The Invisible Origins

Formative Myths

It is possible to read about the origins of Rome but not possible to see them, and what we read is more often myth than history. I am not complaining, for Rome’s myths are not just any myths: they have been adjusted, expanded, and interpreted by thoughtful men, such as Livy and Virgil. They end up being colorful and instructive, while the archeological evidence is severely limited.

Later podcasts will take up some of Rome’s wonderful myths, which were so alluring to Ovid, Plutarch, Machiavelli, and countless artists; but in the meantime, here are a couple of the places we encounter them while touring Rome.

The legends of ancient Rome were sometimes uplifting, as when Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, carried his father Anchises out of the burning city of Troy, while also leading his son Ascanius, later called Iulius (“Julius”: a name destined to have an important future). Aeneas saves not only his father and son, but also the image of the household gods, held by his father, and the eternal flame, held by his son. Bernini represented these three figures in a twisting marble “column” in one of his five wonderful statues in Rome’s Galleria Borghese.

Gianlorenzo Bernini's Aeneas and Anchises in the Galleria Borghese

Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Aeneas and Anchises in the Galleria Borghese.

After escaping Troy, Aeneas would go on to lead his men–progressively fewer–on an Odyssey-like odyssey that would end up on the western coast of Italy. It would be another half-millennium before one of his descendants would found the city of Rome.

In his History Livy did not hesitate to retell legends that put Rome’s early political actions in a harsh light. He neither beautified nor cancelled the darker side of Rome’s past or legendary past. Below is a photo of a canvas by Pietro da Cortono that represents the “Ratto” of the Sabine Women, where “ratto” means “abduction” above all. As Livy presents it, Rome in this very early moment was populated only by men, mostly refugees with no pedigrees. Romulus tried to ensure a future for his city by negotiating marriage arrangements with surrounding peoples, but they refused and added insults to their refusals. Livy’s Romulus invites these neighboring peoples, including especially the Sabines, to come to a great religious festival in Rome and, of course, to be sure to bring their daughters. After the party is well advanced and upon a given signal, the Roman men leap into action and seize the women who, once the Romans win the battles that their actions inevitably prompt, will bear the next generation.

It is clear enough that Livy did not think that this event really took place in the way he tells it, but he uses the legend to help his readers ponder the likely moral character of the deeds that establish political order out of its absence.

Pietro da Cortona, Abduction of the Sabine Women, in the Capitoline Museums

Pietro da Cortona, Abduction of the Sabine Women, in the Capitoline Museums

Also in the Capitoline Museum are a series of six frescoes based on Livy. One represents the notorious abduction described above, and I paste another below, called the “Battle between Horatii and Curiatii,” by Cavalier d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari). I single it out because it is another example of Livy’s moral edginess and his readiness to show some of the darker moments of Rome’s past, at least when he finds them instructive.

The fresco teaches one of Livy’s several most repeated lessons. It is a simple point, and everyone knows it, and yet some are better able to put it into practice than others. It is that it is easier to defeat your enemies if you do not fight them all at once. Three triplets from Alba Longa were to fight three triplets from Rome, and it was agreed that the outcome of their combat would decide which of the two cities would be victorious. Two of the Romans were quickly killed but not before wounding their rivals; thus the surviving Roman now had to fight against three enemies. In spite of his difficult situation, he won victory for himself and his city by running away and then, when the Alban triplets got spread out, partly as a consequence of their differing wounds, he turned on them and defeated them one by one. His victory should have settled things between Rome and Alba Longa, but you can imagine another lesson of Livy’s story by wondering what city would accept its complete and final defeat after losing only thee soldiers in battle, even if they had sworn solemn oaths that they would do just this.

Livy’s keenness on the principle of Divide and Rule was illustrated also in a detail of the story of the Abduction of the Sabine Women. On that memorable occasion, the Romans abducted not only Sabines but women from three different peoples. All were outraged and all wanted both vengeance and the return of their daughters. So great was their moral anger that each group flew into action as quickly as they could, rather than coordinating their attack with the other aggrieved parties. Even though acting alone, the Sabines almost won, but they did not, thus confirming a simple but important lesson, that it is good to divide your enemies, not to be divided from your allies.

Livy also remarks that Romulus taught them this lesson, “that moral anger is in vain if unaccompanied by strength.” This strikes me not only as a crucial practical lesson but also as a profound comment on the world in which Livy thinks we live. If we want justice to triumph, we must arm it.

Battle between Horatii and Curiatii, by Cavalier d'Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari 1568-1640)

Battle between Horatii and Curiatii, by Cavalier d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari 1568-1640)

The Roman Forum