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 the literary evidence for a necessary integration of their findings. E. Gjerstad, who dedicated the first three volumes of his fundamental Early Rome to a systematic collection and analysis of the archaeological evidence, has assigned another two volumes (as yet unpublished) to the literary texts. Indeed, if anything is noticeable in the recent works on early Rome, it is the increased attention paid to the texts as distinct from the monuments. Almost all the work by G. Dumézil on the Indo-European origins of the Roman social system is founded upon texts: so is the recent big book by R. Werner on the beginnings of the Roman Republic. Since questions we are now asking about the origins of Rome were suggested by distrust of the literary tradition, it makes sense to go back to the texts in order to see whether the questions had been properly formulated—and, incidentally, are worth asking.

The great merit of the new book by A. Alföldi of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton is that it re-examines the literary sources with the clear purpose of redefining the basic questions: it is a book about fundamentals and confirms the author’s characteristic gifts of independent observation and original interpretation of facts. Alföldi thinks that modern historians have underrated the element of deliberate forgery in the Roman historical tradition. As is well known, the first Roman historian was a patrician senator, Fabius Pictor, who wrote his account in Greek at the time of the second Punic War, say about 210-200. B.C. His work is lost, but direct quotations and indirect evidence show that it was very influential and shaped the image of the Roman past for generations to come. As one writing in Greek at a time when Rome had to counteract Hannibal’s propaganda among the Greeks, Fabius is open to suspicions. It is tempting to present him as a Roman agent who tried to make his country respectable in Greek eyes. Alföldi is of course not the first to discover propaganda in Fabius’s history, but he is the first to suggest that the whole of Fabius’s work was an arbitrary reconstruction of the past of Rome, virtually without any factual foundation, which aimed at embellishing the image of Rome for Greek contemporaries. Actually Alföldi adds a further purpose to Fabius’s inventions. A proud member of the Fabian clan would not have missed the opportunity of damaging the reputation of rival clans, such as the Claudii.


Whereas the common notion is that Fabius Pictor and his followers (the so-called annalists) primarily collected and worked upon a pre-existing tradition, Alföldi thinks that the tradition, if it ever existed, was perverted to the point of being annihilated by an arch-master of Roman propaganda—Fabius Pictor. It follows that Alföldi is only mildly interested in defining the nature of the previous Roman historical tradition, if any. He does not discuss at any length the nature and value of the epic banquet songs, pontifical chronicles, magistrate lists, funerary orations, temple records etc., which previous researchers have taken to be the foundations of the historical writing of the Romans about their own past. What matters to Alföldi is that Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and others who made use of the annals of the Republic were only too often the victims of Fabius’s deceptions.

After such a negative criticism, it is not easy for Alföldi to proceed to his own reconstruction of the early history of Rome. Having discarded all he thinks Romans historians derived from Fabius he is hard put to it to find evidence he can trust. But he still believes he has enough in his hands to build a new picture of early Rome. He uses some passages from ancient historians which he takes to be independent of Fabius, some Etruscan monuments, some Latin inscriptions, and above all stray pieces of factual information about the administrative units and the religious ceremonies of the Roman State. Here again his method is not entirely new. Though Mommsen had a different opinion of Fabius Pictor, he, too, believed that religious and legal traditions were better evidence for archaic Roman history than the accounts of the annalists. But Alföldi is entirely original in the way he uses his evidence and in his conclusions. To put these briefly, he believes that for about 150 years before 500 B.C. monarchic Rome was continuously under the control of one or the other Etruscan city. The Tarquinii were only one of the Etruscan dynasties which ruled Rome. Other kings came from Caere, Vulci, Veii, Clusium. One of these forgotten kings Alföldi identifies with Aulus Vibenna, a very dim figure of the heroic period of Rome. Another king he finds in the mysterious Mastarna, who provoked the curiosity of the learned Emperor Claudius (but Claudius thought that Mastarna was the Etruscan name of King Servius Tullius).

In Alföldi’s reconstruction Rome is not only a city which exchanges one Etruscan ruler for another: it is also a member of the Latin League. When the Etruscans ceased to rule Rome a few years after 500 B.C. (Alföldi’s date), the Romans remained comparatively modest members of the Latin League and fought against neighboring tribes under federal leadership. Slowly, during the fifth and fourth centuries, the relations between the Latin League and Rome changed. About 350 B.C. what had been one of the many Latin cities finally emerged as the all-powerful ruler and master.

There is a certain disharmony between the two parts of Alföldi’s reconstruction—the one stating the subordination of Rome to Etruscan cities and the other asserting the subordination of Rome to the Latin League. One does not see how before 500 B.C. Rome could have been both a city ruled by the Etruscans and a member of a very homogeneous Latin League with its highly developed military organization. Alföldi has certainly made it appear probable that the Latin federal sanctuary of Lavinium was open to Etruscan influences from an early date and, more particularly, received from Etruria the myth of Aeneas. But this is not a proof that the Etruscans controlled the Latin League in the sixth century B.C. and even less an explanation of how a Latin League could remain dynamic under Etruscan control. However, discussion of the disharmonies between the two parts of Alföldi’s theory is, at least for me, superfluous, because I believe that, as a whole, both his evaluation of Fabius Pictor and his reconstruction of early Roman history are arbitrary and almost certainly wrong.


Where so little is known, conjectures are inevitable, and we can only admire the boldness and originality of Alföldi’s thesis. But all we know of Fabius runs contrary to Alföldi’s theory that he invented what later became the accepted tradition about early Rome. I shall only make a few points. Plutarch definitely states that Fabius followed a Greek writer, Diocles of Peparethus, in telling the story of Romulus (this point, so far as I can see, is not mentioned by Alföldi). Pliny the Elder is equally definite in stating that fifty years before Fabius the Sicilian historian Timaeus gave an account of some of the reforms of Servius Tullius which corresponded to what we find in the Roman sources. Alföldi is compelled to say unconvincingly that Pliny made a mistake and that Timaeus never spoke of Servius Tullius. What is worse, Alföldi attributes to Fabius opinions which he is most unlikely to have expressed. For instance, he thinks that Fabius identified Servius Tullius with Mastarna, whereas it is pretty obvious that neither Fabius nor the other Republican annalists even knew the name of Mastarna: the passage of Dionysius of Halicarnassus III, 65, 6, quoted by Alföldi (p. 215), clearly does not say what Alföldi thinks it says.

If the evaluation of Fabius propounded by Alföldi is without foundation, his consequent reconstruction of early Roman history is prejudiced. A closer examination confirms its weakness. The evidence Alföldi adduces to prove that the Etruscans ruled Rome either is too weak to prove anything or actually proves the contrary. I shall give only one example. Alföldi (p. 209) writes:

Cato the Elder preserves for us the priceless memory of a historical fact in his account of the vintage-festival of the Latins; namely the King of Caere, Mezentius, in the legendary tale Cato reports, is said to have imposed on the Latins the humiliating obligation to deliver to him each year the wine they produced…. This story, certainly reflecting Etruscan domination in Latium, unfavorable to national pride, embarrassing for the tendentious misrepresentation of early Latin history in the Annals, is above suspicion…. The story…concerns the whole of Latium, comprising, naturally, Rome.

Now if one looks at the text of Cato—or rather at the texts of those who had read the lost book by Cato (they are all quoted by Alföldi)—it becomes clear that the story told by Cato differed considerably from that told by Alföldi. What Cato said was that the Latins made a vow to Jupiter when they were in danger of being subjected by Mezentius, King of the Etruscans. Having won the war, they fulfilled the promise and made annual offerings of new wine to Jupiter. The point of the story is that the Latins, at least on that occasion, defeated the Etruscans and remained free—whereas Alföldi reaches the opposite conclusion.

The Roman republican tradition implies that Rome was a powerful city in the sixth century B.C. and declined in the fifth century owing to internal struggles and external pressures by aggressive neighbors. Alföldi discards at least the former part of the tradition and replaces it by the picture of a Rome which was insignificant in the sixth century and became increasingly powerful and independent in the fifth century. He has violent words for some of those who believe in “the great Rome of the Tarquinii”: he calls them “zealots and opportunists” (p. 319). But the evidence he produces is not convincing—and in a few cases is founded upon plain errors.

With the evidence we have at present it is clearly impossible to reach certainly on the early history of Rome. But with all due appreciation of Alföldi’s effort to prove the contrary, his book seems to me to confirm that the Roman historians of the third and second centuries B.C.—and Fabius Pictor in primis—knew many authentic facts of the Roman past. No doubt archaeological and epigraphical data have in some points decisively corrected the literary data. But archaeological data seem largely to confirm the picture in the annals of a Rome wealthier and more intellectually adventurous in the sixth than in the fifth century. I cannot understand why Alföldi says that a recent study by E. Paribeni of the import of Greek vases into Rome represents “a dramatic turn in our appraisal of the historical evolution with which we are concerned” (p. 333) and supports the notion that Rome was at least as rich and independent in the fifth as in the sixth century. The fact is that Paribeni stated that nearly 190 out of 238 sherds found in the Forum belonged to the second part of the sixth century.

What is more difficult to appreciate is the significance of the by now famous discovery of inscriptions, two Etruscan and one Phoenician, made at Santa Severa (ancient Pyrgi), on the Tyrrhenian coast north of Rome in 1964. Alföldi was not, of course, in a position to take them into account in his book. Pyrgi was the harbor of the Etruscan Caere, and the three inscriptions, as far as we can understand them, are dedications by the same King of Caere to the same Carthaginian goddess. The discoverers date the texts in about 500 B.C. If the date is correct, it shows a very close collaboration between one Etruscan city and the Carthaginians more or less at the time in which, according to Polybius, Rome signed her first treaty with Carthage. Alföldi thinks that Polybius’s date is impossible and suggests that Polybius was deceived by Fabius Pictor: the treaty should be dated in 348 B.C., which is the date given by other sources (p. 352). It can in any case be easily proved that Fabius Pictor was innocent of any deception about the treaties between Rome and Carthage. But this recent discovery (always assuming that the present dating and the interpretation of the new texts are approximately correct) adds a new presumption in favor of the Polybian date and altogether is not likely to increase confidence in the radical treatment of Roman sources so authoritatively advocated by Alföldi.

At this point a cynic might well remark that it makes little difference whether it is Fabius Pictor or Alföldi who is right, the authentic history of early Rome being anyhow irrecoverable. But there is a difference between the conjecture that emerges from a careful interpretation of the evidence and the conjecture that conflicts with the evidence. Historical studies are more and more committed to the exploration of the remote past where conjectures are unavoidable. Only strict control will prevent the creation (and ultimately the vulgarization) of imaginary history on the grand scale.

This Issue

September 16, 1965