Thursday, 21 April 2016

A Very Merry Unbirthday to Rome

 Today a number of tweets have been posted wishing Rome a happy birthday, on the assumption that today is the day and that 753BC is the date. Neither of those is demonstrably true, and both can be argued as false.

The year is clearly untrue, as there is no consistency in Roman sources. In fact, 753BC is the year that the Athenian republic was founded, and that year was not suggested until the time of the linguist Varro in the time of Augustus. Several other foundation years have been proposed, some as late as 728BC, proposed by Cassius Dio c.250 years after Varro.

Attempts have been made to tie the birth of Romulus, the foundation of Rome and the death of Romulus to eclipses Rather a coincidence, that.  Efforts to tie the foundation of Rome to Egyptian and Greek calendars appear to be post-hoc by many centuries, since Rome was completely unknown to both Egypt and Greece. There is no reference to Rome in Herodotus, and he knew about the Etruscans and may have performed his Historie in Sicily. There are no extant references to Rome in the Greek world before the time of Aristotle (c.340BC).

Accurate remembrance of the foundation year, assuming that to have been knowable and important to early residents, would have been hampered by total illiteracy. The first known works in the Greek alphabet date to c.750BC, so it is highly unlikely that the tiny village of Rome would have been literate almost instantaneously.

Having cast doubt on the foundation year, let’s turn to trashing the supposed date. The argument for 21 April is that all extant sources agree. Well, all extant sources agree that there was a King Arthur, but that is not generally accepted as proof.

The Roman year began on 15 March, the infamous Ides of March, which is why Caesar was murdered then. This seems to be simply the start of Spring in middle Italy, rather earlier than in more northerly climes. That does mean however that 21 April has only one significance: lambing season. I see no reason why shepherds would breaking off from their most busy season to found a new settlement. It would be ruinous to do so.

There were a number of attempts to reform the complicated lunar calendar of Rome with the solar calendar necessary to perform religious and agricultural rituals. As Rome moved from worship of Chthonic deities (festivals performed at night) to those performed in daytime, a complex series of intercary months and odd days were added, subtracted, messed around with and generally screwed up for political reasons. People then lied about the antiquity and origins of such measures, assigning them to Romulus and Numa Pompilius, the second (or perhaps third) king of Rome.

Unless a date can be confidently observed with relation of another calendar, it is in fact simply impossible to fix a date for anything before the time of the Julian calendar reform, and indeed the use of dates ab urbe condita originates from use made by Varro and Livy in those days. The problem with using a Greek cross-reference is that there were eight different Greek calendars at use at the same time. The month of Badromios was Dec/Jan in Boeotia and Sep/Oct in Delphi; the months of Athens, our best source for Greek information, bear almost no coincidence in name or start date with any other part of the Greek world.

If there is a day, I would propose 21 June, which is midsummer day; it was an easy day to remember, a pragmatic choice (good weather and a point in the agricultural cycle after the end of the livestock rearing and selling cycle and before the harvest season) and takes into account the odd fluctuations of a 13 x 28 day lunar cycle (364 nights, 365 if you count like a Roman (and like the French still do) and a 365/6 day solar year of twelve months (inherited from earlier civilisations). The vagaries of the early Roman system mean that the foundation date of Rome is in fact unknowable.

If we can believe Livy, the Roman kings had no succession. They were elected for life, and on their death an official known as the Interrex (appointed for five days only) conducted an election in which he could not be a candidate. A Popular Assembly of adult male citizens made a choice.

This does appear in other societies, and seems to have been an Iron Age norm, because the Irish High King (Airdrie) was elected by the hundreds of petty kings in a special conclave held on the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath; he too served for life.

If we examine the Latin word rex (3rd declension) we see that it’s cognate to Gothic reiks, to Anglo-Saxon rice, to Irish ri and Hindi rajah. Less obviously it’s cognate with Greek archon. This indicates an Indo-European term, but not of course a commonality of approach.

753–717 BC
716–673 BC
Numa Pompilius
673–642 BC
Tullus Hostilius
640–616 BC
Ancus Marcius
616–579 BC
Tarquinius Priscus
578–535 BC
Servius Tullius
535–509 BC
L. Tarquinius Superbus

It does seem highly unlikely that a Roman king would serve as long as 43 years, given ancient life expectancy levels. Lucius Tarquinius supposedly became king 43 years after his father’s death and to have served for 26 years, which would have made him at the very least 69 years old at the point when he lost the throne; despite this, in Livy, drawing on the Roman traditional dates, he is portrayed as a man in vigorous middle age, say forty, trying to regain his throne.

If we can for a moment consider the reigns of the British monarchs since 1837, we have the following data: Victoria (63 years), Edward VII (9), George V (26), Edward VII (less than 1), George VI (15), Elizabeth II (64 and counting). This real data shows a much greater variation.

It strikes me that later annalists possessed accession dates for seven kings and made up narratives to make them fit. After Romulus, there are six kings, three good, followed by three bad, totalling seven and Rome has seven hills. It’s all a bit too pat. Somewhere in the cracks there may lie several other, less successful kings, erased from memory in a generally illiterate society.

The alternative is that Rome is a lot younger than it has always claimed to be, and Tim Cornell of Manchester University would bring the Romulus figure forward to about 625BC. The Tullus Hostilius figure (with a unique praenomen) seems to duplicate deeds previously assigned to Romulus. That certainly would not chime with any of those eclipse dates, which seem increasingly to be spurious.

The second and fourth kings are said to have been Sabines and the final three to have been Etruscans (although Livy says Priscus was half-Greek). As Romulus had a co-king, Titus Tatius, we could well be looking at two or more parallel monarchies of Rhames (Romans), and of Sabines, succeeded by Etruscans; perhaps the two ran in parallel.

The myth of Romulus and Remus is a copy of that of Parrhasius and twin Lycaon, founders of the kingdom of Arcadia in southern Greece, whose city Parrhasia, was destroyed in the 370s BC to promote use of the new capital, Megalopolis. This was spotted in antiquity by Plutarch and discussed in Parallel Lives 36.

I suspect that virtually everything about the Roman kingdom was invented around 360BC, recycling the foundation myth of Parrhasia, newly removed, perhaps with some Arcadian refugees in Italy. If the Roman kingdom was created long after its supposed dates, then we can put no trust in its idealised methods of election.

So, a very merry unbirthday (as Disney had the Mad Hatter say to Alice, although it was Alice to Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll) to you, Rome.

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