parts of Homer.

        1. The thing is archaeology does back up parts of Homer. Homer’s epic story was grounded in something which really took place. (As indeed modern wartime epics such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ are at least very loosely based on events which really happened in the twentieth century.)

    2. Bret was talking mostly about archaeological evidence — ‘mostly’ because he mentions patricians claiming Sabine descent. But that’s a lot more local and plausible. There is no archaeological evidence of Anatolian migrants to the Roman area — and the claims are pretty weak evidence. The claims are being made 1000 years after the Trojan War, with Rome being founded maybe 400 years after the war, in a period of low literacy. And the claims are ‘cool’, thus suspect.

      One also wonders why/how Trojan refugees would go to Italy and not deeper into Anatolia.

      1. -> ‘…One also wonders why/how Trojan refugees would go to Italy and not deeper into Anatolia…’

        Trying to get away from areas dominated by the Greeks?
        Or maybe Italy has a reputation in that period as some legendary verdant land with plenty of territory and good living – for gawd’s sake, why do refugees from modern war-zones end up arriving by the boat-load in the United Kingdom, even though they have to risk their lives crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world to get there, and even though they’ve just left France to cross the Channel.
        Why do refugees (from other countries) trek all the way across Mexico to try to get to the United States?
        Some regions are seen as more desirable destinations for refugees than geographically ‘closer’ ones.

      2. Given that Troy was rebuilt one wonders if the survivors went anywhere. Claiming Trojan ancestry seems to have been something of a meme in antiquity. Geoffrey of Monmouth made a similar claim for the British.

        1. Weren’t some of the Greeks into taking prisoners of war as slaves? I doubt it was healthy to hang around in the vicinity of Troy during the Greek sack and its immediate aftermath…

          1. The Greeks were seafarers. Fleeing inland, through territory hostile to the Greeks, sounds like a better bet than trying to find a ship to escape. Also, Troy’s allies were mostly in Asia Minor.

          2. -> ‘…The Greeks were seafarers. Fleeing inland, through territory hostile to the Greeks, sounds like a better bet than trying to find a ship to escape. Also, Troy’s allies were mostly in Asia Minor…’

            The Greeks were also infantry soldiers. And cavalry riders. And any former Trojan allies are, as happens in wars (see WW2 for some modern examples such as Finland, Roumania, and even partially Italy of some rapid allegiance shifts) quite possibly trying to distance themselves from the Trojans who have very obviously just lost. Not everyone likes a loser in warfare when the guys who defeated them are still in the area and victorious at a level of taking-and-sacking-a-capital-city.

            (There’s possibly a future article for Doctor Devereux it occurs to me here, on refugees in warfare and other situations.)

          3. So what do you think the odds ratio is of “Rome was settled by Trojans who left no material evidence” vs. “some Romans made up Trojan ancestry to be cool”?

          4. @Mindstalko: Or, a shipload of Trojan refugees landed in what would become Rome and adopted the local language and customs, but passing down the story of how great-great-great-grandpa Aeneas got there. And of course you’re going to embellish the story as time goes on…

        2. Yes, but Geoffrey was doing it roughly 1500 years after the Romans did, and probably because the Romans did it.

          It’s not hard to imagine some of the proto-Roman settlers being a boatload or two of Trojans who were deserting from the war zone or otherwise seeking to escape the general destruction of the Trojan homeland. We don’t have archaeological evidence, though… which may be unsurprisingly sparse if we’re talking about wood seasoned to be high-dettsructive.”

          1. …Christ that comment of mine’s a mess and I wouldn’t blame our gracious host for deleting it. What I MEANT to say, and I don’t know how it ended up looking like… that

            Yes, but Geoffrey was [claiming Trojan ancestry for his people] roughly 1500 years after the Romans did, and probably because the Romans did it.

            It’s not hard to imagine some of the proto-Roman settlers being a boatload or two of Trojans who were deserting from the war zone or otherwise seeking to escape the general destruction of the Trojan homeland. How they’d have ended up on the far side of Italy is uncertain, but plausible if they could get to a ship.

            Or there could just have been a handful of Trojan expatriates, or even a single individual. One who just happened to have a memorable story to tell that made it into the oral tradition of the local elite.

            We don’t have archaeological evidence of Trojan material culture, though… which would be unsurprisingly sparse if we’re talking about only the arms and armor of a small number of fighting men, leaving a conflict that took place several centuries before the nominal founding of the city of Rome. Events like that would be invisible to history unless you got fairly lucky.

          2. It’s certainly possible that there was some ancient link between Troy and Rome. I just very much doubt it. And so far we have no evidence supporting it.

          3. Quite true.

            What I’d say personally is that there’s every reason to think Aeneas never existed or at most was a real Trojan noble who fought in the siege and had his name float around for a few hundred years until Homer decided to make an epic out of the existing war poetry fragments.

            There is no reason to think he founded proto-Rome.

            It is within the realm of plausibility to say that some Trojans wound up in the vicinity of Rome, but there’s no evidence for it and they certainly weren’t major contributors to the overall mixture that grew into Rome in the first place.

  24. I recall on a recent episode of “Tides of History,” Patrick Wyman discusses the building of fairly large-scale canal systems in Mesopotamia occurring without larger political organization like local kingdoms. I’m oversimplifying and possibly murdering his argument, but I wanted to bring that up with regard to the draining of the swamp in Rome–perhaps it is not evidence of early kings.

    1. We have a very few inscriptions attesting to the early kings – at least that they existed.

      1. Yes, I was specifically addressing Bret’s suggestion that the *swamp draining* might be evidence of a king because it was a large scale project–and perhaps that is not so.

  25. Bret, I count myself “behind the times” in that this is the first I’ve heard of “the Queen’s Latin,” a term I found fascinating. However, I confess to not having watched many of the movies or TV series that are mentioned.

    Meanwhile, although I noticed some other minor issues that were a bit awkward, here are the specific edits I thought you might want to address:
    most of the English speaking world -> English-speaking[insert hyphen]
    actors is little surprise -> actors is of little surprise
    accent in the main cost -> main cast
    But more directly to our topic today -> [Bret, please double-check the grammar of this long sentence]
    defeats his oppose number -> opposite number
    is is beyond historical -> [delete one instance of is]
    region of Italy which was -> that was
    we evidence for -> we see [or find] evidence for
    in the eight century -> eighth century
    seems likely, that -> [delete extraneous comma]
    either north of south -> north or south
    looking for a a destination -> [delete one instance of the article a]
    based on the boarders -> borders
    that will effect what I am going -> affect
    evidence -they were quite -. [hyphen should be em dash/?]

  26. Doctor Devereux:
    Apologies. I tried to post the same thing several times (a response to Bullseye), and it kept on failing to come up, and now all the attempts have come up all at once. Could you please remove the excess copies of the post?

  27. Hi Pedant. I’m hijacking this post to ask you if you have any comments on the accuracy of the descriptions of ancient civilizations in the book Debt: The first 5 thousand years by David Graeber. I’m trying to wrap my head around it just to take it at face value (first, English is not mother tongue, and second, financial jargon is mostly obscure to me), but in the back of my brain I’m also trying to figure out whether, even after the around 150 references per chapter, the descriptions are accurate enough.

    I’ve been reading this blog since you started the farming series and I’ve been even reading the old posts. All the series have been really educating, and I always find something in your ‘fodder’ posts 🙂 One thing this blog has taught me is to be suspicious of the history we read 🙂

    1. “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages…”

      So much wrong packed into one sentence. I haven’t read “Debt”, but you shouldn’t either.

  28. I was trying to explain the Aeneid to a friend at work, and hit upon a modern equivalent – it’s a superhero origin story.

    How did this podunk border town wind up as a massive metropolis ruling the Mediterranean? Because a bunch of Trojans, the 2nd toughest guys in the then-known world, founded it!

    Whether there’s any truth to the legend is entirely beside the point. Someone tried to convince me years ago that the the key to the banking success of the Swiss is that Templars fled there and imparted their vast financial knowledge – so deep, that only 400 years after the Trials, the Swiss became great bankers!

  29. As classicist for over 50 years, braveaux to Devereaux for his command of the sources and his carefully constructed arguments. I’m wondering if you’ll get into when race and racism entered Western consciousness. I am convinced that ancient Greeks were not racist: they did not have a word for “race,” and being Greek was mostly a linguistic category: if you spoke Greek, you were Greek. Like most other people, they liked to think of themselves as better than other folk (ethnocentrism), but that’s a long way from positing different “races.” Some of the best thinkers and writers in Greek were probably what we would call mixed-race. I know less about Rome, but I don’t see that they had a word for race either: clans, tribes, and ethnic groups, yes, but race? Being Roman was mostly a legal category, having Roman citizenship, and the Romans granted citizenship widely (if not generously) to other peoples they wanted to take into their system. The Crusades? Religious, not racial, like the later wars between Europeans and the Ottoman Turks; Turks are fairly light-skinned. I’ve heard that the idea of “race” came into being about the fifteenth century, when long sailing voyages brought Europeans into contact with darker-skinned peoples around the world. Is there any truth to that?

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