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.
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 homogeneity – it 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.
(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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.