This series has nine easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: History in the Legends.
A group of legends gathers round the birthplace of the Eternal City. It is Æneas who escapes from Troy and brings into the land of Italian Latinus his native gods. His son Ascanius conquers and slays Mezentius in a battle between Latins and Etruscans, and eleven kings of Alba, all surnamed Silvius, succeeded him on the throne. The last king of Alba Longa is Procas, whose usurping son Amulius drives his eldest brother Numitor from the throne. Numitor’s daughter, Silvia, becomes the mother of the immortal twins Romulus and Remus, by Mamers, the god of war; the children are exposed by cruel Amulius, suckled by a wolf, and become founders of Rome.
Such is the outline of the poem, or rather tissue of poetry in which the founding of Rome is embalmed.
The critical acumen of Niebuhr may have dispelled some of the clouds and contradictions in which early historians and poets have wrapped the record of this great event. But no critic can ever destroy the beauty and charm of the old Latin chronicles or diminish the glory of the day that saw the first walls rise about the seven hills of the most important of ancient European cities.
This selection is from Roman History by Barthold Georg Niebuhr published in 1848. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Barthold Georg Niebuhr was the leading authority on Ancient Rome and a founding father of modern scholarly historiography.
Time: 753 BC
I believe that few persons, when Alba is mentioned, can get rid of the idea, to which I too adhered for a long time, that the history of Alba is lost to such an extent, that we can speak of it only in reference to the Trojan time and the preceding period, as if all the statements made concerning it by the Romans were based upon fancy and error; and that accordingly it must be effaced from the pages of history altogether. It is true that what we read concerning the foundation of Alba by Ascanius, and the wonderful signs accompanying it, as well as the whole series of the Alban kings, with the years of their reigns, the story of Numitor and Amulius and the story of the destruction of the city, do not belong to history; but the historical existence of Alba is not at all doubtful on that account, nor have the ancients ever doubted it. The Sacra Albana and the Albani tumuli atque luci, which existed as late as the time of Cicero, are proofs of its early existence; ruins indeed no longer exist, but the situation of the city in the valley of Grotta Ferrata may still be recognized. Between the lake and the long chain of hills near the monastery of Palazzuolo one still sees the rock cut steep down toward the lake, evidently the work of man, which rendered it impossible to attack the city on that side; the summit on the other side formed the arx. That the Albans were in possession of the sovereignty of Latium is a tradition which we may believe to be founded on good authority, as it is traced to Cincius. Afterward the Latins became the masters of the district and temple of Jupiter. Further, the statement that Alba shared the flesh of the victim on the Alban mount with the thirty towns, and that after the fall of Alba the Latins chose their own magistrates, are glimpses of real history. The ancient tunnel made for discharging the water of the Alban Lake still exists, and through its vault a canal was made called Fossa Cluilia: this vault, which is still visible, is a work of earlier construction than any Roman one. But all that can be said of Alba and the Latins at that time is, that Alba was the capital, exercising the sovereignty over Latium; that its temple of Jupiter was the rallying point of the people who were governed by it; and that the gens Silvia was the ruling clan.
It cannot be doubted that the number of Latin towns was actually thirty, just that of the Albensian demi; this number afterward occurs again in the later thirty Latin towns and in the thirty Roman tribes, and it is moreover indicated by the story of the foundation of Lavinium by thirty families, in which we may recognize the union of the two tribes. The statement that Lavinium was a Trojan colony and was afterward abandoned, but restored by Alba, and further that the sanctuary could not be transferred from it to Alba, is only an accommodation to the Trojan and native tradition, however much it may bear the appearance of antiquity. For Lavinium is nothing else than a general name for Latium, just as Panionium is for Ionia, Latinus, Lavinus, and Lavicus being one and the same name, as is recognized even by Servius. Lavinium was the central point of the Prisci Latini, and there is no doubt that in the early period before Alba ruled over Lavinium, worship was offered mutually at Alba and at Lavinium, as was afterward the case at Rome in the temple of Diana on the Aventine, and at the festivals of the Romans and Latins on the Alban mount.
The personages of the Trojan legend therefore present themselves to us in the following light. Turnus is nothing else but Turinus, in Dionysius [Greek: Turrênos]; Lavinia, the fair maiden, is the name of the Latin people, which may perhaps be so distinguished that the inhabitants of the coast were called Tyrrhenians, and those further inland Latins. Since, after the battle of Lake Regillus, the Latins are mentioned in the treaty with Rome as forming thirty towns, there can be no doubt that the towns, over which Alba had the supremacy in the earliest times, were likewise thirty in number; but the confederacy did not at all times contain the same towns, as some may afterward have perished and others may have been added. In such political developments there is at work an instinctive tendency to fill up that which has become vacant; and this instinct acts as long as people proceed unconsciously according to the ancient forms and not in accordance with actual wants. Such also was the case in the twelve Achæan towns and in the seven Frisian maritime communities; for as soon as one disappeared, another, dividing itself into two, supplied its place. Wherever there is a fixed number, it is kept up, even when one part dies away, and it ever continues to be renewed. We may add that the state of the Latins lost in the West, but gained in the East. We must therefore, I repeat it, conceive on the one hand Alba with its thirty demi, and on the other the thirty Latin towns, the latter at first forming a state allied with Alba, and at a later time under its supremacy.
According to an important statement of Cato preserved in Dionysius, the ancient towns of the Aborigines were small places scattered over the mountains. One town of this kind was situated on the Palatine hill, and bore the name of Roma, which is most certainly Greek. Not far from it there occur several other places with Greek names, such as Pyrgi and Alsium; for the people inhabiting those districts were closely akin to the Greeks; and it is by no means an erroneous conjecture, that Terracina was formerly called [Greek: Tracheinê] or the “rough place on a rock”; Formiæ must be connected with [Greek: hormos] “a roadstead” or “place for casting anchor.” As certain as Pyrgi signifies “towers,” so certainly does Roma signify “strength,” and I believe that those are quite right who consider that the name Roma in this sense is not accidental.
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