Latium and the Beginnings of Rome in the Seventh Century B. C.
The Latins and peoples closely related to them are believed to be descended from Indo - European peoples who arrived in Italy during the late Bronze Age. They founded communities onoccupied the tops of several hills near a natural ford across the Tiber. They built earthen ramparts around these early hilltop communities which grew to become the fortified towns or oppida of early Latium. Rome was one early oppidum which occupied the top of the Palatine Hill. The folklore tradition of the "Rape of the Sabine Women" describes the unification of the Latins with the Sabines on neighboring hills. Other early settlements were formed on the Esquiline and Caelian hills around the low lying area that later became the Forum Romanum. These communities formed a loose league and celebrated annual religious festivals together, gathering on the Alban Mount. To reign over these festivals, they elected a Rex Sacrarum or "King of the Sacrifice" who was an early predecessor to the kings that later ruled Rome. These informal leagues of Latin towns eventually became the Latin League which was a loose alliance for defense purposes in addition to the celebration of religious festivals. Leadership of the Latin League shifted from town to town. Alba Longa and Rome were two of the more powerful emerging city - states that often held the leadership of the Latin League.
The Latins cremated their dead and buried them in cinerary urns which were miniatures of the mud - walled huts in which they lived. These were round with tapering sides and a conical roof. Poles on the outside of the hut provided support for the structure, and a single hole in the roof allowed smoke from the cooking fire to escape. A single opening on the side served as both window and door.
Later, The Esquiline and Caelian hills along with the low lying marshy ground where the Forum was later built were incorporated into the city of Rome. This became the "Rome of the Four Regions". These regions came to be called the Palatina, Esquilina, Sucusana, and Collina Regions. All the communities, at first each having its own pomerium or consecrated boundary and defensive wall were eventually surrounded by a single pomerium. Only the community on the Aventine was not included within the wall. The pomerium was not extended to include the Aventine until the reign of the emperor Claudius in the First Century A. D.
Between about 625 and 575 B. C., the marshy ground between the hills was drained and people began to occupy these areas. By 575, Rome was becoming a true city under Etruscan influence and was making rapid progress in civil engineering, roads, a sewer system, and a water supply. The Cloaca Maxima, the Great Sewer of Rome dates from about 625 - 620 B. C.
At this point, it is necessary to stop and look at the direction Roman society was taking. In order to understand the Romans and to make sense of the government they later developed for themselves and much of the ancient world, we need to examine some of the values and ideas that defined what it meant to be a Roman. Roman religion and government were tied together inseparably and the foundation on which both were built was the organization of the Roman family.
Family relationships as well as religious observances were governed by the principle of pietas, or duty. It is from the ancient Latin word pietas that we get our modern word piety, but the concept as understood by modern people was not the same as the Roman concept of pietas. A Roman owed a debt of pietas to the gods and a debt of pietas to his or her family and clan. Pietas in religion was satisfied by strict observance of ritual and precise observance of sacrifice at the right time. The gods were consulted before any major decision was made and no action was taken unless the omens were right. This principle was so strong in action that it occasionally stopped a man from taking speedy and resolute action in a time of crisis, such as in time of war or political upheaval. It is not uncommon for a general to refuse to give battle if the augurs didn't give their approval. These were priests in charge of reading messages from the gods in the entrails of animals or the flights of birds. The strict adherence to pietas by the Romans allowed them to expect protection and favor from the gods. This included victory in war, a plentiful harvest, the gift of children, and economic prosperity. The Romans called this relationship fides, or faithfulness between gods and mankind. Mankind, according to the Romans, referred to the Romans themselves over and above other branches of humanity. The gods had a special relationship with the Romans. As long as the Romans upheld their end of the pietas relationship by fulfilling the strict requirements of pietas, then all would be well. Many centuries later, well after the Roman Empire had become Christianized, the Neo - Pagans were to blame the decline and eventual collapse of Roman power as foretold in the Sybilline Books on the forsaking of the old gods and the breaking of the covenant of fides.
Pietas as it applied to the Roman family embodied the principle of obedience and duty to one's elders and one's clan. The unquestionable supreme authority in the Roman family was the paterfamilias or senior family elder. He was the eldest living male in any direct line and his authority was so complete that it even extended to the killing of disobedient children. While the paterfamilias was alive, none of his sons could fully come of age and make important decisions concerning his wife, family, or career without the approval of the paterfamilias. This arrangement is nowhere as unusual in the modern world as one might suspect. The Sicilian Mafia has an almost identical system of family loyalty and obedience to the family dons. Tthis institution was strongly in place both in Sicily and the United States during much of the Twentieth Century. Women were of no political importance in early Rome, despite the fact that they often controlled politics and occasionally sat on the throne during imperial times. Their responsibility was the running of the home. This often involved being much more than a simple housewife of a poor Roman. The homes of wealthy Romans sometimes included many large estates and their administration was a task akin to running a medium sized town or a small country. Some landowners had thousands of slaves to feed and whose work had to be coordinated. Supplies had to be purchased, crops sold, and defense organized in the absence of her husband. Still, a woman could not enter the Senate or hold any magistracy or political office.
There are two somewhat different legendary traditions concerning the origins of the Roman people and then there is the bare archaeological evidence. None of these narratives by itself gives us a complete picture of who the Romans were and where they came from, but all of them taken together give us a fairly accurate insight into who these people were who went on to conquer the known world.
In later times as Rome became more important and powerful in the ancient world, they began to feel that the rather mundane facts surrounding their origins could not be considered a suitably heroic history for such a great and powerful people. Two old folklore traditions were, by the orders of Rome's first emperor Augustus, woven into a single foundation epic written by Virgil. The result was the Aeneid, completed in the First Century A. D and still today a popular piece of epic literature written in the style of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
The two traditions from which this tale sprang were those of the wanderings of Aeneas and the legend of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf. According to the tale of Romulus and Remus, the twin boys were both of royal blood but a wicked uncle seized the throne and tried to dispose of the baby boys. He ordered a huntsman to take Romulus and Remus out into the forest and kill them. Instead, the huntsman was unable to perform the foul murder and left them in a basket by the River Tiber instead. A mother wolf heard the boys crying and took care of them, suckling them with her milk to give them nourishment. Soon the two boys were being raised as wolf cubs and grew stronger day by day. Later on they were taken in by a shepherd and his wife. When the boys had grown strong enough, they slew the wicked uncle and took their rightful place as heirs to the throne. Another variant of this tale has Romulus as the son of the god Mars and a princess of Alba Longa.
The story of Romulus and Remus does not end there. Romulus went on to found the city of Rome. It is not entirely clear which Latin city his own father had ruled, but Romulus founded a decidedly different city. The protective wall of earth, later of stone that surrounded ancient Latin communities was called the pomerium. It was of not only physical but spiritual and symbolic significance as well. It was originally laid out by a priest plowing a circular furrow around the proposed town site with a plow pulled by two white sacred bulls. Evidently Remus spoke mocking words about Romulus' pomerium around the new city of Rome and lightheartedly danced back and forth over its furrow. This seriously offended Romulus' proper Roman sense of gravitas, or serious purpose. He seemed to be implying that an invader could come and go as he pleased regardless of Rome's walls. In a rage, Romulus killed Remus for the insult and in so doing, warned any potential invaders that they would spill their blood on Rome's walls before they would force their way past them into the city. The Romans were later to become very fond of sending portentious messages like this one, relying on the use of allegory and metaphor to communicate meaning.
The other founder's legend is that of Aeneas, carrying his aged father on his shoulders while fleeing the burning ruins of Troy. He first stopped in North Africa, winning the love of Dido, the beautiful queen of Carthage. She invites Aeneas to live and reign with her in golden splendour. He accepts her offer for a while, and then remembers that his destiny is to found a great city. He loves and leaves Dido, who casts herself on a vast funeral pyre and kills herself. The flames of Dido's pyre are seen far out at sea by Aeneas and his crew as he sails away. He finally lands on the dark sandy beaches around the mouth of the Tiber and knows that he has arrived at the home of his destiny. Aeneas then founds the city of Lavinium and his son Ascanius founds the city of Alba Longa. Over time, Alba Longa became the most important city in Latium. After several generations, King Numitor became ruler of Alba Longa. His daughter, Rhea Silvia and the god Mars were the mother and father of the twins Romulus and Remus. King Numitor's brother Amulius overthrew him and tried to have the boys murdered, ordering a huntsman to take them into the woods and kill them. Instead, he abandons them and they are rescued and raised by a she - wolf.
The bare archaeological facts tell us that the Romans were most probably an amalgamation of many tribes and peoples from Latins to Villanovans to Etruscans and others. Some of the early Latin cities practiced cremation of their dead while others buried theirs. This in itself indicates an origin from many peoples, which the Romans themselves will say is true.
Sinnigen and Boak pp. 33 - 39.
Grant pp. 19 - 21. image of Cloaca Maxima, p. 16.
Karl Christ, The Romans pp. 5 - 6.
Roman Art and Architecture closeup of the stone arch of the Cloaca Maxima, p. 148.
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