There is scant evidence regarding the prehistory of Forum Boarium and the mythical ancestry of Rome Rome, but the Romans supplied this defect by handing down and codifying engaging myths. Today we visit the Forum Boarium, where Rome’s distant ancestors met and began to form the people from whom the Romans would descend, or so at least Livy and Virgil tell us.

Show Notes

Our last episode was devoted to the birth or making of modern Italy, which was declared into existence on March 17, 1861. Today, we will retreat almost 3,000 years and take a look at the ancestry of Rome, at least as key Roman myths reported it.

But first, I promised a comment on why I’ve been so silent for almost a year. It’s a simple answer, so it can also be brief: I dropped my podcasting to take advantage of some teaching and lecturing opportunities, and although the former had the great advantage of taking me to Rome for almost six weeks, together they robbed me of the time I need to prepare new podcast episodes. These other opportunities should benefit this series in the long run, however, for the time I spent in Rome gave me still another chance to investigate the city’s nooks and crannies.  In the meantime, I’ve also overseen improvements to the website associated with these podcasts.

One of several improvements to the website is that it makes it easier for you to leave comments and questions. I was getting so much spam on the old site, especially from Russia, that I simply deactivated its “Comments” feature. So I hope you will take advantage of this new opportunity and share your thoughts. If you see ways of helping me further improve either the podcasts or the website, let me know!

Let’s visit the Forum Boarium today. It is associated with events that preceded the founding of Rome but still influenced its character and self-understanding. Visiting it offers a good occasion to remember a few important points and questions. For starters, it can help us weaken the tyranny of the visual. A visit to Rome is naturally influenced by what we can see there, but a lot of important physical evidence about Rome has gone missing over the centuries, and so what we see is often a misleading half-truth rather than the whole story. The accidents of time, the flimsiness of some constructions, and the willful destruction of monuments later deemed offensive or useless all conspire to keep us from being able to see a clear physical record of the past. Beyond this, the soul of Rome is not always best understood by the help of physical evidence, any more than people are best understood by looking only at their bodies. In the case of Rome, we need books to supplement the remaining art and architecture and, hence, to help us escape the tyranny of visual.

This said, I must admit that there are no reliable books on the details of Rome’s distant past. In those rude ages, there were no good writing materials and no literate audience to read what might have been written. Stories were told, of course, and these later became modified and recorded, but the result is surely more myth than history. Rome may be said to have invented its distant past rather than to have discovered it. Even Livy, the greatest historian of early Rome, admits quite openly that he will recount myths, even knowing that they are not true. Along with Livy, Virgil was a great Roman writer who presented a version of the pre-foundation of Rome by Aeneas, the son of Venus; but he was an epic poet who was even less concerned than Livy was about the literal truth of the stories he told. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the darkness that surrounds Rome’s actual founding isn’t illuminated by the myths told by such thoughtful authors as Livy and Virgil.

So, when we visit the most ancient sites of Rome, like the Forum Boarium, must begin with things we cannot see, and with stories we should not believe. This said, the stories of Rome’s early history stimulate our thinking about how a great city like Rome might have been founded and survived its infancy. Were the Romans made stronger, for example, by myths of heroic and divine ancestry, or by traditions that promoted devotion to gods who repaid that devotion by support and protection? And might myths capture general truths about the world we live in, even while departing wildly from the literal truth?

To prepare for these early myths of Rome, if you happen to be in Rome, I recommend a visit to the Forum Boarium, which is where many of these stories were set. It is today called the Piazza della Bocca della Verità, and it will be remembered by fans of Audrey Hepburn and Gregroy Peck in Roman Holiday. It’s easy to find, just downhill from Piazza Venezia and the Theater of Marcellus. It’s the low land where the bases of the Capitoline, Palatine, and Aventine Hills come closest to meeting. It was once a likely place for ships to put in after rowing upstream from where the river meets the sea, for Tiber Island and its rapids are just upstream, which made it hard for boats to go further against the current. But to feel the proximity of the river today, we must use our imagination to remove the steep stone banks that hold the river in its narrow channel, and then also remove the road, the Lungotevere, that further cuts the river off from the city. It’s been less than a century and a half since the new Italy undertook the task of putting the river in its place and keeping it from spilling out into the city. The success of the project has the effect of hiding the river from the Forum Boarium and elsewhere and keeping it from paying unexpected visits during floods to other parts of the city.

We have now imagined the river coming up close to the piazza, but we still see two old Roman temples, a Catholic church, a fountain, and car traffic. The temples are two of the oldest in Rome, and the church dates from the eighth century; but these structures are “new” by comparison with the imaginative stories told by Virgil and Livy about Rome’s prehistory, so we must remove them too, along with the roads and traffic, for we are now in the heroic age when the Greeks destroy Troy in the Trojan Wars made famous by Homer’s poetry. A Trojan leader named Aeneas escapes his burning city; and, after Odyssey-like journeys around the Mediterranean and even into the underworld, he arrives here on the Tiber’s banks with a band of followers, his son, and the Penates, the gods of his family. Having escaped the Greeks in Troy, now in Virgil’s account, he finds more Greeks here by the banks of the Tiber, offering sacrifices to their hero Heracles. They are doing so on the Great Altar to Heracles built by their leader, Evander, who had actually met the hero as he passed through the area.  Perhaps surprisingly, instead of fighting them, Evander’s Greeks receive the Trojan refugees with hospitality, and the two peoples make an alliance. It helps that these Greeks were not part of the expedition to Troy, that they now face a common enemy in the Latins, and that Evander and Aeneas turn out to share a lineage that goes back to Atlas. My suspicion is that Virgil is pleased to create for the Romans a doubly heroic background traceable to both Trojans and Greeks. In addition to increasing their dignity, it just might make the Romans of Virgil’s own day less suspicious of the Greeks and their culture, since some like Cato the Elder had previously inveighed against the corruption he considered to be an inescapable concomitant of the Greeks’ sophistication. By Virgil’s time, there was no way to lessen the influence of the Greeks on Rome.

The emphasis on Hercules is important, and Virgil stresses it. In his version, Evander had actually witnessed heroic deeds done by Hercules in what we know of as the tenth of Hercules’ famous twelve labors. This tenth labor required Hercules to steal cattle from Geryon, a monster with three heads and three sets of legs all joined at the waist. Perhaps even more demanding, since Geryon lived at the western end of the earth, near the Pillars of Hercules and Strait of Gibraltar, Hercules then had to traverse much of Europe and deliver the stolen cattle to Tiryns, in Greece. After managing to kill the monster Geryon, Hercules’ route back to Tiryns took him and his cattle the Forum Boarium, which happens to mean cattle market. As Evander explains, a smoke- and fire-breathing creature named Cacus lived in a cave on the Aventine Hill and had long been terrifying the local population,     as the putrefying human heads nailed to his front door made plain. When Hercules paused to drink from the Tiber, Cacus stole eight of his cattle and dragged them by their tails into his cave. Their footprints seemed to indicate that they had walked out of the cave, not into it, and this lame subterfuge was enough to keep Hercules from quickly discovering their location. The lowing of one of the stolen cows led him to investigate, however, and he killed Cacus in the ensuing confrontation. By so doing he also freed the locals from Cacus’s depredations (though this was not his motive), and in gratitude and admiration, Evander initiated rites in his honor.

You may decide for yourselves, of course, but I don’t think any of this ever happened; and I also don’t this this area was named “the cattle market,” for that is what “Forum Boarium” means, because Hercules drove his cattle through it. It was so-named, I think, because it was the cattle market for the ancient Romans. But if we turn to literal history for a moment, this forum did become an area in which the Romans later gave their worship of Hercules a special emphasis. Physical evidence of this remains in two forms. The foundation of the Great Altar to Hercules, the building of which Virgil attributes to Evander, can be found underneath the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in its crypt, which is open to the public. And the most eye-catching structure in the piazza, the circular temple with twenty fluted columns on its perimeter, is a temple to Hercules. There were apparently other structures dedicated to Hercules in this area, but they have since perished.

Like Virgil, who used Evander to introduce a Greek element into the Roman past, the surviving temple to Hercules shows the influence of Greece in both form and substance. It is a tholos or round temple with a colonnade that runs around the entire perimeter, which makes it similar to Greek tholos temples at Delphi, Epidaurus, Olympia, and elsewhere. It was also made of expensive Greek marble, which was rare for Rome, especially in the period in which it was made. I do not know why the Romans used Greek marble in this case, but like the shape of the temple, its material can help us remember that Evander was Greek, that this was where Aeneas met him, and that Virgil gave Evander a good deal of credit for his Greek contributions to Rome’s ancestry. A little etymology may also help cement the importance of Greece and the moral message of this story, for Evander comes from the Greek for “good man [eu anēr]” while Cacus is Greek for “bad” or “evil [kakos].” It is a convenient accident that the remaining church on this piazza, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, was in a later age Rome’s church for its Greek population.

I have not proven it, but I’m inclined to accept this broader claim, that honoring a hero like Hercules is likely to foster the development of traits like those of the honored hero. In this case, strength, including the violent strength he used to kill Geryon and Cacus, and the sort of hard work his famous labors entailed. I don’t say that bestowing public honors on certain qualities is sufficient to lead everyone to practice them, and I happily admit that Hercules was not the only hero or god the Romans honored. They also had their gods of wine and sex, not to mention rivers and trees. But I still suspect that having community gatherings and rites that included the slaughtering of oxen on large altars was a potent way to foster admiration of Hercules and his particular virtues, even if they did not always seem to include intelligence. Much later, to call attention to a contrasting example, regular rites would honor St. Frances for his extreme self-denial, willful poverty, and abhorrence of sex and violence. Large communities devoted to him were apparently moved in his most un-Herculean direction, and he seemed to capture the admiration of the larger society for centuries.

It certainly makes sense to doubt the literal truth of the stories of Aeneas and Evander, but they prompt us to think about the power of myth in shaping some societies. How did the Romans acquire the various qualities that united and sustained them in their long political life? Did their self-understanding, as influenced by the myths they heard and told about themselves, contribute to their successes and to the limitations of these successes?

Socrates once called Homer “the educator of the Greeks,” and perhaps the myths of the Romans helped to educate them, at least in the sense of influencing their moral and political judgment. But I need to acknowledge this problem, that Homer’s work became codified a couple of centuries before any of the great accomplishments of the Greeks—such as their defeats of the Persian invasions of Greece in battles at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae, and the Periclean Age at Athens—whereas the greatest shapers of Roman myths come at or near the end of Roman Republic, well after Rome has grown strong enough to extend its power around the Mediterranean basin. Many of the stories told by Livy and Virgil predate them, and they may have had their influence before Livy and Virgil came along, but I can’t say that these two great writers shaped Rome as Homer shaped Greece. They arrived late, and they wrote for an audience that had already created the largest and most stable empire ever to rule large parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

So much for the introduction of the Forum Boarium and associated events that never happened and can’t be seen. We’ll return in the next episode to the same location to examine such visible evidence as remains, and then we’ll move on to the Palatine Hill, where Evander located his Greek settlement and where many generations later, Romulus would kill his brother and found Rome.

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