T.P. Wiseman

T.P. Wiseman

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At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exist countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

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By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings.

Roman mythology

Roman mythology is the body of myths of ancient Rome as represented in the literature and visual arts of the Romans. One of a wide variety of genres of Roman folklore, Roman mythology may also refer to the modern study of these representations, and to the subject matter as represented in the literature and art of other cultures in any period. Roman mythology draws from the mythology of the Italic peoples and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European mythology.

Roman mythology draws influence from Greek mythology during Rome's protohistory, and by the later artistic imitation of Greek literary models by Roman authors. By way of a process known as interpretatio romana, the Romans identified their own gods with those of the ancient Greeks—who were closely historically related in some cases, such as Zeus and Jupiter—and reinterpreted myths about Greek deities under the names of their Roman counterparts.

Latin literature was widely known in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of "classical mythology" than Greek sources. In particular, the versions of Greek myths in Ovid's Metamorphoses, written during the reign of Augustus, came to be regarded as canonical.

What is Political History?

In the continuing series 'What is. history?' eight historians define political history - an area sometimes regarded as 'narrow', 'elitist' or simply 'dull', but now enjoying a recrudescence.

T.P. Wiseman (Professor of Classics at the University of Exeter)

Political history is the history of the polis, the res publica, the citizen body political events are what was done by it, to it, or in its name. Since a citizen body is made up of individuals, the rules which constitute it are the basis of the subject. The first questions should be: who? how? where? when? We need to know the limits of the franchise, the machinery of citizen assembly, the frequency, physical conditions and rules of order of their meetings, the limits of their decision-making powers. The citizen body usually deputes responsibility to a deliberative or advisory council: how were its members chosen? how long did they serve? where, when and how were their meetings held? It must choose executive officers to carry out its decisions and look after the administration of its business: eligibility? means of election? length of service? extent of powers?

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Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome. Studies in Honour of T. P. Wiseman

Even after Augustus left the city of Rome clad in marble, a stray dog could still find a severed hand in one of its streets. That gem of a detail, though tucked discreetly into a footnote (p. 4 n. 8, citing Suet. Vesp. 5.4), seems to stick with almost every reader of Catullus and his World. And rightly so: it is a particularly graphic example of Peter Wiseman’s special gift for seeing Rome as a real place and bringing it to life for his readers, too. He has been doing this since the 1960s by calmly and productively ignoring the traditional barriers between historical and literary studies, and as our discipline now increasingly strives to do the same, his work seems fresher and more challenging with every passing year.

Some acknowledgement of that phenomenon was certainly in order, and in March 2000 the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter took the occasion of his sixtieth birthday to organize a conference, “Myth, History and Performance: A Celebration of the Work of T. P. Wiseman.” The present volume captures the good-natured immediacy of that occasion in an Introduction (David Braund and Christopher Gill), an Appreciation (Elaine Fantham), and an Autobiographical Note by T.P.W. (who also supplied a bibliography of his work to 2002), but the thirteen essays at its core make a serious claim to lasting attention. These are:

1. Nicholas Purcell, “Becoming Historical: The Roman Case” (12-40).

This provocative and perceptive inquiry into the nature of historical consciousness moves from general observations about the nature of Greek historike to the development of a specifically Roman historical sense, which Purcell traces back as early as the fifth century. It was, he suggests, not a primarily literary development, nor was the Roman historiographic tradition simply a gift of Greece.

2. Filippo Coarelli, “Remoria” (41-55).

In Remus (114-17), Wiseman identified the Remoria with the Sacred Mount. Coarelli suggests instead the so-called Colle di Piche (“Magpie Hill”), south of the city near the fifth milestone on the via Campana, and argues that location on the boundary of the archaic ager Romanus, leads to a series of identifications of Remus with the Roman countryside and Romulus with its urban core.

3. Michael Crawford, “Land and People in Republican Italy” (56-72).

Crawford argues from the location of certain rural sanctuaries and hill-forts and the evidence of sixth-century weight-standards that archaic settlements in Appennine Italy centered not on river basins but on summer pastures in the high mountains, a pattern both pre-Roman and un-Greek.

4. Tim Cornell, “Coriolanus: Myth, History and Performance” (73-97).

This article identifies the main elements of the Coriolanus legend and argues for their compatibility with what we know from other sources about aristocratic society in central Italy around 500 B.C. Cornell traces the development and survival of such a story to the kind of pre-literary activity — ballad, epic, or play — to which Peter Wiseman has recently been calling attention.

5. Elaine Fantham, “Pacuvius: Melodrama, Reversals and Recognitions” (98-118).

Concentrating on plays with significant recognitions ( Atalanta, Medus, Iliona, Chryses) enables Fantham to identify some significant traits of stage action and style in Pacuvian tragedy. She then uses these ‘sound-bites’ to make more general suggestions about the Roman taste in tragedy and the genre’s place in the ludi scaenici.

6. James Zetzel, “Plato with Pillows: Cicero on the Uses of Greek Culture” (119-38).

Zetzel’s sensitivity to the nuances of Cicero’s frame in de Oratore leads him to reconsider the nature and degree of Cicero’s acceptance of Greek culture. Further evidence drawn from the pro Archia and Fourth Verrine supports the idea that Cicero was rather more guarded and utilitarian in his use of Greek learning than is often thought: “Cicero’s pillows cushion Rome from the naked irrelevance of Greek theorists” (135).

(Incidentally, the fact of Crassus’ benches is at least as revealing a detail as his cushions. It is extremely difficult, as I can report from personal experience, to sit on the ground when wearing a toga and virtually impossible to get up again without grievous loss of dignity. A Roman would probably have taken his toga off before making the attempt, clearly an ideological impossibility for the discussants of de Oratore.)

7. Susan Treggiari, “Ancestral Virtues and Vices: Cicero on Nature, Nurture and Presentation” (139-64).

Virtue had a pedigree at Rome. The specific virtues (or lack of them) in individuals were thought to be traceable to the moral characteristics of their families. Treggiari collects a wide array of material from Cicero’s writings that bear on this ancient version of the nature vs. nurture debate, which Cicero and his contemporaries exploited for political as well as social advantage.

8. Francis Cairns, “Catullus in and about Bithynia: Poems 68, 10, 28 and 47” (165-90).

Cairns weaves a complex web of literary, archaeological, and historical arguments to make a series of points about poems reflecting Catullus’ personal interests in Bithynia. He posits the exploitation of Protesilaus’ tomb at Troy as the link among the seemingly disparate themes of poem 68 and argues that Catullus is genuinely hostile to Memmius in 10 (with 28 and 47), and that Plotius Tucca is the “Porcius” of 47.

9. A. J. Woodman, “Poems to Historians: Catullus 1 and Horace Odes 2.1″ (191-216).

Woodman’s close reading of the two poems of his title treats them as responses to the work of the historians addressed, Cornelius Nepos and Asinius Pollio. He examines with appropriate brevity the “Callimachean” qualities of Nepos’ history and then more fully the echoes of Pollio’s themes in Horace’s poem. This leads to observations about Pollio’s history of the Civil War and, through appreciation of Horace’s deliberate distancing of poetry from history, to a broader consideration of generic distinctions in the later first century.

10. Mario Torelli, “The Frescoes of the Great Hall of the Villa at Boscoreale: Iconography and Politics” (217-56).

Torelli offers not simply a masterful analysis of these famous frescoes in all their complexity — his refusal to privilege one or another allegorical reading is itself significant — but makes an important statement about the interpretative process itself by making the layout of the building, the perspective of the viewer, the changing significance of the subjects in Hellenistic and Roman contexts, and the taste and social status of the villa’s owner integral parts of the argument. Modest but well chosen black-and-white photographs and drawings make this necessarily complex argument a pleasure to follow.

11. Erich Gruen, “Cleopatra in Rome: Facts and Fantasies” (257-74).

Gruen is hardly the first to challenge the historicity of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, but he makes important new suggestions about her ancient prototype. Business brought Cleopatra to Rome in 46, and she left in timely fashion. It was a second visit, again essentially diplomatic in nature, that was ended so hurriedly by Caesar’s death. The facts, at least when read Gruen’s way, become even more remarkable than the familiar fantasies.

12. Karl Galinsky, “Greek and Roman Drama and the Aeneid” (275-94).

The dramatic focus here is on fifth-century Athens. Galinsky examines the epic’s tragic sense as a response to Homer that was shaped by the experience of Athenian tragedy. He illustrates the point through discussion of Aeneid 9 (Nisus and Euryalus) and 12 (the death of Turnus). The influence of Roman drama on Vergil’s sense of tragedy is much more briefly treated.

13. Edward Champlin, “Agamemnon at Rome: Roman Dynasts and Greek Heroes” (295-319).

Why Pompey would risk identifying himself with Agamemnon or Octavian (or Nero) with Orestes raises interesting questions about the shaping of Roman public images and the Romans’ ability to compartmentalize their readings of the legendary past. The problem has not received all the attention it deserves, and Champlin takes an important step in advancing what may well become a rich line of inquiry.

Each of these essays is self-contained, with its own footnotes and bibliography. (Composite indices of topics and ancient passages cited appear at the back.) Some individual essays complement each other particularly well. Cornell, for example, provides a case study of the process outlined more abstractly by Purcell. Roman elements missing from Galinsky can be inferred from Fantham. Topographical evidence figures prominently, and yet differently, in the arguments of Coarelli and Crawford, and there is more than coincidence to the fact that Zetzel ends and Treggiari begins with the invocation of Edmund Burke. Other connections can and will be made, as readers identify their own favorites and make their own associations. My little glosses above, as readers will soon discover, hardly do justice to the rich content of this book.

A different kind of complementary process also deserves mention. Special effort was made to relate these pieces to Peter Wiseman’s particular interests and insights, and the recurring references to Roman topography, social history, historiography, and performance practice mark the editors’ success in that regard. Another less obvious connection is also significant. What makes Peter Wiseman such a striking figure in Roman studies is his extraordinarily felicitous combination of empiricism and imagination, which he invariably presents in clear, vigorous prose that never fears to be understood. Precisely because the Romans’ world was not ours, its reconstruction demands firm foundations in the evidence and frank acknowledgment of its limitations. The essays here work on similar principles. They are solidly, sometimes even aggressively empirical, evidence-driven rather than theory-driven. Their presentation is unabashedly straightforward. This is not the kind of scholarship that recuperates or inscribes, embeds or elides, problematizes, occludes, or interrogates. Some of these essays are nevertheless quite radical in their implications. Many are provocative. All are valuable. It is good to be reminded that so many different roads can lead us back to the Romans … a fact that Peter Wiseman of course knows as well as anyone.

T.P. Wiseman

T.P. Wiseman&rsquos books include The Myths of Rome, Unwritten Rome and The Roman Audience. His political biography of Julius Caesar will be published in November.

Was it really a translation? Latin Literature

T.P. Wiseman, 22 September 2016

T he beginning ​ of Latin literature was a datable event. At one moment it didn&rsquot exist, and then after the production of a play in Latin by a man called Livius, it did. That at least is what Cicero seems to say two hundred years later, in his dialogue with Brutus of 46 BC on the history of oratory. In order to justify his view that the speeches of the elder Cato, though early, were.

T he beginning ​ of Latin literature was a datable event. At one moment it didn&rsquot exist, and then after the production of a play in Latin by a man called Livius, it did. That at least is.

When Demigods Walked the Earth: Roman Myth, Roman History

T.P. Wiseman, 18 October 2007

How old is Rome? Sporadic pottery fragments from the Bronze Age have long been known about, but have only recently been found in a stratified context, in excavations on the Capitoline Hill. It is now for the first time possible to say with confidence that the continuous occupation of the site goes back to at least 1300 BC. Recent excavations have also revealed an Iron Age cemetery below the.

How old is Rome? Sporadic pottery fragments from the Bronze Age have long been known about, but have only recently been found in a stratified context, in excavations on the Capitoline Hill. It is.

The Roman Audience: Classical Literature as Social History

The book proposes the following hypothesis: that non-technical literature in the Roman world, both poetry and prose, was composed in the first instance for oral delivery to a large public audience, and that the copying and circulation of written texts was only a secondary stage in the ‘publication’ process. The hypothesis is tested by a systematic survey of the evidence for a thousand years of Roman history, from the formation of Rome as a city-state (late seventh century BC) to the final establishment of a Christian culture (late fourth century AD). For the first four centuries of this period . More

The book proposes the following hypothesis: that non-technical literature in the Roman world, both poetry and prose, was composed in the first instance for oral delivery to a large public audience, and that the copying and circulation of written texts was only a secondary stage in the ‘publication’ process. The hypothesis is tested by a systematic survey of the evidence for a thousand years of Roman history, from the formation of Rome as a city-state (late seventh century BC) to the final establishment of a Christian culture (late fourth century AD). For the first four centuries of this period the contemporary evidence is necessarily indirect, by analogy with archaic Greek society and by inference from the iconography of terracotta reliefs, painted pottery and engraved bronzes but once literary texts become available about 200 BC, close reading provides increasingly reliable information about the circumstances of literary production and dissemination. Particular attention is paid to the annual ‘stage-games’ (ludi scaenici), which enabled authors to reach an audience notionally coextensive with the Roman People. No clear distinction should be drawn between literature and drama, and some literary genres, in particular satire and ‘epyllion’, are best understood as part of a performance tradition involving actors and dancers. The whole argument treats literary history as part of the political and social realities of Roman popular culture, and examines the effect of the creation of large permanent theatres in Rome in the first century BC.


Inscription on the tomb of Tiberius Claudius Tiberinus, Rome. Photograph by Kleuske. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

He encouraged the talents of his age in every way that he could. He listened courteously and patiently as they read not only poems and histories but also speeches and dialogues. But he was offended when anything was written about him that was not serious and by the most eminent, and he used to warn the praetors not to let his name become degraded in competitions.

Consistently misinterpreted by commentators, the third sentence of this revealing passage from Suetonius offers important evidence about authors and their public in Augustan Rome.

The praetors were in charge of the regular annual ludi, from the Megalenses in April to the Plebeii in November, adding up each year to fifty-six days of “stage games” in the theaters and piazzas of Rome and seventeen days of “circus games” in the Circus Maximus. These were the times when a poet or prose author might hope to bring his work to the Roman people, taking his turn among all the varied types of instruction or amusement that were needed to fill those days from morning till night. But how did he get on the praetor’s program? If he was one of “the most eminent,” he might expect to be invited failing that, he would have to enter one of those competitions.

We know about them indirectly, from poets who did not compete. Horace was content to perform to the small but distinguished private audience at Maecenas’ house:

These things I play about with aren’t meant to resound in the temple, in a competition with Tarpa as judge, or to come back again and again as theater shows.

As one who listens to noble authors and avenges attacks on them, I don’t see fit to canvass literary constituencies and stages. That’s what causes the trouble. If I say, “I’m ashamed to recite my unworthy writings in crowded theaters and add weight to trifles,” then someone replies: “You’re laughing—you keep your stuff for the ears of Jove.”

Propertius too claimed to write only for private approval:

Once I achieve that, it’s goodbye to the public’s confused talk. I’ll be safe with my mistress as judge.

Clearly it mattered who was doing the judging. A fragment of papyrus preserves part of a line of Cornelius Gallus, “I’m afraid with you as judge, Cato,” evidently addressing the Valerius Cato who was known as “the one selector and maker of poets.” Like Maecius Tarpa, mentioned by Horace, Cato seems to have been a literary arbiter for the praetors, choosing the best for their programs at the games.

There is much that we don’t know, and it is important not to ignore evidence that opens up an unfamiliar perspective. One item that has not received the attention it deserves is the inscription from the tomb of Tiberius Claudius Tiberinus, found in the eighteenth century not far from the Baths of Caracalla.

Tiberinus was an Augustalis, a member of the humble priesthood created by Augustus in 7 bc to look after the new cult of the Lares Augusti (and his own Genius) at the crossroads of each neighborhood in the city. Augustales were usually freedmen, but Tiberinus was freeborn and proud of it, pointedly spelling out in full (it was usually abbreviated) the voting district Esquilina in which he was enrolled. The distinctive forename suggests he was the son of a freedman of a patrician Tiberius Claudius—perhaps Livia’s first husband, or his son who became Tiberius Caesar, or his grandson who became the emperor Claudius.

Tiberinus died in his late twenties, and his mother, who put up the tomb, arranged for him to tell his story with a fine epitaph in elegiac couplets:

You traveler, whoever you are who ride by the threshold of my tomb, please check your hurried journey. Read this through, and so may you never grieve for an untimely death.

You’ll find my name attached to the inscription. Rome is my native city, my parents were true plebeians, my life was then spoiled by no ills. At one time I was well known as a favorite of the people now I’m just a little ash from a wept-over pyre.

Who didn’t see good parties with a laughing face, and (who didn’t see) that my cheerfulness stayed up late with me? At one time I was skilled in reciting the works of bards with Pierian tunefulness in swan-like measures, skilled in speaking poems that breathed with Homeric verse, poems well known in Caesar’s forum.

Of all my body, which both my parents sadly strew with tears, love and a name are now what’s left. They place garlands and fresh flowers for me to enjoy that’s how I remain, laid out in the vale of Elysium. My fates gave me as many birthdays as the stars that pass in (the signs of) the Dolphin and winged Pegasus.

Although this professional entertainer was evidently available for private parties too, it must have been the public bookings that made him the people’s favorite. The praetor could not always hire poets to perform in person, and in any case a professional performer might do a better job with the poet’s text.

At this point we should think about the most iconic of all works of Augustan literature. Virgil was hugely popular in his lifetime, and everyone knew that his Aeneid would be a masterpiece. Although he himself was never satisfied with it, after his death Augustus made sure the text was preserved. But how did it reach the audience for which it was written? The answer must be through the work of people like Tiberinus, “skilled in speaking poems that breathed Homeric verse.” And of course the audience loved them for it.

Such works were “well known in Caesar’s forum”—a very puzzling phrase. Was it a true toponym, referring to the Forum Iulium begun by Julius Caesar in 54 bc ? Or was it a description, “Caesar’s public space,” referring to the Palatine piazza? Either is possible, but since Tiberinus was an Augustalis, the attested association of the Lares cult with specifically Augustan themes and places may perhaps favor the latter.

We don’t know the date of Tiberinus’ epitaph, but his pride in plebeian birth and free citizen status would fit well with the ethos of Augustus’ time. The authority of the princeps was defined as the protection of the citizen body, using the traditional powers of the tribunes of the plebs. His way of life was deliberately unpretentious, as his biographer Suetonius makes clear:

When he was consul he walked about in public usually on foot, and when he was not consul often in an open litter. At his open audiences he admitted even the common people, accepting the requests of those who approached him with such affability that he jokingly reproved one man for hesitating as he held out his petition to him “like a coin to an elephant.”…

Sometimes he would arrive at dinner parties late and leave early, as his guests would start eating before he took his place and would continue after he had left. He used to serve dinners of three courses, or six at his most generous, without excessive expenditure but with utmost conviviality. For he would encourage the silent or those who talked quietly to share in the general conversation. He would intersperse entertainments and actors or even street players from the Circus, and more frequently storytellers.

“Entertainments” (acroamata) were often poetry readings, and it is easy to imagine performers like Tiberinus giving as much pleasure to the guests in Augustus’ dining room as they did to their fellow citizens in the piazza when the games were on.

“He honored with his attention,” says Suetonius, “every category of those who offered their services in public shows.” A conspicuous example was the star dancer Pylades, famous for his bravura performance in The Madness of Hercules. From Macrobius’ Saturnalia:

In this play he even shot arrows into the public audience, and he drew his bow and shot his arrows when playing the same role by order in Augustus’ dining room. Caesar wasn’t offended that for Pylades he and the Roman people occupied the same position.

Of course he wasn’t: why should he be? He was not an emperor in a palace. He was Caesar, who had freed the republic from the domination of an oligarchy. His house was respectable but not luxurious, appropriate for the first citizen (princeps). Only its forecourt made a big public statement, opening on to the piazza he had created from the confiscated town houses of the oligarchs. In that piazza, we have suggested, the poets who were the glory of his age might read or sing their works to the Roman people.

When Demigods Walked the Earth

How old is Rome? Sporadic pottery fragments from the Bronze Age have long been known about, but have only recently been found in a stratified context, in excavations on the Capitoline Hill. It is now for the first time possible to say with confidence that the continuous occupation of the site goes back to at least 1300 BC. Recent excavations have also revealed an Iron Age cemetery below the Capitoline (in what was later the Forum of Caesar), analogous to the one discovered a century ago beside the Sacra Via below the Palatine (next to the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina). The natural inference is that there were two communities, each with its own burial ground there may well have been others nearby, in places where the conditions of the modern city make systematic exploration impossible &ndash on the Quirinal, for instance.

The Sacra Via cemetery was closed in the archaeological phase known as Cultura laziale IIA1, in either 970 or 870 BC, depending on which dating convention you use at the same time, a new burial ground was opened a mile away on the plateau of the Esquiline, which remained in use for eight or nine centuries, until Augustus&rsquo friend Maecenas redeveloped it as his suburban park. That may imply a coming together of the neighbouring communities into a single much larger unit, what modern prehistorians call &lsquoproto-urban&rsquo Rome. But the original nuclei were still in some sense separate walls surrounding the Palatine and dated to about 730 BC were discovered in 1988. By then, the inhabitants and their Latin and Etruscan neighbours must have been long familiar with traders from the eastern Mediterranean, in particular Euboeans and Ionians from the Aegean islands and Corinthians from the Hellenic mainland. The name of the combined community on the Tiber was the Latinised form of a Greek word, rhome, &lsquostrength&rsquo.

By about 650 BC there were more than a dozen Greek colonial settlements round the coasts of Sicily and southern Italy, as far north as the Bay of Naples. The traditional heroic stories of what we call Greek mythology were developed to incorporate this new &lsquogreater Greece&rsquo. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas and the defeated Trojans fled to the west. Wandering Odysseus sailed the same waters Circe&rsquos island was firmly fixed off the coast of Latium, about fifty miles south of the Tiber outflow. The tenth Labour of Herakles (Hercules in Latin) now saw him driving the cattle of Geryon down through Italy and Sicily, defeating the Giants while still in the west, and being rewarded with immediate deification. The story of the cattle was told by a poet (Stesichorus) from the Greek colony of Himera on the north coast of Sicily, perhaps about 600 BC two generations later, the deification of Herakles was celebrated in a statue-group on a temple next to the river harbour in Rome. The ruler of Rome at that time may well have been Tarquinius, who claimed descent from a wealthy Corinthian trader.

The revolution that drove Tarquinius and his family out of Rome, probably in 507 BC, is the first credibly reported event in Roman political history &ndash and it is credible only because it was within the purview of Greek authors who were interested in the ruler of Cumae, a Euboean colony near Naples, with whom the exiled Tarquinius took refuge. The Romans had no literature of their own until three centuries later. By the time of the epic poet and dramatist Gnaeus Naevius and the historian Fabius Pictor, who were both writing at the time of Rome&rsquos war with Hannibal at the end of the third century BC, the Roman foundation legend of Romulus and Remus had come into being. According to Naevius, the twins were the sons of Aeneas&rsquo daughter Ilia, &lsquothe Trojan woman&rsquo of course, a poet wouldn&rsquot use dates, but since Greek historiography had by that time achieved a chronology into which to fit Homer&rsquos tale of Troy, Naevius&rsquo story implies that Romulus founded Rome some time around what we would call 1130 BC. Fabius, who as a historian had to provide dates, put the foundation in the first year of the eighth Olympiad, 747 BC, with Romulus the offspring of a long dynasty of Latin kings descended from Aeneas.

That huge discrepancy illustrates the unhistorical nature of the Romans&rsquo idea of their distant past. Both dates are inconsistent with the modern archaeological record, as indeed is the very idea of a single act of foundation, as if Rome were a colonial settlement. But that is what we should expect. Societies that do not commit narrative events to writing cannot have reliable information about anything that happened more than two generations ago before that, there are only uncheckable stories of what supposedly happened &lsquoin the time of our ancestors&rsquo.

Such societies can believe simultaneously in stories which by strict historical criteria are incompatible with each other. When Herakles came down the Tiber valley with the cattle of Geryon, he was welcomed at the Palatine by King Evander, a Greek from Arcadian Pallantion who had settled his people there. When his mother, a prophetess, foretold the hero&rsquos forthcoming apotheosis, Evander set up the Great Altar (ara maxima) that was the centre of the cult of Hercules throughout the history of Rome. It was quite close to the Lupercal, where the infants Romulus and Remus were abandoned and then found and suckled by the she-wolf. But that happened in the wild, not in an Arcadian colony, and when the twins grew up and chose that place to found their city, there wasn&rsquot one there already.

The Romans founded their own colonial settlements in Italy from the fourth century BC onwards, and they laid them out where possible in rectangular form, ritually marking the line of the walls with a furrow cut by an ox-drawn plough. Naturally, they thought their own city had been created in the same way: according to the traditions reported by Dionysius, Plutarch and Appian, Romulus &ndash or Romulus and Remus together &ndash marked out &lsquosquare Rome&rsquo with each side four stadia in length (about 740m), big enough to enclose the Palatine.

Even if we make an arbitrary choice and use Fabius Pictor&rsquos date rather than Naevius&rsquo, the chronological interval between the &lsquofoundation&rsquo and the earliest author to record it is more than five centuries, comparable to the interval between the supposed date of the fall of Troy and the composition of the Homeric epics, or between the supposed post-Roman context of King Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth&rsquos History of the Kings of Britain. In each of these three cases, serious scholars still try to make the legend fit the archaeology and turn it into history. See, for instance, Joachim Latacz&rsquos Troia und Homer (2001), Christopher Gidlow&rsquos The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend (2004), or Andrea Carandini&rsquos Archeologia del mito (2002) and Remo e Romolo (2006). Carandini is the leading archaeologist of early Rome it was he who excavated the Palatine walls in 1988, and announced to the world that his discovery proved the historicity of the foundation story as we have it in Ovid and Plutarch. &lsquoWho is it,&rsquo he demanded, &lsquowho interprets the walls in terms of foundation by a first king (whether or not we call him Romulus): Andrea Carandini? Or more than twenty generations of Romans with no gap in the continuity of their memory?&rsquo Carandini relies on the unexamined concept of &lsquocultural memory&rsquo: the idea that the walls themselves, bits of which may still have been visible in the time of Augustus, were a lieu de mémoire which somehow transmitted the knowledge of who built them and why.

What is needed to structure this epistemological free-for-all is a thorough, properly nuanced account of the Romans&rsquo concept of time &ndash and in Denis Feeney&rsquos excellent new book, that is very nearly what we have. Caesar&rsquos Calendar consists of three pairs of chapters: &lsquoSynchronising Times&rsquo, &lsquoTransitions from Myth into History&rsquo and &lsquoYears, Months, and Days&rsquo. The first is a superb exploration of what it was like to live in a world that had no agreed way of numbering years, and how, by the development of synchronisms between events &ndash or supposed events &ndash in different parts of their world, Greek and Roman scholars evolved a composite overall chronology which culminated in Eusebius&rsquo Chronici Canones, with their base list of years dated from the birth of Abraham. Feeney rightly insists on the key contribution of Sicilian Greek writers in the Hellenistic period &ndash particularly Timaeus of Tauromenium, the first author to show any serious interest in Rome &ndash and on the effect of Roman imperial expansion, which made it necessary to &lsquograft the Romans into the deep past of the Mediterranean&rsquos time webs&rsquo. (It is hard to think about this subject without resorting to metaphor but Feeney is a subtle writer, and doesn&rsquot often test his readers&rsquo patience.)

The third pair of chapters deals with the various time systems used by the Romans. For instance, though they sometimes placed events in years &lsquofrom the foundation of the city&rsquo (ab urbe condita), such dates were relative, not absolute, since the time of the &lsquofoundation&rsquo was itself disputed and the same applied to the other starting points that were sometimes used, such as &lsquofrom the expulsion of the kings&rsquo or &lsquofrom the capture of the city by the Gauls&rsquo. Feeney observes:

All of these schemes &ndash eras, millennial and centennial anniversaries, epochs and saecula &ndash are attempts to impose meaningful shape on the flux of past time, and to create a sensation of monitored progress through time. They are of particular importance in a setting where there was no one common grid of chronology, but a medley of diverse tools for orientation in time. Patterns were not picked out of a pre-existing frame of decades and centuries grounded on an unshakeable foundation, as may so readily be done now, but manufactured anew on many occasions.

The closest the Romans came to an agreed chronological system was in the list of annual magistracies, as when Horace refers to a bottle of vintage wine &lsquoborn with me in the consulship of Manlius&rsquo. Augustus transcribed the whole list from the beginning of the Republic onto his triumphal arch in the Roman Forum many fragments of it survive, and Feeney brilliantly illustrates the visual impact of the change when each year begins to carry the name of Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus, not as consul but by virtue of the &lsquotribunician power&rsquo granted him by the Roman people and annually renewed. Augustus also controlled the days and months, thanks to the calendar created by his father, Julius Caesar, which for the first time represented the real length of the year without significant slippage.

In all of this, the book&rsquos stated aim of &lsquobringing to light the power and significance of the dating mentality that was surrendered in the transition to the universal numerical grid&rsquo of BC/AD dating is realised with elegance and erudition. The second pair of chapters, however, the significance of which is underlined by the book&rsquos subtitle as well as by its central position, seems to me much less compelling.

All three components of the title &lsquoTransitions from Myth into History&rsquo demand much more careful definition than they get. The first two paragraphs refer repeatedly to this &lsquotransition&rsquo, &lsquothe contentious horizon between myth and history&rsquo, the &lsquopassage from myth to history&rsquo, as if it were self-evident that this was a concept familiar to the Greeks and Romans, and the only question were where in time it should be placed. Feeney knows that &lsquomore and more scholars nowadays are inclined to deny that there is much value in the language of &ldquomythical time&rdquo and &ldquohistorical time&rdquo, holding that these distinctions are not current in the ancient world,&rsquo but wants to &lsquopush back on the pendulum before it gathers too much momentum&rsquo. I think his effort is in vain.

Herodotus created the discipline of history (as opposed to telling stories about the past) when he began his &lsquoinquiries&rsquo into the origin of the Persian Wars with Croesus, &lsquothe man who I myself know was the first to act unjustly against the Greeks&rsquo. Croesus was king in Lydia a little longer than a century before Herodotus was carrying out his inquiries that far back, he could get reliable information which enabled him to take responsibility for the essential accuracy of his narrative. Feeney rightly sees this as Herodotus &lsquomarking what he will vouch for and what he will not&rsquo, but then goes on to describe the distinction as &lsquoHerodotus&rsquo tension between myth and history&rsquo, &lsquoas he grapples with demarcating his material from the material of myth&rsquo. It is true that mythos in Greek, like fabula in Latin and &lsquomyth&rsquo and &lsquolegend&rsquo in English, can be used to mean any kind of story that is not susceptible to verification but that is not how Feeney wants to use it here.

It is a pity that, among the multifarious aspects of time, Feeney deliberately chose to exclude &lsquoindividual memory, transience and mortality&rsquo. The sort of history practised by Herodotus and Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus, requires the exploitation of the memory of living people to achieve a reliable narrative. Those historians knew that beyond the memory of man, the past could only be reconstructed by rational conjecture, or inference from any records that happened to survive. But other writers were quite prepared to use those methods and to narrate the distant past as history. Mythos and fabula were usually defined not chronologically but by the nature of particular stories and though most historians were unwilling to include miracle stories or direct divine interventions, regarding them as the province of poets, there were some who protested against even that limitation as implicitly denying the power and goodwill of the gods.

Feeney&rsquos argument, however, assumes that myth refers to a different sort of past, softening &lsquothe potentially destabilising discrepancy between the nature of experience now and then, when demigods are said to have walked the earth&rsquo. The second chapter of the middle pair is about &lsquothe ages of gold and iron&rsquo, an ahistorical myth which does indeed presuppose such a distinction, but Feeney slides from one conception to the other by giving disproportionate significance to the tale of Troy:

The fall of Troy was . . . a mark in time. On the other side of that demarcation live the heroes, who converse with gods and lift rocks it would take twelve men now to lift on this side of the demarcation begins the movement into current human history.

The Trojan War, then, is a key marker of a transition from a period of myth to a period of history, as the first beginning of a scientific historical chronology, and as the moment of passage from a more blessed time of heroes and gods to the continuous time of history.

Certainly, the combined prestige of Homer and the Athenian tragic dramatists gave the Trojan stories a particular prominence, but they were not different in kind from those of Herakles, Theseus and the war against Thebes, which were agreed to be chronologically earlier. Historians did not feel obliged to start from Troy: Ephorus began with the &lsquoreturn of the Herakleidai&rsquo, Pompeius Trogus with Ninus the king of Assyria, Diodorus with the creation of the world. The search for &lsquoa gigantic hinge between myth and history&rsquo is doomed from the start.

The Romans would not have understood Feeney&rsquos claim that Aeneas came to Italy in &lsquoheroic time&rsquo, but Romulus founded Rome in &lsquohistorical time&rsquo. When Livy says in his preface that narratives about the period before the foundation were &lsquocloser to the fabulae of poets than to uncorrupted history&rsquo, he is not distinguishing categories of time but justifying his own choice of starting point. It was always open to historians to begin earlier &ndash and to include poetic fabulae as well. Valerius Antias reported King Numa&rsquos conversation with Jupiter Dionysius of Halicarnassus described the manifestation of Hercules at Rome in 312 BC. Varro began his Genealogy of the Roman People with Ogyges of Thebes, the first king of the first city, 2100 years before his own time, in whose reign the great flood took place which gave rise to the Roman festival of the Lupercalia. The chronological scheme of Velleius Paterculus&rsquo history of Rome took as its starting point the deification of Hercules, which he placed forty years before the fall of Troy.

How old was Rome? There was no single answer. In 44 BC an Etruscan prophet announced the conclusion of the ninth saeculum (and immediately died, having revealed a divine secret) in AD 19 panic was caused by an oracle threatening the end of Rome after &lsquothrice three hundred years&rsquo. Learned writers had their own chronological systems, but there was no agreement. So it is just as fallacious for Andrea Carandini to favour one view as &lsquothe tradition&rsquo, and to try to square it with the archaeology, as it is for Denis Feeney to propose that Greek and Roman scholars deliberately sought to bring the foundation date out of &lsquomythic time&rsquo and into &lsquohistory&rsquo. Romulus was always history (in their terms), and always myth (in ours).

T.P. Wiseman - History

History has been a passion of mine since I discovered how much we do know about the past. I particularly remember being astonished to find out, in my early teens, that the barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire was not a time of complete chaos with no historical record, but rather that we know pretty well what happened and when. Despite enjoying and doing well in history in junior school (age 15) I did not continue it in senior, opting for science subjects instead. I don't regret this, because I think history is more accessible to an interested amateur than is science.

    The transition from Roman Britain to early-mediaeval England and Wales is, to me, one of the most fascinating periods in history. The struggle and ultimate failure of one society to defend itself against decline and replacement by another is bound to be interesting. It is of course the time of the real "King Arthur", if there ever was such a person. It has become a hobby for me to try to reconstruct the history of the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain. I first put this website up c.1997, and it has been evolving ever since.

The Cambridge Ancient History

This book has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Online publication date: March 2008
  • Print publication year: 1994
  • Online ISBN: 9781139054379
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521256032
  • Subjects: Ancient History, Classical Studies
  • Collection: Cambridge Histories - Ancient History & Classics
  • Series: The Cambridge Ancient History

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

Book description

Volume IX of the second edition of The Cambridge Ancient History has for its main theme the process commonly known as the 'Fall of the Roman Republic'. Chapters 1-12 supply a narrative of the period from 133 BC to the death of Cicero in 43 BC, with a prelude analysing the situation and problems of the Republic from the turning-point year 146 BC. Chapters 13-19 offer analysis of aspects of Roman society, institutions, and ideas during the period. The chapters treat public and private law, the beginnings of imperial administration, the economy of Rome and Italy, and the growth of the city of Rome, and finally intellectual life and religion. The portrait is of a society not in decay or decline but, rather, outstripping its strength and attracting the administrations of men who rescued it at the price of transforming it politically.


"The new CAH IX is a welcome achievement, a readable and reliable political narrative with significant thematic contributions that mark major progress in sophistication and incisiveness of thought." The Classical Journal

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