Did Fabius Pictor Lie?

Early Rome and the Latins

by Andrew Alföldi
University of Michigan, 486, 27 plates, 2 maps pp., $15.00

What do we want to know about the origins of Rome? Indeed why should we want to know anything about them at all? Nobody, except the specialist, cares very much about the origins of the Greeks or of the Germans. Even the Nazis were unable to whip up a widespread interest in German origins. But it seems to be part of our cultural heritage to want to know the truth about the foundations of Rome, just as we want to know the truth about the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. The reason is of course that Jews and Romans had very definite ideas about their own early history and attributed much importance to them, whereas Greeks and (ancient) Germans had very confused ideas about their own past and never set much store by them. Since it was discovered that Jewish and Roman traditions cannot be accepted at their face value, attempts to put some other story in their place have never ceased. Such an interest does not necessarily lead to rational and worthwhile questions—at least in the case of the Romans (it is more difficult to ask entirely frivolous questions about the origins of the Hebrew religion). Archaeology has been expected to confirm or to deny the existence of Romulus and of Tarquinius Priscus; anthropology and linguistics have been asked to define the racial composition of the Roman nation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the answers to these questions have been unsatisfactory. We do not yet know whether there was a Romulus—or an equivalent to Romulus—and whether the legend of the rape of the Sabine women reflects an authentic event.

Partly it is just the bad luck of the archaeologists. For the history of a literate society written documents count more than anything else. But so far only two semi-intelligible inscriptions in Latin and three graffiti in Etruscan (the latter on vases) have been found in Rome for the period before 500 B.C. Partly, however, it is really a matter of direct conflict between the nature of the questions and the nature of the evidence which is supposed to provide the answers. The excellent systematic exploration of the Forum and of the Palatine and the scattered findings elsewhere have provided information about the tombs, sanctuaries, huts, and fortifications of Early Rome and about imports from Etruria and Greece. But all this does not amount to a picture of a society, and even less of a political organization. Unless archaeological methods can be improved beyond recognition, excavations will not uncover the true origins of the distinction between patricians and plebeians. Even less can we expect archaeology to provide us with a military and dynastic history of early Rome to replace the unsatisfactory one given by the literary sources. The duel of the Horatii and Curiatii is not (or not yet) archaeologically falsifiable.

The claims that archaeology has presented us with a new picture of archaic Rome are contradicted by the very fact that archaeologists are now turning more and more to the study of…

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